God of Order: The Holy Spirit’s Work Today

Scott Aniol

bible page on gray concrete surface

Ultimately, current expectations concerning the Holy Spirit’s work today must derive, not from experience, but from Scripture. How does the Bible characterizes the Holy Spirit’s activity?

Scripture contains roughly 245 explicit descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s actions, 80 in the Old Testament, and 165 in the New Testament.1Thanks to PhD students in a seminar I taught on the Holy Spirit and Worship at Southwestern Seminary, and especially my graduate assistant John Gray, for helping to compile and organize this biblical … Continue reading Overwhelmingly, the dominant action ascribed to the Holy Spirit in both Testaments is the giving of revelation (37 times in the OT and 64 times in the NT). God the Spirit speaks through prophets and apostles, and ultimately inspires the Holy Scriptures themselves (2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:21).

Second in order of frequency in the OT and third in the NT is special empowerment given to individual leaders whom God has called to perform special ministry on his behalf, often closely associated with giving revelation. This act of the Holy Spirit occurs 20 times in the OT and 18 times in the NT. For example, the Old Testament describes the Holy Spirit being “upon” Moses and the elders of Israel (Num 11:17), Joshua (Deut 34:9), judges such as Gideon (Judg 6:34) and Samson (Judg 13:25), and prophets such as Elijah (1 Kgs 18:12). He also uniquely came upon Israel’s kings, Saul and David (1 Sam 16:13–14). This act of the Holy Spirit was never permanent (1 Sam 16:14; cf. Psalm 51:11) and was only given to special leaders of God’s people, often resulting in unique wisdom, physical strength, and revelation from God. It was even applied to non-believers on occasion (e.g. Balaam, Num 24:2 and Saul, 1 Sam 16:14).2Alva J. McClain says of this special Spirit-empowerment, “Three things should be noted about this coming of the Spirit upon the great leaders of the historical kingdom: first, it was not always … Continue reading

OT prophecy also foretells a similar empowerment given by the Spirit to the coming Messiah (Isa 11:2, 42:1, 48:16, 61:1). Not surprisingly, then, the earliest examples of this in the NT apply specifically to Jesus Christ, first pictured when the Holy Spirit descends upon him at his baptism (Matt 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). The Holy Spirit also uniquely empowers other spiritual leaders in the NT, such as John the Baptist (Luke 1:15) and the apostles (Acts 2:4, 4:31, 9:17, 13:9).

Actions of the Holy Spirit in the OT fall off considerably in frequency after the top two categories. They can be described as follows: The Holy Spirit participated in creation (Gen 1:2, Job 33:4, Ps 104:30), gifted Bezalel and Oholiab with skill to build the tabernacle (Exod 31:1–5, 35:30–35), and dwelt in the midst of Israel (Neh 9:20, Hag 2:5; cf. Exod 29:45).

In the NT, however, the second most frequent action of the Holy Spirit after revelation is the sanctification of believers, appearing at least 24 times. This work of the Spirit characterizes Spirit filling (Acts 6:3, 11:24, Eph 5:18) and describes the Spirit’s work to progressively produce holy fruit in a believer’s life (e.g. Rom 15:16, Gal 5:22). In the NT the Holy Spirit also indwells (17 times), regenerates (13 times), assures (5 times), convicts (2 times), and illuminates (2 times).

Finally, Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12–14 discuss gifts that are given to believers; although absent in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 explains that these gifts are given “through the Spirit” (v. 8) or “by the one Spirit” (v. 9), and chapter 14 calls them “manifestations of the Spirit” (v. 12). Since these passages explicitly ascribe the giving of these gifts to the Holy Spirit, other passages that discuss such gifts may also safely be attributed to a work of the Holy Spirit (e.g. 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6). These gifts are supernatural abilities “given for service within the ministry and outreach of the local church,”3Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume 2: The Doctrines of Man, Sin, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 349. Wayne Grudem, a … Continue reading including miraculous gifts, which involves what Rolland McCune describes as “a suspension, a bypassing, or even an outright contravention of the natural order”4Rolland D. McCune, “A Biblical Study of Tongues and Miracles,” Central Bible Quarterly 19 (1976): 15. (e.g. prophecy, miracles, healing, and tongues), and non-miraculous gifts, which Stitzinger describes as abilities that “operate within the natural realm of order even though God’s hand of providence is involved”5James F Stitzinger, “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds,” TMSJ 14, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 161. (e.g. evangelism, teaching, mercy, administration, etc.).

Characterizing the Holy Spirit’s Work

This brief survey of the Holy Spirit’s activity throughout Scripture helps to lay an important foundation for what Christians should expect his ordinary work to be. Taking all of the biblical data concerning the Holy Spirit’s work throughout history into account, there is no doubt that he sometimes works in extraordinary ways. Yet extraordinary works of the Spirit are not the ordinary way God works his sovereign will through the course of biblical history. When extraordinary experiences occur, they happen during significant transitional stages in the outworking of God’s plan. Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains:

In the Scriptures themselves, extraordinary gifts appear to be limited to a few brief periods in biblical history, in which they serve as confirmatory signs of new revelation and its ambassadors, and as a means of establishing and defending the kingdom of God in epochally significant ways. . . . Outbreaks of the miraculous sign gifts in the Old Testament were, generally speaking, limited to those periods of redemptive history in which a new stage of covenantal revelation was reached. . . . But these sign-deeds were never normative. Nor does the Old Testament suggest they should have continued unabated even throughout the redemptive-historical epoch they inaugurated. . . . Consistent with this pattern, the work of Christ and the apostles was confirmed by “signs and wonders.”6Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 224–225.

