There has been much misunderstanding about the holy spirit. The King James and some other versions of the Bible most often use the phrase "Holy Ghost" but the word "ghost" carries different connotations today, and most Christians generally prefer "Holy Spirit." Most of mainstream Christendom believes that the Holy Spirit is a person, specifically the third person of the Trinity. I deal with the Trinity in relation to Who is Messiah in a Closer Look article. Historically the belief in the Holy Spirit as the third person was adopted even later than the belief that Jesus was God. The deity of Christ became official doctrine in 325 AD, while the Holy Spirit was not established as the third person of the Trinity until 381.
Most Christians think of the Holy Spirit as a person, partly because it is used with personal pronouns, such as "He," "Him" and "Who" in most English Bibles. The words "he" and "him" are used because the Greek pronouns are masculine in gender. Greek, like many other languages, assigns gender to many inanimate objects, so the use of a masculine pronoun does not automatically make the noun a person. Since we don't assign gender to inanimate objects in English, the masculine pronouns would be translated as "it" unless it was assumed that a person is referred to, as in the case of the holy spirit. Yet even in the King James Version, Romans 8:16 refers to "the spirit itself." And the word translated "who" can also be translated "which," as it is in a number of verses referring to "the spirit."
Grammar aside, the Bible nowhere presents the holy spirit as a person (see the few passages where it seems to be, below.). For one thing, it is never given a proper name. God's proper name is given as Yahweh, and His Son's name is Jesus. But the holy spirit is simply called the holy spirit. The epistles frequently include greetings from the Father and the Son. However, never do they give greetings "from the Holy Spirit." Why would this be so if the holy spirit were a co-equal, co-eternal person?
Jesus instructed his disciples to pray to the Father, and to do it in his name. He told them to ask God to send His holy spirit. Never are we told to pray to the holy spirit, and "ask him to come into our hearts" as many do today. The spirit is called a gift that was poured out (Acts 10:45), and we are baptized in it (Acts 1:5). One cannot pour out a person, or be baptized in a person. The spirit is described as the spirit of God or the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, Matthew 11:27 says that no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son. If the Holy Spirit were a third co-equal, co-eternal person, he would know the Father and the Son the same way they know each other. That would make this statement false. Mark 13:32 says that no man knows the hour of Christ's return, not even the Son, but only the Father. Paul wrote, "I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ..." (II Timothy 4:1). John wrote in his first epistle that a person is antichrist if he denies the Father and the Son (I John 2:22-23). In his second epistle he wrote, "He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son" (II John 9). If the Holy Spirit is a third co-equal person, why is there no mention of him in verses like these?
The words "holy spirit" are generally capitalized in most writing, since they are understood to mean a person. The ministry with which I was involved believed that the holy spirit was not the third person of the Trinity, but they had an equally erroneous definition. They taught that The Holy Spirit (with capital letters and the definite article) is simply another name for God, the Giver of His Gift, while holy spirit (with lower case letters and no "the") was His gift, which He first gave on Pentecost. Like the Trinitarian definition, this view of the holy spirit is read into Scriptures rather than being derived from them. Capitalizing "holy" and "spirit" or "ghost" in the English is a relatively recent device, which was not used in the earliest English translations. There was no capitalization in the Greek or Hebrew texts, so basing a difference in meaning on whether it is capitalized or not is forcing an interpretation on the Scriptures which has no foundation.
In actuality it doesn't make much difference whether the phrase is capitalized, and even other Biblical Unitarians (those who believe God is one person and not a trinity) vary as to whether they capitalize it or not. Personally, I used to most often choose not to capitalize "holy spirit" to emphasize that it is not a person. But more recently I've leaned toward capitalizing phrases like "His Holy Spirit" the same way I would capitalize "His Word." But this is a matter of choice, not of doctrine.
