What does the Holy Spirit do? If I can guess your answer, it might be, “The Spirit regenerates unbelievers so they become Christians.” Or, “The Spirit sanctifies believers so they become more like Christ.” These are certainly correct answers. But this two-item list—the new birth and spiritual transformation—is incomplete. The Spirit does far more. In fact, without the works of the Holy Spirit, we would miss absolutely everything: you and me, Christians and our churches, the incarnate Son and his grace, the people of Israel and their storied history, human beings and angels, the world and everything in it—even the triune God himself.
Without the Holy Spirit and his mighty works, we would be missing absolutely everything.
So, what are those mighty works? What does the Holy Spirit do?
I’ll answer this question through these four steps:
- Connect the working of the Holy Spirit with that of the other two persons of the Trinity by discussing the inseparable operations of the triune God.
- Emphasize that the way by which we know the works of the Holy Spirit is by means of his specific work of inspiring Scripture.
- Present dozens of works of the Holy Spirit.
- Return to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Trinity.
We’ll cover these areas:
- Inseparable operations
- Father, Son, Holy Spirit
- Inspiration of Scripture
- Works of the Spirit: creation and the old covenant
- Works of the Spirit: Christ and mission 1
- Works of the Spirit: Pentecost and mission 2
- Works of the Spirit: recreation and the new covenant
- Works of the Spirit: Spirit-baptism and church
- Works of the Spirit: consummation and the new creation
Galatians 4:4–6 reveals that the divine work of redemption involves God (the Father) sending forth his Son to accomplish salvation and sending the Spirit to adopt us as children and heirs. Similarly, Titus 3:4–7 affirms that the divine work of salvation involves God (the Father) regenerating and renewing us by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Father, Son, Holy Spirit
These examples, which could be multiplied many times, underscore the fact that the three persons of the triune God always work inseparably together in every divine action in the world. These inseparable operations include, for example, the creation: everything seen and unseen was created as God (the Father; Gen 1:1) spoke it into existence through his Word (the Son; John 1:1–3; Col 1:15–20) and through the action of the Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit; Gen 1:2). They include, as another example, the incarnation: God (the Father) so loved the world that he sent his Son (John 3:16) who became the God–man Jesus Christ through the virginal conception wrought by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38).
Importantly, then, as I answer our question, we should never lose sight of the fact that whatever work the Holy Spirit does, he never operates apart from the Father and the Son.
Still, there are particular works in which the Holy Spirit takes center stage as primary operator (without excluding the other two operators). Before I discuss these works, I begin with the specific work of the Spirit by which we come to know them.
Inspiration of Scripture
“All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16), that is, the inspired, written Word of God is of divine origin.1 At the same time, human authors wrote the Bible, and this work of composing Scripture is particularly ascribed to the Spirit. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other biblical authors “spoke from God [i.e., wrote Scripture] as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). This written revelation is authoritative, truthful (inerrant), and clear. Through the Bible we learn about the many works of the Holy Spirit.
Works of the Spirit: creation and the old covenant
We consider now the works of the Holy Spirit that the Old Testament features.
According to the very first chapter of Scripture, the Spirit was active in the creation. As noted above, this triune work engaged the Father who spoke ten times; for example, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). The Father spoke through his Word, the Son, as agent of creation; for example, “all things were made through him [the Word]” (John 1:3). Moreover, together with the Father and the Son, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). This particular work of the Spirit was that of preparing the original creation—which was formless, void, dark, and watery—for the ongoing work of transforming this raw and rugged space into a place that would be hospitable for human flourishing. As the Father’s Word rang out, “Let there be light,” the Spirit prompted the proper response: “and there was light” (Gen 1:3).
The Old Testament also presents the Spirit’s work of providentially caring for what has been created. The psalmist addresses living creatures like birds, livestock, plants, and lions (Ps 104:27–30):
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
The Holy Spirit both creates and providentially provides for the existence and flourishing of all living creatures.
Such creatures include human beings, beginning with the very first man, Adam: “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7). Though “the breath of life” is not the Holy Spirit, it is the energizing principle or spark of life associated with the Spirit as “Giver of life” (cf. Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed) who brings human beings into existence.
