Holy Spirit 101: Who He Is, Why It Matters & More

graphic of doves and a blank name tag to represent the question of who is the Holy Spirit

Everyone knows what it’s like to need help. Sometimes, we can feel the whole weight of the world, recognizing more and more why Scripture instructs the church to “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). Christians know that we can’t do the Christian life alone.

Scripture beautifully calls the Holy Spirit “Helper” (John 14:16). God knows that you can’t make it on your own. Wonderfully, he doesn’t expect you to. The Holy Spirit is the special gift of love to his people to be your Helper in the Christian life.

Some obvious questions arise from this truth: Who is the Spirit? What does he do? How does he help you? Why would he help you? How do you know his help? I want to answer these questions so that you might know his help all the more.

A question of identity: Who (not what) is the Holy Spirit?

I would start on the wrong foot if I were to ask, “What is the Holy Spirit?” The Spirit isn’t a something. He’s a someone. You’d rightly be very offended if I asked you, “What is your mother?” To start on the right spot, we remind ourselves that the Spirit is a person.

Related article: Is the Holy Spirit an “It”? 7 Proofs for the Spirit’s Personhood

The Holy Spirit is God

We gather that the Spirit is important for Christians to know because the Bible begins by talking about him: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1–2; emphasis mine). From the beginning of God’s inspired story about his glory and our relationship with him, the Spirit is present.

The Spirit’s presence at creation shows that he was involved in the rest of God’s creative work. The Spirit beautified the world by forming it and filling it, making it functional and making creatures who can use and enjoy creation according to the various capacities.

The deeper point is that the Spirit’s work is God’s work. The adage that if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck then it’s a duck applies to Bible study too. As the Spirit performs God’s works, we realize that he is truly God. The trajectory of Genesis 1:1–2 continues throughout Scripture.

Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, which says that God is one in essence but three in person. Don’t panic if this language is new. The point is that there is only One True God, and that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the Spirit is not some abstract force or mere mystical presence in the world, vaguely pointing us in God’s direction. He is one person of the Godhead, a member of the Holy Trinity.

More specifically, the Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity. Christians have long explained that Father, Son, and Spirit are the One True God, differing from one another by their relations in the divine essence. The Father is unbegotten, proceeding from no one. The Son is eternally begotten, meaning that the Father eternally generated the Son’s person in the divine essence. Although some Christians have disagreed about the right way to explain one aspect of the Spirit’s identity, most Christians in the west have said that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. One ancient way of talking about these relations is that the Son is the eternal Word coming from the Father, and the Spirit is the Love whereby Father and Son love each other.1

If this language seems tough to digest or somewhat mysterious, wonderful! God is far above our comprehension, which is part of what makes him worthy of our worship. We can contemplate God endlessly even in what we understand minimally so that our hearts soar with delight of knowing that we can never get bored of the true God. He is infinitely deep with cause for contemplation.

The Spirit in the New Testament

Is there any evidence that the Spirit is God in the New Testament? Yes, indeed. The trouble is that, sometimes, we struggle to read carefully, and so write off complicated claims in the Bible as owing to its mystery. There is truth in that assumption. But God also gave us the Bible to reveal, to make known, truth. Sometimes we just need to slow down and pay more attention to what Scripture says for the lights to flip on.

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul talked about what his ministry was like compared to Moses’ ministry in the Old Testament, especially concerning how the Spirit related to the people. He finished his explanation of those differences in verses 15–18:

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

The main idea, going back to verse 12, is that Christians should be bold because of our great hope. From the quoted passage, we see that hope comes with freedom. We ought to be encouraged when we encounter the Lord.

Moses encountered the Lord face-to-face in the tabernacle, but the people could not encounter the Lord as directly. Moses even wore a veil after talking with God to shield them from the radiance of encountering the Lord like that. But God’s people ought to long for such a relationship with the Lord.

Paul’s astounding statement is that “the Lord is the Spirit.” God is transforming us as we behold his glory, which is the work of “the Lord who is the Spirit.” Obviously, the Lord is God. The New Testament’s direct claim is that the Lord is the Spirit. It’s an assertion that the Spirit is the Lord God.