In addition, the article "the" is used sometimes and not others, and does not define a distinction as I was taught. One can introduce the subject as "holy spirit" and then refer back to it as the holy spirit. In grammar this is called anaphoric use of the article. In the same way I could say an angel appears, and then refer to him as the angel. There are a number of verses where the definite article is used, but clearly referring to the gift and not to God, while Matthew 1:18 and Luke 1:35 state that Jesus Christ was conceived by "holy spirit" (no article in the Greek). The idea that "The Holy Spirit" means God and "holy spirit" means His gift has no Biblical foundation.
There are some other cases where the article appears in English but not in Greek, such as Matthew 3:11, as well as all the other verses in which John's baptism is contrasted with baptism "with [the] Holy Ghost" (which have no “the” in the Greek). John the Baptist being "filled with [the] Holy Ghost from his mother's womb" is another example, as well as several references to being “filled with [the] holy spirit” in Acts. In these cases it is true that the Greek reads "filled with holy spirit" (no article) and the word "the" is added in English. These were seen as examples of “holy spirit” (no article) indicating God’s Gift. However there are a number of instances where the article does appear in the Greek, yet it is plainly referring to the gift of holy spirit, not to God Himself.
For example, when Jesus was baptized, it says that "the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him" (Luke 3:22). The Greek uses definite articles before both words, i.e., "the holy the spirit." This form was supposed to indicate God the Giver according to my former belief system, but it is clearly not God Himself Who descended in bodily shape like a dove. Likewise, John 14:26 specifically refers to God's gift, but uses the double article in Greek: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy the Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." Use of the definite article when it is referring to God's gift can also be seen in Acts 10:44, 47; 11:15; 15:8; 19:6 as well as Ephesians 1:13 (literally, "sealed with the holy the spirit of promise") and I Thessalonians 4:8 (literally, "...God, who hath also given unto us his the holy the Spirit." Notice the double usage of "the" along with the pronoun "his").
John 7:39 uses both "the spirit" and "holy ghost" (no article) referring to the same thing. “But this spake he of the Spirit, [article appears in the Greek] which they that believe on him should receive: for […] Holy Ghost [KJV has "the Holy Ghost," but there is no article in the Greek] was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.” You can also see the same gift referred to, both with and without the article, in Acts 8:17-19.
17 Then laid they their hands on them, and they received […] Holy Ghost. [no article in Greek]
18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy the Ghost [double article in Greek] was given, he offered them money,
19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive […] Holy Ghost. [no article in Greek] [see NASB]
So you can see that "holy spirit" and "the holy spirit" are interchangeable; there is no difference in meaning between the two phrases.
According to the doctrine I used to hold to, the gift of holy spirit was the "incorruptible seed" which gave me eternal life. It also included the God-given ability to walk in power. It was given by God, but once He gave it to me it was part of me, and I could do with it as I chose. Thus the emphasis was on "me" and "my" spirit, instead of on "God" and "His" spirit. There were said to be a number of different "usages" of the word pneuma, the Greek word for spirit. Interestingly, hardly anyone in that organization ever looked at how the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach, was used in the Old Testament. If they had, perhaps a simpler, more straightforward understanding of the Spirit of God would have been seen.
The words for "spirit" in both Greek and Hebrew do have a number of different meanings, but all relate to the basic idea of an invisible force or influence. In the Closer Look article entitled The Three Parts of Man Fallacy we looked at the difference between soul and spirit, and the Hebrew words used for each. There we saw that the breath (or spirit) of life is the unseen force that makes man a living soul. The word can also be used to refer to literal breath, as well as literal wind, or it can mean the "spirit of man" (Ecclesiastes 3:21; Zechariah 12:1) which is used interchangeably with "soul" and basically means one's self. For example, When Job says "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" (Job 7:11), they are both ways of referring to the anguish in the inner depths of his being. It is also parallel to the word "heart." For example, Psalm 77:6 - "I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search." Also Psalm 143:4, "Therefore is my spirit overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate." (See also Exodus 35:21; Deuteronomy 2:30; Psalm 34:18; 51:10,17 and others).