In other words, to focus on the relatively few cases in biblical history of extraordinary works of the Holy Spirit and draw from those a theology that assumes this to be his regular activity fails to take into account the purpose of these works in the overarching plan of God. Furthermore, even the extraordinary works of the Spirit in Scripture, such as giving revelation or empowering for service, hardly resemble the kinds of extraordinary manifestations contemporary worshipers have come to associate with the Holy Spirit, such as emotional euphoria or “atmosphere.” Even if Christians in the present age should expect extraordinary works of the Spirit to regularly occur, what most contemporary evangelicals have come to expect does not fit the biblical pattern for how the Holy Spirit works.

To focus on the relatively few cases in biblical history of extraordinary works of the Holy Spirit and draw from those a theology that assumes this to be his regular activity fails to take into account the purpose of these works in the overarching plan of God.

Ordering as a Characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s Work

Rather, the ordinary work of the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture is better characterized, not as extraordinary experience but rather as an ordering of the plan and people of God. Ferguson notes that the very first action of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “that of extending God’s presence into creation in such a way as to order and complete what has been planned in the mind of God.”7Ferguson, The Holy Spirit 21. Jonathan Edwards developed this theme in his discussion of the Holy Spirit’s work in creation:

It was more especially the Holy Spirit’s work to bring the world to its beauty and perfection out of the chaos, for the beauty of the world is a communication of God’s beauty. The Holy Spirit is the harmony and excellency and beauty of the Deity . . . therefore it was his work to communicate beauty and harmony to the world, and so we read that it was he that moved upon the face of the waters.8Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies,” no. 293, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13, The “Miscellanies,” (Entry Nos. a–500), ed. Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 384.

“This,” Ferguson continues, “is exactly the role the Spirit characteristically fulfills elsewhere in Scripture.”9Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 21. Indeed, this overarching characteristic of ordering describes much, if not all, of what the Holy Spirit does throughout Scripture, including giving revelation, creating life (both physical and spiritual), and sanctifying individual believers: “the Spirit orders (or re-orders) and ultimately beautifies God’s creation.”10Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 22.) Graham Cole summarizes, “Creation and its sustenance are the work of the Spirit as the Spirit implements the divine purposes in nature and history.”((Graham A. … Continue reading

Purpose of Revelation

Spirit-given revelation also had the ultimate purpose of bringing order to God’s plan in the world. The Holy Spirit gives special revelation to disclose the nature and character of God, explain God’s requirements, correct sin, and give hope for the future. Likewise, he guides the apostles into the truth (John 16:13) necessary to establish Christian doctrine and set the church in order (1 Tim 3:15). Ultimately, he inspires a “prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19–21), the canonical Scriptures, given to believers “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). The nature of such inspiration is important as well: the Holy Spirit did not inspire the Scriptures by bringing authors into a sort of mystical trance as they were “carried along” (2 Peter 1:21); rather, as helpfully defined by John Frame, inspiration is “a divine act that creates an identity between a divine word and a human word”11John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, vol. 4 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 140.—each author conscientiously penned the Scriptures (Acts 1:16, 4:25, Heb 3:7, 1 Cor 2:12–13) using craftsmanship (e.g. the Psalms), research (e.g. Luke 1:1–4), and available cultural forms and idioms. Spirit-inspired revelation is both for the purpose of order and produced in an orderly fashion.

Purpose of Empowering

Likewise, the empowering of individual leaders for special service was for the ultimate purpose of bringing to order God’s redemptive plan in both Israel and the church. This is true of Moses and the elders of Israel. As Ferguson notes, “Just as the Spirit produced order and purpose out of the formless and empty primeval created ‘stuff’ (Gen 1:2), so, when the nation was newborn but remained in danger of social chaos, the Spirit of God worked creatively to produce right government, order, and direction among the refugees from Egypt.”12Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 22. Likewise, the Spirit gifted Bezalel and Oholiab with skills necessary for building the tabernacle. Ferguson observes, “The beauty and symmetry of the work accomplished by these men in the construction of the tabernacle not only gave aesthetic pleasure, but a physical pattern in the heart of the camp which served to re-establish concrete expressions of the order and glory of the Creator and his intentions for his creation.”13Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 22.

In other words, while it is accurate to say that the Holy Spirit has worked in extraordinary ways, these were rare, and their function was to bring God’s purposes into order.

