The Action of the Holy Spirit: The Lord and Giver of Life by Frank J. Sheed

The Action of the Holy Spirit: The Lord and Giver of Life by 
Frank J. Sheed, Reprint Edition: Frederick, Maryland: 
The Word Among Us Press, 2006.

“The daily conduct of the Church and of the individual Christian is the affair of the Holy Spirit. So it was as Christ established it. So it is and will be to the end of life on earth. We might ask ourselves whether our own interest in the Spirit is as great as his primacy in our lives demands” (11).

Part I: Who is the Spirit? 

I: In the Beginning

In the Old Testament, “the Spirit of God” meant God in operation, God acting upon the world and mankind. The Hebrew mind was not too concerned about what God actually was. They were content with ruah, meaning “wind” or “spirit” (Genesis 1 – spirit of God moving over the face of the waters).

Since “God is spirit” (John 4:23), we must first understand what we mean by the word “spirit”. A spirit is a being, not in space (because it has no parts), that knows, loves and decides. Our souls (the animating life-principle of our bodies – which are spirits) does all things as the whole soul.

2: The Son of God

At the Last Supper, Jesus said that it was better for them that he go away because otherwise, the Holy Spirit would not come. It is not likely that the promise of the Spirit at this eleventh hour shed much light for them or brought much comfort… After all, how much had they grasped about the Carpenter himself? What was he? Who was he? They must have had a feeling that he was more than human due to his radical statements and profound miracles. With the Transfiguration and other key events, by the time of the Last Supper, the Apostles must have known of a “duality within the Godhead – two selves, Father and Son. By the time the Last Supper ended, they got the first suggestion of a third” (31).

3: The Third Person

The Apostles knew that the Spirit worked in and through Jesus (Mt 12:28). They must have also recalled the dove at Jesus’ baptism and heard from the Baptist that Jesus would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11).

At the Last Supper, Jesus began to open their minds to the Spirit (John 14:16-17).

“I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete” (John 14:16)

Paraclete is an utterly new word, found nowhere else in Greek. Para means “alongside” and kalein means “to summon.” Paraclete means to summon to one’s side, to call to one’s aid, especially as an advocate either pleading one’s cause or defending one against an enemy, or even as a comforter in one’s affliction. Another paraclete like Jesus (see 1 John 2:1).

He shall abide with you and shall be in you” (John 14:17).

Abide” is both new in what it means and vastly important. In the Old Testament, the Spirit could aid or enlighten or rebuke. But to act upon men from within, to abide with them permanently – with this we have “indwelling” and practically a definition of sanctifying grace (35).

He” occurs a dozen times in the discourse (Jn 14-17), all the more surprising because the word for “spirit,” pneuma, is neuter. So the Spirit is a person: “someone” not “something.”

Although it is difficult from the gospels to be certain about the divinity of the Spirit, the earliest Christian writings attest to His divinity (see 1 Thess 5:17-19, 2 Cor 13:14). Furthermore, Matthew 28:19 speaks about being baptized “into the name” (literal Greek translation) – name in the singular is decisive, if the 3rd member of the group shares the name, he shares the nature. If the first two are divine, so is the third.

Why was it better for the apostles, and thus for us, that Jesus should go? If they had asked it, then we should not need to ask it now. We get light on the answer only by looking at what followed Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension. By going to the Father, redemption was achieved. In a strange parallel, we too will only know when we have gone to the Father.

4: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

God utters a word – as Spirit, His word can “only be soundless, within himself, a mental word, therefore, akin to a concept or idea” (41).

The Word was with God – The concept, the idea, did not pass away in the utterance; it remains with God, it belongs. That is difficult enough perhaps. But the Word was God! What mental word, what idea, could possibly be God? (41). The one idea that could possibly be God is his idea of Himself… God, then, knowing Himself with total knowing power, produces an idea of Himself. Whereas our self-knowledge is imperfect, God’s self-knowledge is perfect and the idea in which He utters this perfect knowledge is equally perfect. Just as an idea is meant to express the object as it truly is, so a son is of the same nature as his father. In John’s Gospel, logos gives way to Son.

The Spirit is Breathed – Just as the Second Person is produced within the divine nature by knowledge, the Third is produced by way of love. Just as the Son is generated; the Spirit is breathed. Just as natural life begins with breathing, so Supernatural life also begins with breathing… Indeed, love has an effect on breathing.

“Knowledge and love, the highest activities of created spirits, thus reach their own supreme height in the uncreated” (45).

From the Father and the Son – The Father and Son, loving each other totally, produce the Spirit, divine as they are. Since God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, one lifestream flows through all of them.

5: Some Clarifications

Language: Since we are made in God’s own image and likeness, we can use our likeness to God (a type of anthropomorphism) as a first step in the study of the original, a God-aided effort to fathom and make our own what he has revealed to us about himself (51).

Although human language is insufficient, God has given us these terms (Father, Son, and Spirit) as the closest in our experience to their reality in Him. Although it might be truer to speak of three “I know not whats,” that gives us no light at all, whereas Father, Son and Spirit do give light.

“Holy” Spirit: We call the Third Person “Holy” because Scripture tells us to. It is not God’s holiness that is credited to the Spirit, but rather our holiness because it is the Holy Spirit’s special function to bring us the gifts that lead us to holiness (loving and giving go together) (53).