Just as the spirit of man refers to the man's inner self, or his heart, in a similar manner God's inner self or heart is called the spirit of God, or the spirit of the Lord. For example, in Genesis 6:3 God says, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh". Isaiah 63:10 refers to rebellion "grieving God's spirit." To say "my spirit shall not always strive" is equivalent to saying "I will not always strive." To say rebellion grieves God's spirit is another way of saying that it grieves God. The spirit of God, being an extension of God's heart and mind, has the same qualities of God. But this does not make it a separate person. Paul's explanation in I Corinthians 2 clarifies this, by comparing the spirit of God with the spirit of man.
So the spirit of God is not a separate person from God, any more than a man’s spirit is a separate person from the man.
God's spirit also refers to His presence. Psalm 51:10 refers to man's spirit, and in the next verse, David links God's spirit with His presence: "Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me." Psalm 139:7 also connects God's spirit with his presence. "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?" The very first occurrence of spirit, in fact, illustrates that God was present in His creation. Genesis 1:2 reads, "...the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
The spirit of God has been called an "impersonal force" by some, mainly as a response to the Trinitarian belief that it is a person. However, this may not be the best word to use. It is more than an abstract power, since it is the operational presence and power of God. It is His heart and personality as communicated to His creation. Alan Richardson, in his Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1958, p. 120), describes the holy spirit like this:
While the vast majority of references to the holy spirit can be seen to fit this definition, there are some verses which speak of the holy spirit in terms which could seem to be referring to a person. Jesus refers to speaking against the holy spirit in Matthew 12:31-32, Paul in Ephesians 4:30 speaks of grieving the holy spirit, and the spirit is said to speak in Revelation 2:17; 14:13; and 22:17. Throughout Acts, the spirit speaks, moves, and guides the believers as well. It is verses like these that Trinitarians use to prove that the holy spirit is a person. They are also why Bullinger, Wierwille and others thought that one "usage" of the term "holy spirit" must be a name or title for God Himself. But the holy spirit, being the power and presence of God, is an extension of Himself. So all of His characteristics, all of His actions, all of His words and will, are attributed to His spirit. Thus, to speak against the holy spirit is to speak against God, especially with reference to His working in the peoples' presence (which is the context of the Lord's warning about blaspheming against the holy spirit). When God speaks through His holy spirit, it is said that the spirit speaks. In the same way you could say that a person's voice speaks words, and it is understood that you mean that it is the person who is speaking. But nowhere does the Bible speak of "God the Holy Spirit" whether in the Trinitarian sense or in the sense that it is a name or title for God.
Acts 5:3-4 is often used to prove that the holy spirit is God. Ananias is said to have lied to the holy spirit in verse 3, and it is equated with lying to God in verse 4. The holy spirit refers to the power and authority of God, which in this instance was invested in Peter. Just as "grieving the holy spirit" is another way of saying "grieving God," saying he "lied to the holy spirit" is another way of saying he lied to God. This is showing the connection between God and His spirit which was working in Peter and the other apostles.
To lie to the apostles who speak for God is equivalent to lying to God, as Paul says, "He therefore that despiseth this, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us His Holy Spirit" (I Thessalonians 4:8). This is similar to the statement by Moses in Exodus 16:8, that "your murmurings are not against us, but against the LORD." This did not make Moses and Aaron God, any more than the apostles were God when they spoke on His behalf. But the holy spirit, as well as those in whom God's spirit worked, represented God. When Ananias lied to the apostles, he lied to God's holy spirit working in and through them, and therefore he lied to God.
Those who speak on God's behalf are said to have God's spirit working and speaking through them. Throughout the Scriptures, God's spirit is closely associated with His Word, and His words. When I speak words which reflect my mind and heart, I am communicating my spirit. Likewise, God's Word communicates His spirit.
