Holy Spirit: breath of God (2)

The first posting set out to show that according to Scripture the Holy Spirit is not only a person, but a person distinct from both the Father and the Son.  But is he so distinct that he is a different order of being from the Father and the Son, inferior to them and subordinate to them?  Or is he, like the Father and the Son, in the fullest sense divine, equal in authority and glory, and worthy of the same worship and adoration: not merely God’s energy or God’s executive, but God in his own right?

Here, again, Scripture clearly answers, Yes!  Jesus assumed it when he directed the apostles to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt. 28:19).  In the Old Testament, God had given himself two names: the general Semitic name, Elohim, redolent of power; and the specifically Jewish name, Yahweh, emphasising his inexhaustible being and his enduring faithfulness.  Here, in the Great Commission, God gives the final revelation of his name, and we should make a point of quoting it with precision and accuracy.  The name of the God that Christians worship is, ‘The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’.  

In this name, the three persons are carefully distinguished by the repeated use of the definite article and of the conjunction, ‘and’.  He is not, ‘Father Son and Spirit’ (in a rush!), but ‘the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’.  Yet, although the persons are distinct, they do not constitute three names, but one; and the Holy Spirit is essential to it.  God is ‘the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’.  This means that when we are baptised (as all Christians must be) we are baptised in the name of the Spirit as surely as we are baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son; and in exactly the same sense.  We believe in him, we owe allegiance to him and we belong to him just as we do to the Father and the Son.  When we pray, ‘hallowed be thy name’, we include in that prayer the name of the Spirit.  And when we recite our Creed, and say, ‘I believe’, we affirm our belief in the Holy Spirit as surely as we affirm our belief in ‘God the Father Almighty’ and in ‘Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord’.  Otherwise, the Name is shattered.

But this was by no means the first time that Jesus had affirmed the divine glory of the Spirit.  It clearly underlay his earlier declaration on the gravity of blasphemy against the Spirit (Mt.12:31-32, Lk. 12:10).  Throughout Scripture blasphemy is taken with the utmost seriousness.  In the Old Testament it was punishable by death, and Jesus extended it even to speaking evil of a fellow human being, warning that anyone who calls another man a ‘fool’ is in danger of hell-fire (Mt. 5:22).  Nor did he minimise the sin of contemptuous disregard for himself.  Instead, when he speaks of the Spirit convicting the world of sin, the precise sin he has in mind is ‘that men do not believe in me’ (Jn. 16:9); and in the case of Judas, the betrayer, he declares, ‘It would be better for him if he had not been born.’ (Mt. 26:24)

 Yet neither blasphemy in the Old Testament sense, nor contemptuous insult of a fellow human being, nor treachery against Christ himself, is unforgivable.  This dread verdict is pronounced only on those who blaspheme the Spirit and who, in the face of the clearest evidence, attribute his work to demons.  For such language, says Jesus, there can be no forgiveness either in time or in eternity (Mt. 12:32).  It is ‘a sin unto death’ (1 Jn. 5:16). 

Only with respect to a person of the highest eminence, almost more eminent than the incarnate Son himself (whose glory was veiled at the point when Jesus made this solemn declaration), could blasphemy be seen as a sin of such enormity.  Were the Spirit anything less than divine, Jesus’ language would have been totally inappropriate: a point well made by Karl Barh when he writes, ‘there could not possibly be a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which makes man guilty of an unforgivable, eternal sin, if the Spirit were less, if he were something else, than God Himself.’ (Church Dogmatics, I:1, p. 526).

Early in the Book of Acts, and in the equally solemn context of the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), we find this doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit once again taken for granted as an undisputed element in the faith of the church.  At one point, the couple are said to have lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:2), but two verses later they are said to have lied to ‘God’; and the punishment which follows underlines the fact that the presence of the Spirit in the church was the presence of none other than the Holy One of Israel: the God with whom men dare not trifle.

The same identification of the Spirit with God appears in 1 Corinthians 3:16, where Christians are declared to be God’s temple on the basis that the Spirit lives in us.  Later in the same epistle, where Paul is correcting the Corinthians’ views on spiritual gifts, he insists that although there is a wide diversity of gifts, they all come from the same source.  He then goes on, however, to indicate that this source is in fact a threefold source (1 Cor. 12:4-6): the gifts all come from the same Spirit, the same Lord and the same God (the Father).  Yet in the following verses the Spirit appears as the sole source of the gifts, distributing them to each believer (and to each age) at his own entire discretion (1 Cor. 12:11).  Here, the gifts are ‘manifestations’ of the Spirit, full-stop; yet, in the light of the earlier verses, any manifestation of the Spirit is clearly also a manifestation of the Father and the Son.  The Three act together.


