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The Holy Spirit’s most supernatural work


Many of the Holy Spirit’s works in history are unique in unfolding God’s eternal plan. The purpose of ordering the plans of God accomplished by the Spirit through creationrevelation, and special empowerment has been finished. Creation is complete, the Spirit-inspired Word is complete, and Spirit empowerment functioned at key transitional periods in the history of redemption that finished their intended purpose. Therefore, we should not expect these sorts of extraordinary works until the next stage in redemptive history — when the Anointed King comes again.

However, some of the ordinary activities of the Spirit have been at work since the beginning of time and will continue until the eternal kingdom. The most notable of these is the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation.

Scripture appropriates specific acts to each divine person of the godhead in the salvation of God’s elect. The Father planned salvation and sent his Son into the world to save his people. The Son took on flesh, lived a perfect life, and died to pay the penalty of sin, accomplishing redemption for his people. And as with other aspects of God’s eternal plans, the Spirit actively works to order and complete God’s plan of salvation in the lives of his elect.

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This work begins with convicting sinners. Jesus promised that he would send the Spirit to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8). Without the Spirit’s conviction, sinners would have no spiritual awareness of their need of salvation. Conviction is the first step in bringing sinful, disordered souls into order and harmony with God’s perfect will.


Next, the Spirit gives new life. Jesus specifically identified the Spirit as the one who gives new birth (Jn 3:5, 8). Likewise, Paul describes him as “the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2) and tells us in Titus 3:5 that God saved us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” This work of the Spirit ties directly to his very first work — creation. The regenerating work of the Spirit is his recreation of dead sinners into new creations (2 Cor 5:17).

Some theologians also refer to this regenerating act of the Spirit as “illumination.” This doctrine of illumination is one area where many Christians have unbiblical thinking in which they assume illumination means that the Spirit will reveal to us the meaning of Scripture. However, the reality is that Spirit illumination is part of the Spirit’s regeneration that happens at conversion.

One of the key texts is 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16. In this passage, Paul describes the fact that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). This passage clearly teaches that a key difference between believers and unbelievers is the fact that unbelievers simply do not recognize the truthfulness, beauty, and authority of God’s Word (specifically the gospel), while a believer is one who has come to recognize Scripture as such, not because of any human persuasion, but simply through “the Spirit and of power” (2:4).

Another key passage is 1 Corinthians 2. Verses 10–13 speak of the inspiration of Scripture by means of apostles and prophets. However, verses 14–16 do touch on what we may describe as Spirit illumination.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

The key phrase is “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” When the natural man reads Scripture, he does not accept it as God’s authoritative revelation. Rather, he sees it as foolishness. He does not understand its spiritual significance.

On the other hand, the spiritual person recognizes the Word of God for what it is and therefore submits himself to it. These verses do not speak of intellectual understanding but spiritual understanding. If we want to use the term illumination to describe what’s going on in these verses, it refers to the Spirit’s regenerating work to cause his elect to recognize the significance and authority of the written Word of God. Furthermore, this act of the Spirit is not something that necessarily happens in separate points of time as we read the Word; rather, it is something that comes as a result of the new birth — the Spirit gives us new life and enlightens our hearts and minds to recognize the significance of his Word.

In other words, 1 Corinthians 2 refers to two acts of the Spirit: inspiration, whereby the authors of Scripture wrote the very words of God, and illumination, whereby believers are enabled to recognize the spiritual significance of the Word of God.

2 Corinthians 4 makes a similar assertion, this time using explicit language of “enlightening.” The gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Cor 4:3), Paul argues. Believers accept and submit to the Gospel only because God has enlightened their hearts:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).

This is illumination — a work of God’s Spirit upon a believer whereby he recognizes the beauty and glory of the gospel and therefore willingly submits himself to it. It should not surprise us that the same divine person who brought order out of chaos and light out of darkness at the beginning of time is the same one who enlightens dark hearts and brings order to disordered souls in conversion.

John Calvin argued, “Man’s mind can become spiritually wise only in so far as God illumines it ... The way to the kingdom of God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.”1 An illumined believer finds value and worth in what he is reading, because it is the very Word of God. He delights in the Word of God (Ps 1:2); he loves God’s Word (Ps 119:97).

As Calvin seems to suggest, illumination begins at conversion, not as distinct occurrences later: “Christ, when he illumines us into faith by the power of the Spirit, at the same time so engrafts us into his body that we become partakers of every good.”From the moment our hearts are enlightened at conversion, we recognize the truthfulness and beauty of Scripture, and therefore we delight in it for the rest of our lives. An enlightened believer does not doubt or reject God’s Word.

When an unbeliever reads Scripture, he may understand everything he is reading, but he simply does not recognize what he is reading to be the very words of God. An illumined believer, however, recognizes that what he is reading in Scripture is from God. As Rolland McCune argues, “illumination removes man’s innate hostility toward God and Scripture and imparts intuitive certainty that Scripture is from God and is, therefore, truth and authoritative.”3

In this sense, there really is no such thing as a believer who has not been illumined; the enlightening of the mind and heart that removes any doubt as to the truth of God’s written Word occurs at the moment the Spirit regenerates a new believer. J. I. Packer observes that illumination opens “minds sinfully closed so that they receive evidence to which they were previously impervious ... It is the witness of the Spirit ... which authenticates the canon to us.”4

This new birth immediately results in repentance and faith. Regeneration itself is experiential, but its actual effects that are experienced by an individual is his expression of repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ, both of which are gifts of God that result from the Spirit’s regenerating work (Eph 2:8–9). First John 5:1 says that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Spirit-wrought regeneration has to come first — a dead heart would never respond in faith on its own (Eph 2:5), but once the Spirit brings new life, the individual will believe.


