Let’s Go to Theology Class: Personhood of the Holy Spirit

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Grounding your articulation on Grudem’s multiple chapters on the Holy Spirit, but adding scriptural support, as well as information from other sources (e.g., McGrath, Elwell), make a strong case for the personhood of God the Holy Spirit. By “personhood,” it is meant defining the Spirit as more than just a force, ghost, cloud, or some other type of substance; define Him as a person.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

As Grudem demonstrates by the three assigned chapters, there is much to consider relative to the personhood and the functions of the Holy Spirit. Further, Grudem does a fine job of revealing the many areas where denominations and believers tend to disagree. This is especially true regarding cessation of prophesy and other charismatic gifts or “signs.” I have become friends with an online lay minister from New Jersey who holds firm to the cessation school of thought. This came up during a recent conversation with him regarding speaking in tongues. What a great springboard for exploring the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Grudem explicitly states, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to manifest the active presence of God in the world, and especially in the church.” [1] Turning to the doctrine of God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), we understand that each is fully God and that there is only one God. Grudem refers to the Godhead as “an indication of the plurality of persons in God himself.” [2] Scripture provides numerous examples of God as three persons in one. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The Spirit of God was present at the time of Creation (Gen. 1:1). The Father and the Son are God, as the Holy Spirit is also God. No one is subordinate to the other, nor did one come “out of” the other.

Grudem notes that the Holy Spirit is essentially the primary manifestation of the Trinity under the New Covenant. It’s worth mentioning that much of the work of the Holy Spirit is akin to the earthly ministry of Christ, and of the various offices within the church under the OT and the NT. The Holy Spirit is unique in that He gives power to the church, but He also ministers to the body through discernment, interpretation, imparting of wisdom, conviction, direction, and unification—calling the church together for fellowship. However, it is perhaps because of these “leadings” that many see the Holy Spirit as a force or enigma. Looking closely, we see several indicators of His personhood. He has the characteristics of a person; He acts like a person; He is treated as a person throughout church history; and, He is the third person of the Godhead. A mere “spirit” does not have a personality, yet we clearly see the Holy Spirit does possess a personality.

Regarding the Holy Spirit as a person, we can confidently trust the accuracy of Scripture. Paul said the Holy Spirit has the capacity to think (1 Cor. 2:10). Romans 8:11 identifies the Holy Spirit as “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.” According to the transliteration of this verse, the word “he” is expounded upon as meaning “the Spirit of the one having raised from the dead Christ Jesus.” [3] G.A. Cole notes that the personhood of the Holy Spirit is grounded in canonical Scriptures and expounded upon in early creeds. He admits that words can be tricky. For example, the Hebrew word rûah can be translated as “spirit” or “Spirit.” However, Cole says the ancient Hebrew language did not use capital letters as we’re used to seeing in English. [4]

In Psalm 51, David utilizes self-examination regarding the depths of his guilt, and discusses inward renewal in verses 10 through 13. This is arguably not referring to “self” renewal. In verse 10, he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (NRSV). Kidner indicates the words heart and spirit refer to the impact of the “springs of life” (Pro. 4:23). [5] David is referring to his own spirit being renewed by the Spirit of God. Importantly, Romans 8:26-27 says the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness; because we often do not know how to pray (or what to pray for), the Holy Spirit prays for us. As Cole notes, only individuals can pray—disembodied enigmas cannot. Isaiah said it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Isa. 63:10). The Spirit of God spoke to the disciples at various times (Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:2). The Holy Spirit feels love (Rom. 15:3) and can impart grace (Heb. 10:29). Peter noted in Acts 5:3 that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. You cannot lie to a disembodied enigma, but you can lie to a person. Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of disobeying the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)—impersonal entities cannot issue commands.

First Corinthians 12:1-11 tells us that spiritual gifts are endowed by the Holy Spirit, and that He acts in accordance with His will (12:11). He is the searcher of men’s hearts and minds; He is the power behind creation and regeneration. His works indicate possessing intelligence, will, knowledge, self-determination, and the general aspects of personhood. Amazingly, Paul said the Holy Spirit searches all things, even the mind of God (1 Cor. 2:10). This certainly points to the quality of omniscience. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks quite succinctly that one cannot separate the Son from the Father, or the Spirit from either the Son or the Father. [6] Further, he suggests that if two persons of the Godhead are persons, then the Holy Spirit cannot be a non-person. This would be completely alien and incompatible to the rest of the Godhead. Athanasius adds, “That which is from God could not be from something that does not exist.” [7]

I also think the idea that the Holy Spirit is a person aids in addressing the arguments of cessation theorists who believe spiritual gifts, the offices of prophet and apostle, and miracles (especially, but not limited to, healing, resurrection of the dead, and manipulation of the empirical world to further the will of God) are no longer in operation. Given the doctrinal position that God works through the Holy Spirit, it is not theologically or logically possible for the Holy Spirit to cease operating in the world and in the community of believers. Given that He is an equal part of the Godhead with the Father and the Son, who are eternal and cannot change, then neither can the Holy Spirit change. On a very simple but profound tenet, if the Father and the Son are persons, than so too must the Holy Spirit be a person. Accordingly, I strongly believe in the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

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I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 634.

