The Operation of the Holy Spirit in General

by Louis Berkhof


As already intimated in the preceding, in passing from Christology to Soteriology, we pass from the objective to the subjective, from the work which God accomplished for us in Christ and which is in its sacrificial aspect a finished work, to the work which He realizes as time goes on in the hearts and lives of believers, and in which they are permitted, and also expected, to co-operate. And in the construction of this doctrine, too, we should be guided by Scripture. Dr. Bavinck calls attention to a difficulty that arises here, since the Bible seems to teach on the one hand that the whole work of redemption is finished in Christ, so that nothing remains for man to do; and on the other hand, that the really decisive thing must still be accomplished in and through man. Its teaching respecting the way of redemption seems to be both autosoteric and heterosoteric. Therefore it is necessary to guard against all one-sidedness, and to avoid both the Scylla of Nomism, as it appears in Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, and Neonomism, and the Charybdis of Antinomianism, as it reared its head, sometimes as a specific doctrine and sometimes as a mere doctrinal tendency, in some of the sects, such as the Nicolaitans, the Alexandrian Gnostics, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Anabaptists of the more fanatic type, the followers of Agricola, the Moravians, and some of the Plymouth brethren. Nomism denies the sovereign election of God by which He has infallibly determined, not on the basis of the foreseen attitude or works of men, but according to His good pleasure, who would and would not be saved; rejects the idea that Christ by His atoning death, not only made salvation possible, but actually secured it for all those for whom He laid down His life, so that eternal life is in the most absolute sense of the word a free gift of God, and in its bestowal human merits are not taken into consideration; and maintains, either that man can save himself without the aid of renewing grace (Pelagianism), or can accomplish this with the assistance of divine grace (Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism). On the other hand Antinomianism, which is sometimes said to be favored by hyper-Calvinism, holds that the imputation of our sins to Christ made Him personally a sinner, and that the application of His righteousness to us makes us personally righteous, so that God sees no sin in us any more; that the union of believers with Christ is a “union of identity” and makes them in all respects one with Him; that the work of the Holy Spirit is quite superfluous, since the sinner’s redemption was completed on the cross, or — even more extreme — that the work of Christ was also unnecessary, since the whole matter was settled in the eternal decree of God; that the sinner is justified in the resurrection of Christ or even in the counsel of redemption, and therefore does not need justification by faith or receives in this merely a declaration of a previously accomplished justification; and that believers are free from the law, not only as a condition of the covenant of works, but also as a rule of life. It virtually denies the personality and work of the Holy Spirit, and in some cases even the objective atonement through Christ. Both atonement and justification are from eternity. The penitent sinner wrongly proceeds on the assumption that God is angry with him and merely needs information on that point. Moreover, he should realize that whatever sins he may commit cannot affect his standing with God.

Scripture teaches us to recognize a certain economy in the work of creation and redemption and warrants our speaking of the Father and our creation, of the Son and our redemption, and of the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. The Holy Spirit has not only a personality of His own, but also a distinctive method of working; and therefore we should distinguish between the work of Christ in meriting salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit in applying it. Christ met the demands of divine justice and merited all the blessings of salvation. But His work is not yet finished. He continues it in heaven, in order to put those for whom He laid down His life in possession of all that He has merited for them. Even the work of application is a work of Christ, but a work which He accomplishes through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Though this work stands out in the economy of redemption as the work of the Holy Spirit, it cannot for a moment be separated from the work of Christ. It is rooted in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and carries this to completion, and that not without the co-operation of the subjects of redemption. Christ Himself points out the close connection when He says: “Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He shall guide you into all the truth: for He shall not speak from Himself; but what things soever He shall hear, these shall He speak: and He shall declare unto you the things that are to come. He shall glorify me, for He shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you.” John 16:13,14.


Scripture clearly shows that not all the operations of the Holy Spirit are part and parcel of the saving work of Jesus Christ. Just as the Son of God is not only the Mediator of redemption, but also the Mediator of creation, so the Holy Spirit, as represented in Scripture, is operative, not only in the work of redemption, but also in the work of creation. Naturally, Soteriology is concerned with His redemptive work only, but for its proper understanding it is highly desirable to take some account of His more general operations.

