What is the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of a Christian?
When Lutheran students learn about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, they are taught to call it “sanctification.” That’s the word Martin Luther used in his catechisms. It comes straight out of 1 Corinthians 6:11 (emphasis added): “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Sanctification is a word that’s understood well when it’s pronounced poorly. A little tyke might struggle to articulate each letter and say something like “saint-ification.” That’s right! The Holy Spirit “saint-ifies” people. The “sanct-” part of the word sanctification comes from the Latin term that gives us the word saint. The “-fication” part comes from the Latin term that gives us the word factory. The Holy Spirit is a saint factory, or, as Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “He makes holy.”
Making people holy is quite a task. If you’ve browsed the headlines, you recognize that people are not sinless. Quite the opposite. When Christians search their own hearts and compare their findings to God’s demands, they have reason to acknowledge that they are no better. It would take an act of God to saint-ify a sinner. Fortunately, miracles are the Holy Spirit’s specialty.
How does the Holy Spirit perform these miracles? Some of his methods are memorably summarized in the hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord.”
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord!
May all your graces be outpoured
On each believer’s mind and heart;
Your fervent love to them impart.
Lord, by the brightness of your light
You gather and in faith unite
Your Church from ev’ry land and tongue:
This to your praise, O Lord our God, be sung.
(Christian Worship 585:1 ©1941 Concordia Publishing House. Used with permission)
Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord
The Holy Spirit is indeed “God and Lord.” The Bible puts him on the same level as God the Father and God the Son. Matthew 28:19 says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The immense power God the Father used to create the world, the supernatural love that propelled Jesus into and out of the tomb—the Holy Spirit flexes all that miraculous power and love when he performs the miracle of sanctification.
May all your graces be outpoured
The Holy Spirit makes people holy by pouring out grace. Most people try to become perfect by incrementally improving their behavior. That doesn’t work. What works is when the Holy Spirit gives Jesus’ perfect life to sinners to cover all their failures. What grace!
During Jesus’ earthly life, he perfectly did everything God required. It’s as though God had a recipe card, but instead of it being a recipe for cupcakes, it is a recipe for saints. The recipe calls for an entire gallon of good behavior! Jesus had more than enough goodness in him to fill up the jug. (Of course, he did. He’s God.) Jesus filled God’s law full. He fulfilled it.
The Holy Spirit takes Jesus’ holiness and pours it onto unholy people. He pours through some surprising spouts. Baptism looks like tap water plus a few words, something a child could do. In fact, a child could baptize someone. Baptism is powerful not because of the baptizer but because of the Holy Spirit. He’s pouring out Jesus to replace a sinner’s guilt. A person reading a Bible in a coffee shop looks ordinary. So do the friends in the corner talking about Jesus. But through a book or a conversation the Holy Spirit does something extraordinary. He pours out Jesus to make people holy.
The Holy Spirit is delighted to use simple things and ordinary people to sanctify sinners. On the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter taught that every believer can work in the Holy Spirit’s saint factory: “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:18).
When the Holy Spirit pours out the grace of Jesus, then people who could never be holy on their own are sanctified because of Jesus’ holiness.
On each believer’s mind and heart
Sanctification affects a Christian’s mind and heart. In John 14:26, Jesus told his disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” The word Advocate was translated “Comforter” in the King James Version because the Holy Spirit comforts Christian hearts by assuring them that God loves them. No matter how Christians’ lives are going, whether they feel comforted or not, they know what Jesus has done for them. The Holy Spirit is always ready to remind them.
Your fervent love to them impart
When the Holy Spirit pours Jesus into people’s hearts and minds, they start to produce fruit like a well-watered apple tree. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). When Christians produce those things, it’s not because they are afraid they will get into trouble if they don’t; it’s because the Holy Spirit has watered their tree. He’s making them holy in a new way, imparting some of God’s fervent love to them so their own acts of love are as natural as a fruit tree producing fruit.
Lord, by the brightness of your light you gather and in faith unite your church from ev’ry land and tongue
Living a holy life on one’s own is challenging, so the Holy Spirit unites Christians. Christians congregate wherever the Holy Spirit shines Jesus’ light in this dark world. Like moths to a flame, Christians gather and unite in churches, homes, schools, and more. There they hold one another accountable when someone does something spiritually dangerous. They assure one another, “I forgive you, and Jesus does too.” Even though many Christians live far apart or were born in different millennia, all those diverse Christians across continents and centuries believe in one Lord, united in one faith by the same Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit takes Jesus’ holiness and pours it onto unholy people.
This to your praise, O Lord our God, be sung. Alleluia, alleluia
The work of the Holy Spirit is to make people holy. He instantaneously makes saints when he gives the gift of faith in Jesus. Christian behavior is still a work in progress, but there is progress. Someday it will be perfect. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit will finish what he started. He will resurrect Christians and preserve them in holiness, never to die again.
That’s the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian. But what’s the role of a Christian toward the Holy Spirit? We praise him. “Alleluia!” to the God who does not leave us as sinners. The Holy Spirit saint-ifies us! Alleluia!
Author: Nathan Wordell
Volume 110, Number 05
Issue: May 2023