In other words, God is present by the Holy Spirit. We should quickly connect the dots though. After Peter preached the first Christian sermon in Acts 2, God poured out the Spirit. Since then, Christians have had the Spirit living within them. The Spirit coming to live in all believers means that God is present with each of us like he was present in that tabernacle in the desert.

We should recognize a profound reality here. As the Lord, who is the Spirit, causes us to behold God’s glory, God dwells closely and directly with every one of his people. You ought to rejoice at God’s nearness to you and care for you, which is so clear in how the Spirit is God living in us.

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What does the Holy Spirit do?

You probably have a sense for at least some of what the Holy Spirit does based on how Jesus called him “Helper.” By the Spirit’s presence, God worked over creation after making it to transform it into an improved state. We just saw how the Spirit also transforms us from one degree of glory to another by binding us to the Lord’s presence and helping us increasingly behold our God. We shouldn’t be surprised then that the Spirit does a lot of helping work.

The Spirit as God’s guarantee

One of the Spirit’s key ways in helping you is guaranteeing your salvation. In Ephesians 1:13–14, Paul wrote,

In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Paul called the Spirit “the guarantee of our inheritance.” When you buy a house, you have to put in a down payment, a large sum that promises that you will eventually hand over the rest. Based on the work of Christ for us, as we are “in him,” God gives the down payment of the Spirit to every believer as a promise that he will complete our salvation.

We live in a difficult age. Disease and hardship take their toll on our bodies and souls. As we wait for the resurrection at the last day, we know that God will complete that salvation and raise us unto glory because we have the Spirit. He is our present experience of everlasting life as he dwells in our hearts as God’s own presence within us. God will hand over all the blessings of full salvation because he has guaranteed it in the gift of the Spirit.

The Spirit as teacher

The Spirit also helps us as our Teacher. We might think of Bible reading as a pretty human affair. We use our eyes, maybe take notes with our hands, and mull stuff over in our brain. In John 16:13, Jesus said,

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.

Today, the Spirit primarily guides through the Bible. The Spirit teaches us God’s Word. The Scripture is then an encounter, an interface, with God, as the Spirit uses it to shape us. In the Word, the Spirit makes us behold God’s glory to transform us.

How do we know the Holy Spirit’s work?

The Apostles’ Creed is one of the church’s oldest statements of faith. It summarizes the most basic commitments that Christians have, stating what we believe the Bible teaches. The creed is organized into three major sections under the headings of the persons of the Trinity: “I believe in God the Father … I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord … I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Each section then outlines some basic articles that we associate most closely with the named person.

Profoundly, the next lines after “I believe in the Holy Spirit” affirm our belief in “the holy catholic church” (“catholic” here meaning universal) and “the communion of saints.” In other words, the Holy Spirit’s primary work is Christ’s church. He makes the community of Jesus and binds us together.

That helps us think about the question: How do we access the Holy Spirit? How can you know and experience his work in your life? What ways do we have to engage the Spirit’s work?

Is the Spirit in the music?

Christianity includes many traditions that have very different perspectives about what experiencing the Spirit looks like. In the modern West, most of us have encountered, to some degree or other, a mindset where our experience of the Spirit is measured by our emotional intensity. It just so happens that we then associate our experience of the Spirit with the musical portions of our worship because music most easily moves most of us.

What if there is more to our experience of the Spirit than whether we can set the right mood and feel the right way? I don’t want to criticize the goodness of our emotions. Still, all of us need to think carefully about how our emotional experiences fit within the Christian life, rather than controlling it. What if the Spirit loves you so much that he is at work to help you even when you don’t notice it, even at an emotional level?

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The Spirit is in the church

If, with the Apostles’ Creed, the Spirit’s work is foremost linked to the church, we can expect him to be at work amongst Christ’s people. In Mark 4:1–34, Jesus told four parables that illustrate that God’s kingdom comes in unexpected ways and oftentimes apart from our ability to perceive it if measuring it in human terms. What a blessing to know that God works his gospel work even when it isn’t immediately obvious to us!