My spirit is communicated by words which I speak, and speaking literally involves breath. In the same way, God's breath (the same word ruach that is translated "spirit") is associated with His Word. He created all things by His breath, or His Word, according to Psalm 33:6 - "By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth." The breath of God is one way the Scriptures refer to His power being exercised (Exodus 15:8; Job 4:9; 37:10). God breathed life into man (Genesis 2:7; Job 27:3; 33:4), and His Word (which is "God breathed" according to II Timothy 3:16) is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12). God's breath or spirit communicates His Word and exercises His almighty power.
Jesus Christ is called "the Word made flesh" in John 1:14. His very existence is due to the holy spirit begetting him in Mary's womb (Luke 1:35). This is why he is the ultimate communication of God and His Word. (For more on this idea, see the Closer Look article on Who is Messiah.) Because of this, the words that he spoke were God's words, spoken by the influence of God's spirit (John 3:34). It was foretold by Moses that God would raise up a prophet and put His words in that prophet's mouth (Deuteronomy 18:18). Jesus said his words were not his own but His Father's (John 14:10,24). "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away" (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). This is why his words are the key to eternal life as we saw in the article on the New Birth.
When Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave his followers without comfort and guidance. In John chapters 14-16 Jesus gave his most comprehensive teaching about the holy spirit. He said it would be a substitute for him, and would be their helper and comforter, and would be with them forever. It would bring to their remembrance everything that he had said to them, and teach them things that they were not yet able to bear at the time he was speaking. It would testify about Christ and convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It would succor and strengthen them, and enable them to live a Christ like life.
I was once taught that Old Testament believers had the holy spirit "upon" them, while believers after Pentecost had holy spirit "in" them. But this does not hold true upon closer examination. Joseph was called "a man in whom the spirit of God is" in Genesis 41:38, and Joshua was called that in Numbers 27:18. God's ministers were said to be filled with God's spirit in Exodus 28:3; 31:3; and 35:31. And Isaiah 63:11 reads, "Then he remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people, saying, Where is he that brought them up out of the sea with the shepherd of his flock? where is he that put his holy Spirit within him?" On the other hand, we saw that the outpouring of the holy spirit in Acts was a foretaste of God's promise to "pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:17). And Peter specifically states in I Peter 4:14 that, "the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you." Therefore the distinction between "spirit in" and "spirit upon" has no Biblical basis. But does this mean the holy spirit after Pentecost was no different than it was before?
It can't be true that there was no holy spirit before Pentecost, since Jesus and the apostles worked many mighty miracles. Jesus specifically said that he cast out demons by the power of the holy spirit (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20). Yet in John 7:38-39 Jesus said, "He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)" So there is a distinction between the spirit of God before Pentecost and what came after. Before Christ the spirit of God was God's presence and power at work in people and situations. It is the same afterward, but with an added dimension. The spirit as concentrated and focused in the person of the risen Christ is now made to dwell in the believer.
Jesus said that God would give them "another" comforter, namely the spirit of truth. It is "another" comforter because it would comfort them the way he had done when he was with them. It is through the spirit that Jesus said he would come to them and abide with them.
Notice again the close association with the holy spirit and the words of Jesus. "If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." Remember we saw that the Word of God, as communicated through the words of Jesus, was the key to eternal life, and was the seed which provides the new birth. Here we see that the spirit indwells a person when they have the words of Jesus abiding in their heart. The spirit, besides being called the holy spirit and the spirit of God, is also called the spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9; I Peter 1:11) and the spirit of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:19). There is no difference since Jesus made God known and always did the Father's will. In fact II Corinthians 3:17 says that "the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
God's holy spirit is His personal power and presence, and Jesus said, "my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him." (verse 23) It is by way of the holy spirit that God and His Son dwell in a person who believes the words Jesus spoke. This is how Jesus would be with them until the end of the age, as he promised in Matthew 28:20. While Jesus is physically in heaven, seated at the right hand of God, his spirit, which is also the spirit of God, is within each believer, and thus the Church is the Body of Christ with Jesus himself as the head. In this way Jesus can strengthen and encourage each member in a way that he could not do when he was physically present on earth.
