We Distinguish: General/Special Operations

17 September 2021 by Wes Bredenhof

Believers are temples of the Holy Spirit.  So we say because this is what Scripture teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19.  We’re therefore accustomed to thinking that the Holy Spirit has exclusive dealings with Christians.  We might hesitate to affirm that the Holy Spirit could have anything to do with any unbeliever.  But then there’s King Saul in the Old Testament.

King Saul’s relationship with the Holy Spirit is curious.  In 1 Samuel 10, Saul was anointed to be king and afterwards the Holy Spirit “rushed upon him” and he prophesied.  The Holy Spirit came to Saul in the same way in 1 Samuel 11 when he heard of the siege of Jabesh-Gilead.  However, after David is anointed to be King Saul’s successor, we’re told in 1 Samuel 16:14 that the Spirit of the LORD departed from him.  Yet nevertheless the Holy Spirit comes upon Saul one last time in 1 Samuel 19.  Under the power of the Spirit, Saul strips off all his clothes and lays naked on the ground prophesying.

How do we explain this situation where we see the Holy Spirit coming and going with a king whose spiritual state is at best ambiguous?  Or do how we make sense of Hebrews 6 which speaks of those who “shared in the Holy Spirit” and yet cannot be restored to repentance after having fallen away?  The answer has to do with an important theological distinction between the general and special operations of the Holy Spirit.

The special operations of the Holy Spirit are by far the most well-known to us.  They’re called “special” operations because their application is redemptive.  They’re directed specifically towards the salvation of God’s elect.  Let’s survey some of those special operations.  The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit provides a witness to Jesus (John 15:26).  When the gospel is preached, he works the new birth in the person whom God has decreed to save (John 3:1-7).  The Holy Spirit convicts “the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).  He is the Helper/Comforter (John 14:16).  The Spirit also works holiness in the life of a believer (2 Thess. 2:13).  The foregoing is not an exhaustive list of his special operations, but it illustrates some of what’s meant by redemptive application.

Reformed Christians are often in the dark about the general operations of the Holy Spirit.  We call them “general” operations because they’re not limited to or directed necessarily towards the salvation of the elect.  In God’s decree, these operations or works have a more general scope.

Only one of these general operations gets mentioned in the Creeds and Confessions.  The reference is hidden away in the Nicene Creed:  “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”  The Holy Spirit is the Giver of life.  Now when we hear that, we might be tempted to first of all think in terms of spiritual life or eternal life.  We wouldn’t go wrong in so thinking; after all, Jesus said in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life.”  However, we would go wrong if we restricted it to that special operation.  Scripture also speaks about the role of the Holy Spirit in creation and providence.  All biological life is owing to the work of the Holy Spirit on this earth.  Concerning all creatures, the Psalmist confesses:  “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created…” (Psalm 104:30).  In Job 33:4, Elihu rightly states, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”  Therefore, wherever we see biological life on this earth, we see the handiwork of the Holy Spirit. 

Looking in Scripture, we find other general operations of the Holy Spirit.  For example, in Exodus 31, the Holy Spirit gives gifts of intelligence, knowledge, and craftsmanship to Bezalel and others.  One of the most commonly mentioned general operations is what he does to equip men for various offices in the Old Testament, whether prophet, priest, or king.  The Spirit of the LORD comes upon an individual so he can fulfil his calling in accordance with God’s will.

This is what we see happening with King Saul.  The mention of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life says nothing about his salvation.  It’s simply impossible for someone to have the Holy Spirit in the sense of 1 Cor. 6:19 and then to lose him, i.e. to lose salvation.  This would contradict what Scripture teaches elsewhere about the preservation and perseverance of the saints (e.g. John 10:28).  What Saul experienced was the general operations of the Holy Spirit in relation to his office as king.  When the Holy Spirit left him in 1 Sam. 16:14, we’re being told that the Holy Spirit was no longer present to equip him for his calling.  He was entirely on his own.  Yes, the Holy Spirit returned to him to cause him to prophesy for a short period.  But again, this says nothing about a saving presence of the Spirit in his life.

We have to understand Hebrews 6:4 in a similar way.  Those who have “shared in the Holy Spirit” have experienced his general operations within the context of the church.  What are those general operations?  Hebrews 6:5 gives us a hint when it speaks of these people having “tasted the goodness of the word of God.”  One of the general operations of the Holy Spirit is his inspiration of Scripture.  By reading and tasting the objective goodness of God’s Word, a general operation of the Holy Spirit is having a bearing on your life, even apart from regeneration.  But it could also be that the author of Hebrews has in mind the prophesying which took place in the apostolic church.  Could it be possible for an unbeliever to prophesy and thus “share in the Holy Spirit”?  The example above of Saul in the Old Testament and also of Caiaphas in the New Testament (John 11:49-51) would certainly suggest it is.  The Holy Spirit can prophesy through unbelievers. 

The Holy Spirit has often been called the “shy Person of the Trinity.”  His purpose is to focus our attention on Christ, not on himself.  Nevertheless, he is true God and as such deserves to be worshipped and glorified for all he is and all he does.  What he does extends far beyond our individual experience of salvation.  He is actively working everyday around us, creating and upholding life, bringing beauty and wonder into a broken world, and endowing image-bearers to do amazing things with their intellects.  Have you praised the Holy Spirit today?