That applies to our experience of the Spirit too, since the Spirit is the one bringing about Christ’s kingdom realities in this age until the Lord returns. A dear church member once said to me as we were discussing how sermons help us even when we can’t recall every detail: “You basically never see the detergent but can tell that the clothes are cleaner.” Her insight is such a beautiful reminder of how God blesses his people. Even when you cannot spot the Spirit, he works in you to better you and help you.

Where the Spirit works

I don’t really want to answer here the question about the relationship between experiencing the Spirit with our experience during sung worship. It seems best on this platform to leave that to readers to think through according to their own traditions.

I do want to emphasize how we can trust the Spirit to help us through the resources God has given to the church. God has inspired the Scripture and appointed pastors to preach it for us. Christ instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper as tangible tokens of the grace that he gives believers, using them to assure us that he will not forget his promises. Prayer is our way respond to what God says in those gospel ordinances. In my tradition, we refer to God’s Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer as “means of grace” because God uses them to work upon us.

Perhaps we need to look for our experience of the Spirit more in things outside ourselves than within. If you doubt God’s commitment to you or the dynamic experience of the Spirit in your life, don’t turn in on yourself to look ever more deeply at what you can find in your own heart. Look first instead to what God gives to you to help you.

Look in the Bible. The Spirit works through the Word to build us up in trust, assurance, and holiness. God has left a permanent deposit of his promises in the Scripture.

Consider what baptism and the Lord’s Supper mean. For all who trust in Jesus, God has cleansed you. The Spirit has brought the reality of Christ’s forgiving work home to you, so that you are clean in God’s sight. God feeds his people, nourishing you in your walk with Christ. He did not simply start your walk with him by grace but continues to work in you by grace to bring you safely into everlasting blessing.

Consider the privilege of prayer. What an amazing thing to have the ear of the God of the universe. God Almighty welcomes you before his throne of grace that you might find help in your time of need (Heb 4:16). How beautiful that God not only lets you speak to him but promises to hear you and work on your behalf in grace.

Relying on the Spirit in the midst of struggle

Sometimes you will struggle in the Christian life. You shouldn’t be surprised when it happens. Too often, Christians have an overly triumphalist view of how the Christian life should go, expecting only great strides forward in holiness or the great enjoyment of prosperity.

Jesus said that we would have tribulation. We shouldn’t despair when that happens but feel confirmed that God’s Word is true. If the parts about hard times are true, then the parts about all of God’s blessings for you are also true.

Various things contribute to trial. Sometimes factors from life bog us down and discourage us. Sometimes our own sin or temptation to it disrupts our enjoyment of God’s presence with us. Even as people forgiven by Jesus and freed from sin’s guilt, sin still brings its misery, especially when we embrace its call away from the good paths the Lord lays out for us to walk in righteousness.

As we said above though, the Spirit is God’s guarantee to you of spiritual new life. Although he is the down payment on everlasting blessings, that new life begins even in this age.

Trust the Spirit to bring you back from your time of lapsing into sin. Look to him for strength. God does not make it an easy experience to overcome the evil of this age. But he does empower you by the Spirit living in you to walk through it and keep your eyes fixed on him.

Conclusion

In all things, we need God’s help. Praise the Lord that he indwells us by the Holy Spirit to help us along the way. Believer, God does not leave you to your own devices to traverse this pilgrim age. He walks with you by the Spirit, making it a blessed existence to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25).2

Resources for further study

The Holy Spirit (Contours of Christian Theology)

The Holy Spirit (Contours of Christian Theology)

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Relying on the Holy Spirit

Relying on the Holy Spirit

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Classic Sermons on the Holy Spirit

Classic Sermons on the Holy Spirit

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Logos 10 Disciple Essentials

Logos 10 Disciple Essentials

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  1. Christopher R. J. Holmes, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 110–112.
  2. For further reading, I recommend Robert Letham, The Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2023); and Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
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Written by
Harrison Perkins

Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen's University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, and visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary. He is the author of 'Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition' (Oxford University Press, 2020) and 'Reformed Covenant Theology: A Systematic Introduction' (Lexham, forthcoming). He lives with his wife, Sarah, and son, Scott, in the metro-Detroit area and loves peanut butter, Southern barbecue, and dark roast coffee.

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Written by Harrison Perkins
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