The Office of the Holy Spirit
Can we ever thank God enough for giving us His kingdom, His Word, and causing the Holy Spirit to work among us?
God has revealed Himself to us through His Word as a Triune God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet many things about Him remain hidden, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). And we humbly acknowledge that “now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). He has, however, revealed to us the means by which He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies living souls in His kingdom. It is by the office and work of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit calls those on the outside of God’s kingdom through the Word of God. We do not know when, where, nor who will be called to be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We simply preach the Word. Within the kingdom His work is that of sanctification, which means to make holy. The Spirit teaches us, and we learn and relearn to live by faith in accordance with God’s Word. By this we become holy and heaven acceptable.
It is a continuous work because we are faulty and in a daily pitched battle against false doctrine and the enemy of souls, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17). In the heat of the battle the Spirit reminds us of the truth of God’s Word. Our adversary continually undermines the work of sanctification by appealing to our reason and pressuring us to conform to the norms and standards of this world (Romans 12:2).
Students of the Word
In the matters of faith we are lifelong learners but often slow to learn and remember our lessons. To refresh our understanding of the office and work of the Holy Spirit, we will use the Scriptures and the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed to answer such basic questions as: What does it mean to believe in the Holy Spirit, and what is the work of sanctification? What does it mean to believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life? We can also ask, How can one discern between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error?
I Believe in the Holy Spirit
To believe in the Holy Spirit means simply, “I believe that the Holy Spirit makes me holy, as his name implies” (LC 155). None of us have seen Him, but we believe in Him and that He works in us and in the congregation through the effectual preaching and teaching of God’s Word. As an invisible Spirit we know Him only by His voice and work, which is to edify (build up) the “body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). There is no other way to explain the unity, love, and doctrinal purity that the children of God have than to attribute it to the Holy Spirit.
Without the Spirit we would be lost and not able to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. Luther captured this thought by writing, “I cannot of my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith” (SC, The Third Article of the Creed).
The Holy Spirit is not something apart from God, but a Spirit and God Himself (WLS 2043). “He shall not speak of himself: but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak” (John 16:13). He is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17), and when we hear His voice, we also hear the voice of the Father and Son.
The Work of the Holy Spirit is Sanctification
Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of His disciples, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Sanctification is the result of the truth and light of God’s Word and not any effort of ourselves; it is an ongoing work in us because we still carry a corrupted nature.
One is not holy because he is sinless, but as a pardoned sinner he desires to serve God with his life as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). His life is one with Christ, as Paul wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The Father sees us through His Son as free of sin.
This work is accomplished only in God’s kingdom. In this life it is done by the means of preaching, teaching, and caring for the soul, and then finally through the resurrection of the body and life eternal (LC 155). The Holy Spirit uses imperfect but pardoned sinners as partners in the work, as “God has set some in the church” (1 Corinthians 12:28) to labor as ministers, teachers, deacons, board members, and in various other ways as helpers for the benefit and soul care of individual believers.
Probably the most concise and clearest picture we have of the Holy Spirit and His work is found in the Gospel of John, although there are many other references to Him in the Scripture. Jesus said, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you “ (John 14:26).
The Comforter, our home teacher, quietly speaks to our consciences to remind us of what has been previously taught by Jesus through His Word in His kingdom. “We can only be reminded of such that we have heard or learned and maybe forgotten. This is not due to our short memory, but because we continuously face the opposite doctrine. The Holy Spirit is present to make sure that the teachings of Jesus would not be forgotten, but would be remembered and would help us stay on the road that leads us to the Father’s home” (JU).
I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints
Believing that God’s kingdom is a unique assembly of pardoned sinners or communion of saints is the key to salvation and to doctrinal purity. Luther wrote, “The Church is termed ‘one holy Christian Church’ because it represents one plain, pure Gospel doctrine, and an outward confession thereof, always, and everywhere, regardless of dissimilarity of physical life, or outward ordinances, customs and ceremonies” (SET, Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity). We can paraphrase that the doctrine of God’s kingdom and living faith doesn’t change to conform to the various cultures, living circumstances, economic conditions, or norms of the countries or societies in which the children of God live.
Only with eyes of faith can one see the kingdom for what it is, namely, “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As the pillar and ground of truth, it cannot err because the Spirit of truth is leading and guiding it. If one does not see it as such, he or she will not be able to believe what is preached and taught in it nor be able to accept the decisions it makes or positions that it takes. Eventually one will not be content to remain in its fellowship.
