The Council of Nicaea in 325 worked hard to summarize a sound understanding of the Triune God in the face of Arian error. They explained how Jesus, the Son, exists in eternal relationship with the Father. In a final document they added this truncated final object of proper faith—“And in the Holy Spirit.” The Father-Son reality was their main focus; yet the lack of substance in their mention of the Spirit reflected an uncertainty about his being and work.
The Council of Constantinople in 381 addressed the Holy Spirit more fully by describing Him as “the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets.” A much better summary.
My own theological heritage was more like the theologians of Nicaea than the theologians of Constantinople—wary of the Spirit—as they minimized the Spirit’s role in the church. I suspect it reveals an enduring reaction to the overstated focus on the Spirit found in some Christian traditions. The errors of past—as in the teachings of Joachim of Fiore, or the prophets of Zwickau, or the radicals of Munster, or the Familists of England—still haunt the church. Some are still promoting these excesses. But folly must not cause us to retreat from what the Bible tells us of the Spirit’s ministry.
Let me raise three issues for conversation.
First, all Christians affirm the Spirit’s place in the Trinity as a necessary feature of faith. This goes beyond the mere title offered at Nicaea. We must adopt, at least, the biblical premise of Constantinople: the Spirit is our Lord and he brings God’s life to believers. This is the truth Jesus offered Nicodemus in John 3. Without the Spirit of God there is no eternal life—a person is dead in sin until the Spirit comes and brings God’s life.
One can draw from this that in the day Adam sinned he died as God had promised—“in the day you eat [the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die” versus Satan’s claim, “You will not surely die.” Here Satan deceived Eve, and Adam then joined her in eating and dying. The Spirit—the source of Adam’s life—was grieved by this rejection and departed from Adam.
When Adam died so did all of his extended offspring: since the fall no human has ever been physically birthed with the Spirit in his or her soul. His role as the means of spiritual life ended in Eden and now must be reengaged. As Jesus put it to Nicodemus, “that which is born of the flesh is [merely] flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
So Christ, by the Spirit, now stands outside human souls—unloved and uninvited but still speaking his own words of love. What Adam once enjoyed—God’s love, joy, peace, and more—is still available, shared in quiet whispers. But our human appetite to be independent—to “be like God”—carries us in an opposite direction.
Second, the Spirit communicates God’s heart so that he is effective in drawing some, but not all, back into the life Adam despised. This is our new spiritual life. John Calvin captures this:
“He [God] wills to work in us. This means nothing else than that the Lord by his Spirit directs, bends, and governs, our heart and reigns in it as in his own possession. Indeed, he does not promise through Ezekiel that he will give a new Spirit to his elect only in order that they may be able to walk according to his precepts, but also that they may actually so walk.” [Institutes, 2.3.10]
The richness of the Spirit’s activity in believers is what makes the book of Acts so lively and also so promising: lively in its portrayal of the Spirit’s past initiatives, and promising in what the range of the Spirit’s role can be among us today. What we must remember is that the Spirit’s ministry is always self-defined by what Jesus shared – “he [the Spirit] will bear witness about me.”
The third reality of the Spirit’s ministry is that he changes us from the “inside-out”. The spiritual life relies on the Spirit and not on our old and fallen habits of trying to “be like God”. Paul all but shouts this in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 when he wrote that the Spirit moves us “from glory to glory”—into an ever-increasing likeness to Christ who is the Image of God. He uses the gospel to win our hearts with God’s love and then to reshape our hearts into an alignment with God’s heart.
How does he do this? By pouring out God’s love in our hearts. It’s like a breeze coming into a forest that was once still and dormant in death: with his arrival the wind of the Spirit brings a wonderful animation that all can see and Christians will enjoy.
I could really relate to what you wrote about your own spiritual heritage, in which the role of the Spirit was minimized. My upbringing was the same. But I’ve found that as I’ve immersed myself in the Bible over the past several years, the change in my heart’s gaze has been dramatic. As you said, the Spirit “uses the gospel to win our hearts with God’s love and then reshape our hearts into an alignment with God’s heart.” Thanks, Ron. This was encouraging!
When Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the Earth.” (Acts 1:8), He meant just that. We are not powerless as we endure the taunts of the enemy of our souls, but victorious sons and daughters of the Living God against whom the gates of Hell cannot prevail. Thank you Ron for this beautiful reminder of the Presence of the Holy Spirit.
You’re right: “He meant just that!” Ah, to learn to take God’s word at face value.