Doctrine of God: Trinity (Part 4): The Holy Spirit

August 03, 2016

The Holy Spirit

We've been looking at the doctrine of the Trinity. We've seen that the New Testament affirms that the Father is a distinct person from the Spirit and the Son, and that the Father is God. Indeed when the Scriptures use the word “God” they typically have reference to the Father. Secondly, we saw that similarly the Scriptures say that Jesus Christ is a distinct person from the Father and the Spirit, and that Jesus Christ is God not in the sense that Jesus is the Father but in the sense that he is divine. The New Testament typically refers to Jesus by the Old Testament name of God – kyrios or Lord.

Today we want to turn to the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. Again, we will see that the New Testament affirms both that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person from the Father and the Son, and that the Holy Spirit is likewise God.

First, the Holy Spirit is a distinct person.

Luke 11:13: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Here the Father is spoken of as distinct from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given by the Father to those who ask him.

John 14:26: Jesus says, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Here all three of the persons are distinguished. There is the Holy Spirit who is given by the Father in the name of the Son. The three persons are mentioned in this single saying as distinct persons.

Turn over to John 15:26 – a very interesting verse. Again Jesus is speaking: “When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.” Again you have all three of the persons mentioned. There is the Father, the Holy Spirit who will bear witness to the Son – to Jesus. What is especially interesting about this verse is that John emphasizes the personhood of the Holy Spirit by using the masculine pronoun for him even though the word “Spirit” (pneuma in the Greek) is neuter. So when he says “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father” he actually violates Greek grammar. Instead of saying “the Spirit who proceeds from the Father; it will bear witness to me,” he uses the masculine pronoun “he” - “he will bear witness to me” - in order to underline that we are talking here about a person, not a thing. The Holy Spirit is a person just like the Father and the Son.

Romans 8:26-27. Paul says,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[1]

Here Paul describes the intercessory ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Father on our behalf. We don't know what to pray for many times. We have limited wisdom and insight. But the Holy Spirit intercedes with the Father on our behalf, and the Father knows the mind of the Spirit and knows how to answer our prayers because the Spirit intercedes according to God's will. So here you have this very interesting ministry of the Holy Spirit on our behalf in prayer or intercession before the Father so that he converts as it were our prayers into God's will.

Matthew 28:19 is one of the famous trinitarian verses in the New Testament where all three of the persons are mentioned. Jesus says to them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here you have this formula for baptism where all three of the persons are mentioned. Converts to Christianity are to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

2 Corinthians 13:14 also mentions all three of the persons of the Trinity. A wonderful benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Here you have the grace of Christ, the love of God (that is the Father), and then the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. So all three of the persons are mentioned in this benediction just as they are in the baptismal formula.

Finally, 1 Peter 1:1-2 also mentions all three of the trinitarian persons.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood, may grace and peace be multiplied to you.

Here you have all three of the persons: God the Father who has chosen and destined the believers, the Spirit who sanctifies them for obedience to Jesus Christ.

So we have a number of passages, I think, in which the Holy Spirit is distinguished from both the Father and the Son. He is a distinct person.

Here we also need to make a note about how the New Testament uses terminology. We saw that very often the word “God” simply refers to the Father. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come in his place and in his name. He would continue to carry out the ministry of Jesus in the absence of Jesus after Jesus had ascended to the Father. Look at John 14:26: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Here the Holy Spirit is sent in the name of Christ, and he serves to bring Christ's teaching to recollection on the part of the disciples.

Also look at John 16:13-14: Jesus says,[2]

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Here we see the subordination of the Holy Spirit in the plan of salvation to the Son. The Holy Spirit doesn't speak on his own authority. We've seen rather he comes in the name of the Son – in the name of Christ – and then he will declare to the disciples the things that he receives – the things concerning Jesus Christ. The role of the Holy Spirit is that of attesting to and continuing the ministry of Jesus, acting in his name and authority, and in his place.

So in the New Testament the Holy Spirit becomes so closely identified with Jesus Christ that he is often spoken of as the Spirit of Christ – not the Spirit of God but the Spirit of Christ, or even sometimes he is simply called Christ. Look, for example, at the very interesting passage in Romans 8:9-11. Here Paul says,

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.

Did you notice the terminology here and the progression? It goes from the Spirit of God to the Spirit of Christ to simply Christ! If Christ is in you (meaning the Spirit of Christ, that is to say the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit). Here you have the identification of the Spirit so completely with Christ that he is actually referred to as Christ.

