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How Does the Holy Spirit Operate in the Believer's Life?

Categories Theology

rediscoveringholyspirit“On no other point, in my view, is the Spirit’s work more misunderstood than with regard to the manner of his operation in the life of believers” (244).

Which is why Michael Horton offers an entire chapter on “How the Spirit Gives” in his new book Rediscovering the Holy Spirit.

I’m glad he does. Because as a former pastor I’ve found Horton’s view to be true: people struggle to understand how the Spirit ordinarily operates in their life. After explaining the relationship between the Spirit and the means of grace, Horton helps us understand how the Spirit gives by getting specific:

Hearing Christ preached, being baptized, and taking Communion are not substitutes for faith but are the means through which the Spirit gives us faith and confirms our faith to the end. (279)

Word, eucharist, and baptism. That’s how the Spirit gives—which we've briefly outlined below.

The Spirit and the Word

The union of Spirit and Word has a special emphasis within the Reformed tradition, particularly Luther who underscored this aspect of the Spirit’s operation in his Larger Catechism:

Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on him, and obtain him for our Lord unless it were offered to us by and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel. (259)

“Lutheran and Reformed traditions place special emphasis on the preached Word, since ‘faith comes from hearing…the word of Christ' (Romans 10:17)…Just as we need Christ, outside of us, to redeem us, we need an external gospel addressed to us by [the Spirit] through a fellow sinner” (260).

He goes on to emphasize that “the Spirit must operate within our hearts to convince us of the truth of his Word…[He] is working in the hearts of the unregenerate to bring them to faith and in the hearts of the regenerate to illuminate their understanding through the Word” (262).

The Word and its preaching is the instrument; the Spirit is the agent.

The Spirit and the Eucharist

Horton reminds us that it was in the context of the institution of the Eucharist that Jesus offered an extended discourse on the Spirit, which Horton addresses at length in chapter 5.

But here, he notes it is often said of the Reformers that they taught a “spiritual presence” view of Christ and the Eucharist. “However, this is to miss Calvin’s point and to return to the spirit-matter problem that plagued the other views,” notably Zwingli within the Reformed context and the gnostics within the early church context.

The presence of Christ cannot be divided into “spiritual” and “physical.” It is not the presence that is spiritual in Calvin’s thinking; rather, the manner in which we receive the whole Christ is by the Spirit…Thus, Reformed Christians confess that the Supper not only “reminds you” but “assures you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his gifts,” [Heidelberg Catechism] and that what we receive by faith in the Supper is “the true body and true blood of Christ” [Belgic Confession]. (270–271)

Here, Horton quotes Julie Canlis: “Calvin attempted to take seriously the pneumatological dimensions of presence: the Spirit is not the Pentecostal replacement for Christ, but the way to him” (Calvin’s Ladder, 239).

In this view then, “we see just how essential the Eucharist is as a confirmation of Calvin’s doctrine of participation” (271), as well as the Spirit’s role in mediating it.

The Spirit and Baptism

Finally, through baptism the Spirit gives and works. Horton acknowledges “The precise nature of this association is a further question,” and yet their association seems important (273). He lists several example passages, but considers Acts 2:37–38 in particular:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

He emphasizes that “gifts,” here, is not a spiritual gift, but the person of the Holy Spirit himself. Further, “The people received forgiveness of sins and the Spirit through faith, as this faith clung to the word of promise as certified in baptism” (275).

Horton wants us to see how Scripture treats “baptism with water and baptism with the Spirit in the closest possible connection while recognizing they are distinguished” (277). They are not separate, for “it is undeniable that baptism is treated in the New Testament as a means of grace” (275).


“I am convinced that the more we face the reality of the ascension and our Lord’s own explanation of how the Spirit would establish our eschatological communion with him, the greater will be our appreciation for the Word and the sacraments as the means appointed for his genuine signs and wonders ministry” (272).


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