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The Christian Understanding of the Holy Spirit

This is the sixth of an ongoing series of articles exploring Calvary Grace’s Congregational Confession of Faith.

VI. The Holy Spirit

We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and Son to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and to regenerate, sanctify, and empower all who believe in Jesus Christ. We believe that the Holy Spirit indwells every believer in Christ, and that He is an abiding helper, teacher and guide.

This sixth paragraph of our Congregational Confession of Faith teaches us about the the Holy Spirit, who is, in many ways, the most mysterious Person of the Trinity. He is arguably, and especially in our day, the most misunderstood. Yet a proper understanding of the Spirit's work is crucial for the Christian life.

At Calvary Grace Church, we stand in the Western tradition of Christianity, upholding the fact that the Spirit proceeds not only from the Father but also from the Son. This phrase has its origin in the Nicene Creed, and is easily misunderstood. By "proceed," we do not mean to say that the Spirit had his beginning in the Father and Son. The Spirit is not created, and has no beginning or origin, else he would not be God. But nevertheless he does "proceed" from the Father, obeying and upholding and executing his will.

Eastern Christians, such as those in the Orthodox churches, have traditionally resisted this understanding, and indeed the difference between them and Christians in the West contributed to the first great church split or "schism" in 1054 AD. The West adopted the so-called "filioque" clause ("and the Son"), adding it to the Nicene Creed which originally read that the Spirit proceeded from the Father only. The East objected both on theological grounds and on procedural or ecclesiological grounds. Theologically, they were concerned that if the Son shared this "procession" of the Spirit with the Father, it undermined the Father's "monarchy" or final authority and headship in the Trinity. Procedurally, they objected that the West had no right to modify an ecumenical creed of the entire church without calling a global council to discuss the issue.

Now, we believe that the East is wrong, biblically, to deny that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. The Son explicitly states that "I will send" the Spirit to his people (John 15:26; 16:7). Even the Father's sending of the Spirit is inseparable from Christ; after all, the Spirit is sent by the Father on the Son's request (John 14:16), in the Son's name (John 14:26). The East's objection assumes that if the Son has a role, it somehow takes away from that of the Father, and that the issue must therefore be "either-or." This "either-or" thinking reflects, and probably is founded in, the East's tendency to so emphasize the distinction and three-ness of the Persons as to diminish their oneness and unity (as Eastern artwork on the Trinity clearly shows). While the East may have a point about the West's authority to modify a creed without a council, that doesn't change the truth of the doctrine as the Bible stands above all creeds and councils.

That said, though, it's important to note that the East is not wrong to be concerned about the Father's authority. Certainly, among so-called "evangelicals" today it has become fashionable to speak of the Father's authority in the Trinity as being no different than that of Son and Spirit, and even to speak of the Father submitting to them. This is a great error, though, and since the Father's headship over Son and Spirit relates directly to the authority of husband over wife and children in marriage, the authority of elders over the household of faith, and the authority of civil magistrates over the people, undermining the Father's headship leads to great problems including postmodernism, feminism, anti-authoritarianism, and gender confusion. So when we state that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son, the order is critical: he proceeds first from the Father, and then the Son. Or, as Robert Letham observed, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, through the Son.

We see this in the words that follow. The Spirit convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement, a conviction that follows Christ the Son's work to defeat sin, establish righteousness, and assure final judgment. The Spirit is the one who convicts the heart of sin and the need for salvation, hence why we believe so strongly in the centrality of preaching in the life of the church. The Spirit applies the work that the Father appointed and the Son accomplished to the lives of individual sinners--by convicting them, and by regenerating, sanctifying, and empowering those who believe in Christ. He also applies it to the life of the whole church, working to convict and illuminate as the Word is preached every Sunday, and as the last clause of this paragraph states, being an "abiding helper, teacher, and guide" in the life of the church as the Word is prayerfully consulted and applied to the problems of church life. Understanding these things as the Spirit's work is an antidote to the shallow miracle-seeking that characterizes so many churches and Christians today. If more Christians truly recognized and celebrated conversions as "miracles," if more Christians believed and proclaimed that backsliding Christians repenting and returning to Christ under the church's discipline really are "wonders," if more Christians actually valued and honoured the countless mundane, repetitive, behind-the-scenes acts of service that make church services and events happen as being "mighty works" of the Spirit acting through the God-given gifts of his people, who would be tempted by the false gold and prayer cloths of the faith healers and televangelists?

Moreover, this holy work is done in every believer. The Spirit indwells every believer in Christ. Not only a blessed few, or a super-spiritual elite. Not only a higher class of Christians who have more fully surrendered or yielded to Jesus or anything like that. So much damage has been done in the past hundred years by the idea that the Spirit is a "second blessing" that comes after salvation, needlessly dividing Christians into alleged "haves" and "have-nots." The Spirit dwells within every Christian believer, because every Christian believer is a member of Christ himself--and the Holy Spirit dwells in Christ, even being called the "spirit of Christ." Understanding that the Spirit indwells every believer reminds us that, since our brothers and sisters share in the same Spirit and the same Spirit-worked salvation, we are to be one.

If you are a Christian, it's because the Spirit convicted you, gave you a new heart, and moved you to repent and believe. And if you are a Christian, you remain so because he continues to dwell within you, linking you to Jesus Christ, feeding you with the Word as it is preached in the church, convicting you of remaining sin both inside you and through fellow believers, preserving you in the faith. Because he does so, every true believer's final salvation is assured. Without the Spirit's indwelling presence, religious belief and effort can only come from a sinful, unregenerate human heart, and it will always fail--hence why we see professing believers fall away from the faith. Understanding that we come to salvation, and remain vitally joined to Christ, only because of the ongoing work of the Spirit, cuts the root of pride and reminds us that we are utterly dependent on God's grace alone for salvation.