Speaking of the Spirit

Reformed Christians are often accused, perhaps rightly so, of not emphasizing the person and work of the Holy Spirit sufficiently enough. As the Father has sent Jesus as our God-man mediator, from worship to evangelism our focus is to call people to come to the Father through the Son. We speak of being Christ-centered in our worship and preaching, as we should.  Yet often we can slip into “binitarian” tendencies instead of practicing a robust Trinitarian faith by not recognizing fully enough our dependency on the Spirit of God. Simply put, we fail to speak of the Spirit like we ought.

J.I. Packer has done a great deal to help us in the Reformed faith honor the Spirit’s role, most notably from his book on the third person of the Trinity entitled Keeping in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God. However, note how his familiar “hidden floodlight” illustration could be easily misunderstood if taken out of context.

I remember walking to a church one winter evening to preach on the words ‘he shall glorify me,’ seeing the building floodlit as I turned the corner, and realizing that this was exactly the illustration my ministry needed. When flood-lighting is well done, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them; you are not in fact supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained. The intended effect is to make visible when otherwise it would not be seen for the darkness, and maximize its dignity by throwing all its details into relief so that you see it properly. This perfectly illustrates the Spirit’s new covenant role. He is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Savior. (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 57)

Packer says this analogy “perfectly illustrates the Spirit’s new covenant role” in being this hidden floodlight. We can agree with this statement as he means it in the sense of the Spirit glorifying the Savior. Yet, if we are not careful, seeing the Spirit as only a hidden floodlight could lead us to downplay the importance of the Spirit’s ministry in many other realms. For, as Packer rightly points out in the rest of his book, the Spirit is anything but hidden in other senses. For the Holy Spirit is the one who grants us holiness, marks the church as God’s temple, moves us to pray, is the power of revival, etc. His presence is to be seen and noted all over the church!

So how can we not only glorify the Father and the Son, but the Spirit as well? Simply put, I think we need to speak of him more. Here are five ways to do so.

Read and speak of the Bible with more awareness of the Spirit. Did you know that the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the second verse of the Bible? That he is referenced over 400 times in the Old Testament? That in the last hours Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified, he knew their greatest need was to understand the Trinity and especially the Spirit’s role in the church so that is what he focused on (see John 13-17)? That in an epistle such as Galatians that defends the great doctrine of justification, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit one more time than he does to the name of Jesus (18 and 17 times, respectively)? If we see the Biblical authors and especially our Lord speaking so much of the Spirit, his work, and our dependency on him, ought we not?

Pray with an expressed dependency on and thirst for the Holy Spirit. We are to come to God the Father in prayer as Jesus taught us (Matt. 6:9-13). We come to the Father through the Son as our mediator (John 14:6; Heb. 10:19-22). Yet it is by and for the Spirit’s help we are to come. By renewing, cleansing, and motivating us, the Spirit fills our spiritual lungs with heaven’s air so we can breathe out prayer to God. If too burdened to even verbally express our prayers, even then the Spirit groans out our prayers for us. As we pray, one of the great gifts we are to seek is the Spirit himself as Jesus told us (Luke 11:13), for we need his wisdom, power, and fruit in our lives.

Study and discuss our catechisms and confessions with greater alertness to the Spirit. It is simply a bum rap to say Reformed statements of faith do not mention the Spirit sufficiently. This charge even led some denominations to add two chapters to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) at one point to include a chapter on the Spirit and another on his work. For even a brief survey of this confession shows that teaching of the Spirit is included throughout:

  • The first chapter on the Scriptures tell us they were “given by inspiration of God” (WCF 1.2), which testifies to the Bible being God-breathed or Spirit-given. The confession also claims we know the Scriptures are God’s Word by “the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (WCF 1.5), and that we can only understand them in a saving way through “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God” (WCF 1.6).
  • The second chapter, “Of God, and the Holy Trinity,” states clearly, “In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”
  • In the third chapter we are told that God’s eternal decree unfolds as the elect “are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season” (WCF 3.6).
  • The fourth chapter on creation begins by saying, “It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good” (WCF 4.1).

I could go on. Suffice it to say the Reformed confessions and catechisms, written by Trinitarian promoters and defenders, are filled with teachings about the Spirit.

Structure the worship of God in a deliberately Trinitarian way so the congregation grows in its knowledge and ability to converse about the Spirit. Dr. Robert Letham brought this practice more fully to my attention through his teaching and also his book, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and WorshipIn particular, some of the means that he offers for developing the church’s awareness of its dependency on the Spirit are as follows.

  • Treat people in the congregation in the love of the Triune Godhead. Seeing the gospel as a work of God to draw people into the mutual love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in heaven should move us to express love toward one another in our times of worship and fellowship. Helping people to see that the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit are for the sake of others rather than self-promotion is vital in the church.
  • As stated above, not only private praying but public praying should have expressions regarding all three persons of God, including the Holy Spirit.
  • The sacraments should call attention to the Spirit’s work. In baptism, the water itself is clearly a sign of the Spirit’s work in cleansing us. A Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper should include reminders that the Spirit is applying the work of Christ to us as we come to the table by faith.
  • The preaching of God’s Word should address the Trinity and be shaped by the Trinity. As pointed out above, the Bible is filled with the mentions of the Spirit of God. Thus, faithful preaching must necessarily regularly address the Spirit. Also, preaching is utterly dependent on the Spirit to be effectual, so the preacher should be in earnest prayer and offer public prayers of illumination and application for his messages.
  • Letham makes the case that modern hymnody should be more Trinitarian, as that is a lack in this day and age. However, on page 422 he goes on to state that psalm singing is deficient because it does not fully reveal the Trinity. Here I would respectfully disagree, arguing that psalm singing can be full Trinitarianism since the Spirit is the author of these songs that Christ himself says speak of him (Luke 24:44), we are told in Scripture the Spirit fills us as we sing them by faith in Christ (Eph. 5:19), and the psalms themselves are filled with references to the Spirit (see here, here, and here for further teaching on this subject.)

Express a reliance to others about the Spirit’s work in our lives. When we marvel at having been granted faith in Christ, we can say it was “by the grace of God” but we can also equally say it was “by the power of his Spirit” or “by the regeneration of the Spirit.” Ask God with others in prayer for the Spirit of wisdom and discernment regarding important decisions or difficult situations before you. Give glory to God before others for his Spirit when you are granted boldness to share your faith, or when the Lord by his Spirit converts someone by changing their heart of stone into one of flesh. Realize and recognize before other believers that every step of sanctification comes to you from the Spirit. As John Owen states so clearly:

There never was, nor is, nor ever will be the least particle of holiness in the world, but what flowing from Jesus Christ, is communicated by the Spirit, according to the truth and promise of the gospel” (The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power, 248).

We speak about those we love, and church fathers like Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine to Reformers such as John Calvin and John Owen wrote on the full Trinity richly to express their love of God. Let us show then our love for all the persons by speaking of not only the Father and the Son but the Spirit as well.

2 Comments

  1. Bob Hemphill April 10, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    Well said. Thanks

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