Six Important Theological Distinctions Related to the Holy Spirit

12 May 2022 by Wes Bredenhof

background of whole chicken eggs in rows
background of whole chicken eggs in rows

Good distinctions are part of the essence of sound theology.  They’re an important tool for theologians.  Preachers often employ distinctions as well, though because they can be technical, they’re not always mentioned explicitly. I’ve been recently working on a book about the Holy Spirit. As part of that, I’ve identified these six distinctions in the area of what we Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit). My plan is to include this as an appendix for more theologically inclined readers.

We distinguish between general and special operations of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture makes it clear that the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t limited to believers.  There are certain works or operations that he does in other creatures.  For example, in Num. 24:2 we read that he led the unbelieving Balaam to prophesy truth.  These general operations of the Holy Spirit are distinguished from the special operations that he only performs in and with elect Christians.  Such special operations include regeneration and sanctification.    

We distinguish between monergistic and synergistic operations of the Holy Spirit.

The terms ‘monergism’ and ‘synergism’ are typically used to describe two widely different views of salvation.  Reformed theology holds to a monergistic view – God alone works to save the sinner through Christ.  Arminianism is an example of a synergistic view – a person uses his or her free will to cooperate with God for salvation in Christ.  However, when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge that he has both monergistic and synergistic works.  For instance, regeneration is a monergistic operation of the Spirit.  The person is completely passive in being born again, just like a baby is passive in being born from its mother.  On the other hand, conversion and sanctification are synergistic operations of the Spirit.  In conversion, the regenerated sinner “is rightly said to believe and repent through the grace he has received” (Canons of Dort 3-4, art. 12). In sanctification, Christ is at work through his Holy Spirit (cf. HC QA 86) and yet believers are to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal.5:25), striving “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14).  Empowered by him, believers work with the Holy Spirit to pursue holiness.    

We distinguish between inspiration and illumination. 

The Holy Spirit has inspired the Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:21).  Inspiration is, therefore, an objective reality.  Its truth isn’t determined by human beings, but has been predetermined by God.  However, for a sinful human being to understand the inspired objective truth of Scripture requires the work of the Holy Spirit in that human being.  Otherwise, “the things of the Spirit of God” are folly to him (1 Cor. 2:14).  The Holy Spirit provides illumination to dark minds so they can understand biblical truths. 

We distinguish between definitive and progressive sanctification.

Scripture speaks of sanctification in two distinct ways.  In general terms, sanctification refers to setting apart.  In some places of Scripture, sanctification is described as a setting apart which has already taken place as a definite act.  In Acts 20:32, Paul speaks about the word of God’s grace “which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”  God sets apart a people for himself through, for example, election.  However, the Bible also speaks about sanctification as an ongoing process in the life of a Christian.  This process is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Paul prays for God to sanctify completely the believers in Thesssalonica (1 Thess. 5:23), implying that they aren’t yet fully sanctified.  There is a process in growing in holy Christ-likeness and this is progressive sanctification. 

We distinguish between the Holy Spirit’s ordinary and extraordinary manner of regeneration.

Ordinarily the Holy Spirit does his work of regeneration through the Word.  This is why Scripture says that believers have been born again through an imperishable seed, “through the living and abiding word” (1 Pet. 2:23).   However, as Zacharias Ursinus points out in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, we must not suppose that the Holy Spirit can be restricted to this means, “as to make it impossible for him to work in any other form.”[1]  At times, he may choose to work in an extraordinary manner.  Ursinus gives the examples of Paul on his way to Damascus and John the Baptist in his mother’s womb.  Paul wasn’t regenerated through the written Word of God.  When John leapt in his mother’s womb (Lk. 1:41), such a response of joyous recognition can only be attributable to an extraordinary pre-birth regeneration.      

We distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some gifts of the Holy Spirit were only intended for a limited time.  For example, Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:8 that prophecies and tongues will vanish.  Indeed, with the closing of the apostolic era, these extraordinary gifts disappeared – their use rendered obsolete by the complete Bible the Holy Spirit inspired.  Ordinary gifts of the Spirit continue to the present day.  These include such gifts as preaching, teaching, serving, and wisdom.

[1] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Philippsburg: P & R), 282.