The Old Testament also highlights the Spirit’s work in key leaders among God’s old covenant people, Israel. The Spirit equipped craftsman and artisans to construct the tabernacle for a meeting place between the Lord and his people (Bezalel and Oholiab; Exod 31:1–11; 35:30–35). The Spirit fell upon the judges, empowering them as military conquerors to defeat Israel’s enemies so as to live (temporarily) in peace (Othniel; Judg 3:7–11). The Spirit came upon the kings, anointing them as national rulers to govern the people and lead them in the ways of the Lord (1 Sam 16:6–13). The Spirit spoke through the prophets, who as a result commanded the people “thus says the Lord” (Mic 3:8).
This action of the Holy Spirit falling/rushing upon key people of Israel was not for the purpose of saving these leaders. Indeed, the judge Samson is a clear example that the outpouring of the Spirit on him was for savagery (for example, he killed a thousand Philistines; Judg 15:14–16), not for salvation. At the same time, though the Old Testament does not develop the theme, the Holy Spirit worked among the common people of Israel. He called them to repentance, prompted love for God and his law, enabled them to worship the Lord, and sanctified them. None of these saving actions could have been possible apart from the work of the Spirit.
Now, these actions of the Spirit were directed at the old covenant people of God. The Old Testament itself promised a brighter future for a new era in salvation and a new experience of the Spirit. This theme of anticipation included three features.
1. The old covenant would be replaced by a new covenant
As Jeremiah prophesied,
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. (Jer 31:31–32)
This new covenant would showcase the writing of God’s law on the hearts of his people, all of whom would know the Lord and experience forgiveness of all their sins (vv. 33–37).
2. This new covenant would be established by a Spirit-anointed Messiah
As promised by Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isa 11:2; cf. 42:1; 61:1–2)
The promised Messiah would be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
3. This new covenant would inaugurate a fresh, unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit
What the failed old covenant could not do—empower obedience—would become a reality through a new, indwelling presence: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:27). The Spirit’s presence would be for all God’s people, as predicted by Joel (2:28–29):
It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
The quite limited action of the Spirit in the old covenant would one day be more extensive and intensive.
This expectation of a new covenant featuring a Spirit-anointed Messiah and a fresh, unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit anticipated and prepared for the next set of works of the Holy Spirit.
Works of the Spirit: Christ and mission 1
As his title “Christ” underscores, Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit-anointed Messiah. The eternal Son became the incarnate Son by taking on a real and fully human nature, and this astounding miracle was a work of the Holy Spirit. As Matthew’s Gospel recounts Jesus’ astonishing birth:
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. … An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 1:18–20)
According to Luke’s Gospel (1:34–35), a puzzled, soon-to-be pregnant Mary
said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
This earthshaking event of the incarnation is attributed to the Holy Spirit. This work fulfilled Old Testament prophesies and inaugurated the Spirit-anointed Son’s mission to accomplish salvation for God’s new covenant people. As we will see, this “mission 1” of the Son is inextricably connected to “mission 2” of the Spirit to announce the application of salvation to God’s people. But even before the Spirit was outpoured on the day of Pentecost to begin his mission, he miraculously brought about the incarnation of the Son.
More than launching the Son on his mission, the Spirit was present in and empowered Jesus throughout his life and ministry. As John’s Gospel affirms (3:34), the Father gave to his incarnate Son “the Spirit without measure.” This overflowing, ceaseless, and intensive filling by the Spirit means that the Son was fully equipped to carry out mission 1. Such readiness was publicly manifested at Jesus’ baptism:
When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:16–17)
Incarnate by the Spirit, filled without measure by the Spirit, and manifested by the Spirit, Jesus lived consistently and carried out his mission to completion by means of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.
This reality means that Jesus Christ, filled with the Spirit,
- Resisted temptations and faced down trials (Matt 4:1–11; Heb 5:8–9)
- Proclaimed the good news (Luke 4:16–21; citing Isa 61:1–2)
- Exorcised demons (Matt 12:22–32)
- Performed miracles (Acts 10:37–38)
- Prepared his disciples for their future mission by instructing them to rely on the Spirit (Matt 10:19–20)
- Rebuked and confused his enemies “who always resist[ed] the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51–53)
- Perfectly fulfilled his God-designed mission. Indeed, even as he was being crucified, Jesus “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb 9:14).