As a result of the regenerating work of the Spirit, he also permanently indwells all believers. Jesus promised his disciples that he would send them “the Spirit of truth” and that he would “be with [them] forever” (Jn 14:16, 17). This abiding work of the Spirit is absolutely necessary for sanctification to take place. Paul makes this point in Romans 8, where he argues that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” The only possible way we can please God is because “the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom 8:8, 9).

The indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, which is true for all Christians from the moment of their conversion, means that all three persons of the triune God indwell believers — we are “filled with all the fullness of God.” In Ephesians 3:17, Paul refers to Christ dwelling in our hearts as a result of the Spirit’s work, and indeed, Paul mentions Christ dwelling us in Romans 8:9, Galatians 2:20, and Colossians 1:27. Jesus himself said that in sending the Spirit to his disciples, “I will come to you,” and as a result, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:18, 20). Communion with God is possible because of the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit of God.

This relational nature of the Spirit’s indwelling should also help us avoid thinking of the Spirit’s indwelling presence as something spatial and material, as if a ghost possesses someone’s body. It is not spatial, but relational. The Spirit’s indwelling presence is not about location, it is about his work within the believer’s life. This work results in communion with the triune God, in assurance and in sanctification.


The Bible also speaks of the Holy Spirit as sealing our salvation, giving us inner assurance that we are indeed children of God, which is a result of his indwelling presence. Paul states,

"And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee" (2 Cor 1:21–22).

Later Paul describes the Spirit as a pledge (2 Cor 5:5). Likewise, he says in Ephesians 1:13, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

This is an objective reality, but it also results in subjective, experiential assurance. Paul assures believers that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16). This is not through new revelation or “inner promptings,” but rather through the Spirit giving us an inner confidence in God’s Word and in the relationship that we have with him through the Gospel.

Praise the Holy Spirit

Does the Holy Spirit of God actively work today? Clearly, he does — salvation would not be possible without him. Each of these works that the Spirit accomplishes to perfect and complete the plan of the Father and the atoning work of Christ for his elect is a divine work, and these works will continue until the end of the age.

Most of these works are experiential — the believer experiences the effects of what the Holy Spirit does. He is convicted of his sin, only because of the Spirit’s active work. His mind and heart are given new life and enlightened to the beauty and truth of Christ and the Gospel. The Spirit experientially indwells the believer and gives him assurance that he is now a child of God. None of these works will have immediately observable, external effects like speaking in tongues or prophecy, but they are such transformative, life-altering divine acts that the person in whom the Holy Spirit does these things will never be the same.

And furthermore, though these divine acts of the Spirit are in one profound sense supernatural — they can only happen by the power of the Spirit, he accomplishes these works through natural means. The Holy Spirit convicts sinners (Jn 16:8), but he does so by means of the Word he inspired, which is profitable for such conviction (2 Tm 3:16).

The Holy Spirit regenerates dead hearts, but he does so by means of his Word. He does not “zap” new life in a person’s heart independently of the Word — “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Part of the Spirit’s work of creating new life is putting his law within new believers and writing it on their hearts (Jer 31:33).

Likewise, the Spirit’s indwelling presence is his Word dwelling within us. The Spirit actively fills us with his Word, which results in all of the experiential benefits of his work (Eph 5:18, Col 3:16). I mentioned earlier the fact that the Spirit’s dwelling within us is often described as being filled with the fullness of the triune God (Eph 3:19), and so what Christ says about his abiding presence is true also of the Spirit. In John 15, Jesus equates his abiding within a believer with his words abiding within them. The same is true of the Spirit: for him to indwell a believer means that his Word indwells them.

And so it should not surprise us that the assurance the Spirit brings to a believer that he is a child of God also does not come apart from his Word. Ephesians 1:13 captures all of these works of the Spirit well and explicitly attributes them to the Word: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

Without the work of the Holy Spirit, there would be no salvation. God the Spirit completes and perfects the plan of God the Father and the atonement of God the Son in the lives of God’s elect. The Spirit brings order to disordered souls. And he accomplishes all that he does through his sufficient Word.

Don’t ever think that because the Holy Spirit no longer empowers individuals in extraordinary ways or gives direct revelation he is no longer active in his divine work. No — without the Holy Spirit, no one would come to Christ in saving faith.

We ought to marvel daily in the Spirit’s incredible supernatural works in which he orders the souls of his elect and brings to completion Christ’s saving work on their behalf. In fact, when we desperately long for other extraordinary works of the Spirit, that actually causes us to miss the wondrous ways he is at work in the saving of souls. Praise the Holy Spirit for his amazing works in saving his people.


  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), II, iii, 20.
  2. Calvin, Institutes, III, ii, 35.
  3. McCune, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, 56.
  4. J. I. Packer, “Biblical Authority, Hermeneutics, and Inerrancy,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E. R. Greehan (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1971), 143.

    Originally published at G3 Ministries. 

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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