The Work of the Holy Spirit

I wrote this in early 2014 for members of my church who, at that time, needed more understanding about the work of the Holy Spirit.


The Holy Spirit, being a member of the Trinity, is God who deserves worship and honor just as we worship and honor the Father and the Son. But Christians in general may not fully or accurately understand the role of the Holy Spirit. As a result there is either (a) a fear of the Holy Spirit and His work (hence the tendency to ignore the Holy Spirit in our own studies or in pulpit teaching), or (b) an over-zealous (and often non-biblical) attempt to draw power from the Holy Spirit for daily living or for ministry. The former leads to a willful neglect of the work of the Spirit in our studying and teaching, while the later may lead to errant behaviors commonly known as the “charismatics”.  I believe both stances are problematic, and they bring dishonor to the Holy Spirit. The proper way to understand the work of the Holy Spirit (hence a proper way to worship and honor the Spirit) has to come from a careful examination of the Scriptures, since apart from the Scriptures we fall into human wisdom and understanding, which are limited and often faulty. In Acts 17:11 this is said of the Berean Jewish Christians: “ Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Here the Bereans do not just receive Paul’s message about salvation, but they scrutinize even Paul’s teaching in the light of the Scriptures (in this case, the Old Testament texts). It is this diligence in examining the scriptures that earned them the praise of “a more noble character”. This is what every Christian who desires a more noble character should do.

I do not purport to know all about the Holy Spirit, but a few years ago as I led a small bible study group to examine the work of the Holy Spirit I have paid close attention to both the Scriptures on this subject and on what is happening with the charismatic movement. In my own ministry of preaching and teaching I have been invited to churches which have a more “charismatic leaning”. A few times I have preached at churches which are more fervent in their prayers or singing (one time the praise leader jumps up and down for the entire 30 minutes of singspiration while everyone was standing and singing). I do not mind worshipping and preaching at these churches (partly because my first church in Hong Kong had such leaning in its early years). But there are churches which have moved to the far extreme of charismatic behavior and they regularly engage in speaking in tongues, faith healing, receiving revelations outside of the Scriptures and other bizarre behavior such as “holy laughter”, knocking people to the floor and rolling and gyrating on the floor during prayers. In this paper I want to share what I have observed, and my understanding of what the Scripture says about the work of the Holy Spirit, in the hope that we can maintain our unity in Christ as well as “reaching unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature…” (Ephesians 4:13).

What Christ Taught About the Holy Spirit

Before Christ was crucified he told the disciples about the Holy Spirit in an effort to comfort and assure them. In John 14 and 15, and then in Acts 1, we found the following teachings from Christ:

