Addressing the Holy Spirit
Very few Christians take the time to examine the basis of what they believe and practice—and only a proportion of these have the spiritual courage to change what they find to be not in keeping with Scripture. The matter of addressing the Holy Spirit is no exception. Tradition, in particular, has a powerful hold on many but the only guide for the Christian must be the divine revelation that has been given from God—the Bible. Of course hymns and prayers to the Holy Spirit have been a part of the liturgy of the Church for centuries, but the apparent ‘orthodoxy’ of a practice is irrelevant. The question, as always, must be What does the Scripture say? (see Rom. 4: 3, my emphasis). Then there is the respect we have for those who have spoken and written on the subject, and the hold that they may have over our thoughts. Yet the only ministry of any value (whoever it is from), is ministry of the Word (see Acts 6: 4). A true teacher, ministering in the Spirit, will always take his hearers back to the Bible. If ministry itself is what is used to enforce the doctrine, then the doctrine is faulty. Authority lies in the Word of God and nowhere else.
I shall begin then by taking a cursory glance at the human reasoning that has been brought to bear on the subject of addressing the Holy Spirit, and then take a fuller look at what the Scriptures of truth teach. Even if my readers do not reach the same conclusion as I do, there ought to be profit in studying the Word together, and godly forbearance will prevent a difference of opinion becoming a wedge between those who are brethren.
The matter of a separate address to the Holy Spirit in prayer and song is usually presented as a matter of logic: The Holy Spirit is God, and God is to be worshipped (see Rev. 22: 9), therefore the Holy Spirit should be addressed in worship. However, the way in which God is to be approached should never be the result of human reasoning but of divine revelation. To effectively add to the Bible is a very serious matter, however pious the motivation (see Proverbs 30: 5, 6). Innovation in the things of God (and particularly innovation in the way we approach God in worship) is to be strenuously avoided. In the OT worship, Jehovah insisted (on pain of death) that there should be no strange incense, no strange fire and no strange priests (see Exod. 30: 9; Lev. 10: 1, 2; Num. 16: 40). All was to be exactly in accordance with the divine pattern that had been shown to Moses—how much more so must it be in our day! We also have a ‘divine pattern’—the apostle’s doctrine—and there we find that the Holy Spirit is the power of worship (see Phil. 3: 3), not the object. Prayer, in the NT, is not to the Spirit but by or through the Spirit (see Rom. 8: 26, 27; Eph. 2: 18; 6: 18; Jude 20 etc.).
It is also said that not addressing the Holy Spirit robs God of worship. On a superficial level, the case for this may seem strong. However, in the absence of clear Scriptural instruction to address the Holy Spirit, it is effectively telling God that we know better than He does. God can only be worshipped in the way he has decreed: it must be both “in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24, my emphasis). Again, the Holy Spirit is not a ‘part’ of God as the argument about robbing God of worship implies. God is one—He is either worshipped or He is not. It is impossible for only part of Him to be worshipped. If we examine the NT revelation, then we shall find that worship is generally to the Father (see John 4: 23) by the Spirit (see Eph. 6: 18), and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 16: 23; Eph. 5: 20).
Lastly, a few lines on the assertion that where teaching on this subject has been delivered in the power of the Spirit it is to be obeyed. I agree—but how do I know that it was of that character if I was not present when it was given? Am I to accept the reports of others as being authoritative? If I do, then I have abandoned the principle of being governed by the Word of God, and am on the road to popery and spiritual ruin. No, the only way to judge the character of any ministry is to test what is said or written by Scripture.
What do the Scriptures Say?
Compared to other subjects, Bible teachers have written very little on the subject of praying and singing to the Holy Spirit. There is a good reason for this—the Scriptures have nothing direct to say on the matter. Now it does not follow that a sound conclusion cannot be reached—there is instruction even in what the Bible does not say, and also in the general tenor of its presentation—but it does mean that there are no grounds for dogmatism.
