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Experiencing the Holy Spirit

Resident Faculty, David M. VanDrunen   |   February 28, 2005   |  Type: Articles

Who is the Holy Spirit and what sort of work does he do? How and where are we as Christians to experience and enjoy the Holy Spirit? Questions like these have challenged Christians for a long time, but they seem to trouble many believers in the present day more than ever. The Pentecostal movement points to miraculous healings and speaking in tongues as evidence of the Spirit’s presence in their midst. Promoters of inter-religious dialogue claim that the Spirit is at work in all religions. Learned scholars write heavy volumes on a theology of the Spirit. All of this threatens to make average Christians wonder whether they really understand the Spirit’s work or whether they are missing out on the Spirit’s blessings. We do not have to be perplexed about such questions, however. Scripture makes clear what the role of the Holy Spirit is: to testify about Jesus Christ and apply the salvation that comes from him. And Scripture also makes clear where we experience and receive these blessings of the Spirit: in the church of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit and Christ

Many things being said about the Holy Spirit in the present day suggest some sort of independent role for the third person of the Trinity. Does the Spirit lead people to God in non-Christian religions apart from the saving work of Christ, for example? Or does the Spirit enable people to speak in tongues or perform miraculous healings without reference to Christ? The Scripture’s teaching about the Holy Spirit does not permit such an understanding. In fact, Scripture is clear that Christ and his Spirit stand in the closest of relationships and that the Spirit has no independent role, but works redemptively in this world solely to testify about Christ and apply his salvation to believers. (1)

The relationship between Christ and the Spirit is already evident in the Old Testament. Many of the prophecies that speak of the coming Messiah proclaim his glory and saving power by describing him as Spirit-endowed. Isaiah 11:1-2, for example, testifies of the shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse: “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.” Later in Isaiah the coming Messiah says of himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” (61:1). When Jesus did come into this world, the gospel of Luke describes the marvelous scene in which Jesus reads this passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue and then announces to his listeners: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).

Indeed it was, for the entire earthly ministry of Christ was characterized by the Spirit’s presence and power. Jesus’ mother, though a virgin, conceived because the Holy Spirit overshadowed her (Luke 1:35). When John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove (Luke 3:21-22). Thus anointed by the Spirit, Christ took up his work of ministry and accomplished his astounding works precisely by the Spirit’s power. For example, Matthew tells us that Christ drove out demons by the Spirit of God—and that this was definitive proof that the kingdom of God had arrived (12:28). In fact, after the return of the seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent to heal the sick and announce the kingdom of God, he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven and he “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). Even in the dark hour at the climax of his earthly ministry, Hebrews 9:14 explains that he “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.”

Of course, this was not the end of the story, for the very same Spirit raised up Jesus from the dead. Though he was “put to death in the flesh” he was also “made alive by the Spirit” (1 Pet 3:18, my translation). The resurrected Christ then ascended into heaven, and there he “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:33). Christ did not lack the Spirit during his earthly work, as we have seen, but he now possesses the Spirit in fullest measure, as the glorified God-Man who bestows salvation upon his people. As the New Testament describes the saving blessings we enjoy in Christ, it consistently points to the Spirit as the giver of these gifts. For example, our adoption as the children of the Father, as co-heirs with Christ the Son, is sealed by the Spirit: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal 4:6). By the Spirit, we are enabled to approach God freely, calling him “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:15). Furthermore, the Spirit sanctifies us, conforming us unto the image of Christ (Rom 8:3-8, 26-29). He also serves for believers as a pledge or guarantee, a sort of down-payment that cannot be revoked: God has “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:22). The Spirit is a foretaste of our heavenly life lavished upon us now. In light of this, it is little surprise that the same Spirit who raised up Christ from the dead is also the agent of our own resurrection. In fact, Paul connects our resurrection with that of Christ as he marvels at the Spirit’s work: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he 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).

The Spirit has been sent into this world for one grand purpose—to glorify Christ. Christ sent him for the purpose of being our advocate in his place, recalling to mind the things that Christ taught, speaking his words, and magnifying him (John 14:16-17, 26; 16:13-14). Thus, we understand why the Spirit is none other than the “Spirit of Christ,” without whom no one belongs to Christ (Rom 8:9). No theology or religious practice that attempts to treat the Spirit as an independent contractor, as one who works in individuals apart from the saving work of Christ, has properly reckoned with this important biblical truth.