God is Love: Since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), this God gives and receives love infinitely within the Godhead.

“Men and women, in fact, have always been afraid of the solitary God. This may be one reason why the paganisms multiplied gods – the wrong reaction to a profoundly right instinct. Pagans had a feeling that is was not good for God to be alone!” (54).

Eternity: Eternity is God eternally present, wholly, an abiding “now”, “an infinite that possesses its own totality timelessly (55). No amount of eternity had to roll by for the Father to beget the Son nor the Holy Spirit. Simply by being what he is, God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Order of Production: Since the producer and the one produced are wholly timeless, there is no difference in the measure of greatness within the Godhead.

Is It Too Complicated? Although all this study may seem at first to get us nowhere, two reasons encourage us to go forward. First, penetration into the mystery of God sheds light both on the universe and on our lives in it – that is, it reduces not only the world’s meaninglessness but our own, for we cannot even know ourselves as well as God knows us (57). Second, God wants to be known by us because He loves us and wants us to love Him. It would be a grim failure of love in us simply to wonder why he should have bothered.

PART II: The Spirit in Action

6: We are in the Hands of the Spirit

Although the three Persons of the Trinity – theologically speaking – act as one upon the created universe, Scripture encourages us to appropriate “the Spirit as the giver of the gifts by which creatures can live the fullness of life” (61).

7: The Spirit in the Old Testament

After moving on the face of the waters at the creation, the Spirit of God appears next on the improbable lips of Pharaoh (Gen 41:38), then another non-Jew, Balaam (Numbers 24:2), then genuine prophets (and some priests) like Samuel (1 Sam 10:6), Micah (3:8, 11), Isaiah (4:4, 11:12, 32:15-17), Ezekiel (11:24, 36:25-27), and throughout the Psalms (51:10-12, 139:4-15).

“The impersonal absolute of Plotinus and of so many modern Christians cannot be fitted unto the Holy Spirit of prophet or priest” (73).

8: The Spirit in the Gospels

“The first gift the Holy Spirit gives the new order established by Christ is Christ Himself (see Lk 1:35, Mt 1:20)” (74).

The Spirit was present at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (in all 4 Gospels). The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2, Mark 1:12). Jesus, “full of the Spirit,” returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). Jesus claims to have the Spirit of the Lord upon Him (Luke 4:18-19) and even says that the denial of the Holy Spirit is the worst sin of all (Mark 3:28).

“The ordinary theological teaching is that the sin against the Holy Spirit is to die in one’s sins without repentance. Final refusal of God’s love eliminates the work of the Spirit, because it is by the way of love that the Holy Spirit subsists and functions in us” (79).

In the 7th chapter of John, the author states that “the Spirit had not been given because Jesus was not yet glorified” (v 39). Although “the Spirit had given all sorts of aid, he had not given himself. He had given men and women light and strength. But indwelling, abiding in them – this is something new. The Holy Spirit, as he dwelled in the soul of Christ made perfect by suffering, would henceforth make his home in us… indwelling has a new depth and permanence” (84-5).

9: The Spirit in the Church’s Beginning

Jesus handed over His Church on earth to the keeping of the Holy Spirit, Who had guided Him in His founding of it… The most priceless gift that flows from our membership in His body is the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in us as He dwells in Christ, acting on us as on Christ. This is not a matter of choice or chance… We have Jesus by having the Spirit dwelling in us as in him. That is why the Spirit is sometimes called “the Spirit of Jesus” (87). The Spirit’s influence in the early church is practically continuous – from Pentecost to directing Paul’s missionary trips.

Our relationship with the Spirit is personal, our own sighing and groaning do rouse an echo in him (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit’s special work in the mystical body is to make us know the truths God wants us to know. In Scripture, prophecy does not usually mean foretelling but “forth telling,” telling the truth, especially God’s truth. Prophecy is the work of the Spirit (93). The Spirit’s coming brought newness of life, gifts beyond measure, duties beyond bearing often enough (94).

10: Life in the Spirit

We possess two lives at a time. One is natural. The other is supernatural. Both lives are real, they have structures, powers, laws, and virtues proper to it. Both lives need to be harmonized into one living reality. It is not a matter of annihilating the life of nature and substituting life in the Spirit. The second life is built into the first. Every element in our nature is called upon to function supernaturally. Intellect – faith. Will – charity. Intellect and will – hope.

“Faith, hope, and charity – these make up the essential structure of human life in the Spirit” (106).

Although the Holy Spirit will help us to do the right actions, He will not do them for us.

We must continually ask the Holy Spirit to help us know what His will is for us: we must ask it, and mean it. May the Holy Spirit somehow supply the sincerity we find so difficult (117).

11: The Air We Breathe

The Holy Spirit, the divine breath, is the air without which those efforts and resistances will be beyond our powers.

“The evidence on which we trust the Holy Spirit is to be found in small books like this, which will have failed if one does not move on to the Bible. There is no substitute for the whole Bible. But, even if one did no more than look into every reference given in this present book, one might find the Bible opening into richer treasures. One might find the mind producing delights with which imagination’s technicolor cannot compare” (121).


It is noticeable that in both Testaments the Spirit is constantly spoken of but is never spoken to… The deepest truths take longest to grow into (123).

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