During my high school years, I was a part of what is known as the charismatic movement. Expressions such as “holy laughter,” “drunk in the Spirit,” and “slain in the Spirit,” which seem off the wall to most Christians, were commonplace. It was also fairly common to see ecstatic people running around the sanctuary, barking like dogs, and falling over backward.
One day I was sitting in the balcony of a church, and I saw a man roll down the aisle toward the preacher, who was speaking to an audience of 4,000. I wondered what would happen when this “holy roller” arrived at his destination.
So did the preacher.
The man rolled on up to the pastor’s feet. The pastor lingered a moment, rocking on his heels. Then the man tipped backwards and apparently rolled back and fell asleep. The congregation applauded, and the speaker smiled. This was the beginning of what is known in charismatic circles as a “Holy Ghost meeting.” The idea was (and still is) to let the Spirit move however it wants.
Whether being “in the Spirit” meant running around the sanctuary, diving off the platform, or falling to the ground twitching, these meetings provided some of the most jaw-dropping scenes imaginable. I remember one occasion when a woman got up and ran circles around the speaker mid-sermon waving her hands in the air. While this behavior may be unfamiliar to many Christians, it’s quite acceptable to charismatics.
Ever since Acts 2 described the Holy Spirit falling on the early Christians, enabling them to speak in tongues (other languages), people have had some interesting ideas as to what the Spirit can do for them. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that Christians could experience a “second blessing” after conversion, which meant the believer would cease not only to sin but not even feel an inclination to sin.
Taking Wesley’s idea even further, a man named Benjamin Irwin, founder of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church, taught that there were other baptisms of fire beyond the fiery tongues described in the book of Acts. Irwin named them the baptisms of dynamite, lyddite, and oxidite. Later, Irwin added a fourth, fifth, and sixth blessing, though what exactly they consisted of is difficult to say.
So what does the Spirit do?
While my present faith tradition is less expressive, it’s still a struggle to pin down exactly what it is the Holy Spirit does. Typically, we look at texts such as 1 Corinthians 12:4, which says, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit [distributes them].” The passage goes on to list gifts such as healing, prophecy, wisdom, and knowledge. All are great gifts, and certainly the Spirit continues to give them to Christians, but this isn’t the Spirit’s primary purpose.
Another area to examine for guidance on the Spirit’s role in the Christian’s life is Paul’s description of “the fruit of the Spirit,” which he said consists of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things,” he said, “there is no law” (Galatians 5:22, 23). These beautiful character traits are certainly evidence that the Spirit is at work, but again, they aren’t the Spirit’s primary role.
One of the difficulties in trying to deduce what the Spirit wants to do is that the Bible is rather vague, comparatively speaking, in describing the Spirit. When we talk about God the Father, He is described as, well, a Father. We’ve all seen fathers. And when we discuss Jesus, we refer to Him as the “Son.” We’ve also seen many sons. These concepts are easy to grasp. Jesus also said that “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And we have four biographies— we call them “Gospels”—chronicling the life of Jesus.
However, the word used for Spirit in the New Testament comes from the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath” or “wind.” And that’s rather vague, because it isn’t something we humans can see with our eyes. I’ve seen my breath on a cold winter day, but even then I can’t hold on to it. As for wind, I’ve felt it, and I’ve seen it blow things over, but I can’t physically see the wind itself.
So how should we understand the Holy Spirit? And what is His primary function in our lives?
Jesus is the key
Before His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus spent time with His disciples, giving them encouragement for the difficult world they would have to endure. That’s always a good thing to do. Whenever I leave on a business trip, I always have some warm words for my wife and children to keep them encouraged—including the promise that I will return. However, Jesus made a statement that must have left His disciples puzzled: “I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away” (John 16:7).
Not exactly what you’d expect Jesus to say. Thankfully, as the chapter progresses, Jesus explains Himself in a bit more detail: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (verses 13–15).
Just as Jesus reveals the Father, so the Bible says that it is the Spirit’s primary role to reveal Jesus. Furthermore, because the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are One, Jesus is really making the point that through the Spirit He can be closer to us than ever.
In John 14, Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (verse 18), indicating that the Holy Spirit, while a unique Person of the Godhead, is also Jesus present with us. Furthermore, while Jesus and the Father reveal each Other, and the Spirit reveals Jesus, there is no other entity that specifically reveals the Spirit. Thus, the best picture of the Spirit we can have is Jesus.
There are a lot of debates regarding the Holy Spirit. People debate whether the Spirit is a who or a what. They debate whether the Spirit’s true evidence in the life of a believer has to do with speaking in tongues or being sinless. And they debate about a variety of methods for obtaining the Holy Spirit.
However, important as spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues may be or whether living a life of victory over sin is possible, those realities are secondary to the Spirit’s greatest role in the life of the Christian: pointing him or her to Jesus.
And if pointing people to Jesus is the primary function of the Holy Spirit, then, in one way or another, the Spirit is at work in everyone’s life. This doesn’t mean everyone will accept Jesus; but it does mean that as we allow the Spirit to work on our hearts and in our lives, we will become more and more like Jesus. And that is the best evidence for the existence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the greatest demonstration of the Spirit’s power.