Whether inside or outside the church, it is not uncommon to hear God described in ways that does not align with biblical teaching. One of the most common heresies (a digression from doctrinal standards established by the early church) surrounding the Holy Spirit is that he is an impersonal force, not a divine person. This heresy was denounced in 381 AD at the council of Constantinople where the church affirmed the biblical witness that the Holy Spirit was co-equal, co-eternal, and indivisibly united with God the Father and God the Son. In short, the church upheld the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles (and the Old Testament) that the Holy Spirit is divine, just like Jesus and just like God the Father.
Where do we find evidence in Scriptures that the Holy Spirit is a divine person? There are dozens of scripture passages that affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, but to cover just a few here, scripture reveals in the Bible that the Holy Spirit has all the incommunicable divine attributes including:
- Eternality: “…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:14)
- Omniscience — “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except for the spirit of that person, who is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10–11; italics added).
- Omnipresence – “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Ps. 139:7-12)
- Omnipotence — “When you send for your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” (Ps. 104:30)
Denying the divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit is not only incongruent with the biblical witness, it also renders void many essential biblical promises about God and salvation. Most importantly, if the Holy Spirit is not a divine person, then Jesus’s saving work on the cross is ineffective. If we understand the sin condition from which Christ saves us as the result of the loss of the life-giving presence of God, then salvation from sin and its effects is the restoration of that very divine presence. Salvation is all about Immanuel (“God with us”). Because of Jesus’s redemptive work, God’s therapeutic presence is restored in our lives and the image of God is restored. The divine presence is the antidote for the disease of sin, and that presence comes through the Holy Spirit.
If the Holy Spirit is not God but an impersonal force, then the Holy Spirit cannot be the redeeming presence of God in our lives. It is not the absence of an impersonal force that causes the image of God in humans to be distorted, it is the absence of an intimate, personal relationship with the Creator. That relationship is only restored if the one mediating the divine presence is a divine person, like God the Father and God the Son.
Relatedly, Jesus’s promise to be with his followers always (Matt. 28:20) is not fulfilled if the Holy Spirit is not a divine person. Jesus says that when he goes away, he will send another (the Holy Spirit) in his place (Jn. 14:26). Jesus is a person, therefore an impersonal force cannot properly take he place of Jesus. If the Holy Spirit is not a person, then he’s nothing like Jesus and then Jesus’s presence is decidedly not with his followers always. The one whom Jesus sends must be like Jesus in personhood and divinity in order for this promise to be fulfilled. This is one of the reasons why the Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of Christ” in Romans 8:9 and 1 Peter 1:11.
The divine personhood of the Holy Spirit is essential for salvation and proper right worship. On the one hand, salvation is a change of status from guilty to innocent (justification). On the other hand, salvation is also the restoration and continuation of an intimate personal relationship with God (regeneration, sanctification, and glorification). How can salvation be a personal relationship if the Holy Spirit—the one who mediates the personal presence of God in the lives of believers—is not God, and not a person?
Finally, the Bible clearly says that Jesus is the imprint of the divine nature (Heb. 1:3). Jesus also says that if we see him, we see the Father (Jn. 14:9). If Jesus reveals the divine nature, and Jesus is a person, then God must be a person. Logically, then, for the Holy Spirit to manifest the presence of God, he too must be a person.
I finish with John Wesley’s description of the life-giving Presence of the Holy Spirit in believers saying,
the life of God in the soul of a believer is […] the continual inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit: God’s breathing into the soul, and the soul’s breathing back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, and re-action of the soul upon God; an unceasing presence of God, the loving, pardoning God, manifested to the heart, and perceived by faith; and an unceasing return of love, praise, and prayer, offering up all the thoughts of our hearts, all the words of our tongues, all the works of our hands, all our body, soul, and spirit, to be an holy sacrifice, acceptable unto God in Christ Jesus. (“The Scripture Way of Salvation”)
If you would like to learn more about the Holy Spirit, Matt Ayars’s new book The Holy Spirit: An Introduction. This readable systematic theology works through the person and work of the Spirit that offers a comprehensive overview not just of this doctrine but as a vision for the Spirit’s indispensable role in the victorious Christian life.
Readers will come away with the sound biblical and historic Christian basis for the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit and the optimism of living a Christian life that is free from the power of sin. This results from the graceful reality of the indwelling Spirit, who unites our lives with Christ. This book—The Holy Spirit: An Introduction—drives home our high privilege of having the Holy Spirit restore the image of God in individuals by uniting us to Jesus. It will serve as an indispensable resource for leaders, students, and anyone desiring to deepen their understanding of the Holy Spirit.