The Prophet Zechariah was awakened from sleep and questioned: “What seest thou?” He answered, “I have looked, and behold a candlestick all of gold” (Zechariah 4:2). He saw the kingdom of God in all her beauty even though her citizens are faulty and frail. Focusing on the faults and mistakes of individuals, especially those called as workers, will cause one to doubt that we live in the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth. It is dangerous to become critical of God’s kingdom, and prolonged opposition is a grave sin which may cause one to forever lose sight of the “the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26).
Only by faith are we able to confess, “I believe that there is upon earth a small holy flock, a holy assembly of pure saints under one head, Christ. They are called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, one mind and one understanding. They possess many gifts, but are one in love and without sect or division. Of this assembly I am also part, and a sharer and owner in its blessings through the Holy Spirit“ (LC 159).
There is only one kingdom of God, not many. It is undivided without sect or division. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4–6).
SHZ 208: 5,6
5. The Holy Spirit calls and gathers / and by the spoken gospel gives new birth. / This Spirit never teaches errors, / it makes His church the ground of truth on earth, / creates a new creation by the Word / in hearts He makes to trust what they have heard.
6. These trusting hearts make up His kingdom / wherein the only living hope is found; / the Spirit holds this flock in union, / and here the hearts of men are loosed and bound. / And when the Lord shall resurrect the dead / He'll bring His flock unto himself! Amen.
I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins
Where would any of us be without the forgiveness of sins? Certainly not in God’s kingdom. Neither would we have the hope of eternal life. Every child of God has personally experienced the power of the gospel to remove the burden of sin and guilt or doubt and to experience the joy that follows. He or she can readily testify, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” It is the power by which we make our daily journey as believers, and it is available wherever two or three are gathered together (Matthew 18:20). Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16).
Luther once wrote, “There is no greater service that we can do for our fellow man than to preach the gospel to him.” Jesus authorized his disciples to go and preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins throughout the world (Luke 24:47). That is still our mission two thousand years later, and there are still those who are troubled over their sins and are searching for a gracious God. The Spirit leads them to God’s kingdom, and they joyously receive the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus promised to give the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19) to His disciples and after His resurrection did so by saying, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:22–23). He gave two keys for two specific purposes, both based on love for the undying soul. “The Holy Spirit, then, has the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. With one of the keys, the penitent are released from their sins, and with the other key, the impenitent and disobedient are bound in their evil condition so that they would understand and repent. With all this also, the Holy Spirit reveals the love of God” (BF).In God’s kingdom we are “quick to forgive and slow to bind” (Raattamaa).
Hearing the Voice of the Spirit in the Spoken Word
“Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). The Spirit is in the spoken word and gives life to it. It won’t return to God void (Isaiah 55:11). Preaching is an office of the Holy Spirit and the means by which God makes known His will to us. The Spirit comes as a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) that speaks to our conscience. It is the voice of the Good Shepherd. The flock of God’s children knows His voice and will flee from the voice of a strange shepherd (John 10:4–5). The Good Shepherd leads His sheep, and they follow in His footsteps.
“When the Holy Spirit governs over the congregation, there will be no conflict between the Bible and the congregation” (JU) nor between the written Word and the Spirit. The Spirit creates unity of faith and doctrine in the congregation, not different understandings. The Scripture is not “of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20), that is, not left to each individual’s interpretation.
Hearing the Voice of the Spirit in the Congregation
We also need to listen for and hear the voice of the Spirit when the congregation faces difficult issues or questions. The Spirit then works to enlighten and preserve souls. The exhortation, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit sayeth unto the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29 and 3:6, 13, 22), is always needed in congregation life and must be taken personally.
We are also wise to avoid “foolish and unlearned questions” which cause strife (2 Timothy 2:23), as our opinions cannot enlighten matters better than the Word and Spirit can. We can unwittingly assist the enemy of souls by communicating hearsay or rumor.
Faith teaches that the Spirit speaks in the congregation, but we can be slow to recognize His voice. We can relate to Jacob who suddenly awoke from his sleep, realized where he was, and exclaimed “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17).
The exhortation to “hear what the Spirit sayeth unto the churches” was given as a conclusion to the Spirit’s testimony of the faith, life, and ministry of seven individual servants of the Word (angel of the church). Yet it was not made only to the individual servant but also to his home congregation and “to the churches,” that is, to all in God’s kingdom. Five of them had fallen deeply and were urged to repent. They could not of themselves understand how or where they had fallen, and therefore the Holy Spirit revealed it to the congregation. They had become spiritually “dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11). Perhaps it was due to unforgiven sin, weariness, carelessness, or carnal mindedness.
