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The Holy Spirit subsists in the indivisible Trinity as one of the three hypostases (persons). As such, He is fully and exhaustively God, one in being eternally with the Father and the Son, one in power and glory. Whatever God does, the Spirit does, since in all God’s works all three persons work together inseparably, whether in creation, providence, or salvation. Therefore, when we speak of the Spirit at work, we must always remember that the Father and the Son are also involved.

Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is not the Father, and He is not the Son either, for the three are eternally distinct. There is but one God, so the Spirit is identical in being or essence with the Father and the Son, but in terms of personhood, He is irreducibly distinct. Thus, there are actions attributed (or appropriated) peculiarly to the Spirit—only He was sent at Pentecost—but even here He was sent by the Father through and in the Son.

In terms of the eternal relations of the three, the Spirit proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). In this sense, the Spirit is from the Father, a relation that entails no element of subordination, inferiority, or temporal precedence but rather points to a relational and hypostatic (personal) order. This is something beyond our capacity to understand, as it occurs in the mystery of the internal life of God. However, by faith we seek to understand.

In line with this eternal procession1, the Father sends the Spirit, through and in the Son, in relation to all His works in creation, including our redemption (Acts 1:8; Gal. 4:4–6). This is known as a mission (sending)2.

As noted, the Son is also actively engaged with the Father in the sending of the Spirit. Jesus refers to the Father’s sending the Spirit at Pentecost in response to His request or in His name (John 14:16, 26). He also says that He Himself will send the Spirit (16:7), and later He breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22).

This has given rise to endless debate as to how the Son is involved eternally in the relations between the Father and the Spirit. There is no explicit biblical statement on whether the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. Originally, the Nicene Creed merely recorded that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” The Latin church later added the phrase filioque (“and the Son”) to the creed, to the vehement and continued ecclesiastical and theological opposition of the Eastern churches. The West understood that the Father had committed all things to the Son, including the spiration (or procession) of the Spirit, while the East maintains that this jeopardizes the Father as the source of the personal subsistence of both Son and Spirit and, moreover, blurs the distinction between the Son and the Spirit. However, both the Eastern churches (the Eastern Orthodox) and the Western churches (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) agree that since the Trinity is indivisible, all three are integrally involved.

The Spirit is not an impersonal force or power. The Bible describes Him in personal terms.

Peter equates the Spirit with God when he says that lying to the Holy Spirit is lying to God (Acts 5:3–4). The works He performs can be done only by God. The Spirit is mentioned in triadic statements pervasively in the letters of the New Testament, bearing in mind that theos (God) usually refers to the Father and kyrios (Lord) to the Son. As God, the Spirit possesses all the divine attributes exhaustively (e.g., Ps. 139:7–10). Consequently, all three persons together are not greater than the Spirit is distinctively.

Emphatically, the Spirit is not an impersonal force or power. The Bible describes Him in personal terms. He grieves over sin (Eph. 4:30), persuades and convicts (John 14–16), intercedes (Rom. 8:26–27), testifies (John 16:12–15), cries out (Gal. 4:6), speaks (Mark 13:11), and informs evangelists and Apostles of what to do (Acts 8:29, 39; 16:6–10). He has a mind (Rom. 8:27) and works with us in ways that employ our own intelligence (1 Cor. 12:1–3; 2 Cor. 10:3–6). He is self-effacing, drawing attention to Christ the Son, not to Himself (John 16:14–15; see 13:31–32; 17:1–26), eliciting the confession that Jesus is Lord (1 Cor. 12:1–3). He is invisible, for He does not share our nature. While the Greek pneuma (Spirit) is a neuter noun, this has no relevance for contemporary debates on gender since God is not a sexual being.

the spirit, creation, and providence

That the Spirit is Creator, together inseparably3 with the Father and the Son, is evident in, among other places, Genesis 1:2, where “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Elsewhere, when the Old Testament reflects poetically on creation, the Spirit—or breath—of God is referenced (Ps. 33:6–9). This is reflected in the Nicene Creed, where He is confessed as “the author and giver of life.” It follows that He is continually active in providence and in granting, sustaining, and terminating life (Ps. 104:29–30).