  1. John 14:16 “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever”. The word “advocate” (Chinese translation is 保惠師) is “paraclete” which means the comforter, counselor, supporter. Christ is our first Advocate, and here we see that the Holy Spirit is also an advocate in the same manner as Christ (“another” advocate), doing what Christ was doing on earth.
  2. Here Christ also points out the Spirit’s deity (with you forever) as eternal existence belongs only to the Godhead.
  3. John 14:17 “the Spirit of Truth”. Here Jesus again confirms Holy Spirit is co-equal to Christ since Jesus claimed that He is the Truth earlier in verses 6. Also, when Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 he asked the disciples to baptize converts “in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. There is no doubt that Holy Spirit is triune God.
  4. John 14:17 “for he lives with you and will be in you”. Here we see the Spirit indwells inside believers. When we become Christians we have the immediate indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us (hence the song “Come Holy Spirit” is theologically problematic). Notice such indwelling does not come in stages. Each Christian receives a full measure of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit when one is saved.
  5. John 14:26 “But 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.” Then in John 15:13 Jesus said “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own, he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” Here Christ teaches the Spirit’s work of illumination – reminding us of Jesus’ words and making us understand the meaning of the Scriptures. While the Holy Spirit does commands and speaks (Acts 11:12, Acts 13:2, Acts 21:11, I Tim 4:1, Heb. 3:7-8, Rev. 2:7), His commands and words are never outside of what Jesus taught and what the Scripture says. In fact the Holy Spirit is the one who inspires the authors of the Scriptures. Nowhere in the bible does it teach that the Spirit reveals truth to individuals outside of the Scriptures.
  6. John 15:8 “When He comes, He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment, in regard to sin….”. Here Jesus teaches that the Holy Spirit is directly involved in our salvation in that one must first be convicted of one’s sinfulness before one turns to Christ for forgiveness.
  7. John 15:14 “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” Here Jesus teaches that the Spirit glorifies Christ by bringing or restoring the glory that originally belongs to Christ, such glory that Christ surrenders in His incarnation and his death on the cross.
  8. Acts 1:5 “For he (John the Baptist) baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”.” The “baptism of the Holy Spirit” has caused a lot of controversies since many charismatics believe that being saved and being baptized by the Holy Spirit are two separate events, so Christians must pursue the baptism of the Holy Spirit or the filling/anointing of the Holy Spirit experience. This is incorrect as we all have the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit when we are saved. Jesus asked these Christians to be baptized by the Holy Spirit since they were saved before Pentecost. In other words this command is for this group of pre-Pentecostal believers. It is not a command for post-Pentecostal believers like us. John in First John 2:20 tells Christians that “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth”. Again in verse 27 John teaches “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit, just as it has taught you, remain in him.” We Christians have the full measure of the indwelling and anointing of the Holy Spirit when we accepted Christ as Savior. There is no need to separately and subsequently seek the baptism or filling or anointing of the Holy Spirit.

What Apostle Paul Taught About the Holy Spirit

Judging from Paul’s many teachings about the work of the Holy Spirit the early church struggled with these issues like we face today. Paul’s teachings about the Holy Spirit and His work are contained in his various writings. Below is a summary:

  1. The Holy Spirit sanctifies us after we are converted, and gives us life and peace – “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” (Roman 8:5) By “living in the Spirit” we can be victorious over sin (Galatians 5:16-21)and have the fruit of the Spirit  (Galatians 5:22-23)
  2. The Holy Spirit determines and gives different spiritual gifts to every Christians for the purpose of serving… and edifying others (“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”, I Cor 12:7). A diverse list of spiritual gifts is given in this chapter, and also in Roman 12.
  3. The Holy Spirit unites Christians into one body and indwells in the hearts of all Christians — “for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink”. Also in Galatians 4:6 Paul wrote “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his son into your hearts.” Notice Paul teaches that every Christian has been baptized and indwelled by the Holy Spirit when they are converted, and it is not a subsequent event after one is converted.
  4. The Corinthians Church faced many serious issues including the issue of speaking in tongue and Paul addressed it in I Cor 14. I will write more about the issue of speaking in tongue below.
  5. The Holy Spirit assures us of our salvation and sonship – “…Having believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory”. (Eph 1:14) Also Paul wrote in Roman 8:16 “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children”.
  6. The Spirit gives us hope even in the midst of our suffering by reminding us of the great love that God has for us – “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us”. (Roman 5:5).

About Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is definitely a spiritual gift that comes from the Spirit (I Cor 12). But many in the charismatic movement believe speaking in tongues is a sign of spiritual blessing or maturity, so they pursue this spiritual gift. But based on what Paul teaches in I Cor 14, unless there is interpretation no one will understand what is being said so it brings no benefit to the church.  I have heard recordings from charismatic meetings wherein the speakers proceeded to speak in tongues. What they utter is gibberish (strange sounds or intonation), and there was no interpretation at all.

There is a common misunderstanding that speaking in tongues means one utters some strange sounds which are not understandable by others. But actually the speaking in tongues recorded in the bible is not gibberish, but actual language and dialects which are understandable to those who know the language or dialect. For example, an English-speaking person who does not speak any Cantonese suddenly speaks fluent Cantonese under the power of the Holy Spirit, and a Cantonese-speaking person present could interpret it for those who do not understand Cantonese. Notice how Luke describes the speaking in tongues during Pentecost: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.  Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:4-8) As you can see, those who spoke in tongues did not utter strange gibberish, but actual language and dialects which can be easily interpreted by one who speaks that language or dialect.

