Christianity is different to every other religion on earth: because while they require people to do certain things to find God or please him—through things like doing good works, obeying certain rules, or acquiring secret knowledge—the Christian faith is all about what God has done for us, and goes on doing for us. He does not leave us to struggle in self-effort, but rather makes provision for us to know his presence, power and help through the Holy Spirit—sometimes called “the Holy Ghost” in church traditions that use the old King James Version of the Bible. So who, or what, is the Holy Spirit?
A person not a power
If we go back to that question at the end of the previous paragraph, we need to start by saying that the Holy Spirit is definitely a “who” and not a “what”. The Spirit is a person not a power (like The Force in the Star Wars movies). In the Bible he is always referred to as “he” not “it”, and has many of the attributes of personhood—so we find him feeling, thinking, choosing, feeling grieved.
the Christian faith is all about what God has done for us, and goes on doing for us.
A divine person
But not only is the Holy Spirit a person, he is a divine person; that is, he is no one less than God himself. We see this in the Bible in a number of ways. First, he is described in the same terms that God the Father and God the Son are described; for example, he is omniscient (1 Corinthians 2:11), omnipotent (Luke 1:35) and omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-12)—qualities of God alone; and work that the Father did in the Old Testament is seen as being done by him in the New Testament. He is even directly called “the Lord”, just as the Father and Son are (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
Second, he is often inextricably linked with the Father and the Son, especially in Trinitarian sayings, like, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) or “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
One person of The Trinity
It is because of this kind of evidence that The Holy Spirit is seen as one of the three persons of what Christians call “the Trinity”, fully equal with God the Father and God the Son. “Trinity” isn’t a word you will find in the Bible; but it was the word that the early church came up with as they tried to explain how the Father was God, the Son was God, and the Holy Spirit was God, and yet those three weren’t separate persons but one and the same person who existed in three distinct modes, not sequentially but simultaneously. It’s a bit like the three dimensions of a cube—one cube, but always with three dimensions (length, breadth, height). For more on the Trinity see the Trinity.
The promise of Jesus
When Jesus started planning to leave his disciples and they became anxious, he told them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16-18).
But not only is the Holy Spirit a person, he is a divine person; that is, he is no one less than God himself.
The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ ongoing presence with, and within, his followers, so that they aren’t left as orphans, left to struggle on their own. He called him “another advocate”—two important words. The word “another” in the original Greek manuscript of the Gospel means ‘another of the same kind’. In other words, everything that Jesus had been to them while he was with them, the Holy Spirit would be once Jesus had left them. And the word “advocate” (sometimes translated as counsellor or helper) means “someone who comes alongside to help you.” That’s exactly who the Spirit would be and what the Spirit would do.
The experience of the first Christians
Although the Holy Spirit had been at work throughout the Old Testament, his presence and work had been restricted to special times and special people. But the prophets had looked forward to a day when he would be given to all of God’s people (e.g. Joel 2:28-28; Ezekiel 36:24-28); and on the Day of Pentecost, that’s exactly what happened. The Holy Spirit came and “filled” or “baptised” the first Christians with his presence and power (Acts 2:1-4), just as Jesus had promised (Acts 1:8). They were immediately transformed, and were empowered to start living differently (Acts 2:42-47)—energised from within rather than directed by external rules.
But this wasn’t just an experience for the Apostles and the first disciples. Peter’s sermon that day ended with both a challenge and a promise, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). We are certainly “far off” in both time and space; yet that same promise is still available today.
What is “baptism in the Holy Spirit”?
Some church traditions see baptism in (or with) the Holy Spirit as a second, distinct stage in the Christian life: you become a Christian and get baptised and then, at some future point, as you realise your need of the Holy Spirit, you spend time seeking him and he comes and fills or baptises you with his presence and power. Other traditions see baptism in the Spirit as being another way of speaking about “being born again”, for you cannot even become a Christian without the Holy Spirit’s work within you.
The reality is that every Christian’s experience is slightly different. But what is vital is that every Christian should most definitely know the presence and power of the Spirit in a very clear way—and that that experience should constantly deepen and grow. That’s why the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Ephesus to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18)—the Greek word that he used there means “go on being filled” with the Spirit. In other words, we may have had one experience of the Spirit, but there is always room for more!
Gifts of the Holy Spirit
use the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives you for the good of others.
While being filled with the Holy Spirit is most certainly meant to be a personal experience, it isn’t meant to be a private experience. That is, it’s not meant to stop with “me.” It’s an experience that is meant to flow out to others for their good. And that’s where the gifts of the Holy Spirit come in. Sometimes the Holy Spirit takes what are our natural characteristics and abilities and lifts to them to new heights for God’s service; but the New Testament also speaks about a number of supernatural gifts that the Spirit gives God’s people to serve the church and the world around. You can find lists of these gifts in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 27-31, and Ephesians 4:7-13. The fact that these lists overlap in parts yet also have some different gifts shows that they are probably given as examples of the Spirit’s gifts, rather than exclusive lists of them.
The point of all three lists is the same however: use the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives you for the good of others.
The fruit of the Holy Spirit
Once we are filled with God’s Holy Spirit, we should naturally start to demonstrate, in increasing measure, godly characteristics—what the New Testament calls “the fruit of the Spirit”. Just as a healthy tree will naturally bear fruit, so we too, if we are spiritually healthy, will naturally bear spiritual “fruit”. Paul gives examples in Galatians 5:22-23—"love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We should, and can, expect to see these in growing measure if we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
"love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
There’s nothing to be afraid of!
People have sometimes been afraid to ask to receive the Holy Spirit because of fear of “being taken over.” But that is to utterly misunderstand God as he is revealed to us by Jesus who said that he is a good Father who only ever wants the best for us; so any suggestion of him forcing the Spirit on us or the Spirit forcing us to do things is profoundly misguided. After all, Jesus said, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13).
A final promise
Jesus once said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:37-39).
That promise still holds true today. Everyone who comes in faith to Jesus and asks him to forgive their sin and become their Lord, and pledges to live their life for him, can ask him to fill them with the Holy Spirit so that they too might be enabled to let God’s life-giving water spring up within them and flow out to everyone they meet.