There is no better place to start than with the One who is our model: “For let this mind be in you which [was] also in Christ Jesus … He that says he abides in him ought, even as he walked, himself also [so] to walk” (Phil. 2: 5; 1 John 2: 6). Now the Lord Jesus prayed to the Father, never the Holy Spirit, even though He did everything as Man in the power of the Spirit (see Matt. 12: 28). This is of huge significance. Before he went away, the Lord promised his disciples that “I will beg the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever” (John 14: 16). The Greek word used here for another means another of the same kind. Previously they had asked things of the Lord—so were they now to ask the Spirit? That is not the teaching of Scripture: “And in that day ye shall demand nothing of me: verily, verily, I say to you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give you” (John 16: 23). What is taught, is that the Spirit makes “intercession” on our behalf (Rom. 8: 26). Again, Christ is the One we call “My Lord” (John 20: 28), and His Father is “our Father” (Rom. 1: 7), but no form of address to the Spirit is anywhere furnished. There is no “my” or “our” for the Holy Spirit. Our relationships are with the Son and with the Father (see John 14: 23). The Spirit’s service is to bear “witness with our spirit, that we are children of God” (Rom. 8: 16). Some teach that 2 Cor. 13: 14, “the communion” (koinonia) “of the Holy Spirit, [be] with you all” has the sense of a communion with the Holy Spirit. This is erroneous. Yes the saints are to be marked by communion (“ ... be with you all”), but that communion is not said to be with the Holy Spirit, but of the Holy Spirit. It is a communion characterised by Him, that is, He is the means and power of the communion, but not its object. Compare 1 John 1: 3: “our fellowship” (koinonia) “[is] indeed with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (my emphasis). That “fellowship”, though doubtless in the power of the Holy Spirit, is not said to be with the Holy Spirit.
To us there is One God
Even though He is not mentioned, 1 Cor. 8: 6 is of critical importance regarding the Holy Spirit. The introductory background to verse 6 is verse 5: “For and if indeed there are [those] called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, (as there are gods many, and lords many,)”. The setting here is the idolatry of Corinth, in which the Greek deities were divided into those considered full gods and those only viewed as intermediaries or lords. In contrast to this pagan multiplicity, both of gods and lords, in Christianity we have: “yet to us [there is] one God, the Father, of whom all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom [are] all things, and we by him” (v6). Now it does not say ‘there is one God the Father’. To have done so would have excluded the Son and the Holy Spirit from the Godhead. Nor does it say ‘there is one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Again, it is not said ‘there is one Lord’ as this would have denied the Father and the Holy Spirit the exercise of universal authority. All these statements omit the key words of the verse: “yet to us”. These words yet to us clearly indicate that it is how Christians view things. That is, the Christian viewpoint is that there is one God—the Father, and one Lord—Jesus Christ. For them, it is the Father who abides in the absoluteness of the Godhead, and for them, it is Christ who, becoming man, has taken the place and relationship of Lord. God is identified as Father and Christ is identified as Lord. Now if the words yet to us describe how Christians view things, then what we are dealing with here is what is objective or outside of ourselves. The fact that the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in this Scripture clearly indicates the subjective place He has taken. Worship specifically directed towards the Spirit is therefore a mistake, for worship is objective—the attention of the worshipper is directed outwards towards the deity. None of this has anything to do with denying His deity—just as full deity is not denied to the Lord Jesus by these verses. It is simply recognising and respecting divine arrangements.
Opening up the Truth
A particular service of the Holy Spirit is in opening up the truth to the saints: “but the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and will bring to your remembrance all the things which I have said to you” (John 14: 26). Much of the truth peculiar to Christianity is found in the epistles, and it is instructive to consider the place that the Spirit of God adopts in relation to these writings. To the Ephesians Paul gives both opening and closing greetings: “To the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus who are at Ephesus. Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and [the] Lord Jesus Christ … Peace to the brethren, and love with faith, from God [the] Father and [the] Lord Jesus Christ. Grace with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in incorruption” (Eph. 1: 1, 2; 6: 23, 24). Paul had a message to the saints, but he did not see himself as writing in isolation. There is that which he associated with his own words—what comes from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Identical (or very similar) salutations are used in most of his other epistles (see Rom. 1: 7; 1 Cor. 1: 2, 3; 2 Cor. 1: 1, 2; Gal. 1: 2–5; Phil. 1: 1, 2; Col. 1: 2; 2 Thess. 1: 1, 2; 1 Tim. 1: 2; 2 Tim. 1: 2; Titus 1: 4; Phm. vs 1–3). The apostle John also uses very similar words (see 2 John vs 1–3). Indeed, wherever an epistle is explicitly said to have come from God, the same basic format is always used: the message is described as being from God our Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ. The order never varies and the wording hardly changes. It will also be observed that in every case, the Holy Spirit is never mentioned. At this point, a question may arise in the mind of the reader: If the Holy Spirit inspired and caused each letter to be written (compare 1 Cor. 2: 13; 2 Tim. 3: 16), then why then do the epistles never include the Holy Spirit in their opening salutations?