1. THE GENERAL OPERATIONS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. It is a well known fact that the trinitarian distinctions are not as clearly revealed in the Old Testament as in the New. The term “Spirit of God,” as it is employed in the Old Testament, does not always denote a person, and even in cases in which the personal idea is clearly present, does not always specifically point to the third person of the Holy Trinity. It is sometimes used figuratively to denote the breath of God, Job 32:8; Ps. 33:6, and in some instances is simply a synonym for “God,” Ps. 139:7,8; Isa. 40:13. It serves very commonly to designate the power of life, the principle that causes the creatures to live, and that is in a unique way peculiar to God. The spirit dwelling in the creatures, and on which their very existence depends, is from God and binds them to God, Job 32:8; 33:4; 34:14,15; Ps. 104;29; Isa. 42:5. God is called the “God (or, “Father”) of the spirits of all flesh,” Num. 16:22; 27:16; Heb. 12:9. In some of these cases it is quite evident that the Spirit of God is not a mere power but a person. The very first passage in which the Spirit is mentioned, Gen. 1:2, already calls attention to this life-giving function, and this is particularized in connection with the creation of man, Gen. 2:7. The Spirit of God generates life and carries the creative work of God to completion, Job 33:4; 34:14,15; Ps. 104:29,30; Isa. 42:5. It is evident from the Old Testament that the origin of life, its maintenance, and its development depend on the operation of the Holy Spirit. The withdrawal of the Spirit means death.

Extraordinary exhibitions of power, feats of strength and daring, are also referred to the Spirit of God. The judges whom God raised up for the deliverance of Israel were evidently men of considerable ability and of unusual daring and strength, but the real secret of their accomplishments lay not in themselves, but in a supernatural power that came upon them. It is said repeatedly that “the spirit of Jehovah came (mightily) upon them,” Judg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14. It was the Spirit of God that enabled them to work deliverance for the people. There is also a clear recognition of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the intellectual sphere. Elihu speaks of this when he says: “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” Job 32:8. Intellectual insight, or the ability to understand the problems of life, is ascribed to an illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit. The heightening of artistic skill is also ascribed to the Spirit of the Lord, Ex. 28:3; 31:3; 35:30 ff. Certain men, characterized by special endowments, were qualified for the finer work that was to be done in connection with the construction of the tabernacle and the adornment of the priestly garments, cf. also Neh. 9:20. Again, the Spirit of the Lord is represented as qualifying men for various offices. The Spirit was put, and rested, upon the seventy who were appointed to assist Moses in ruling and judging the people of Israel, Num. 11:17,25,26. These also received the spirit of prophecy temporarily, to attest their calling. Joshua was chosen as the successor of Moses, because he had the Spirit of the Lord, Num. 27:18. When Saul and David were anointed as kings, the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, to qualify them for their important task, I Sam. 10:6,10; 16:13,14. Finally, the Spirit of God also clearly operated in the prophets as the Spirit of revelation. David says, “The Spirit of Jehovah spake by me, and His word was upon my tongue,” II Sam. 23:2. Nehemiah testifies in Neh. 9:30: “Yet many years didst thou bear with them, and testifiedst against them by thy Spirit through the prophets: yet they would not give ear.” Ezekiel speaks of a vision by the Spirit of Jehovah, 11:24, and in Zech. 7:12 we read: “Yea, they made their heart as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which Jehovah of hosts had sent in His Spirit by the former prophets.” Cf. also I Kings 22:24; I Pet. 1:11; II Pet. 1:21.

2. THE RELATION BETWEEN THE GENERAL AND THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. There is a certain similarity between the general and the special operations of the Holy Spirit. By His general operations He originates, maintains, strengthens, and guides all life, organic, intellectual, and moral. He does this in different ways and in harmony with the objects concerned. Something similar may be said of His special operation. In the redemptive sphere He also originates the new life, fructifies it, guides it in its development, and leads it to its destiny. But in spite of this similarity, there is nevertheless an essential difference between the operations of the Holy Spirit in the sphere of creation and those in the sphere of redemption or re-creation. In the former He originates, maintains, develops and guides the life of the natural creation, restrains for the present the deteriorating and devastating influence of sin in the lives of men and of society, and enables men to maintain a certain order and decorum in their communal life, to do what is outwardly good and right in their relations to each other, and to develop the talents with which they were endowed at creation. In the latter, on the other hand, He originates, maintains, develops, and guides the new life that is born from above, is nourished from above, and will be perfected above, — a life that is heavenly in principle, though lived on earth. By His special operation the Holy Spirit overcomes and destroys the power of sin, renews man in the image of God, and enables him to render spiritual obedience to God, to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a spiritual leaven in every sphere of life. While the work of the Holy Spirit in creation in general undoubtedly has a certain independent significance, yet it is made subordinate to the work of redemption. The entire life of the elect, also that preceding their new birth, is determined and governed by God with a view to their final destiny. Their natural life is so regulated that, when it is renewed, it will answer to the purpose of God.


