Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell’s “Who is the Holy Spirit?” – Book Summary

Dr. Malcolm Yarnell states that many of the current books on the Holy Spirit are written to define who he is, but not many are written about what he does (xv). He proposes that by analyzing what the Holy Spirit does it is easier to formulate a definition of who he is using Scripture as the perfect source of information. The goal for his book is to explain to the average Christian pastor, teacher, and pew-sitting believer who the Holy Spirit is. He does so in a manner that is easy to digest with the ultimate byproduct of leading them to worship. 

Starting in the beginning, God (Elohim) and Spirit (Ruah) are seen, but there is great debate on the meaning of Ruah. As theologians look at Ruah in other places of Scripture it becomes evident that “the Spirit is mysterious, the Spirit is the Mover, and the Spirit is mighty” (6). 

The mystery begins in Genesis 1:2 with its difficulty explaining the Ruah Elohim, “the Spirit of God,” because there was nothing else in existence to compare it to. “He simply is when nothing else is” (7). The exact translation of ruah is uncertain. It is used for wind, breath, and spirit. The answer relies on its usage throughout Genesis. 

As Mover, the Spirit moves over the darkness at creation, soars like an eagle, hovers, and guided the Israelites by pillar of cloud and smoke (10). It points to his sovereignty over all of God’s creation as he is involved in guiding the process of creation yet wanting an intimate involvement in the lives of finite creation. The Holy Spirit’s might is displayed by its sustaining of life and ongoing guidance of the progress of human life since creation and its creation of new life today.

Genesis alludes to the divine nature of the Holy Spirit. But 1 Samuel subtly identifies the Holy Spirit as the Lord God, confirming that he is indeed one third of the Trinity. He was involved in the lives of Israel’s judges (temporary leaders under the power of God) and kings (later established as ongoing leadership): empowering them, working in their hearts, and leading them in decision making. Samuel’s promise, “the Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully on you…” (1 Sam 10:6) is fulfilled in four ways. The Spirit of God rushes upon Samson and the first two kings, Saul and David. The second part of that promise is the act of prophesy. King Saul was prophesying among the prophets as the spirit led him “to proclaim the word of God as well as lead the people of God” (21). Thirdly, Saul was equipped by the Holy Spirit to step into the new role of king, being compelled to take bold stances and decisive action to lead God’s people and bring God glory. Finally, Samuel prophesied that God would be with Saul. The Spirit’s activity and presence was correlated with God’s activity and presence revealing that, in at least the eyes of the author of 1 Samuel, there is an “essential unity of the Spirit with God” (23).

During the reign of King Saul there were several moments where Samuel had to remind him of God’s sovereignty and Saul’s responsibility to fulfill his calling before God. At times, Saul attempted to assume the office, or at least the opportunities afforded to, the priest. The Spirit came and went as the anointing moved from one king to another. He even took the anointing from Saul and “gave him over to his own passions and fears” allowing him to be tormented by an evil spirit (28).

Yarnell, Malcolm B. Who Is The Holy Spirit. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2019.137 pp. $19.99.

In 1 Samuel, the Spirit of God was directly connected with the divine role of God. He demonstrated his sovereignty by choosing whom he would anoint and whom he would leave. The Spirit of God was also identified by “the Lord” and “God” (32). The terms were used interchangeably. 

The Spirit of God is only referred to as “Holy Spirit” three times in the Old Testament. Twice by Isaiah as he distinguishes a contrast from Israel’s rebelliousness and once by David in Psalm 51 to indicate God’s holiness. David’s famous indiscretion was sin upon sin upon sin: he was not where he should be (at war), he committed adultery in his mind and physically with Bathsheba, he tried to manipulate her husband, Uriah, to cover it up, and he ultimately had Uriah killed before taking his wife. But in Psalm 51 David writes that man can be restored from sin by “confessing God, confessing human sin, and requesting personal transformation” (39).

David and his sin were judged, then upon his confession he was justified. He pointed to God’s perfection and His holiness as the standard by which man is judged. Yarnell unpacks this by comparing the holiness of God to the sinfulness of humanity. He says, “sin is sinful because sin is against God” (44). There are several words used in Psalm 51 for sin that have deeper meaning. Some note intentional sin, “missing the mark,” perversity, evil, or even “bloodguilt”. In every case, sin is the opposite of God’s holiness (45). 

After David confesses and exalts the holiness of God, he asks God to leave the Holy Spirit with him, to create within him a new heart to allow him to be in the ongoing presence of a holy God. He knew he needed God to break his heart so that it could be put back together and made whole in a way he knew only God could do. 

The Gospel of Matthew gives an account of how the Spirit and Jesus correlate in his incarnation, baptism, ministry, and resurrection (56). Yarnell focuses on the Spirit’s identity as related to Jesus. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, commissioned at His baptism by the Spirit, accompanied in life and ministry by the Spirit, and shares deity with the Spirit. The Son of God baptizes believers by sending them the Holy Spirit to not only bring judgment, but also to bless those that are his. The Spirit comes to Jesus to equip him for the fulfillment of his ministry as prophet, priest, and king.

As king, the Spirit of God will rest on Him (Isa 11:2) with a continual presence which also allows Him to fulfill his role as prophet (Isa 61:1-2). Thirdly, the Spirit was prophesied to come on the Messiah to make him the priest and the atoning sacrifice for sin (Isa 42:1ff).

Personhood is defined by one’s “identity in relation to other persons” (78). This vantage point helps understand the Trinity, three persons as one Being; Jesus, “one person with two natures;” and the Spirit of God who is both personal and a person as it can relate to persons and has an identity defined by relationships. 

The Spirit of God came to bring the kingdom of God to man’s heart through regeneration, but only after the Son of God ascended to heaven. The Spirit, like Jesus, came as a “Comforter” or “Counselor”. The Spirit originates with the Father, but its activity is at the initiation of the Son’s sending. The Spirit initiates regeneration and the new birth of believers and also maintains an ongoing, empowering, presence as they go through life.  He assists the disciples, reveals truth to them, and speaks truth through them. 

Paul was the most prolific New Testament writers on the Spirit, but from a practical sense and how the Holy Spirit relates to the Christian life. In Romans 8, Paul focuses on the action of the Spirit from which Yarnell unpacks the ontology and economy of the Spirit. In the believer, the Holy Spirit creates, continues, and completes life. He does this through the indwelling of God’s Spirit in the believer by grace. This is not a passive indwelling on the part of believers, but one where we are “to pursue the sovereign work of sanctification within themselves” (106).

The above-mentioned regeneration adopts us into the sonship of God making us coheirs with Christ and culminating in the bodily resurrection. It unites us with Jesus, including His sufferings. The Spirit intercedes on our behalf because we are not capable to properly intercede for ourselves. We do not even fully know what we need, much less how to pray for it. 

Ultimately, the Holy Spirit cannot be fully defined because it cannot be fully comprehended by finite minds without the full revelation of God through His Spirit. Pneumatology is a theology of mystery. Anything we know about the Holy Spirit must drive us to worship and praise of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must not define Him in ways that impose limitations on His deity, yet we cannot let our insufficient understanding keep us from speaking of Him. Because of who He is, we must speak of Him. 

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