Who is the Holy Spirit?

By James M. Rochford

The study of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology. The Greek word pneuma means “wind.” This is where we get the name for the pneumatic tube (e.g. when you go to the bank) and pneumonia (e.g. an inflammatory condition of the lung). Who is the Holy Spirit and what does he do in the Christian life? We will consider these questions here:

The Holy Spirit is a person—not a force or a part of God.

Jehovah’s Witnesses (who deny the doctrine of the Trinity) seek to explain the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force, rather than a personal being. The Watchtower writes, “[The Holy Spirit] is a controlled force that Jehovah God uses to accomplish a variety of his purposes. To a certain extent, it can be likened to electricity, a force that can be adapted to perform a great variety of operations.”[1] However, by contrast, the Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit as a personal being:

First, the Holy Spirit contains intelligence. Paul writes, “For the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God… Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:10-11; cf. Rom. 8:27). The Holy Spirit speaks to people (Acts 8:29; 10:19; 11:12; 21:11; 1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:7). Only a personal being can know things and speak to people—not an impersonal force.

Second, the Holy Spirit has emotion. Paul writes, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30; cf. Isa. 63:10). He exerts patience to the nation of Israel (Mic. 2:7). He can be “insulted” (Heb. 10:29). Only a personal being can experience grief, patience, and insulting—not an impersonal force.

Third, the Holy Spirit has volition. Paul writes, “One and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). He also instructs people (Neh. 9:20). Only a personal being can will something—not an impersonal force.

Fourth, the Holy Spirit is called a HE—not an IT. Jesus said, “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come” (Jn. 16:13). The word pneuma in the Greek is neutered, and he is sometimes described in impersonal terms (e.g. fire, water, etc.). But usually the Holy Spirit is referred to as a He—not an it—because he is a personal being. Likewise, Scripture speaks of Jesus in impersonal terms (e.g. a door, a vine, etc.), but this shouldn’t preclude his personal nature.

Distinct but fully God

Scripture pictures the Holy Spirit as DISTINCT from the other persons of the Trinity. Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me” (Jn. 15:26). Here the Holy Spirit is mentioned alongside the Father and Jesus, as separate from both (cf. 14:26; 16:13-14; Mt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:1-2).

Additionally, Scripture depicts the Holy Spirit as FULLY GOD. Peter says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit? …You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4). Here Peter equates lying to the Holy Spirit with lying to God himself. Paul also writes, “The Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17). The Holy Spirit is an eternal being (Heb. 9:14; Jn. 14:16), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7-8), omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10-11), and he is lumped together with other known persons in the Godhead (1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:2; Mt. 28:19)

The Holy Spirit’s work is different in the new covenant

There are three major differences between the work of the Holy Spirit in the old covenant and the new covenant:

First, the Holy Spirit was WITH rather than IN God’s people. Regarding the future new covenant (notice the future tense), Ezekiel writes, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek. 36:27; cf. Joel 2:28). Jesus said, “That is the Spirit of truth… you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you” (John 14:17). Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn. 7:38). And John comments, “This He spoke of the Spirit, those who believed in Him were to receive [future tense]; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn. 7:39). Both of these passages teach that the Spirit had not yet indwelt believers yet at this point.[2]

God formerly filled the Temple with his presence. But now God’s people are the literal dwelling place of God as the Holy Spirit lives in each believer (Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:4-5; 1 Cor. 3:16; 1 Cor. 6:19). In 2 Chronicles, we read,

Now when Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the house. 2 The priests could not enter into the house of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house. 3 All the sons of Israel, seeing the fire come down and the glory of the Lord upon the house, bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave praise to the Lord, saying, “Truly He is good, truly His lovingkindness is everlasting” (2 Chron. 7:1-3).

The “shekinah glory” used to send the people trembling in fearful awe of God. Even the priests of God were afraid to come into God’s presence. Today, this power and presence lives inside the believer! It is a wildly generous “gift” (Acts 2:38) to be given the Holy Spirit “without limit” (Jn. 3:34 NIV).

Second, the Holy Spirit’s involvement was SELECTIVE—not UNIVERSAL. The Holy Spirit was reserved for those in leadership positions in the old covenant. In the new covenant, all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and receive his other ministries “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). Elsewhere, he writes, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9).

