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How Does Scripture Describe the Work of the Holy Spirit?

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series

"The Holy Spirit's Work in Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Ultimately, current expectations concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in worship must derive, not from experience, but from Scripture. In order to lay such a biblical foundation, I will next survey how the Bible broadly characterizes the Holy Spirit’s activity, and then narrow the focus to the church age and specifically corporate worship.

Scripture contains roughly 245 explicit descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s actions, 80 in the Old Testament, and 165 in the New Testament.1 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). 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).[2]

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)[3] 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).

There is some debate, of course, as to whether with Spirit baptism (mentioned 11 times in the NT), the Holy Spirit is the agent of baptism or the medium of baptism. If he is the agent, then baptism should be listed also as an action of the Holy Spirit. While this is a grammatical possibility in some texts, such as the key text of 1 Corinthians 12:13, the four earliest references to Spirit baptism (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33) predict that Christ is the one who does the action of baptizing in (en) the Spirit, parallel to John baptizing in (en) water, thus identifying the Spirit as the medium of the baptism. However, for sake of argument, in this paper I will consider even this among the Spirit’s actions, and regardless of whether one takes the Spirit to be the agent or medium, the results are clearly articulated in 1 Corinthians 12: Spirit baptism unites all believers to Christ from the moment of their salvation and forevermore.

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,”2 including miraculous gifts, which involves what Rolland McCune describes as “a suspension, a bypassing, or even an outright contravention of the natural order”3 (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”4 (e.g. evangelism, teaching, mercy, administration, etc.). 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.”5 Of course, there is wide debate concerning whether and which of these gifts continue today. I personally believe that supernatural gifts of the Spirit have ceased in the present age, a defense of which is beyond the scope of this paper. However, for the sake of this discussion, I will assume a broad, continuationist perspective. In other words, even assuming the present continuation of all the kinds of spiritual gifts mentioned in Scripture, the common expectation that the Spirit’s ordinary work in worship is one of extraordinary experience is still suspect.

Next week, we’ll synthesize all of this biblical data in an attempt to characterize the Holy Spirit’s normal work throughout Scripture.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  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. 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. []
  3. Rolland D. McCune, “A Biblical Study of Tongues and Miracles,” Central Bible Quarterly 19 (1976): 15. []
  4. James F Stitzinger, “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds,” TMSJ 14, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 161. []
  5. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 101. []