So very often today, people will talk about how, in order to be born again, you need to receive Christ as your Savior, and that it is receiving Christ that will produce the new birth and a relationship with God. Technically, it is really the Holy Spirit that you receive. When a person places his faith in Christ, he receives the Holy Spirit who now continues the ministry of Christ and that will produce the spiritual re-birth – the new birth – that will put him into a relationship with God. But because the Holy Spirit is so closely identified with Christ, we will often talk about receiving Christ. There is nothing the matter with that so long as we keep in mind and understand that Christ in terms of his human nature is with the Father. He is absent from this world. Some day he will return again when Christ comes back, but in his absence it is the Holy Spirit who continues the ministry to the world and to the church as well.

When we come to our section on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, we will look more at the manifold ministries that this third person of the Trinity has in the world today. But for now we simply want to note that the Holy Spirit is not the ghost of Jesus Christ. When they talk about the Holy Ghost they don't mean it is the ghost of Jesus. Nor do they mean by the Holy Spirit some sort of it – a thing, a neutral force or impersonal object.[3] The Holy Spirit is a person just like the Son and the Father who is now at work in the world and in the church to carry on the ministry of Jesus.

That is the first point: the Holy Spirit is a person who is distinct from the Father and the Son.

Moreover, to state the obvious, the Holy Spirit is God. The Holy Spirit, like the Father and Son, is God.

Look at Matthew 12:28 for example. Here it would be easy to find passages attesting to the deity of the Holy Spirit. We read the words of Jesus: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Here he refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God who brings the Kingdom of God to Earth.

Acts 5:3-4 is a very interesting passage from the story about Ananias and Sapphira and God's judgment upon them in the early church. Here Peter is rebuking Ananias for his deception. Peter says,

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

Notice in verse 3, Peter says to Ananias, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit,” and then in verse 4 he says, “You have not lied to men but to God.” So the equation there is made of the Holy Spirit with God. The Holy Spirit is deity.

Romans 8:9. We have already read this verse: “You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Here the Holy Spirit is, again, referred to as the Spirit of God.

Finally, 1 Corinthians 6:11. Paul says, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

So the Holy Spirit is God and yet at the same time the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. We have the same truths about the Holy Spirit that we saw with regard to the Father and the Son. He is a distinct person and he is divine.


Student: With all of the scriptural evidence, I wonder what sort of response Unitarians and other skeptics have? Are any of those passages in dispute or maybe have textual variations that they could try to weasel out?

Dr. Craig: No, I don't think it would be a matter of textual variations as though there were some manuscripts that read differently. You are just going to have to put a totally different interpretation on these passages in order to avoid the force of what I've said here. I think probably Unitarianism is motivated not so much by the unclarity or ambiguity of the text as it is with the doctrine of the Trinity itself. For some people it just seems incomprehensible to say that one God could be three persons. So there is some way that you've got to get around this.

Student: Invariably, it costs Jesus' divinity.

Dr. Craig: Unless! Here is a way that it might not. It could mean you sacrifice the divinity of Jesus and regard Jesus as purely human, right? And God is simply God the Father.[4] But there are today what are called Oneness Pentecostals. I've actually met folks like this. When we were in France at French language school, one of the missionaries that was there learning French to go to Africa was a member of one of these Oneness Pentecostal denominations. What they believed is that God is one person and that that is Jesus. He affirmed the deity of Christ, but he thought that Jesus Christ is God – the one person God – incarnate. He denied the Trinity, but he affirms the deity of Christ. It is a sort of modern version of Modalism as we'll see. But, yeah, it was bizarre.

Student: As you know, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the Holy Spirit is God's impersonal active force like electricity or water. One of the ways they sort of try to rebut all these passages that seem to refer to the Holy Spirit as a “he” or seems to show that he is a person is they are using the language of personification and they give other examples like how Wisdom and other things that are impersonal are talked about in the Bible as if they are persons. They will try to use that to explain away a lot of the passages about the Holy Spirit where it seems to talk about a person. In John's Gospel they use the gender neuter – they will try to use that to say it shows it is an impersonal force and then any other thing where it says “he” after that is just personification.

