Is it wrong to call the Holy Spirit an “it”? Contemporary English speakers use the words “it” and “he” in distinctly different ways. As a general rule, a person is a “who,” and a thing is an “it.”
A spoon is an “it.” Your mom is a “she.” A spoon is a thing, an inanimate material object. Your mom is a person—specifically, a woman (i.e., an adult human female). It would be insulting to refer to your mom as an “it.” It would be dehumanizing. Depersonalizing.
So why do people—even some Christians—refer to the Holy Spirit as an “it”? I can think of at least three reasons:
- The archaic title “Holy Ghost” may connote a nebulous apparition of a dead person, a concept we refer to in English as an “it.”
- “Spirit” is grammatically neuter in Greek and treated as a “thing” and not a person in English. This is probably why the King James Version refers to the Spirt as “it” (John 1:32; 1 Pet 1:11) and translates “the Spirit itself” (Rom 8:16, 26) instead of “the Spirit himself” (ESV, NIV, CSB et al.). A similar phenomenon may be the common practice of referring to a baby as an “it” when you don’t know the baby’s sex.
- The Holy Spirit may seem like a power or force instead of a person—perhaps because sometimes the Bible depicts the Holy Spirit with impersonal images such as wind, light, water, fire, a dove, firstfruits, or a down payment. The names Father and Son obviously refer to persons, but Spirit seems less clearly personal for some people.
I am certain that true Christians are not intending to blasphemously depersonalize the Holy Spirit when they call him an “it.” But I believe that we should make a self-conscious effort to refer to him with personal pronouns (specifically, with the masculine personal pronouns that Scripture uses for other persons of the Trinity1).
Here are seven reasons the Holy Spirit is a person—and thus seven reasons we should refer to the Holy Spirit as he and not it. Theologians have been making these arguments for two thousand years; I am merely repackaging their sound arguments.2
Reason 1: The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity
Christians believe that the Bible teaches the following three propositions:
- There is one God
- Three persons are called God
- Those three persons are distinct
We call this the doctrine of the Trinity. God is triune—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The triune God is one “what” and three “whos.” That is, the triune God is one essence (or one divine nature) and three persons. And the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity.
Reason 2: The Holy Spirit is parallel to other persons
The church’s mission is to make disciples by baptizing them “in the name [singular] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19–20).3 The Holy Spirit is a person parallel to the persons of the Father and the Son (see also 1 Cor 12:4–6; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 4:4–6; 1 Pet 1:2). Further, when Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper” (John 14:16), he means that the Holy Spirit is “another” in the sense of another companion of the same kind (Greek, allos), not a different kind (Greek, heteros).
Jesus says of the Spirit, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit is a person parallel to the persons of Jesus and his disciples.
The Jerusalem council concludes, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). The Holy Spirit is a person parallel to persons in the Jerusalem council.
Reason 3: The Holy Spirit has characteristics of a person
The Holy Spirit has intellect. He is “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel … the Spirit of knowledge” (Isa 11:2; cf. Rom 8:27; 1 Cor 2:11).
The Holy Spirit has a will. He sovereignly distributes gifts to each member of the body of Christ—he “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor 12:11). He decides to regenerate spiritually dead humans (John 3:7–8; Tit 3:5).
The Holy Spirit has emotions. Paul commands, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph 4:30; cf. Isa 63:10).
Reason 4: The Holy Spirit acts in ways that persons act
The Holy Spirit loves. Paul appeals to his brothers “by the love of the Spirit” (Rom 15:30).
The Holy Spirit speaks. “While Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you” (Acts 10:19–20; cf. 1 Tim 4:1).
The Holy Spirit commands. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2; cf. 8:29).
The Holy Spirit teaches. “The Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:12; cf. Neh 9:20).
The Holy Spirit bears witness. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16).
The Holy Spirit directs. “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:6–7; cf. 10:20; 15:28; 20:28; Rom 8:14).
The Holy Spirit intercedes. “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. … The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26–27).
The Holy Spirit convicts. “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
Reason 5: The Holy Spirit can be sinned against as a person
People can lie to the Holy Spirit. Peter asked, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?” (Acts 5:3).
People can resist the Holy Spirit. Stephen preached, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51; cf. 5:9).
People can grieve the Holy Spirit. Paul commands, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph 4:30).
People can insult the Holy Spirit. “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who … has outraged [insulted (NASB, NIV, CSB)] the Spirit of grace?” (Heb 10:29).
People can blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Jesus warned about the unpardonable sin: “The blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matt 12:31).
Reason 6: The Holy Spirit is distinct from his power
The Holy Spirit is a person and not merely a powerful force; the Spirit and power are not identical. “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14)—that is, “filled with the Holy Spirit’s power” (NLT). “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). A purpose of Paul’s prayer for the Romans is “that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom 15:13). Paul explains to the Corinthians, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4).
Reason 7: One of the Holy Spirit’s titles, “Paraclete,” is fitting for a person
One of the Holy Spirit’s titles, “Paraclete,” means “one who appears in another’s behalf, mediator, intercessor, helper.”4 Translations of the Greek word here in John 14:16, 26; 15:26; and 16:7 include Helper (NASB, ESV), Advocate (LSB, NIV, NET, NLT), Counselor (CSB), and Comforter (KJV). That title is fitting for a person.5
The Holy Spirit is a person. I encourage Christians to avoid the potential—even unwitting—disrespect of calling him an “it.”
- The Trinity 101: What Every Christian Should Know
- Can We Pray to the Holy Spirit?
- Theology: The Definitive Guide to Getting Started
- 11 Best Books on the Trinity (for All Levels of Study)
- Denny Burk argues, following Herman Bavinck, that while Scripture uses feminine analogies for persons of the Trinity, “Analogy and identity are not the same thing. God is a Father (identity). While he may comfort like a mother (analogy), he is not himself a mother (identity).” Likewise, Scripture never uses a feminine title of identity for the Spirit.
- See, for example, Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 2:245–54; John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 334–41.
- Scripture quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
- BDAG, 766.
- People commonly argue that the Holy Spirit is a person because of the masculine demonstrative pronoun (ekeinos) in John 14:26; 15:26; and 16:13–14. The argument is that this proves that the Holy Spirit is a person because the grammatically masculine ekeinos refers back to the grammatically neuter pneuma. This is not a compelling argument. Phil Gons and I argue in a twenty-five-page article that this is a case of well-intentioned people arguing for the right thing the wrong way.
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