Misconceptions about the person and work of God the Holy Spirit abound. His relationship to the Christian is often shrouded in mystery, leaving many confused about His purpose and perhaps even fearful of His work. Thankfully, though, God’s Word clarifies the Spirit’s work for those who would read it humbly and prayerfully.
So, what is the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Christian? It’s a vast question with far-reaching implications. Derek Prime offers a helpful definition that provides guidance for further consideration:
The Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father and the Son to the believer to live within him: giving him spiritual life; assuring him of sonship; and communicating to him the benefits of the gospel.
We may think of the Spirit’s relationship to the believer in terms of Him being our source, seal, and strength.
The Source of Spiritual Life
To begin with, the Holy Spirit is the source of the believer’s spiritual life in Christ. In other words, without the Spirit’s work, we would have no spiritual life at all.
We can see the Spirit’s life-giving role in the facts of Ephesians 2:1–10. Paul establishes first that man is spiritually dead (v. 1). This language is reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the garden: God warned, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17). We know what happened next: they ate of the tree, yet they didn’t die—not physically, anyway (3:6–7). But they did, in fact, die spiritually. Through Adam’s sin, death spread to all people (Rom. 5:12).
Without the Spirit’s work, we would have no spiritual life at all.
It’s this spiritual death to which Paul refers in Ephesians 2. We’re dead in our sins, bound by our sinful passions and under God’s wrath (vv. 1–3). This is our condition, and there isn’t anything in and of ourselves that we can do to alter it. Scripture is clear: unless we encounter Christ and believe the Gospel, we will forever be dead in our sins.
From this bad news, however, comes the fact of good news in verse 4: “Because of the great love with which he loved us,” God made us spiritually alive in Christ. That’s the what of our salvation: God gives us true, eternal life in His Son (John 3:16). But what about the how? The answer is by the Holy Spirit, who is the source of the believer’s spiritual life. Indeed, the heart of the Christian’s experience of the Holy Spirit lies in His bringing us into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
Scripture uses the word “regeneration” to describe this event. (See, e.g., Titus 3:5.) It’s the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life. And this spiritual birth closely parallels our natural birth, marking the beginning of our new spiritual life in Christ. God, by His Spirit, is in the business of making dead people alive; He transforms children of wrath into adopted sons and daughters.
Regeneration is the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Whether or not we can recall the exact moment of our regeneration, here’s the unifying factor for believers everywhere: we know ourselves to be alive today because apart from God’s Spirit, we have no spiritual life. Every Christian should be able to point to the Holy Spirit’s present ministry in his life, for “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9).
The Seal of Belonging to Christ
In addition to giving us spiritual life, the Holy Spirit also seals our union with Christ. This word “sealed” appears twice in Ephesians, both times in the context of regeneration:
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:13–14)
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Eph. 4:30)
What’s the picture here? Simply, a seal is a mark of ownership or authenticity. It’s an indication of belonging. Ancient kings would have their seal on a ring, stamping documents to affirm their genuineness. The original word, interestingly, was used of a locking device, like that of which we read in the sealing of Christ’s tomb (Matt. 27:66).
No doubt Paul is using rich imagery to convey a profound truth. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to make us sure of our union with Christ. By the Spirit, we are authenticated, adopted, and secured in Christ. We’re sealed.
Tragically, certain groups teach that there can be no real assurance in Christian living. We cannot be sure that we belong to Christ, they claim. But this view is antithetical to the biblical teaching, for the Spirit’s ministry is one of assurance. What does Scripture reveal? We know that God abides in us by “the Spirit whom he has given us” (1 John 3:24). Just as with little children who eagerly welcome their father home from an out-of-town business trip, so the Spirit puts into our hearts the “spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). There isn’t a person in the world who can rob the true believer of the Spirit-wrought assurance in his heart.
Yet despite this assurance, believers can still struggle with doubt (1 John 3:20). We may even at times question our salvation. But hear this: doubt can indicate the genuineness of conversion. The unregenerate don’t question their spiritual vitality; they have no spiritual life to question in the first place! Their minds are set on the flesh, living in open hostility toward God and journeying on the road toward spiritual death (Rom. 8:7). So when doubt creeps in, the believer may remind herself, “Even my doubt can remind me that I have spiritual life.”
There isn’t a person in the world who can rob the true believer of the Spirit-wrought assurance in his heart.
In seasons of doubt, we may be tempted to withdraw from the Word, worship, and fellowship. But that’s precisely what we shouldn’t do, for the Spirit works through these things to preserve us. As our seal, the Holy Spirit will not ultimately leave us as orphans; He keeps us firm within Christ’s hand.
The Strength of Spiritual Life
The apostle Paul’s theology of the Holy Spirit was not merely doctrinal; it was experiential. For example, what Paul laid down as foundational truth in Ephesians was put into practice in the circumstances surrounding his writing of Philippians. Writing to the church in Philippi from a dingy dungeon, imprisoned for the Gospel, he states, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). What was Paul doing in that prison? He was drawing on the Holy Spirit’s resources for strength!
Later on in the letter, Paul urges his readers to do the same thing: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). Paul recognized that all believers bear a sense of personal inadequacy. As we put our hands to the God-given tasks before us, we know that we’re unable to complete them of our own strength. But in those moments, Paul would have us remember that God works in us. By His Spirit, God strengthens His people.
The Holy Spirit works through God’s Word, our worship, and Christian fellowship to preserve God’s people.
And the Spirit’s strengthening work is not just for believers individually but also for the church collectively. Luke records in Acts 9:31 that “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” Simply put, the early church grew in number and strength by the Holy Spirit’s direct intervention.
Do churches today rely on God’s Spirit for strength? Do they walk in the fear of God, entrusting their growth metrics to Him? The New Testament teaching is plain: the Holy Spirit is the source, seal, and strength of all spiritual life.
Two Pitfalls to Avoid
What does it look like, then, for us to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16)? We can learn a lot from two negative examples recorded in the New Testament.
The first appears in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Having begun their Christian lives in the Spirit, the Galatian believers had to be rebuked for later seeking to attain the goal by human effort (Gal. 3:1–3). They at one time understood that the Spirit was their life’s source, their seal for eternity. Why, then, Paul inquired, “are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (v. 3).
The second example comes from our Lord in Matthew 22. Addressing the religious leaders, he confronted their falsehood, condemning them for knowing neither God’s Word nor God’s power (v. 29). These people were all law and no life, all ritual and no reality. Although they had ascended intellectually, they didn’t progress experientially, for they denied the power available to them by God’s Spirit.
Our theology of the Holy Spirit should not be merely doctrinal but experiential.
Some of us, like the Galatians, rely not on the Spirit for our Christian lives but on our own efforts. Others, like the religious leaders, have knowledge of the truth without ever having experienced its transformative power. Make no mistake: these two positions are pitfalls to avoid, producing not life but death.
When God, by His Holy Spirit, gives us a new heart (Ezek. 36:26–27), we can walk in the strength of the Lord. And when that has happened, we are freed to walk not with fear and uncertainty but with a confidence that only He can provide.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Getting the Holy Spirit in Focus — Part Two” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates.