Five Common Misconceptions about the Holy Spirit 

This Sunday (19th May) is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day in the church calendar where we give thanks for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the people of God. You can read all about it in Acts 2 or listen to a sermon on it here. 

Last year for Pentecost Sunday I wrote about ‘How the Holy Spirit Helps Us’. This year, I’d like to share five of the most common misconceptions about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It would seem to me that the Holy Spirit is not only the ‘shy member of the Trinity’ (Frederick Dale Bruner), but also the most misunderstood. 

The following extract from the book ‘You Are a Theologian’ by JT English and Jen Wilkin is a helpful summary of the five most common misconceptions about the Holy Spirit: 

1. The Holy Spirit Is a Force 

The Spirit is sometimes conceived of almost like a superpower Christians invoke when they are in need of help or an emotional lift. Rather than a person, He is seen as an impersonal force. This essentially commodifies God, in much the same way we are prone to commodify our neighbours. We tend to value those in helping roles only for the help they offer, and the same can be true of the way we think of the Spirit. We conceive of Him as a button to push for service, rather than as a person to love and worship. He is not a force or a power, though He can be forceful and powerful. He is a person. He is fully God and worthy of honour, adoration, worship, and praise. 

2. The Holy Spirit Comes and Goes 

It is common to hear Christians invite the Spirit to descend or to blow through a room. It is also common to hear people express that they feel God is far off. It is true that we hear scriptural accounts of the Spirit descending on someone or departing from someone, but these accounts speak of a particular work of the Spirit. They are not describing the indwelling of the Spirit that all believers receive, but a nonnormative work. When we receive the Spirit at our conversion, He is always in us even when we don’t feel His presence or act like someone indwelt with the Spirit. He is also omnipresent, everywhere fully present, though we may not perceive Him to be. 

3. The Holy Spirit Is an Emotion or Feeling 

Got goose bumps? That’s the Spirit’s presence. Missing goose bumps? No Spirit detected. In our understanding, the Holy Spirit is often tied to the way we feel. We describe certain praise music, prayers, or worship services as “Spirit-filled” and others as average or boring. Many would say the Spirit speaks to them through Psalm 23, but fewer would say He speaks to them through the dietary laws of Leviticus. Yet, all Scripture is God-breathed. We say, “I am praying for peace about this decision,” as though the Spirit gives peace before we should act. But the Bible says we know the good we ought to do and we still don’t do it (James 4:17). In other words, sometimes we need to do the right thing whether our liver quivers or not. Our feelings matter, but they are not necessarily reliable indicators of the Spirit’s presence or work. The Spirit is not a feeling—He’s a person!  

4. The Holy Spirit Is Dramatic 

Signs and wonders, healings, dramatic conversions, deliverance from addictions or life-threatening circumstances—we are not wrong to associate these with the Holy Spirit. They are certainly so. But if we only associate the dramatic with the Spirit, we do Him an injustice. If we only celebrate our pastor for showing up big at weddings, funerals, and baptisms but fail to recognize his steady, faithful presence in matters big and small, we diminish the credit he is due. Similarly, those who love the Spirit as a person recognize His activity and sustaining care in the everyday as well as in the extraordinary. 

5. The Holy Spirit Is Nice, but Not Necessary 

A common response to an overly dramatized view of the Spirit is to downplay His role. It is sometimes joked that the functional Trinity of many churches is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Bible. The implicit assumption is that Scripture is all the pneuma (Spirit) we need. But, while it is important to uphold the work of the Spirit through Scripture, we must also uphold His very real presence and work in our hearts and minds and lives on a daily basis. He is the Helper without whom we would not be able to retain our justification, and without whom we would not be able to effect our sanctification. It is not only His words that we need, but His activity. He is essential to our lives. He, the Spirit, is essential to life and godliness! 

Grace and peace, 

Adam