Dr. Craig: Let me just address the second point first, and then go to the first point. In Greek, unlike English, you have gendered articles – masculine, feminine, and neuter. “Ho” is the masculine; “he” is the feminine; and “to” is the Greek definite article. It is just like German in this sense. In German you have der, die, and das as your definite articles. Anybody who has studied German knows how hard it is to remember all the time what is the gender of the noun that you've just learned and then how to inflect these articles as they switch cases like accusative, dative, genitive, with the indefinite articles, and the adjectives after it, and so on. It gets very complicated. There is no significance whatsoever to the gender of these articles. For example, in German, the word for “little girl” is das mädchen. But that doesn't mean that people think little girls are neuter objects! It just is a peculiarity of the language. So you cannot infer anything about the personal character of someone from the gender of the definite article. Similarly in the Greek, in the Greek the word for Spirit is neuter – to pneuma. It is like our word “pneumatic” which means air. To pneuma means Spirit or wind. The fact that pneuma is neuter says nothing about whether the Holy Spirit is a person. In fact, as we saw in John, he actually violates grammar by not using the relative pronoun that is neuter. He uses the relative pronoun that is masculine, which I think is very telling.

As to the first point, certainly you are quite right that Scripture will on various occasions use the literary device of personification. A great example is Proverbs 8 where God's Wisdom is personified as a lady – Lady Wisdom. She cries out to people to come to me and learn of me and to teach the young men how to walk in the ways of the Lord and not be foolish. Lady Wisdom there speaks on behalf of God. It is clearly a literary personification. But I think you can see from the verses that I read today, none of these have anything to do with literary personification. None of them is like that.[5] Especially when you have the three listed together – in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is just clearly not a case of literary personification.

Student: The whole Matthew passage – in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - one interesting thing James White does is he points out to Jehovah's Witnesses that if you really read that the way they have to read it, what you are really saying is you have to be baptized in the name of Jehovah God, Michael the archangel, and an impersonal force.

Dr. Craig: Which is absurd, isn't it? It would put other things on the same level with the Father that could not conceivably be put on that level.

Student: The Spirit is the only person of the Trinity that is sort of directly named as a Spirit. But of course God the Father is also spirit, and before the incarnation the Son was a spirit. Is there some way in which the Holy Spirit is spirit in a different way or is that just the only thing we have left to call it?

Dr. Craig: Not “it!” See how easily we fall into this? Is that all we have to call it? Call him! I am not sure why the Holy Spirit is given the name that he is. It could be that it emphasizes an aspect of God's being, namely, his activity and power. Right from the beginning of Genesis, you have the Spirit present in the creation narrative where darkness was on the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. It could be that this language of the Spirit and the Holy Spirit is meant to emphasize the activity of God in the world whereas Father and Son are more relational terms that would connote love, authority, submission, and love in turn. That is just an off-the-top-of-my-head speculation. I couldn't say why the Holy Spirit is given the name that he is.

Student: I think it is very interesting this concept of the Trinity for several reasons. One of them being it is one of the things that makes Christianity unique. No other major faith teaches this. But also I think it is a good reminder because not only is it kind of like a red flag whenever a religious doctrine of some kind denies it like Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. That raises a red flag. But it is also a good reminder that however much we know about God, there will always be certain things about him that are beyond our understanding, and that is the way it should be. I think the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential doctrine not only because it is taught in Scripture but also because it reminds us that there will always be certain things about God that will be beyond our comprehension.

Dr. Craig: One of the traditional attributes of God is that God is incomprehensible. When they said that God is incomprehensible, that did not mean that God is unintelligible or illogical or incapable of being understood. What they meant was that you can't comprehend God in the sense of taking him all in. He is infinite, and so even though we gain genuine insight and knowledge about the nature of God (he is omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, eternal, necessary, and a se) yet we cannot comprehend him in the sense of putting our arms or our mind completely around God and understanding him exhaustively. I think you are right that the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us of that. For centuries, Jews worshiped God without any suspicion that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This was revealed only in time through his incarnation in the person of Jesus.

Student: Would you comment on John 17:21? Does that help us?[6]

Dr. Craig: We spoke about this the other day. Jesus prays for the believers “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” I think that this clearly shows the distinctness of the Father from the Son. I think that does show that. Jesus isn't talking to himself. So I would say this would be a good verse for showing that the Father and the Son are distinct persons. I am not persuaded that, in and of itself, it is a good prooftext for the deity of Christ because the sense in which the disciples are in them (in God the Father, in the Son) doesn't mean that we are God. This would need to be supplemented with other verses to get the deity of Christ, I think. But at least you do get the distinctions of the persons here.