In the Book of Acts there are three instances where Christians spoke in tongues. Other than at the aforementioned Pentecostal event, in Acts 10:46 it was recorded that gentile (friends and relatives of Cornelius) also spoke in tongues. Again know languages and dialects are spoken since the Jews who accompanied Peter understood what they said. The third instance is recorded in Acts 19:6 when 12 Christians from the Ephesus church spoke in tongues in the presence of Paul. Each of these three occurrences had a specific purpose which relates to evangelism and confirmation of God’s power. The rarity of its occurrence even during Apostolic times, plus the fact that many faithful servants of God throughout the ages did not speak in tongues regularly (or at all) seems to indicate that this spiritual gift is not something one should pursue today.

Speaking in Tongues/Miracles and Revelations Still Exist Today?

Is speaking in tongue still a spiritual gift that exists today? Of course charismatics would insist that not only it still exists, but it is necessary as a proof of salvation. A similar but important question that can be asked is: do signs and wonders, including miraculous healing, still exist today? Charismatics would argue vehemently that they still exist (that is why they do miraculous healing). A final question along the same line is: is the Holy Spirit still revealing new truth today? Those in the charismatic movement who believe in the existence of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, miracles, extra-biblical revelation are called Continualist, whereas those who believe these gifts have ceased are called Cessationists.

While I cannot say for sure that speaking in tongues and signs/wonders have ceased completely today, I am very certain that there is no more new revelation apart from the Scriptures because the canonicity of the Scriptures is complete when all 66 books were written. So if anyone tells me he or she received new revelations from God I would reject it completely.

Speaking in tongues and miracles/wonders existed for specific purposes – to confirm the identity of the person as a servant of God, and to confirm the gospel message. It is not for the purpose of self-edification/glorification or sensationalism. Today the Scriptures and the gospel message is readily available, so there is little need for signs and wonders except in very special and necessary environments (still I would be cautious when there are reports of signs and wonders in certain parts of the world). I must say many charismatic evangelists who appear constantly on TV and claim that they perform miracles (while asking for donations) are most probably fraudulent. Observing how some extreme charismatics descend into bizarre behavior or even fraudulent claim of miraculous healing, it is difficult for me to accept what they exhibited truly come from the Holy Spirit.

The Charismatic Movement in the U.S.

According to an article in the October 2013 Christianity Today, Pew Survey 14% (305 million) of the world’s professing Christians in the Charismatic movement in 2011. Today this number has grown to 500 million. In the U.S. it is estimated that more than half of all Christians are in this movement. It represents the fastest growing segment of Christianity. The Pentecostal denomination is of course a huge force in this movement and it consists of the Assemblies of God, Foursquare Churches, Vineyard Churches, Open Bible Church, Calvary Chapels, Church of God, etc. But many independent charismatic groups, including some mega-churches, such as the Bethel Church in Redding, are growing rapidly. The Christianity Today article can be read at  To watch the “Tunnel of Fire” at the Bethel Church click on

Charismatic movement in the U.S. has a relatively short history. The movement is said to be currently in the “Third Wave”. The First Wave started in 1901 at Bethel Bible College, Topeka, Kansas. A lady named Agnes Ozman received what she called the baptism of the Spirit and spoke in tongues. The practice then became part of the Holiness movement of the church in the United States. In 1906, tongues were spoken on Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, California, and out of these two events in 1901 and 1906 grew the mainline Pentecostal denominations. The First Wave lasted all the way to the late 1950’s.

The Second Wave started in 1960 in Van Nuys, Southern California (not far from the Azusa Street Mission).  Father Dennis Bennett, an Episcopal priest, announced to his congregation that he had personally spoken in tongues and that he believed that this should be the pattern for the church. By the late 60’s this movement had spread to the Catholic churches.

