God’s Spirituality

 by John M. Frame

We will, of course, have much more to say later about the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. But in this section I am interested in spirit or spirituality as an attribute of God, as in John 4:24, where Jesus says, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Here Jesus is, I believe, not referring specifically to the Holy Spirit, but to spirituality as an attribute of the triune God. We shall see, however, that there is a close relation between the qualities of the Holy Spirit and the spirituality of the Triune God.

Theologians have sometimes defined spirituality negatively as incorporeality and/or invisibility. Bavinck does this, though he also adds a more positive definition.1 Scripture does hint that spirit is by nature immaterial, in Isa. 31:3, and in Luke 24:36-43, which I discussed earlier under the topic of incorporeality. But I doubt that incorporeality and/or invisibility constitute an adequate biblical definition of spirit.

As we have seen, Scripture identifies the glory-theophany with the Spirit of God. Kline says,

There is indeed a considerable amount of biblical data that identify the Glory-cloud as particularly a manifestation of the Spirit of God. Here we will cite only a few passages where the functions performed by the Glory-cloud are attributed to the Spirit—Nehemiah 9:19, 20; Isaiah 63:11-14; and Haggai 2:5—and mention the correspondence of the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to the functioning of the Glory-cloud at the exodus and at the erection of the tabernacle.2

Note that Kline says that the Glory-cloud is “a manifestation” of the Spirit. Kline’s association of the Spirit and the cloud is helpful, and it implies that everything I said earlier about the Glory-cloud pertains to the Spirit as well. But, like glory, Scripture refers to the working of the Spirit even in the absence of a theophany.

The Glory-cloud provides a model for the broader and less literal senses of glory: God’s glory is an “outshining” from him, not only of literal light, but also of creative power and ethical qualities. So the Glory-cloud provides a model that helps us understand the work of the Spirit in other contexts. As the Glory-cloud rested upon the tabernacle and entered the temple, so the Spirit indwells believers who are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” As God’s presence in the cloud empowered his people, gave them direction, and accompanied them with blessing and judgment, so the Spirit acts throughout Scripture.

In general, God’s Spirit is his presence in the world, performing his work as Lord. Later we will see that, like God’s Word (John 1:14) and God’s Fatherhood, Spirit is both a divine attribute and a person of the Trinity. But for now let us focus on the ways in which spirit describes God’s actions in the world.

Spirit represents words in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) that can both also mean wind or breathWind and breath are regular biblical metaphors for the work of the Spirit. As wind blows invisibly and unpredictably, so the Spirit gives new birth (John 3:5-8). As words cannot be communicated without breath, so the Spirit regularly accompanies the Word of God to its destination (2 Sam. 23:2, Isa. 59:21, John 6:63, 1 Thess. 1:5, 2 Tim. 3:16, 1 Pet. 1:12, 2 Pet. 1:21). This is true, not only of prophecy, but of creation as well:

By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. (Psm. 33:6)

For pedagogical purposes, it is convenient to distinguish the connotations of spirit along the lines of the Lordship attributes: power, authority, and presence in blessing and judgment. I shall then say a bit about the role of God’s Spirit in redemptive history.


1. Power

Like a mighty, rushing wind, the Spirit exerts the great power of God. The prophet Micah says,

But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin. (Mic. 3:8)

We have seen the Spirit’s involvement in the great work of creation (Gen. 1:2; see also Psm. 33:6, 104:30). The ruach is also the power behind the cherubim (Ezek. 1:12, 20), the power behind the unusual strength of Samson (Judg. 13:25) and others (Judg. 14:6, 19, 15:14). The Spirit lifts people up and carries them away (2 Kings 2:16, Ezek. 3:12, 14, 8:3, 11:1, 24, 37:1, 43:5, Acts 8:39-40, and figuratively, 2 Pet. 1:21). The Spirit gives power to preaching (Luke 4:14, Rom. 15:19, 1 Cor. 2:4, 1 Thess. 1:5).


2. Authority

As already suggested, it is the Spirit who appoints prophets and brings the Word of God to them. The Spirit is the breath behind the Word. Among the many passages connecting the Spirit with prophecy, see Gen. 41:38, Num. 24:2, 1 Sam. 10:6, 10, 2 Kings 2:9, 15-16, Neh. 9:30, Isa. 61:1, Ezek. 2:2, 3:24, Joel 2:28, Luke 1:17, 1 Pet. 1:11. It is the Spirit also who speaks through Jesus, his apostles, and the NT prophets, bringing the New Covenant revelation: Matt. 10:20, Luke 4:14,  John 3:34, 14:16-17, 15:26, 16:13, Acts 2:4, 6:10, 1 Cor. 2:4, 10-14, 7:40, 12:3, 1 Thess. 1:5, Rev. 2:7, 19:10.