As the covenant in which God made provision for the salvation of sinners is called the covenant of grace, and as the Mediator of the covenant is said to have appeared “full of grace,” so that we can receive out of His fulness “grace for grace,” John 1:16,17, so the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace,” since He takes the “grace of Christ” and confers it on us.

1. THE BIBLICAL USE OF THE TERM “GRACE”. The word “grace” is not always used in the same sense in Scripture, but has a variety of meanings. In the Old Testament we have the word chen (adj. chanun), from the root chanan. The noun may denote gracefulness or beauty, Prov. 22:11; 31:30, but most generally means favour or good-will. The Old Testament repeatedly speaks of finding favour in the eyes of God or of man. The favour so found carries with it the bestowal of favours or blessings. This means that grace is not an abstract quality, but is an active, working principle, manifesting itself in beneficent acts, Gen. 6:8; 19:19; 33:15; Ex. 33:12; 34:9; I Sam. 1:18; 27:5; Esth. 2:7. The fundamental idea is, that the blessings graciously bestowed are freely given, and not in consideration of any claim or merit. The New Testament word charis, from chairein, “to rejoice,” denotes first of all a pleasant external appearance, “loveliness,” “agreeableness,” “acceptableness,” and has some such meaning in Luke 4:22; Col. 4:6. A more prominent meaning of the word, however, is favour or good-will, Luke 1:30; 2:40,52; Acts 2:47; 7:46; 24:27; 25:9. It may denote the kindness or beneficence of our Lord, II Cor. 8:9, or the favour manifested or bestowed by God, II Cor. 9:8 (referring to material blessings); I Pet. 5:10. Furthermore, the word is expressive of the emotion awakened in the heart of the recipient of such favour, and thus acquires the meaning “gratitude” or “thankfulness,” Luke 4:22; I Cor. 10:30; 15:57; II Cor. 2:14; 8:16; I Tim. 1:12. In most of the passages, however, in which the word charis is used in the New Testament, it signifies the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man, effected through the agency of the Holy Spirit. While we sometimes speak of grace as an inherent quality, it is in reality the active communication of divine blessings by the inworking of the Holy Spirit, out of the fulness of Him who is “full of grace and truth,” Rom. 3:24; 5:2,15, 17,20; 6:1; I Cor. 1:4; II Cor. 6:1; 8:9; Eph. 1:7; 2:5,8; 3:7; I Pet. 3:7; 5:12.

2. THE GRACE OF GOD IN THE WORK OF REDEMPTION. A discussion of the grace of God in connection with the work of redemption again calls for several distinctions, which should be borne in mind.

a. In the first place grace is an attribute of God, one of the divine perfections. It is God’s free, sovereign, undeserved favour or love to man, in his state of sin and guilt, which manifests itself in the forgiveness of sin and deliverance from its penalty. It is connected with the mercy of God as distinguished from His justice. This is redemptive grace in the most fundamental sense of the word. It is the ultimate cause of God’s elective purpose, of the sinner’s justification, and of his spiritual renewal; and the prolific source of all spiritual and eternal blessings.

b. In the second place the term “grace” is used as a designation of the objective provision which God made in Christ for the salvation of man. Christ as the Mediator is the living embodiment of the grace of God. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us ... full of grace and truth,” John 1:14. Paul has the appearance of Christ in mind, when he says: “For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men,” Tit. 2:11. But the term is applied not only to what Christ is, but also to what He merited for sinners. When the apostle speaks repeatedly in the closing salutations of his Epistles of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he has in mind the grace of which Christ is the meritorious cause. John says: “The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” John 1:17. Cf. also Eph. 2:7.

c. In the third place the word “grace” is used to designate the favour of God as it is manifested in the application of the work of redemption by the Holy Spirit. It is applied to the pardon which we receive in justification, a pardon freely given by God, Rom. 3:24; 5:2,21; Tit. 3:15. But in addition to that it is also a comprehensive name for all the gifts of the grace of God, the blessings of salvation, and the spiritual graces which are wrought in the hearts and lives of believers through the operation of the Holy Spirit, Acts 11:23; 18:27; Rom. 5:17; I Cor. 15:10; II Cor. 9:14; Eph. 4:7; Jas. 4:5,6; I Pet. 3:7. Moreover, there are clear indications of the fact that it is not a mere passive quality, but also an active force, a power, something that labours, I Cor. 15:10; II Cor. 12:9; II Tim. 2:1. In this sense of the word it is something like a synonym for the Holy Spirit, so that there is little difference between “full of the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power” in Acts 6:5 and 8. The Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace” in Heb. 10:29. It is especially in connection with the teachings of Scripture respecting the application of the grace of God to the sinner by the Holy Spirit, that the doctrine of grace was developed in the Church.