A recurring pattern

This reference to a three-fold source of salvation is a recurring pattern in the New Testament. We find it in, for example, Ephesians 1:3-14, where Paul begins with praise to God the Father, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing, and then immediately goes on to make plain that these blessings do not come from the Father alone.  Instead, the Father chose us, Christ redeemed us, and the Spirit seals us.  All three persons, though each in his own way, shares in our redemption.  Two chapters later we find the same trinitarian pattern, when Paul prays that we would be strengthened by the Spirit, indwelt by Christ, and filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19).  Nor is this pattern confined to Paul.  It also occurs in 1 Peter 1:2-3, where Peter describes God’s elect as foreknown by God the Father, sanctified by the Spirit and sprinkled with the blood of Christ. 

In none of these passages is there the slightest hint that one of those named, the Holy Spirit, is inferior to the others, far less that he is a different order of being.  On the contrary, the language of the apostles is in perfect harmony with the language of the Great Commission: God the Spirit shares the one name, and the one being, with God the Father and God the Son.  Where they are, he is; where he is, they are.  He is at the heart of all that God does, even in those moments when the Almighty is at his most ‘matchless, God-like and divine.’

But the most remarkable of those passages which attribute salvation to a threefold source is the Benediction of Second Corinthians (2 Cor. 13:14).  What immediately strikes us here is the order in which the divine persons are named.  Jesus’ direction to the disciples was that they should baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, this order was adopted by the Apostles’ Creed, and it became the canonical order in all Christian reflection on the Trinity.   In Paul’s Benediction, however, the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is placed first, followed by the Father and the Holy Spirit; and this is not the only instance of such a variation.  In 1 Peter 1:2, for example, the order is God the Father, the Spirit and the Lord Jesus Christ.  This suggests that the order, ‘Father, Son, Spirit’, was not sacrosanct; and it was not sacrosanct because the divine persons were seen as equal, and if the Father and the Spirit were on occasion named second, this neither dishonoured the Father nor unduly elevated the Spirit.  Instead, it reflected the truth which would later be proclaimed in theso-called Athanasian Creed (6th century): ‘in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, and none is less’. (24)  The variations in the order of naming the persons reflect this fundamental truth.

But the supremely important point in this Benediction is that when Paul once again highlights the threefold source of salvation he names the Holy Spirit along with the Father and the Son, and clearly expects the very young church at Corinth to be familiar with such language and to accept it as totally uncontroversial.  In the actual wording, grace is linked specifically to the Lord Jesus Christ, love to God (the Father) and fellowship to the Holy Spirit.  This cannot mean, however, that Christ is exclusively the source of grace, the Father of love, and the Holy Spirit of fellowship.  In the salutations to his epistles, Paul uniformly ascribes grace to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ together; in Galatians 2:20 he traces his personal salvation back to the love of the Son of God; and in 1 John 1:3 believers are told that their ‘fellowship’ is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.  It would be premature, then, to conclude that when Paul ascribes grace, love and fellowship to different members of the Trinity he intends to limit grace to the Son, love to the Father and fellowship to the Spirit.  What he does intend, however, is that grace was shown pre-eminently in the action of Christ, who, though he was rich, made himself poor (2 Cor. 8), and love shown pre-eminently in the Father’s giving of his Son as a sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10). 


The fellowship of the Holy Spirit

But why does the Apostle link ‘fellowship’ specifically to the Holy Spirit?  It is true, of course, that the fellowship we have with each other as believers is a fellowship which the Spirit creates, binding us together by a common experience of his grace and by shared participation in the gifts he has bestowed on the church for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7).  But Paul’s language cannot mean merely that the Spirit is the source of our fellowship with each other.  We also have communion and fellowship with the Holy Spirit: a point which was clearly grasped by John Owen when he devoted the whole of Part III of his treatise, On Communion with God, to ‘Communion with the Holy Ghost’. 

It might be dangerous to introduce here the phrase, ‘a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit’, since such language tends to minimise the gulf between the Spirit as ‘Spirit of holiness’ and ourselves as sinners.  Yet he is a person, we are persons, and this means that any relationship between us is inevitably personal.  At the core of this ‘personal relationship’ lies the fact that we worship him, and worship is itself an I-Thou, person-to-person,  relationship in which we acknowledge the worth of a divine person.  But this relationship with the Spirit is also an intimate one (as is our relationship with our heavenly Father).  We walk with him as our daily, hourly companion (Gal. 5:1), we follow him as our leader (Rom. 8:14, Gal. 5:18), and we keep in step with him as the marker for our formation (Gal. 5:25).  He never leaves us (Jn. 14:16). 

This shared communion with the Holy Spirit is the presupposition of Christian fellowship.  To walk with him is to walk together.  What we must never forget, however, is that to walk with him is to walk with God.  That is the core Christian privilege.  In the Spirit, God indwells us.  In the Spirit, God walks with us: always close, and always within earshot, but never to be trifled with.