Of course, his death was not the end of him. The crucified Jesus was raised from the dead through the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:11), ascended into heaven, and was seated at the right hand of God.
Two more important points to conclude this discussion. First, in accordance with Old Testament prophecies, Jesus did away with the old covenant. For example, he abrogated its dietary laws (Mark 7:19), reframed its Sabbath regulation (Mark 2:23–3:6), and fulfilled its sacrificial offerings (Heb 9–10). In place of the old covenant, he inaugurated the promised new covenant. His radical transformation of the Passover meal into the Lord’s Supper marked the demise of the centuries-old way through which God would relate to his people Israel and the establishment of the new way by which God would relate to his people, the church. As Jesus promised about the chalice of wine, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
Second, and again in concert with Old Testament expectations, Jesus taught about a fresh, unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit. Shortly before his death, Jesus affirmed that, though his disciples were familiar with the Spirit (he was “with” them), they would soon experience a more intimate relationship with the Spirit (he would be “in” them; John 14:17). Indeed, Jesus promised (John 7:37–38),
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
Works of the Spirit: Pentecost and mission 2
Still, this fresh, unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit was a future event when Jesus made his promise (John 7:39). In fact, after his death and resurrection, Jesus commanded his disciples, “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). He specified the nature of this event: “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5).
If the disciples grasped anything, their excitement would have been palpable. Prophesied and promised by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Jesus himself, the long-anticipated unveiling of a new covenant established by the Spirit-anointed Jesus Christ and featuring the fresh outpouring of the Spirit was right at hand!
On the day of Pentecost, the Father and the Son (Acts 2:33) poured out the Holy Spirit. This baptism with/filling with the Spirit inaugurated the new covenant, gave birth to the church, and initiated mission 2 of the Spirit. Inextricably connected to mission 1 of the Son, whose work accomplished salvation, mission 2 of the Spirit would be his work of applying salvation to God’s new covenant people.
This ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is multi-faceted.
Works of the Spirit: recreation and the new covenant
We consider the works of the Spirit that the New Testament features. Even before people become believers, the Spirit is at work in the conviction of sin. As Jesus promised about the coming Spirit, “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Specifically, the Spirit underscores the guiltiness of people as to their unbelief in Jesus as the only way to salvation. He rebukes the futility of their self-righteous attempts—going to church, doing good works—to merit salvation. And he reprimands their faulty, carnal judgment of others by which they measure themselves as being better than others. Such conviction of sin condemns and disturbs unbelievers, readying them for the gospel.
Having convicted unbelievers of their sin, the Spirit regenerates them. He removes their sinful nature and replaces it with an upright nature. What Jesus urged of Nicodemus—“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God … unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5)—becomes true of them. They are cleansed of their sin (pictorially, the washing of water) and regenerated by the Spirit. God saves them “according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:5; cf. Ezek 36:25–27). They become new creatures (2 Cor 5:17).
Moreover, the Spirit unites these new creations with Christ. As Paul addresses Christians, he highlights two parallel truths: “The Spirit of God lives in you” and “Christ lives in you” (Rom 8:9–10). By means of the indwelling of the Spirit, Christians experience union with Christ, through which God communicates to them all the blessings of salvation: election, grace, redemption, forgiveness of sins, sanctification, and more (Eph 1:3–14).
To focus on one of those blessings, justification comes about by the Holy Spirit. Justification is God’s declaration that sinful people are not guilty but instead righteous. All their sins are forgiven, their guilty verdict is reversed, and the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed, or credited, to them. How is this divine declaration appropriated? Paul emphasizes that justification is not by works—good deeds that people do—but by faith alone (Rom 3–4). So, where does this saving faith come from? It is the Holy Spirit who prompts faith such that justification is “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).
Another blessing that comes about by the Spirit is adoption. Though sinful people are enemies of God and alienated from him, God incorporates them as children into his family forever. As Paul affirms, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs” (Rom 8:15–17). Gone is the fear of enslavement to sin, Satan, judgment, and condemnation. In its place, through the work of the Spirit of adoption, is intimacy with God as Father, the assurance of being his children forever, and the privilege of sonship that brings the inheritance of eternal life.