[2] Grudem, 227.

[3] Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 626.

[4] G.A. Cole, “Holy Spirit,” contained in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 395.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: Kidner Classical Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 210.

[6] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On The Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” contained in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed., edited by Alister E. McGrath (Chichester, West Essex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 166.

[7] 166.

From Head to Heart

“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3)

This statement by the Lord Jesus begins in a very profound manner: “And this is eternal life.” To complete such a statement requires comprehensive truth. If the statement had started with “this is included in eternal life,” many non-comprehensive matters could be used to finish the statement. After all, we could certainly argue that forgiveness of sins is included in eternal life. Escaping hell and securing heaven are also included in eternal life. Likewise, meaning and purpose for living are included in eternal life. Additionally, we find spiritual gifts and spiritual fruit in eternal life. Of course, fellowship in the body of Christ and new understanding of the Scriptures are included. Nevertheless, none of these individually, nor all of these collectively, are sufficient to complete the statement: “And this is eternal life.”

To finish that profound beginning, we need to add an all-encompassing truth. We must speak of the full dimensions of eternal life. What is large enough to complete that majestic opening? Only the one reality of knowing God would be adequate: “that they may know You.” Yes, knowing God is what eternal life is all about. It is only through meeting the Lord that forgiveness is found. It is only by being in Christ that we escape hell and secure heaven. Then, it is only through getting acquainted with the Lord that meaning and purpose for our lives are made real to us. Also, it is only through a growing intimacy of trust in Christ that spiritual gifts and spiritual fruit can properly mature. Furthermore, it is only through an increasing acquaintanceship with the Lord that Christian fellowship and biblical insight are appropriately developed.

These truths certainly concur with those prophetic words of old that promised a new covenant of grace to replace the old covenant of law. “I will make a new covenant…not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers…But this is the covenant that I will make…I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people…they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Hebrews 8:11 applies these words to followers of Christ. “All shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.” The new covenant provides a growing, intimate acquaintanceship for all who will walk in its terms of grace.

A good friend of mine has said to me repeatedly, “I hope one day you get God out of your head and into your heart.” Naturally, I’ve argued again and again that I already have God in my heart. Then I think about many of the decisions I make. How I decide (basically, how I rationalize) that the rules don’t apply to me. I decide to do something because it suits my situation. I feel justified because of how I’ve been treated, or because others have been able to “get away with it.” On the surface, it seems like nothing more than survival. But when I consider my behavior from a Christian worldview, I realize what I’ve done is unacceptable.

Consider, for example, writing a check. This is a normal everyday practice for millions of Americans. For me, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve written many checks hoping to cover them “in time,” justifying my decision because I needed medicine or food, or the rent was due. As you can imagine, each time I do that, I increase the odds that I will not be able to cover every check. When I reflect on that behavior now, I think of two of the Ten Commandments. We are not supposed to steal, and we are not to bear false witness. Isn’t writing a bad check breaking both Commandments? Is this proper Christian behavior?

Psalm 119:10-11 says, “With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.” (NASB) A pastor friend of mine, who comes from a lineage of pastors, said he memorized Scripture growing up in order to aid in standing against the wiles of the devil. It is certainly not a fool-proof solution to sin (we are, after all, finite, fallible, easily tempted), but he is able to consistently avoid sexual immorality, such as pornography, has remained a virgin until marriage, and in the two years I’ve known him I have never heard him utter a curse word or use the Lord’s name in vain.

What I’ve come to understand is that although I have God in my heart, I have not given Him every room. It’s funny, but I see some of this as sinful pride. Like I’m saying I am too far gone even for Christ to save. Thankfully, I don’t fully believe this, and it’s only been a passing thought here and there. It is truly a slap in the face of Christ to tell Him what He did on the cross was enough for everyone in the entire world but me. When I get the sense that I’m acting as though I believe this, I repent of it immediately. There could be no greater propitiation for my sin. There is no other solution. The entire Creation has been groaning since the Fall as a result of sin entering the world. Obviously, nothing else could rectify the problem but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

 

A Daily Prayer Regarding Grace

Heavenly Father, we rejoice with great gladness that Your new covenant of grace is the wondrous manner in which we are invited to relate to You. In this rich covenant, we have found forgiveness of all our sins. Praise be to Your name! In this bountiful arrangement, we can grow in intimacy with You. In this generous provision, we can anticipate being changed and enabled by You from deep within our hearts. We are ever so grateful, and the only manner by which we can even remotely begin to “repay” You is to pay it forward. Grant us boldness to go forth, therefore, and tell others about Your incredible grace.