Third, the Holy Spirit’s involvement was TEMPORARY—not PERMANENT. Unlike the new covenant, in which believers are permanently indwelt (Jn. 14:16), old covenant figures could (and did) lose the presence of the Holy Spirit (Ps. 51:11; Judges 16:14; 16:20; 1 Sam. 10:9-11; 16:14; Num. 11:16ff; Ex. 31:1-11; Ezek. 2:2; 3:24). For instance, we read, “The Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD terrorized him” (1 Sam. 16:14). We would never see something like this in the new covenant (1 Jn. 4:4). Moreover, David says, “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). Would we ever read something like this in the new covenant? (Jn. 14:16; Eph. 1:13-14; Rom. 8:31ff)

What does the Holy Spirit do?

Without a deep understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of the believer, the Christian life becomes a drab and lifeless experience of self-effort and self-will. Hence, we are doomed to failure! But when we have a robust understanding of the Spirit’s role, our lives can thrive with God’s energizing power, comfort, and direction. The Holy Spirit plays a number of roles in the life of the believer.


Without the Holy Spirit, we would never seek for God or be interested in what Christ did for us. Paul writes, “No one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). And yet, Jesus said, “When [the Holy Spirit] comes, [He] will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (Jn. 16:8; cf. Jn. 12:32; Rev. 22:17). We believe that the Holy Spirit does this work through personally convicting those who don’t know Christ. But additionally, the Holy Spirit does this work through the work of the believer’s witnessing. Paul writes, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).

It is an absolute miracle when any person comes to faith in Christ. Do you ever think back on the story of how you came to Christ? Why did you accept that invitation to a Bible study, or decide to place yourself around Christian believers? This wasn’t a cosmic accident that you were in the “right place at the right time.” The Holy Spirit was directing this to happen, softening your heart, and giving you the courage to take a step toward Christ.

The Holy Spirit INDWELLS the believer

Paul writes, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; cf. Ezek. 36:26-27; Jn. 6:63; 1 Cor. 6:11). He also writes, “We were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13; cf. Rom. 8:9; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30).

Recently, my friend led one of his buddies to Christ after a Bible study. After the guy finished praying to invite Christ into his life, he looked up and said, “Oh man! That feels good!” This often happens when we come to faith in Christ. (Of course, some believers are more sensitive to this than others) While our problems are still as real as ever (Rom. 5:3-4), we have a new experience of peace with God (Rom. 5:1, 5). We sense that we just made the most important decision that we ever could: Surrendering to Christ.


The Holy Spirit gives us a supernatural “unity” with other believers (Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:1). Paul writes, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free” (1 Cor. 12:13). By contrast, those who destroy the unity of the Body of Christ are said to be “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19).

When we live in a thriving spiritual community, we get to reap the benefits of the very real unity that we share in Christ. Often after great times of fellowship, we get the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. This is exactly what Jesus promised when believers gathered together for the purpose of following him (Mt. 18:20).


If you give a down payment for a car, and you don’t buy the car, you lose that down payment. Similarly, God gave his Holy Spirit as a pledge to us that he will save us (2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 4:30). Paul writes, “You were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13-14). We can’t relate to God on a fear-threat basis (1 Jn. 4:18), worrying that he is going to pull the rug out from under us at any moment. Instead, the Holy Spirit assures us that we are secure in our relationship with him (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13). Paul writes, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16; cf. Gal. 4:6).

This truth helps to guard the heart of the believer who is dealing with the depth of their selfishness and self-centeredness. God only reveals this to us a little bit at a time. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed by our own sinful nature (Jer. 17:9-10). This is why John writes, “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him 20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 Jn. 3:19-20). Our selfishness and greed are not a surprise to God—even if they are to us.

The Holy Spirit ILLUMINATES truths of the Bible in a personal way

Paul’s calls the Bible the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). Paul writes, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12; cf. Eph. 1:17-19). This is, no doubt, what makes the Bible “living and active” to the believer (Heb. 4:12).

Most of us have had the experience of thinking that a Bible teaching was directed specifically to us. This is the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. When we teach the Bible faithfully, the Holy Spirit plays the role of convicting us with application.

The Holy Spirit helps us to PRAY

At least one passage tells us that the Holy Spirit helps us to pray. Paul writes, “We do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27).

This might refer to the experience of sitting down to pray, really trying, but not being able to pray. After two or three minutes of struggling, we experience the delight of talking with God and the words come easily.

The Holy Spirit slowly SANCTIFIES us

As believers, we know that we don’t change ourselves. Instead, God transforms us as we trust him. The Holy Spirit is the One who brings this change in our lives. Paul writes, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3), and “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). Of course, this implies a battle—not quick and easy fixes (Gal. 5:16; 2 Thess. 2:13). He also plays a central role in getting a clean conscience (Heb. 9:14).

