About 15 years ago and then again more recently, I surveyed my congregation to find out what they really believed on a range of doctrines (as opposed to what I thought they believed). The survey contained three questions that related to the Holy Spirit. Mindful that we have non-Christians who attend each Sunday, it was pleasing to see that, in 2017, 98% of people agreed that the Holy Spirit is God (up from 92% in 2002). They understood that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God. At this point I was feeling ok about myself as a teacher of God's word.

When asked the question “Is the Holy Spirit a force?”, there was more encouragement. In 2002, 21% of people agreed, but in 2017 that number went down to 7%.  Either my preaching had improved over the years or Star Wars was having a less impact on the theology of the congregation.

There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit empowers us to put sin to death and makes us alive to pleasing God. In some sense, he could possibly be described as a ‘force’ that prevails. But he is much more than just an impersonal power; he is not just like an electric current. What did people mean when they described the Holy Spirit as a force?

It wasn't all good news, however. In 2002 “Is the Holy Spirit a person?” received 49% agreement. In 2017 that figure had actually dropped to 46%.

It’s hard to express how devastating it was to discover that, under my watch, less than half of my congregation had come to the realisation that the Holy Spirit is a “he”, not an “it”[1]—that is, that the Spirit of God is a distinct person in his own right.

Because the New Testament clearly reveals the Holy Spirit in personal terms.

The Personal Spirit

When Jesus commissions the first band of disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, he reveals the Spirit as a distinct person alongside the Father and the Son (Matthew 28:19). When, in John 14-16, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as another counsellor—he shows him to be a person like, but also distinct from himself and his Father (John 14:16).

The Spirit also does what you would expect only a person to do: he teaches (John 14:16), he speaks and invites (Rev 22:17), he convicts (John 16:14), he intercedes for us (Rom 8:26), he is grieved (Eph 4:30; cf. Isa 63:10); and he distributes gifts as he determines (1 Cor 12:11). So as the Nicene creed has summarised for us:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.

I took some comfort in discovering that part of the problem lay with confusion the notion of “person”. A number of congregation members had understood “person” to mean “human-being”—as opposed to what I had meant: a self-reflective being with the capacity for personal relationships. In any case, the congregation soon found itself bombarded with an intensive diet of teaching on the personhood of the Spirit of God.

I also became more aware that we often use impersonal language both in our conversation with each other and in our prayers to God when referring to the Holy Spirit. Too often he is referred to as “it” not “he”. Interestingly, while preaching through Romans 8 and making this point, a non-Christian who was listening leaned over to his Christian friend in amazement and said, “Is that true, Is the Spirit a person?”

I highly recommend issuing doctrine surveys for your congregation as a way of finding out what they believe and not what you think they believe. But be prepared. As I painfully discovered, you may not like what you find out.

[1] In the Greek language, the word for “Spirit” has a neuter gender. Therefore, grammatically you would expect the word “Spirit” to be referred to as an ‘it’. However, in John 16:13 Jesus uses the masculine pronoun to refer to the Spirit of Truth, showing that the Holy Spirit is not an “it” but a “him”.

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