The spirit of God, as communicated by the Word of God is what makes Jesus who he is. When a person accepts him as their Lord, that spirit of God in Christ dwells in them, and thus Colossians 1:27 refers to "Christ in you, the hope of glory." It is the hope of glory because the Word is the Gospel of the coming kingdom of God, when Jesus will rule the earth and be glorified, with believers ruling with him and sharing his glory.
The words that a person speaks are an indicator of what sort of "spirit" he has. If he has the spirit of Christ, his words will sound like those of Christ. This is one way to tell whether a person who seems to be "spiritual" and manifests supernatural power is really showing forth God's holy spirit or a counterfeit. Jesus warned us that there would be many counterfeit signs and wonders which we should watch out for (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22). He specifically said that there would be people who seem to be Christians, and even consider themselves to be Christians, but in fact are not.
I used to think these verses referred to people who just talked about Jesus but didn't follow through in their actions. But it is even more than that. The people he refers to will also include ones who even did mighty works in Jesus' name - prophesied, cast out devils, etc. - but were not in fact doing the will of God. This tells us that doing these mighty works is not an indication that one is "saved" or even in a right relationship with the Lord. How does one determine if he is doing God's will then? The next verse tells us. "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock..." (Matthew 7:24). In order to have a right relationship with God and His Son, you must hear and do his sayings. Doing mighty works without the right foundation of the words of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of the Kingdom, is building your house on the sand. It will not stand.
If a person is showing forth "signs and wonders" and not speaking the same Gospel as Jesus, he should be suspect. I was taught that speaking in tongues was the "positive proof" that you have the "right stuff." Yet many Christians who speak in tongues, and even work miracles, do not have a true Biblical understanding of the Gospel message. They believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, that the Kingdom is fulfilled now, that they will go to heaven when they die, or that the Kingdom Gospel has been set aside in favor of a new and different gospel. If for no other reason the modern Pentecostal movement should be regarded with suspicion, and we should heed the warning in I John 4:1, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world."
But there is also good reason to regard it not only with suspicion, but with absolute distrust. When one studies carefully the Biblical teaching on speaking in tongues, it becomes clear that there are vast differences between the New Testament gift of languages and the modern phenomenon that is called speaking in tongues. The Bible describes a supernatural ability to speak in real foreign languages that could be understood by others and therefore functioned as a sign to unbelievers. The modern phenomenon is rarely if ever understood or interpreted, and is most often used as a private prayer language. The emphasis in the New Testament was for the gift, like all of the gifts of the spirit, to be used for the edification of the Church. In contrast, the modern phenomenon is said to be for the purpose of building up oneself. This subject is studied in detail in a Closer Look article called Speaking in Tongues.
While I do not deny that miracles and supernatural healing still can occur, they are extremely overemphasized by many Christians, and are not the primary or normal activity of the holy spirit. The normal working involves growth and change of heart, which God is more interested in accomplishing in a believer. It is this growth, not "operating manifestations," which produces the fruit of the spirit. As the Word of God, which is the heart of God, grows in a believer, the attributes of God become more and more evident in his life. Then a person realizes love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance, which are called the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. This is another way to tell if someone demonstrating power is genuine or not. Jesus said that we shall know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16,20).
These are the attributes of Christlike character that we must develop by cultivating the seed that is implanted in us, and cooperating with the power of the holy spirit that dwells in us. By doing this, we develop the godly heart that Jesus said would be necessary in order to enter the Kingdom of God. It is all by the power of God and not by our own ability, so that we have nothing to boast about. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us" (II Corinthians 4:7).
When one is born again and has the holy spirit dwelling in him, he is a new creature and old things are passed away (II Corinthians 5:17). The Christian walk is not a matter of changing one's behavior from the outside, but living in light of what has changed on the inside. We will examine this in the next two articles.
This page last updated October 16, 2017