We have all had the experience of seeing God change us. Day by day, we don’t feel much different, but as we look back over the years, we see that the Holy Spirit has been doing his work to make us more like Christ.


The Holy Spirit shows us God’s direction in significant choices regarding ministry and growth (Acts 11:12; 11:27-30; 16:6-7; 20:22; Gal. 2:2; Jas. 1:5). He guided Philip to go speak to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:29); he guided Peter to speak to Cornelius (Acts 10:19); he selected Paul and Barnabas for missions work (Acts 13:2, 4); he shut doors on the missions field (Acts 16:6-7); he raised up godly leaders in the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:28). Sometimes this means that he guides us into battle. Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1).

While God expects us to make good decisions with what we know, sometimes we aren’t aware of all of the particulars in a given situation. If we’ve done our best to make a good decision, we should trust that the Holy Spirit will direct us with the rest. For more on this subject, see “Trusting God with Big Decisions.”

The Holy Spirit gives SPIRITUAL GIFTS for serving God

Spiritual gifts are given to believers in order to serve God. Paul writes, “One and the same Spirit works all these things [i.e. spiritual gifts], distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:11; cf. Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 1:5-7; 12:4-11; Eph. 4:7-12, 16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). Every believer should learn what their spiritual gifts are. We learn these through serving in the Body of Christ. We most likely receive these gifts at conversion, but it’s also possible that these are given (or manifested) later in our ministry (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).

The Holy Spirit EMPOWERS US to do good works

We see this in various people throughout the Bible. Namely, their power didn’t originate from themselves—but from the Spirit.

Jesus: Since Jesus was God, we might not think that he needed to rely on the Holy Spirit. Not so! Jesus waited until he received the Holy Spirit to perform his miracles (Mt. 3:16; 12:18). Instead of using his own divine attributes, Jesus depended fully on the Spirit to perform his miracles (Jn. 5:19; Lk. 4:14, 18; Rom. 8:11; Mt. 26:53). In fact, the Bible repeatedly points out that Jesus’ miracles were due to the empowering of the Holy Spirit—not Jesus’ own power (Lk. 5:17; Acts 2:22; Acts 10:38; Mt. 12:28). As the “author and perfecter” of our faith (Heb. 12:2), Jesus gives us the perfect example of one who relied on God—not himself.

Paul: Paul told the Corinthians, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5), and he wrote, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor. 15:10; cf. 4:19-20; Col. 1:28-29).

Timothy: Paul encouraged Timothy’s fears by telling him, “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Stephen: Stephen was an expert debater and visionary in the early church. Luke tells us the key to his impact on those around him: “[Stephen’s opponents] were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). Stephen was also able to die victoriously for Christ, because he was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55).

Peter: He was too weak to give his testimony to a slave-girl before he received the Holy Spirit (Mt. 26:69), but afterward, he received the power to speak boldly from the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), leading 3,000 to Christ (Acts 2:41). The key to his powerful speaking ministry was being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8). Millard Erickson writes, “One simply cannot account for the effectiveness of those early believers’ ministry on the basis of their abilities or efforts. They were not unusual persons. The results were a consequence of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Students in a homiletics class were required to prepare sermons based on various sermons recorded in the Bible. When the students came to Acts 2, they discovered that Peter’s address at Pentecost is not a marvel of homiletical perfection. All of them were able to prepare sermons that were technically superior to that of Peter, yet none of them expected to surpass his results. The results of Peter’s sermon exceed the skill with which it was prepared and delivered. The reason for its success lies in the power of the Holy Spirit.”[3]

The disciples: The Holy Spirit gives us the words to speak in the moment to glorify God (Mt. 10:19). Jesus told the disciples, “It is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (Mt. 10:20). This is why Jesus told the disciples, “He who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father” (Jn. 14:12).

Through love, the Holy Spirit motivates us to strive in prayer (Rom. 15:30), and he strengthens us with “power… in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16). This is why Paul commands us to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

As believers, we often get the sense that God was speaking through us (1 Pet. 4:11). We find the strength to do things that we never anticipated was possible. This is from the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit COMFORTS believers

The Holy Spirit comforted the early church in Israel (Acts 9:31). Those filled with the Spirit are also filled with “joy” (Acts 13:52; Rom. 14:17; 15:13; 1 Thess. 1:5). He fills our hearts with the love of the Father for us (Rom. 5:5), he confirms our ministry to us individually (2 Cor. 3:3), and he personally blesses believers who are being persecuted (1 Pet. 4:14).

How should we respond to the Holy Spirit?