Student: I like to think of the Trinity as the three persons reflect the three qualities of God in relation to us. So the Father would be transcendent. The Son would be personal and relational that way. And the Spirit would be immanence – in terms of their function.

Dr. Craig: Well, I feel a little uncomfortable when you say the Son is personal because we don’t want to exclude that from the Father or the Spirit either. The Father loves us. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. So while I understand what you are saying about the transcendence of the Father, it seems to me that something different than personal needs to characterize the Son. I would have thought you were going to say immanence for the Son because he enters into the world – he enters into human history in a way the Father has not.

Student: The Son calls us brothers and calls us friends.

Dr. Craig: Yes, he shares our human nature.

Student: I would say it is a modality, not modalism.

Dr. Craig: You are certainly right in drawing our attention to the fact that the Son is unique among the persons of the Trinity in taking on a human nature and in sharing with us our humanity. Neither the Father nor the Spirit does that. We will talk more about that when we get to the doctrine of Christ and how we are to understand this notion that Christ has a human nature as well as a divine nature.

Student: In the Old Testament, there are several mentions of the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Lord. Would you say that he is identical with the New Testament Holy Spirit, or does the way that he works in the Old Testament differ because Christ had not come yet?

Dr. Craig: I would be very cautious about making a sort of one-one identification because the doctrine of the Trinity had not yet been revealed in the Old Testament. So they could use terms with regard to God without that sort of precision. One example of this would be in Isaiah 6 where Isaiah says, I saw the Lord in the temple high and lifted up and his train filled the temple. He has this vision of God. In the New Testament, John says that was the Son – that it was actually Christ. It was a vision of Christ that Isaiah saw in the temple. But Isaiah wouldn’t know that. So similarly, when they are talking about the Spirit of the Lord doing this or that in the Old Testament, I think we ought to be very cautious about reading back into it “this is the Holy Spirit.” It could be, but I think we have to be cautious.

Student: There always seems to be this confusion like you talked about in the Romans 8 passage where he goes from the Spirit of God (pneuma theos) to the Spirit of Christ (pneuma christos) then just to Christ. There seems to be a blurry line there. We talk about as believers “I ask Jesus into my heart” (like Ephesians 3:17 says) or Revelation 3:20 where we are talking about Jesus is standing at the door and knocking and we open the door. But at the same time we know it really is not Jesus, it is really the Spirit that indwells us. How do we get there? How do we get to this idea?

Dr. Craig: I tried to get there by what I said – the Holy Spirit doesn’t act on his own authority.[7] He doesn’t glorify himself. He doesn’t bring teaching that is apart from Christ. He comes in the place of Christ to glorify Christ and to bring to the disciples – remember that is what Christ had taught them – his role is completely subordinate, it seems to me, to Christ's. Therefore he becomes so closely identified with Christ that someone like Paul can say, But if Christ is in you, you are alive because of righteousness. But I think that technically if you are doing theology you would want to say it is the Holy Spirit. But they just become so closely identified with each other the terms can be used interchangeably. There is nothing the matter with that, I think, so long as we understand what is going on here.

Student: I think you mentioned this once before that the concept of personhood didn’t arise until the Council of Nicaea when they were debating and so are we adding semantic difficulties in witnessing by saying personhood instead of just mentioning Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father?

Dr. Craig: I did say that the modern concept of a person – the psychological concept of a person – seems to have been originated through these trinitarian debates where the church fathers were trying to express the distinctness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in these personal terms. But I would say that their insights are genuine and that we should appropriate them and not shun such terminology because you see in Scripture itself, not that the Spirit and the Son are called “persons” - I didn’t appeal to that kind of language, I appealed to verses in which they interact as persons. The Son prays to the Father, or the Father says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” There are clearly what we could call “I-thou” relationships here between the persons of the Trinity. A first-person perspective, a second-person perspective. An “I-thou” relationship. I think this is captured by the concept of personhood, and therefore we shouldn’t shun that terminology. I think it is important to embrace it.


Next time we will begin to look at how the early church reflected on this biblical data in order to make sense of it.[8]



[1] 5:10

[2] 10:12

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:00

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:01

[7] 35:11

[8] Total Running Time: 38:49 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)