The answer lies in how the Holy Spirit presents Himself in the context of opening up the truth. In John 16, the Lord Jesus said that “when he is come, the Spirit of truth, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but whatsoever he shall hear he shall speak” (v13, my emphasis). Of course the Holy Spirit, being God, has every right to speak from Himself, but that is not His way. He is instead the One through which these divine communications reach the Christian. Thus Paul speaks of things which “God has revealed to us by [his] Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God … that we may know the things which have been freely given to us of God” (1 Cor. 2: 10, 12). Nor does John’s expression “what the Spirit says to the assemblies” (Rev. 2: 7) in any way weaken this rule, for there the Holy Spirit speaks through John as the messenger of the One who says “I know” (v2). If the “Spirit speaks” (1 Tim. 4: 1) it is because He is conveying what He has heard. Again, the Lord says of the Spirit that “He shall glorify me, for he shall receive of mine and shall announce [it] to you” (John 16: 14). Thus the Spirit does not speak from Himself, but takes what is of Christ and conveys it to His people. In the next verse, the Lord goes on to say “All things that the Father has are mine; on account of this I have said that he” (the Spirit) “receives of mine and shall announce [it] to you” (v15). Thus the Father and the Son are associated together as being the source of divine communications, while the Holy Spirit brings them to the believer. It ought to be clear now why the apostle was led to omit the Holy Spirit from his salutations. The Lord Jesus Christ speaks from Himself, and so does the Father, but the Holy Spirit speaks what He hears—He delivers the message.
Response to God
Now the salutations in the epistles are effectively a greeting from God—and those who give greetings expect a response. Interestingly, many of the epistles do contain a record of a response delivered back to God on the part of the writer. Take Ephesians again for an example: “But to him that is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think, according to the power which works in us, to him be glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus unto all generations of the age of ages. Amen” (Eph. 3: 20, 21). Similar outbursts of praise are found elsewhere in Paul’s writings (see Rom. 1: 25; 9: 5; 11: 33–36; Gal. 1: 4, 5; Phil. 4: 20; 1 Tim. 1: 17; 6: 15, 16; 2 Tim. 4: 18). God is frequently the object, the Lord Jesus less so, and the Spirit never. Now if the Holy Spirit had sent a greeting then there would be grounds for giving a response, but no such greeting is given and accordingly, no such response is returned. Again, take “grace” and “peace” which are blessings described as coming from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Such blessings demand a response of thanks from the recipients, and yet though our blessings are spiritual in nature (compare 1 Cor. 12: 1; Eph. 1: 3), the Holy Spirit is nowhere presented as being the object of our gratitude. Furthermore, if we examine those epistles without explicit salutations from God, the doxologies there do not elicit a recorded response to the Holy Spirit either (see Heb. 13: 20, 21; 1 Pet. 5: 11; 2 Pet. 3: 18; Jude vs 24, 25).
The Absent Antitype
If Scriptures are referred to in relation to this subject, they are almost always OT, despite the fact that the first Christians were characterised as persevering in the apostle’s doctrine (see Acts 2: 42). Now we have a record of the apostle’s doctrine (principally in the NT epistles) and nowhere is it taught, either by precept or example, that the Holy Spirit is to be addressed in our hymns or prayers. Of course it is not impossible to find OT Scriptures that appear to be types (or pictures) of persons addressing the Holy Spirit. However a type needs an antitype—that is, a corresponding NT Scripture—or we are perfectly justified in questioning whether it is really a type at all. The same Greek word translated type in 1 Cor. 10: 6 is used by Thomas in speaking of the mark of the nails (see John 20: 25). Without the crucifixion, the imprint would not be there. Hence, I repeat, a type needs an antitype. Now the particular antitype required for persons addressing the Holy Spirit does not exist.