It is the Spirit who gives wisdom (see Chapter 22): both practical skills and ethical understanding: Ex. 28:3, 31:3, 35:31, Deut. 34:9. So the Spirit raises up men with the wisdom to rule and win battles: Num. 11:17, 25-29, Judg. 3:10, 6:34, 11:29, 14:6, 19, 15:14, 1 Sam. 11:6, 16:13. So he gives gifts to the church to edify the body (1 Cor. 12:1-11).

The anointing of prophets, priests, and kings with oil symbolized their investiture by the Spirit. Kline writes about the garments of the priests as replicating the Glory-Spirit3 and about “the Prophet as Image of the Glory-Spirit.”4 Jesus the Messiah (the anointed one), the ultimate prophet, priest, and king, is therefore richly endued with the Spirit: Isa. 11:2, 42:1, Matt. 3:6, 4:1, 12:18, Luke 4:16-21 (fulfilling Isa. 61:1-2).


3. Presence in Blessing and Judgment

The Spirit is also God with us. David asks,

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (Psm. 139:7)

In Israel he made his home in the tabernacle and temple. Christians are temples of the Spirit, and therefore have the Spirit dwelling within (1 Cor. 3:16, Gal. 4:6, 5:16-26, 1 Pet. 1:2). As the “breath” of God gave life to Adam (Gen. 2:7), so the Spirit gives new spiritual life (John 3:5-8, 6:63, 1 Cor. 15:45, 2 Cor. 3:6, 1 Pet. 3:18, 4:6). And the Spirit enables the believer to grow in righteousness: Rom. 8:1-17.

So the Spirit is present to bless God’s people. But, as is less widely acknowledged, the Spirit is active in judgment as well. Kline argues, rightly I think, that ruach hayyom in Gen. 3:8a should not be translated “cool of the day” but as “Spirit of the day,” day being a kind of anticipation of the final day of judgment. Kline finds this use of spirit also in Isa. 11:1-4, 2 Thess. 2:8, 1 Pet. 4:13-16.5


4. The Spirit in Redemptive History

As we have seen, the Spirit has never been absent from the world, or from God’s people. But the Spirit’s presence is not merely a constant feature of the world’s landscape. Rather, as always with the immanent God, the Spirit acts in different ways at different times. He is active in all the changes that take place through the history of redemption. The major change in the NT period is the Spirit’s “coming” on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), empowering the church to bring the Gospel of Christ to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

This special presence of the Spirit is always in the forefront of the NT writings. So when Jesus declares in John 4:24, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth,” he is not, I think, saying merely that God is invisible and incorporeal. Nor is the point of the verse that in worship we should be preoccupied with immaterial, rather than with material things. Rather, Jesus is speaking of the great coming event (“a time is coming,” verse 23), when at his behest the Spirit comes with power upon the church. When the Spirit comes, worship, like evangelism, will be “in Spirit.” The great power of the Spirit will motivate the prayer and praise of God’s people.

That worship will also be in truth. In context, I think that truth is not merely truth in general as opposed to falsehood. The worship of the Old Covenant, as God ordained it, was not false. But Jesus here refers to the truth he came to bring: the truth of salvation through the blood of his cross, the Gospel of grace. Therefore worship in Spirit is Christ-centered. The Spirit bears witness to Christ, and he motivates God’s people to sing the praises of Jesus.

To say that “God is Spirit,” then, is to say that true worship of God is directed to the Son by the Spirit. God identifies himself with the Spirit and tells us here that the qualities and acts of the Spirit are indeed the qualities and acts of God. God’s spirituality, then, means not only that God is invisible and immaterial, but that he bears all the characteristics of the Spirit who dwells with his people.


1 BDG, 179. His positive definition is that as spirit, God is “the hidden, incomposed (uncompounded, simple), absolute ground of all creaturely, somatic and pneumatic, essence.” I’m not sure what this means, or how it can be derived from the biblical data concerning spirit.

2 Kline, op. cit., 15. He cites also Meredith M. Kline, ”The Holy Spirit as Covenant Witness” (Th. M. dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1972), and his own Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

3 Images, 35-56.

4 Ibid., 57-96.

5 Ibid., 97-131.


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