June 17, 2024

Knowing the Holy Spirit

Sinclair Ferguson
Knowing the Holy Spirit

Often when people talk about the Holy Spirit, their attention focuses on the gifts and blessings He bears in our lives. Today, Sinclair Ferguson challenges us to get to know the Spirit who is at work in us.


Welcome to this week’s Things Unseen. On this podcast, we actually do talk about things that are very visible as well as unseen, but not this week. This week, I want to reflect with you on something invisible. I should have said not something invisible, but someone invisible. We’re going to think together about the ministry of the Holy Spirit. And you’ll remember Jesus’ famous words to Nicodemus, recorded in John 3: “The work of the Spirit is like the wind.” As it happens, both in Hebrew and Greek the same words are used for wind and spirit, and Jesus is saying that the Spirit’s work is like the wind in the sense you can’t actually see it, but you know He’s there because of His effects on people.

In my early days as a Christian, people who spoke on the subject of the Holy Spirit sounded as though they had all read the same book because they usually began by saying, “The Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Godhead.” When that was said often enough, it actually began to sound believable. I‘m not sure whether I believed it, but certainly in my teens, I was too young to know any better. And then the more I heard it, the more I realized that what they were really talking about was the so-called “charismatic gifts” of the Spirit. And slowly it became clear to me that so much of this kind of talk was actually about power, about unusual gifts, and not really about the person of the Holy Spirit Himself. It was about having powers, not about knowing a person.

I’ve come to think that this isn’t surprising because often the same happens with both the Father and the Son. We focus attention on what they can give us and what we can get from them and much less attention on who they are and how we can come to know them. And so, as I’ve said before on these podcasts, it’s easy for us to focus on the blessings God gives to us without actually growing in the knowledge of our benefactor. And it maybe seems more relevant to talk about these blessings, yes, and easier too, than to talk about the one divine person in two natures when we’re speaking about Jesus exercising His threefold ministry as Prophet, Priest, and King, and His two states of humiliation and exaltation. That sounds very complicated until we realize that as we think about these things, we get to know Him better.

And the same is true of the Holy Spirit. If we focused only on the blessings that He gives us, we are a bit like a husband who enjoys eating the meal his wife has made, but hardly ever reflects on the wife who actually prepared it. And if that’s true of the Father and the Son, then I suspect it’s even more so when it comes to the Holy Spirit, because Father and Son are words that have a deep resonance with us. And in the light of Jesus’ words in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” we’ve got some very visible evidence recorded in the Scriptures about the person of both the Father and the Son, and how they relate to one another, and how they relate to us. But when we say “Holy Spirit,” or if we use the older language, even more so, “Holy Ghost,” there seems something remote, distant, opaque about who He is. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that we sometimes hear Christians refer to Him as an “it”—not a person, but an impersonal force or power, just like the wind.

Now, I think if you’re a regular listener to the podcast, you’ll not misunderstand me and think I’m saying that there’s nothing important about the work of the Spirit, but Scripture tells us about His work in part to help us to get to know Him better. And it’s on getting to know Him that I want to focus our attention this week. So even if we talk about what He does—what He does for us, what He does in us—I want to encourage you to ask this question: “What does this tell me about Him?” Of course, we need the light of Scripture to help us to think about this—not only what the Spirit does, but who the Spirit is who does it. So I hope that this week we can at least make a beginning.

Now, I know it’s sometimes said that the one thing we do know about the Spirit is that He glorifies Christ and not Himself, so we shouldn’t focus attention on Him. But that’s muddle-headed really, isn’t it? The fact that He doesn’t glorify Himself doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t glorify Him. If you ever say the Nicene Creed in your church, you’ll remember its wonderful words, “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.” I think these words are a kind of litmus test of our knowledge of and, in fact, our relationship to the Holy Spirit. We’ll have to think more about this the rest of the week, but today it’s worth asking this question: “Do I worship and glorify the Spirit together with the Father and the Son? Because in order to do that, I need to get to know Him better.”