Some believe that the voice from heaven that spoke to Peter in Acts 10: 13, 15 was that of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that he replied is taken as evidence that the Spirit should be prayed to. Yet if Peter had recognised the “voice” as that of the Holy Spirit he would not have spoken of “a voice” when he later recounted the matter to those in Jerusalem but would have said ‘the Holy Spirit’ (see Acts 11: 7–10). This is not the clear ‘antitype’ that some suppose—indeed, the use of the title “Lord” in conjunction with a voice “out of heaven” (Acts 11: 8, 9, my emphasis) would bring to our minds the Man who is now in heaven (compare Acts 9: 4, 5), rather than the “Holy Spirit, sent from heaven” (1 Pet. 1: 12).
Old Testament References
It would be unfair, however, not to at least consider the supposed typological references in the OT.
Abraham’s servant, in bringing Rebecca to Isaac (see Gen. 24), is said to be a type of the Spirit bringing the Church to Christ. (I would not dispute this, although the NT itself does not make the connection). Much is then made of the fact that Rebecca talks to the servant (see vs 18–20, 24–25, 65), a specific detail of the type being thus said to speak of Christians addressing the Spirit. Other details, however, are overlooked. For example, does v12 mean that the Holy Spirit prays to God? Or does v14 mean that the Holy Spirit is unsure of the mind of God, thereby contradicting 1 Cor. 2: 11? However pious the motives, handling Scripture in this way is not only unjust but absurd. In a court of law, all evidence must be heard, not just that which suits the prosecuting lawyer!
Numbers 21: 17, “Rise up, well! sing unto it” clearly has reference to the expectation that water would bubble up out of the ground once a well had been dug deep enough. Scripture distinguishes the pit (or well) and the water in it (see Jer. 6: 7; John 4: 11), and it is the latter that is a picture of the Holy Spirit (see John 4: 14). It is not entirely clear whether the water or the pit (or both) is in view in Numbers 21, but, in any case, if the well is typical language, then the singing (to be consistent) must be typical language too. This Scripture therefore has nothing to do with hymns to the Spirit. It could be argued that the sense here is simply expressing recognition of the presence and place of the Holy Spirit. What is clear is that there is no warrant for forcing very specific explanations upon details of types (if they are even types in the first place).
That Ezekiel prophesied to the wind (see Ezek. 37: 9, 10) is undeniable (although, it needs to be said, this took place in the context of a vision, not every–day reality). What this has to do with Christianity is less certain. I am not aware of anyone who addresses the Holy Spirit as “O breath” (though this would at least have the advantage of being a Scriptural form of address while ‘blessed Spirit’ is not). Ezekiel was an OT Jew and as such, he would identify the Spirit of God with God Himself (compare Ps. 139: 7). He certainly would not think of the Spirit of God in a distinct way as One of a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for that revelation had not yet been given. Thus when God says “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezek. 36: 27), the prophet would have Jehovah in mind both in relation to “my Spirit” and “my statutes”, rather than the Spirit distinctly. The same is probably true in Ezek. 37: 9—in addressing the wind, Ezekiel was addressing Jehovah. I say probably, because the wind may also be translated as breath or spirit, and sometimes this is impersonal (see Gen. 2: 7; Rev. 11: 11). None of this has anything to do with Christian worship.
In conclusion, it is clear that the teaching of a direct address in prayer and song to the Holy Spirit is built on an uncertain foundation, and is out of keeping with the general tenor of divine revelation. The few Scriptures cited are mostly obscure, and all are capable of being understood in a different way to that which has sometimes been asserted. Some may feel that the fact that the Holy Spirit is God is sufficient reason to pray and to sing to Him—and this position is worthy of respect. However, there are others (the writer included) who believe that to do so is to innovate in divine things, and is therefore unwise.