The Third Wave originated in 1982 with John Wimber when he left the Calvary Chapels to pastor The Vineyard Church in Anaheim, CA. Also in 1982 Wimber began teaching a class at Fuller Seminary called “Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth” which as part of the class time included healing the sick and casting out demons. At Fuller Wimber connected with C. Peter Wagner, an “expert” on church growth from the Fuller World School of Missions. Wimber was of the view that present evangelism is not truly effective because it is not accompanied by the “in-breaking of the kingdom” in signs and wonders, as was true of Jesus’ ministry. Wimber coined the term “Power Encounters” for these supernatural manifestations of God in the life of Christ. Under Wimber’s leadership the Anaheim Vineyard Church grew rapidly and spawned thousands of other Vineyard churches. These are what they believe in:

  • Sign Gifts – They believe that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, healings, and miracles are all continuing today.
  • Spiritual Warfare Movement – They believe that Christians can be demon possessed.
  • Highly Ecumenical – experience rather than doctrine draws people to the movement.
  • Power Evangelism – They believe that for evangelism to be truly effective (especially in 3rd world settings) it must be accompanied by signs and wonders.

Problems with the Charismatic Movement

Below are my personal views of this Movement and why we should refrain from being drawn into it. But first let me preface my comments by acknowledging that there are many degrees of charismatic leaning, ranging from simply raising your hands when you sing hymns all the way to practicing tongues speaking, faith healing, miracles and signs and what I term “bizarre behaviors” above. Surely I do not object to raising hands when singing or becoming emotional when confronted with the great love and grace of God. I also do not object to sensing the leading of the Spirit in our everyday lives, particularly when facing major decisions or hardships. After all, if the Spirit is our comforter and guide we must sense His constant leading in our lives. And God does confirm his leading through His words and/or through circumstances, happenstances and through others. I am sure all of us have experienced God’s leading, protection, empowerment, chastising, etc. in our lives. We should be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, desire to be empowered to serve more effectively, and to experience true joy and hope that come only with the Spirit’s work. Above all, we do want the Spirit to give us a desire for His words, a heart to please Him through obedience, and to point out sins which need to be confessed and cleansed. So we cannot live a fruitful and holy life apart from the Holy Spirit. Yet we need to resist the tendency to “super-charge” our spiritual life by stepping into the charismatic movement for the following reasons:

  1. Charismatics tend to rely more on emotions rather than on Scriptures and sound doctrines – It is easy to want to pursue ecstatic feelings and emotions in place of a deep understanding of and adherence to God’s words and truth. Humans are emotional beings and we all want to feel great. Emotions can be aroused and manipulated easily through certain music, group activities, words, movements, etc. It is not true that Christians should be devoid of emotions and feelings, but our emotions and feelings must be securely harnessed by an understanding of biblical truth and sound doctrine. Substituting understanding of Scriptures by emotions, and replacing true spirituality by feelings is dangerous since emotions and feelings are superficial, and they cannot restrain the flesh. What stops us from sinning is not our emotions and feelings but God’s word being reminded by the Holy Spirit (Psalm 119:11) That is why you see a lot of charismatic preachers (e.g. well known TV evangelists, nearly all of them charismatics) fall into ugly sins including sexual and monetary. Emotions and feelings which are not grounded in biblical truth may give people the illusion that they have become spiritual, yet the foundation is shifting sand. If our hearts and theology are right, the proper emotions and feelings will follow.
  2. Once someone is in the charismatic movement the tendency is to move towards more and more bizarre behaviors. I have observed two large Chinese charismatic churches in the Bay Area and found it true. Several years ago when I occasionally attended one of these churches I could still tolerate their “fervency” in praying and singing. But today they are engaging in holy laughter, rolling around on the floor and faith healing. While it is possible that through God’s grace Charismatics could move down the scale and be rid of aberrant theology and behavior, the tendency to move the other way is greater.

Sau-Wing Lam,  Jan 2014