There are four central ways that we can react to the work of the Holy Spirit:

First, we can be FILLED with the Holy Spirit. The filling of the Spirit is different than the sealing of the Spirit. While we are “sealed” with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30), we are also told to continually be filled. Paul writes, “Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), which is a continuous state. To be filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean that I get more of him, but that he gets more of me. The “filling” of the Holy Spirit is shown in all the great people of faith. Over and over in the book of Acts, we see that the Holy Spirit is tied to powerful steps of faith (Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 8:1ff). Usually, the pattern is to step out in faith, and then the Holy Spirit will fill us. In other words, we shouldn’t wait around until we feel filled in order to step out in faith.

Second, we can GRIEVE the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30). This passage should never justify “guilting” a Christian into obedience. God isn’t grieved because he’s disappointed. He is grieved because he wants better things for you. We should also note that even though we can grieve the Holy Spirit, we are still “sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). We believe that God is saddened when we do not enjoy the freedom that we have in Christ. For instance, if your friend came over and he said, “Can I have a drink?” And you say, “Sure.” But you find him walking to the bathroom and drinking from the toilet bowl. Of course, you wish that he’d just drink cold water from the fridge—not from the toilet bowl. His actions wouldn’t hurt you; it would grieve you that he was hurting himself.

Third, we can BLASPHEME the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt. 12:32). Often believers with a sensitive conscience worry that they have accidentally blasphemed the Holy Spirit and are going to hell. However, this passage does not point toward such a view. Jesus’ audience consisted of hard hearted unbelievers—not believers. Jesus’ opponents were arguing that his power over demons was due to the fact that he was from Satan—not God (Mt. 12:22-29)!

Thus this refers to the rejection of God’s drawing through the Holy Spirit. Have you ever wondered why it is okay to blaspheme Jesus, but it isn’t okay to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Is one member of the Trinity more important than another? This no doubt refers to rejecting God’s conviction which is brought through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:8-11). If an unbeliever does this, they will not find forgiveness in Christ.

The verb tense in the Greek refers to a past tense completed action. Therefore, this refers to a certain point (only known in the omniscience of God) where an unbeliever goes past the point of no return. At this point, God knows that this person will reject them forever.

Fourth, we can QUENCH the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “Do not quench the Holy Spirit; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thess. 5:19-20). This does not refer to carnality (though it probably could include it). It refers to cynicism regarding the activity of God—seen primarily through people (prophets; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29). This would include explaining away prayers, unwarranted negativity, and mocking zeal for God.

We see an example of this in the life of King David where he showed excitement and zeal when the Ark was returned to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:12-14), which led all the people of God to show joy and shouts of excitement (v.15). In the midst of this, Michal (his wife) judges her husband for his zeal, excitement, and dancing (v.16, 20). David responded to her by telling her that she was in the wrong (vv.21-22), and she died childless (v.23)! This narrative tells us that we shouldn’t cast negativity and cynicism on those who are showing emotion and excitement in what God is doing.


First, do not quench the Spirit. It isn’t your role to tell people that their prayers were “coincidentally” fulfilled. It isn’t your role to mock the people who have excitement for God. This sarcasm, cynicism, and negativity are an affront to God, and it sucks the excitement from Christian community.

Second, learn to show zeal and excitement for God. Zeal and excitement is usually the sign of a strong ethos in a group. Often believers in evangelical churches worry that non-Christians will feel strange to see Christians showing emotion and excitement for God. While fake or bizarre displays of emotion are out of bounds, it has been our experience that most believers do not show enough emotion. In fact, what is weird is to believe that you are a child of God and inheriting the kingdom of God, without showing any emotion about it! Our particular church is so strong on truth that we believe that showing emotion would only affirm the fact that we are believing in something that is actually true. We lament the fact that some Christian believers show no hesitation to show emotion at a football game or concert, but cannot show emotion in regards to the cause of Christ.

Third, learn to “amen” prayers at a prayer meeting. This is Most believers do not realize that this is biblical and important. How can you come to a prayer meeting with pursed lips—not sharing even an Amen (1 Cor. 14:16)?


[1] Should you Believe in the Trinity? (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989). 20.

[2] Of course, the Holy Spirit, at times, “came upon” or “filled” judges and kings to give them charismatic leadership (Judg. 14:6; 1 Sam. 16:13; Ezek. 11:5), upon prophets to enable them to communicate God’s Word (2 Pet. 1:21; Micah 3:8), and upon those who built the Tabernacle (Ex. 31:3) to construct it skillfully. But this is different than being indwelt.

[3] Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 1998. 1050.