the spirit in the life and ministry of jesus

Throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, the incarnate Son, the Spirit was active. While Jesus repeatedly witnesses that the Father sent Him (e.g., John 4:34; 5:19–24, 30, 36–38; 6:29–33, 38–39, 44, 57), He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:34–35). At every stage in his record of the birth and infancy narratives and on into the start of Jesus’ public ministry, Luke refers to the presence and active involvement of the Spirit (Luke 1:34–35, 41–42; 2:25–27; 3:16, 21–22; 4:1, 14–19). Jesus’ baptism is a prominent instance, when the Father acknowledges Him as His Son while the Spirit descends and rests upon Him (Matt. 3:13–17), anointing Him at the start of His ministry and thereby indicating the ongoing reality of His empowerment thereafter. This includes upholding Him in His incarnate lowliness as He faced severe temptation from the devil (Luke 4:1–13).

It was “through the eternal Spirit” that Jesus offered Himself to the Father on the cross (Heb. 9:14), a clear reference to the Holy Spirit rather than to some psychological abstraction—note that “God” is usually a designation for the Father in the New Testament. Similarly, the Father raised Christ from the dead by the Holy Spirit, which is to be the pattern of our own resurrection (Rom. 8:10–11).

In the context of Luke–Acts, Jesus’ ascension is connected with the sending of the Spirit a few days later at Pentecost (Acts 1:8–11). The background is Elijah’s being taken up into heaven, before which Elisha asked for a double portion of his mentor’s spirit and was told that this would occur if he saw Elijah taken up (2 Kings 2:9–12). Here the Apostles observe Jesus’ departure, with the consequent outpouring of the Spirit recorded in the subsequent chapters. Jesus Himself connects the gift of the Spirit with His ascension (John 7:37–39). From this, the Spirit empowers the ministry of the Apostles and the spread of the church, as recorded in Acts.

the spirit and the church

We are baptized into the one name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19–20). The Spirit effects this, baptizing us into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Here there is a conjunction of the work of the Spirit and the sacrament of baptism, which is the sign and seal of our ingrafting into the body of Christ. It is the Spirit who effectively draws us to faith and endows us with gifts for the benefit of the church, including calling to office those whom He has chosen (Acts 13:1–7).

Transformation into the image of the Lord is accomplished by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17–18), who enables us to battle against temptation and sin (Rom. 8:12–14). He unites us to Christ and enables us to feed on Him by faith in the Lord’s Supper. Only One who is Himself God can do this; only One who is God can be classed with the Father and the Son. Finally, God’s ultimate purpose is that we live and flourish forever in the realm governed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 15:35–58).

All this, we recall, is in the context of the indivisible Trinity and the inseparable works of God. The Spirit does not work alone. He does not go off by Himself, leaving the Father on His own. Neither does the Father leave His Spirit on His own. All three are engaged in the work of our salvation, with the Spirit distinctively operating in these particular tasks.


  1. Procession, or spiration, is the personal property that distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and from the Son. The Spirit is fully divine, like the other two, but in terms of His person, He eternally proceeds from, or is spirated by, the Father and the Son. ↩︎
  2. The Trinitarian missions refer to the Father’s sending the Son in the incarnation and the Father and the Son’s pouring out the Spirit at Pentecost. The Trinitarian missions are an expression of the economic Trinity—God’s work toward creation. The missions also reflect the personal properties of the Trinitarian persons in the ontological Trinity—God as He is in Himself. ↩︎
  3. The doctrine of inseparable operations or inseparable works of the Trinity says that each person of the Trinity is fully involved in every work God does in His creation. Creation, providence, and salvation are not works performed by only one member of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Spirit are all at work in creating, sustaining, and redeeming. Each does not do His part like a committee member but each does the same work, though in a manner specific to His own person and His own personal property. ↩︎

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From the December 2019 Issue
Dec 2019 Issue