3. THE DOCTRINE OF GRACE IN THE CHURCH. The teachings of Scripture respecting the grace of God stress the fact that God distributes His blessings to men in a free and sovereign manner, and not in consideration of any inherent merit of men; that men owe all the blessings of life to a beneficent, forbearing, and longsuffering God; and especially that all the blessings of the work of salvation are freely given of God, and are in no way determined by supposed merits of men. This is clearly expressed by Paul in the following words: “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory,” Eph. 2:8,9. He strongly emphasizes the fact that salvation is not by works, Rom. 3:20-28; 4:16; Gal. 2:16.

This doctrine did not go entirely unchallenged. In some of the early Church Fathers, particularly of the Eastern Church, we already meet with a strain of moralism that is not in harmony with the Pauline emphasis. The tendency that became apparent in that section of the Church, finally culminated in Pelagianism. Pelagius’ conception of grace was rather unusual. According to Wiggers he comprehended under grace: (a) “The power of doing good (possibilitas boni), and therefore especially free will itself.” (b) “The revelation, the law, and the example of Christ, by which the practice of virtue is made easier for man.” (c) “Our being so made as to be able, by our own will, to abstain from sin, and in God’s giving us the help of His law and His commands, and in His pardoning the previous sins of those who return to Him.” (d) “Supernatural influences on the Christian, by which his understanding is enlightened and the practice of virtue is rendered easy to him.”[Augustinism and Pelagianism, pp. 179-183.] He recognized no direct operation of the Spirit of God on the will of man, but only an indirect operation on the will through the enlightened conscience. In his view the operation of the grace of God was primarily, though not exclusively, external and natural. In opposition to the Pelagian view, that of Augustine is often designated as “the theology of grace.” While Augustine admitted that the word “grace” could be used in a wider sense (natural grace), and that even in the state of integrity it was the grace of God that made it possible for Adam to retain his uprightness, his main emphasis is always on grace as the gift of God to fallen man, which manifests itself in the forgiveness of sin and in the renewal and sanctification of human nature. In view of the total depravity of man he regards this grace as absolutely necessary unto salvation. It is wrought in man by the operation of the Holy Spirit, who dwells and works in the elect and is the principle of all the blessings of salvation. He distinguished between operating or prevenient, and co-operating or subsequent grace. The former enables the will to choose the good, and the latter co-operates with the already enabled will, to do the good. In his struggle with Semi-Pelagianism Augustine emphasized the entirely gratuitous and irresistible character of the grace of God.

In the subsequent struggles the Augustinian doctrine of grace was only partly victorious. Seeberg expresses himself as follows: “Thus the doctrine of ‘grace alone’ came off victorious; but the Augustinian doctrine of predestination was abandoned. The irresistible grace of predestination was driven from the field by the sacramental grace of baptism.”[History of Doctrine, I, p. 382.] During the Middle Ages the Scholastics paid considerable attention to the subject of grace, but did not always agree as to the details of the doctrine. Some approached the Augustinian, and others the Semi-Pelagian conception of grace. In general it may be said that they conceived of grace as mediated through the sacraments, and that they sought to combine with the doctrine of grace a doctrine of merit which seriously compromised the former. The emphasis was not on grace as the favor of God shown to sinners, but on grace as a quality of the soul, which might be regarded as both uncreated (i.e., as the Holy Spirit), or as increated, or wrought in the hearts of men by the Holy Spirit. This infused grace is basic to the development of the Christian virtues, and enables man to acquire merit with God, to merit further grace, though he cannot merit the grace of perseverance. This can only be obtained as a free gift of God. The Scholastics did not, like Augustine, maintain the logical connection between the doctrine of grace and the doctrine of predestination.

