Each person of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is fully and truly divine. God is one essence, not a jumble of parts or pieces put together. The persons of the Trinity are not the building blocks that combine to form God, they are each God. Yet God has revealed to us the great mystery of the Trinity: there is a plurality within God’s oneness. Within the godhead there are persons, or self-distinctions. Each person is distinct from the others in the way they eternally relate amongst themselves and in the roles they take on in God’s works. While the relationship between the Father and Son as well as the roles they play is something many Christians are knowledgeable about, the Holy Spirit is frequently perceived as mysterious, hard to understand, and mystical. The truth is, while the Holy Spirit is quite different from the Father and the Son, the Bible tells us a lot about the Spirit’s relationship to the other persons of the Trinity as well as his role in God’s works.
The Spirit’s Unique Relationship With the Father and the Son
If you were to describe the Spirit’s relationship with the Father and Son in a single word it would be “procession.” While the Father is uncreated and the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. Jesus explained this to his disciples at the Last Supper, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). Here Jesus says he sends the Helper, that is, the Holy Spirit from the Father. The Spirit comes to us at the behest of the Father and the Son. A little later Jesus again said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Jesus tells his disciples and us that the ascension was necessary because it provides a period of time for the Holy Spirit to come and gather Christ’s sheep into his fold. After Christ ascends to the right hand of the Father, the Spirit proceeds to earth in power.
The word “proceed” was chosen by the Church to describe the Holy Spirit’s relation to the Father and Son for at least two reasons. First, it shows the unity of the Trinity. The Father and Son together, working as one, send the Spirit to complete God’s work. Secondly, it captures something of the biblical way of speaking about the Spirit. The word for Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek can also mean “wind” or “breath” (see Psalm 33:6 or Acts 2:2 as examples). Though it is hard to understand and articulate, the Bible indicates there is a difference between the way the Son comes from the Father, eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, eternal procession. Perhaps the reason for the difference is what Augustine suggested: There is no end to begetting, the son could beget another son, and so forth. However since the Spirit is sent, not begotten, he completes the Trinity with three persons. In this way we see that God is not a static singularity (only Father), nor is he a never-ending emanation of being (just Father and Son).
The Unique Roles of the Spirit
In addition to having a unique relationship with the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit has a unique role in the works of God. The Spirit does particular work that the Father and Son do not. Each person participates in all of God’s works as they are fully divine, yet they do not participate in identical ways. Stated briefly, the Spirit’s role is to bring the works of God to completion in creation and redemption. The Spirit is the person who ensures that the plans of the Father, which are accomplished through the Son, are brought to fruition.
We see this unique role of the Spirit in the work of creation on the very first page of Scripture. God the Father created a universe by the power of his word. The earth at this point is described as being “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2). In other words, it is chaotic, tumultuous, and covered in darkness. The story goes on to reveal that the Spirit of God is present, hovering over the primordial chaos. What happens next in the narrative is truly incredible, this chaos is steadily organized into realms of creation (day and night, Heaven and earth, seas and dry land). These realms are each given rulers (the sun and moon, birds and fish, land creatures and humanity). What is the Spirit doing during all this? Hovering over the earth, ensuring that the Father’s plan to create through the Son, is effectual. As the Psalmist says of the animals, “When you [God] send forth your Spirit, they are created” (Psalm 104:30). The Spirit presides over and finishes the work of creation.
The Spirit also has a unique role to play in God’s work of redemption. The Father’s plan is to save sinners through Christ, his Son. The Holy Spirit makes this happen. First, the Spirit caused the Virgin Mary to become pregnant, thus enabling the Son to become truly human (Luke 1:35). Second, the Bible teaches that the Spirit equipped and qualified Christ to do the work of Redemption. The Spirit came upon Christ in a powerful way at his baptism, the start of his redemptive ministry (Luke 3:22). In fact, the Bible tells us the Spirit was given to Christ in all of his fullness to aid him in the work of redemption (John 3:34). Even as he went to the cross, it was with the help of the Spirit that Christ offered his life for our sins (Hebrews 9:14). Everything the Son did for our salvation was made possible with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit’s role in redemption doesn’t stop with Christ’s death and resurrection. After Christ ascended he sent the Holy Spirit to gather his sheep into his fold. The Spirit does this by inspiring the authors of the Bible so that people like you and me would know who Jesus is and what he has done for our salvation (1 Corinthians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:21). Through the word the Spirit builds the church as sinners are called to repentance and faith (Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:22; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 12:4). The Spirit dwells in the church, teaches and guides Christians (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-14; Acts 5:32; Heb. 10:15; I John 2:27). The Holy Spirit is active, right now, making effective the Father’s plan to redeem his elect.
It is clear from the Bible that both in his relationship to the other two persons of the Trinity and in his role in the works of God, the Holy Spirit is unique.