Only by hearing the voice of the Spirit, which is the voice of the Good Shepherd, and being obedient to it can the work of the Holy Spirit continue in one’s own life, and only then can one remain heaven acceptable. Sin and the threefold enemy work to silence the voice of the Holy Spirit in our consciences. We need to arm ourselves with “the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesian 6:17) in order to protect ourselves from the false sermons and lies of the enemy of soul.
7. May the armor of the Spirit / be upon us ev'ry day, / for the enemy attacks us / and surrounds us on this way.
8. Shield of faith, sword of the Spirit- / may they ever brightly gleam! / Let us wear salvation's helmet, / girt with truth and shod with peace.
9. Let us bravely battle onward / in the path our King has trod, / for our hero goes before us / with His vestures dipped in blood.
I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body and in Life Everlasting
If Christ did not arise from the dead, our faith is in vain and our sins are not forgiven (1 Corinthians 15:17). If there is nothing beyond the grave and “in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The anchor of our soul is the hope of eternal life that we have (Hebrews 6:19), and it is the reason why we are able to continue in faith and endure the adversities of life. The Greeks mocked Paul for preaching about the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32), for it is incomprehensible to the human mind. In this life we are comforted by the knowledge that we will arise with a resurrected new body free from sin and corruption.
Many places in the Bible testify of everlasting life, but it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we believe it to be true. Jesus promised, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). We are incapable of comprehending what that place is like and what it means to live forever without the sin, corruption, and the sorrows that weigh us down, but we know that the “gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error
How can we discern between the Spirit of truth and that of the spirit of error? Apostle John wrote, “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). In other words, the Spirit of God unites one with God, His Word, and to the congregation. Apostle Paul described the Holy Spirit by His fruits (Galatians 5:22–24) of which love, joy, and peace are mentioned. Luther adds that the Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the true faith” (SC, The Third Article of the Creed).
On the other hand, the spirit of error scatters the flock and produces the works of the flesh which include “variance” when subgroups form within the congregation, and “sedition” when the sense of fellowship and togetherness with the congregation is lost, and then finally “heresy,” which is a choosing to go one’s own way (Galatians 5:20). Paul warned, “There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you” (1Corinthians 11:19).
The spirit of error works through false prophets, and John instructs, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Jesus warned, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:15–16). False prophets are known by their fruits.
A speaker brother was once asked how one could avoid falling into heresy, and he offered the Scriptural advice, “keep faith and a good conscience (1Timothy 1:19), study the Bible (John 5:39), and pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17).” If this advice were adhered to, the enemy would not gain a foothold in the congregation from which to do his work and there would be no heresies and no one would lose faith. We also need to live in childlike obedience to the gospel and endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
Congregation Life Is the Setting in which the Holy Spirit Works
The workplace of the Holy Spirit is the congregation. How fortunate we are to experience a time of visitation of the Spirit in our land and generation! In order to benefit from this work, we must be a partaker of congregation life. The work of the Holy Spirit takes place in so many forms through the means of preaching and teaching! By them He calls, gathers, and enlightens. The preaching of God’s Word is the oldest work form and most important one. Sunday School, Bible Class, Day Circle, camp work, diaconal work, publication work, and other areas of work help us and the coming generation keep faith and a good conscience. At the gatherings of God’s children we often find that God has prepared a grace table for us in the presence of our enemies to strengthen and nourish us for the battle ahead (Psalm 23:5). Let us not become weary of gathering together as a congregation nor be tempted to belittle the work of the Spirit by our absence. Let us continue to bring our children and grandchildren to be blessed by Jesus, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).
The enemy vigorously tries to keep us away from congregation activities and at the very moment we need them most. He offers many excuses. The exhortation to the severely tried, doubting, and weary Hebrew believers was “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
I Believe in the Holy Spirit
Together we confess, “I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”
SC, Luther’s Small Catechism, AALC/LLC.
LC, Luther’s Large Catechism, Augsburg Publishing House, 1967.
BF, By Faith – The Holy Spirit, AALC/LLC, 1982/2007.
WLS, What Luther Says, Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
JU, “The Holy Ghost as our comforter, teacher and leader,” Juhani Uljas, 2007 SRK Speakers and Elders Meeting
SET, Sermons, Epistles, Trinity Volume 9, - Luther’s Epistle Sermons, Trinity Sunday to Advent, Lenker, J.N., The Luther Press, 1909