Salvation and Sanctification

The Holy Spirit’s characteristic work is not only an ordering of God’s historical-redemptive plan, but it also a “moral ordering.”14Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 24. This work begins with his acts of convicting sinners (John 16:8) and regenerating hearts (Titus 3:5), bringing life and order to once dead and disordered lives. This re-ordering continues with his frequently mentioned work of sanctification (Rom 15:16, 1 Cor 6:11, 2 Thess 2:13, 1 Pet 1:2). He “circumcises the hearts” of believers (Rom 2:29) and strengthens their inner being (Eph 3:16), pouring love into their hearts (Rom 5:5) and leading them to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Rom 8:4). Of particular importance for this discussion is a careful focus on what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22–23, the results of such an ordering in the life of the Christian: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Indeed, the overwhelming emphasis in the NT concerning what will characteristically define the life of a mature, Spirit-filled Christian is on sobriety, discipline, dignity, and self-control—Paul commands believers to “think with sober judgment” (Rom 12:3), “be sober” (1 Thess 5:6, 8), and “be self-controlled” (Tit 2:12), as does Peter (1 Pet 1:13, 4:7, 5:8; 2 Pet 1:6). In particular, he urges older men to “be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness,” older woman to “be reverent in behavior,” and younger women and men to “be self-controlled” (Tit 2:2–6). None of these evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life resemble what a contemporary worshiper would describe as “extraordinary experience.” Rather, these are the result of the progressive work of the Spirit to sanctify a believer through the disciplines of his Word.

John Murray summarizes the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification: “It is the efficacious and transforming enlightenment of the Holy Spirit by which the people of God attain ‘unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13).”15John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 225.

Purpose of the Gifts

This concept of ordering also describes the purpose of the Spirit’s work of gifting, specifically, an ordering of the body of Christ. Paul states that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). He explicitly connects the Spirit’s giving of gifts to bringing order within the church, commanding, “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor 14:12). The Holy Spirit’s gifting of individual Christians with a diversity of ministry abilities serves to build up the unity of the Church—many members of one body (1 Cor 12:12, Rom 12:5), with the goal that this body will “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

Ordering in Corporate Worship

Furthermore, characterizing the Holy Spirit’s work as one of ordering comes even more into clarity when narrowing the focus of his work to corporate worship. The key passage for this focus is 1 Corinthians 14:26–40. Apparently, Christians in the church at Corinth had similar expectations about the Holy Spirit’s work in worship being extraordinary experience as contemporary Christians do. As D. A. Carson notes, “At least some Corinthians wanted to measure their maturity by the intensity of their spiritual experiences.”16D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 108. Yet Paul corrects their expectation by emphasizing that even if the Holy Spirit works in extraordinary ways in worship, like with tongues or prophecy, “God is not a God of confusion”—in other words, disorder—“but of peace” (v. 33).

Paul’s argument here appears to be that even within a context of expecting the Holy Spirit to work in miraculous ways, confusion and disorder are evidences that he is not working. As Charles Hodge noted about this passage, “When men pretend to be influenced by the Spirit of God in doing what God forbids, whether in disturbing the peace and order of the church, by insubordination, violence or abuse, or in any other way, we may be sure they are either deluded or imposters.”17Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 304. It is a God of peace who is at work in corporate worship.

God of Order

While the Holy Spirit of God, who with the Father and the Son should be worshiped and glorified, may certainly do whatever he pleases in the world today, he is not a God of disorder, but a God of peace. The testimony of Scripture concerning the ordinary ways he works should lead Christians to expect, not extraordinary experience when the Holy Spirit works, but disciplined formation.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

References

References
1 Thanks to PhD students in a seminar I taught on the Holy Spirit and Worship at Southwestern Seminary, and especially my graduate assistant John Gray, for helping to compile and organize this biblical data. The list contains only direct actions ascribed to the Holy Spirit, not necessarily assumed affects of his actions. I examined each case and categorized the actions based on similarity.
2 Alva J. McClain says of this special Spirit-empowerment, “Three things should be noted about this coming of the Spirit upon the great leaders of the historical kingdom: first, it was not always related to high moral character; second, in certain cases its outstanding effects were seen chiefly in the realm of the purely physical; third, and most important of all, it had to do primarily with the regal functions of those who stood as mediators of the divine government of Israel” (Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom [Winona Lake, IL: BMH Books, 1959], 93).
3 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume 2: The Doctrines of Man, Sin, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 349. Wayne Grudem, a continuationist, defines them similarly: “A spiritual gift is any ability that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in any ministry of the church” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 101).
4 Rolland D. McCune, “A Biblical Study of Tongues and Miracles,” Central Bible Quarterly 19 (1976): 15.
5 James F Stitzinger, “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds,” TMSJ 14, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 161.
6 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 224–225.
7 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit 21.
8 Jonathan Edwards, “Miscellanies,” no. 293, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13, The “Miscellanies,” (Entry Nos. a–500), ed. Thomas A. Schafer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 384.
9 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 21.
10 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 22.) Graham Cole summarizes, “Creation and its sustenance are the work of the Spirit as the Spirit implements the divine purposes in nature and history.”((Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 282.
11 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, vol. 4 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 140.
12, 13 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 22.
14 Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 24.
15 John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 225.
16 D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 108.
17 Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 304.
Author bible page on gray concrete surface

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.