The Spirit and the Church

This intimate connection between the Spirit and Christ raises another question: how does the Spirit relate to the church? Most people have probably heard the complaint that the institutional church stifles the Spirit’s work. The church, with its established government, creeds, and liturgies, may seem to represent predictability and deadness. This complaint can seem especially powerful when more traditional churches are compared to Pentecostal groups that display such spontaneity and enthusiasm. Is it true that spontaneity and the downplaying of the institutional church is a sign of the Spirit’s work in Christians’ midst? Scripture speaks in a different way. The Spirit’s work is to testify about Christ, and Christ is to be found precisely in the church and its ministry of word and sacraments. The Christian who despises the church despises the Spirit who is pleased to reveal Christ in his church.

That all of Scripture points to Christ is an important affirmation. Christ himself taught his disciples that even the whole of the Old Testament—the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms—testifies about him (Luke 24:27, 44). But Scripture is also clear that the message about Christ is especially made known through the word preached. Romans 10:14 asks: “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” In 10:17 Paul adds: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Therefore, in this remarkable passage Paul first affirms that faith comes through hearing someone preaching and then explains that faith comes through the word of Christ. His meaning is unmistakable: to hear the preaching of the word is to hear the word of Christ himself!

Did Paul not contemplate the common objection that preaching is only one way of communicating, and perhaps not even the most effective way? He undoubtedly did—but he warned in 1 Corinthians 1:21 that God is pleased to use preaching to save his people even though it seems foolish in the eyes of the world: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

Where is the Spirit in all of this? Scripture explains that the Spirit is precisely the one who inspired this word of God that is preached unto salvation. For example, Peter explains: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21).

What is true of the preaching of the word is also true of the sacraments. Reformed theology traditionally has taught that sacraments are signs and seals of Christ and his redeeming work. This language is explicitly biblical, as Romans 4:11 demonstrates, calling the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision both a “sign” and “seal” of the righteousness of Christ that comes by faith. As signs, the sacramental elements are visible representations of Christ and his work. But they are more than this, for as seals they guarantee Christ’s promises to Christians, encouraging, edifying, and assuring them of their salvation in Christ. Is the Spirit active in communicating Christ to us in the sacraments? Indeed he is, for Scripture speaks of the work of sealing as a distinctive task of the Spirit (e.g., Eph 1:13; 4:30). The Holy Spirit, by the sacraments, seals the grace of Christ to us.

Though there is not the space here to show in detail how this is true in regard to baptism and the Lord’s Supper specifically, a few remarks may be helpful. Baptism clearly displays and seals Christ and his work, especially his death, burial, and resurrection (see Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:11-12). Yet here again the Spirit is active. Water and the washing with water, which Scripture associates with the Spirit’s work of regeneration (John 3:6; Titus 3:4-6), is itself a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work (e.g., John 7:37-39). Similar things can be said in regard to the Lord’s Supper. The bread and wine are memorials of Christ’s death (e.g., Luke 22:19-20). Even more, they are seals of Christ and his saving blessings in that those partaking of them have fellowship or communion with his body and blood (1 Cor 10:16). As the Reformed tradition has helpfully explained, Christ nourishes us in communion as the Spirit makes the true body and blood present to believers in the Supper, even while Christ’s body remains in heaven.


In the midst of the many conflicting claims made today about where to find the Spirit and his work, Bible-believing Christians need not wonder about this nor be worried that they might miss him. Scripture has told us clearly what sort of work the Spirit does and where we may expect to find him: the Spirit glorifies Christ, and does so particularly in the church through the preached word and sacraments. May we rejoice in this bountiful gift of God and never be discontent with such gracious abundance.


1 I would add for clarification that the Holy Spirit is certainly present in this world as an agent of divine providence, with the Father and the Son. This work of governing and upholding all things is very important, but must also be distinguished clearly from the saving work of God. Insofar as God brings salvation to his people, the Spirit’s work is entirely that of glorifying and applying the benefits of Christ.[back to text]

For Further Reading:

Dr. VanDrunen recommends The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson (IVP, 1996), a book on pneumatology generally. For the more specific question of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (P&R, 1979).

(First published in Evangelium, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Mar/Apr2005)

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