The Reformers went back to the Augustinian conception of grace, but avoided his sacramentarianism. They placed the emphasis once more on grace as the unmerited favour of God shown to sinners, and represented it in a manner which excluded all merit on the part of the sinner. Says Smeaton: “The term grace, which in Augustine’s acceptation intimated the inward exercise of love, awakened by the operations of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), and which in the scholastic theology had come to denote a quality of the soul, or the inner endowments, and infused habits of faith, love, and hope, was now taken in the more scriptural and wider sense for the free, the efficacious favour which is in the divine mind.”[The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p. 346.] While the Reformers used the term grace in connection with justification, in other connections they often used the phrase, “the work of the Holy Spirit,” instead of the term grace. While they all emphasized grace in the sense of the internal and saving operation of the Holy Spirit, Calvin especially developed the idea of common grace, that is, a grace which, while it is the expression of the favour of God, does not have a saving effect. According to the splendid dogma-historical study of Dr. H. Kuiper on Calvin on Common Grace,[pp. 179 ff.] he even distinguished three kinds of common grace, namely, universal common grace, general common grace, and covenant common grace. The Arminians departed from the doctrine of the Reformation on this point. According to them God gives sufficient (common) grace to all men, and thereby enables them to repent and believe. If the human will concurs or co-operates with the Holy Spirit and man actually repents and believes, God confers on man the further grace of evangelical obedience and the grace of perseverance. Thus the work of the grace of God is made to depend on the consent of the will of man. There is no such thing as irresistible grace. Says Smeaton in the work already quoted: “It was held that every one could obey or resist; that the cause of conversion was not the Holy Spirit so much as the human will concurring or co-operating; and that this was the immediate cause of conversion.”[p. 357.] Amyraldus of the School of Saumur did not really improve on the Arminian position by his assumption, in connection with the general decree of God, that the sinner, while devoid of the moral ability, yet has the natural ability to believe, an unfortunate distinction, which was also carried over into New England by Edwards, Bellamy and Fuller. Pajon, a disciple of Amyraldus, denied the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in the internal illumination of sinners, in order to their saving conversion. The only thing which he regarded as necessary was that the understanding, which has in itself a sufficiency of clear ideas, should be struck by the light of external revelation. Bishop Warburton in his work on The Doctrine of Grace, or the Office and Operations of the Holy Spirit knows of no saving grace in the accepted sense of the word, but limits the word “grace” to the extraordinary operations of the Spirit in the apostolic age. And Junckheim in his important work denied the supernatural character of God’s work in the conversion of the sinner, and affirmed that the moral power of the word effected all. The Methodist Revival in England and the Great Awakening in our own country brought with them a restoration of the doctrine of saving grace, though in some cases tinged more or less with Arminianism. For Schleiermacher the problem of the guilt of sin was practically non-existent, since he denied the objective existence of guilt. And consequently he knows little or nothing of the saving grace of God. Says Mackintosh: “This central Biblical truth (of divine mercy to sinners) Schleiermacher for the most part passes by in silence, or mentions only in a perfunctory fashion that shows how little he understands it.”[Types of Modern Theology, p. 96.] The doctrine of divine grace is also necessarily obscured in the theology of Albrecht Ritschl. And it may be said to be characteristic of the whole of modern liberal theology, with its emphasis on the goodness of man, that it has lost sight of the necessity of the saving grace of God. The word “grace” has gradually disappeared from the written and spoken word of many theologians, and many of the common people in our day attach no other meaning to the term than that of gracefulness or graciousness. Even Otto calls attention to it in his work on The Idea of the Holy that people fail to sense the deeper meaning of the word.[pp. 32 ff., 145.] The Theology of Crisis deserves credit for stressing anew the need of divine grace, with the result that the word is once more coming into use.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: On which elements of the ordo salutis did the emphasis fall in the first three centuries? In how far did these centuries reveal a drift towards moralism and ceremonialism? How was the doctrine of justification understood? How did Augustine conceive of it? What was his conception of faith? How many kinds of grace did he distinguish? Did grace exclude all merit in his system? Did he conceive of saving grace as amissible? What factors favored the development of the doctrine of good works? How did the Scholastics represent the doctrine of justification? How did the ordo salutis fare in the hands of the Antinomians? How did the rationalistic and pietistic neonomians conceive of it? What other than saving operations are ascribed to the Holy Spirit in Scripture? Which are the different meanings of the word ‘grace’ in Scripture? What does it designate in connection with the work of redemption? What is the relation between the doctrines of free will and grace in history?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. III, pp. 551-690; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Salute, pp. 15-20; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 367-371; Kaftan, Dogmatik, pp. 525-532, 651-661; Warfield, The Plan of Salvation; Seeberg, Heilsordnung (Art. in Hauck’s Realencyclopaedie); Pieper, Christl. Dogm. II, pp.. 473-498; H. Schmid, Doct. Theol., pp. 413-416; K. Dijk, Heilsorde (Art. in Chr. Enc.); Pope, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 348-367; Neil, Grace (Art. in A Protestant Dictionary); Easton, Grace (Art. in the Intern. Standard Bible Ec.); Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, pp. 1-99, 291-414; Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, pp. 339-364; Moffatt, Grace in the New Testament; Bryan, W. S., An Inquiry into the Need of the Grace of God.

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