Such confidence is based on two other divine works: perseverance and assurance of salvation. Peter describes perseverance as true of those born again “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:4–5). Perseverance, then, is God’s mighty work to protect Christians from everything that might seek to destroy them—overwhelming temptations, severe demonic attacks, crushing trials—and thus bring them safely to the fullness of their salvation. Of course, this divine power does not operate apart from the ongoing faith of Christians, who walk day by day with the Lord. Importantly, the Spirit’s presence in Christians empowers their steady progress and fosters their enduring faith.
Based on this divine work of preserving them in Christ, believers experience a subjective confidence that they belong to Christ and will so forever. This assurance of salvation is prompted by the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16). The One who indwells Christians testifies—truthfully pledges—to their innermost core that they belong to God forever. Moreover, the Spirit is metaphorically presented as the seal (Eph 1:13; 4:30), the down payment or guarantee (Eph 1:14; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), the firstfruits (Rom 8:23). These metaphors underscore that the “eschatological” Spirit is at work to preserve believers for ultimate salvation. Furthermore, he persistently transforms believers into greater Christlikeness (2 Cor 3:18). Assurance of salvation comes from the Holy Spirit.
Works of the Spirit: Spirit–baptism and church
Though the next work of the Holy Spirit is very familiar to certain segments of Christianity—Pentecostal churches and charismatic movements—it remains overlooked in other segments—Reformed churches and Bible churches. It is also a debated topic.
According to the latter view, baptism with the Spirit is Jesus’ work to inundate this people with the Spirit for the purpose of incorporating them into Christ’s body, the church. According to Paul, “With/In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). At the start of salvation, along with regeneration, union with Christ, justification, and adoption, another mighty saving work occurs: Jesus baptizes all new believers with the Spirit. This Spirit-baptism, then, is an initial blessing and a universal blessing, and it places all believers into the church.
The Pentecostal/charismatic view is that Spirit–baptism is (most often) a second blessing that occurs some time after salvation and is (commonly) manifested by speaking in tongues. The purpose of this work is not for salvation; on the contrary, salvation has already taken place and is the necessary predecessor of Spirit–baptism. Rather, its purpose is twofold: a doxological purpose—to prompt Christians to worship God through heightened praise and joyful prayer—and a missional purpose—to empower Christians for bold witness and empowered ministry.
In both cases, baptism with the Spirit is another work, not done by the Spirit, but involving the outpouring of the Spirit.
This baptism is not just about individual Christians but is closely associated with the church. In terms of his works in the church, the Holy Spirit is responsible for several matters. As he gave birth to the first church on the day of Pentecost (in Jerusalem; Acts 2:37–47), so the Spirit continues to inaugurate churches today. He establishes leaders to direct and teach those churches (such as the elders in Ephesus; Acts 20:28). The Spirit grants unity among church members (Eph 4:1–6). He provides and empowers spiritual gifts for the building up of the church (1 Cor 12–14). The Spirit prompts worship (Phil 3:3), confession of the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor 12:3), and missional engagement (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit works in and through the church.
Works of the Spirit: consummation and the new creation
As the “eschatological” Spirit, he is moving everything—the created order, human history, nations and kingdoms, Christians and the church—toward their God-ordained end. There is both a personal aspect and a cosmic aspect to this future work of the Spirit. As for the first, it is the Holy Spirit who will give glorified, resurrected bodies to believers when Christ returns:
If the Spirit of him [the Father] who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he [the Father] who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom 8:11)
As for the second aspect, the bodily resurrection of believers is inextricably tied to a cosmic event involving the existing world. At Christ’s return,
The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:21–23)
Three elements are tied together:
- The “eschatological” Spirit provides hope for individuals redeemed by Christ
- as they await the fullness of their redemption, the resurrection of their bodies,
- which is connected to the cosmic redemption of the current cursed creation.
Unsurprisingly, then, “The Spirit and the Bride say [to the Lord] ‘Come’” (Rev 22:17).
Our focus on the Holy Spirit and his many works, while good and right, should not obscure an important truth: not only does he operate inseparably with the Father and the Son, but the three persons are the triune God. As the Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed confesses, the Holy Spirit “with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.” As Christians and their churches praise, honor, love, trust, obey, follow, serve, and pray to the Father and the Son, in the same way and with the same fervor they (are to) praise, honor, love, trust, obey, follow, serve, and pray to the Holy Spirit.
His all-encompassing works stretch from beginning to end!
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