R. C. Sproul, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, Christian Focus Reprint, 2009. 156 pages
No Footprints in the Sand
To explain his title and purpose, author R. C. Sproul begins The Mystery of the Holy Spirit by quoting Abraham Kuyper. “The Holy Spirit leaves no footprints in the sand.” The Spirit is like the wind (John 3:8)—elusive and mysterious—but nonetheless real and marvelous. Because of the Spirit’s mystery, “we are vulnerable to superstition and distortions of His person and work” (p. 8). Sproul’s purpose, therefore, is to listen carefully to Scripture as it reveals the character of God the Holy Spirit.
Though known as a deep theologian, Sproul’s writings here and elsewhere seek to combine theological precision with personal application. Thus, in the re-print of Sproul’s classic The Mystery of the Spirit (originally published in 1990), he seeks to avoid undue theological technicalities, while requiring deep thought leading to a deeper spiritual life.
Who Is the Holy Spirit?
Sproul’s first four chapters provide foundational biblical teaching on the Spirit—He is personal (chapter one); He is God (chapter two); He is a Member of the Trinity (chapters three and four). The first two chapters are somewhat brief and elementary—vital, but explained primarily for the lay person. The third and fourth chapters on the Trinity are deeper—sketching the historical controversies, philosophical reasonings, and biblical teachings regarding Trinitarian theology. This makes for some uneven reading (light/heavy, basic/deep). However, it would be difficult to do otherwise given the eternal mystery of the Trinity.
What Are the Works of the Holy Spirit?
Having provided the theological foundation of the Person of the Spirit, Sproul addresses the Spirit’s works, beginning at the beginning—creation. Here we find a classic example of Sproul’s ability to relate deep truth to daily Christian living. Speaking of the Spirit’s work of completing the empty and void earth, Sproul notes:
Even in human relationships we have a nagging sense of the threat of emptiness, which we identify with poignant loneliness. The Holy Spirit fills what is empty. He conquers the void. When His work is finished, the once lonely universe is teeming with a plethora of flora and fauna. The barren wasteland becomes a pulsating arena of life. Here we need the Holy Spirit of God as the One who fills all things (p. 72).
He continues this connection between creation and new creation, but even more pointedly in chapter six: The New Genesis: The Holy Spirit and Regeneration. While this chapter is helpful, there are some interpretations and applications that some might take issue with. For example, Sproul takes “flesh” to be “the sin nature, the entire fallen character of man” (p. 82). Many theologians and biblical counselors would take issue with this direct connection between “flesh” and “sin nature.”
Sproul’s focus in the rest of this chapter is on the order of salvation, which he takes as regeneration and then faith. This essential Reformed doctrine is handled succinctly. No problem there. However, one would have wished for more elaboration in this chapter on the actual change that takes place at regeneration. Sproul focuses more on a change of “leadership” (from Satan to the Spirit), which is accurate as far as it goes. But he does not address the specifics of the change of orientation—that we are truly new creations in Christ, our “old man” is crucified with Christ, and an entirely new disposition (affections, mindsets, will, etc.) is imparted (we are raised with Christ to newness of life in Christ).
Because Sproul does not address our new disposition, when he develops his thoughts on sanctification, the “new nature” is not highlighted. His theology is sound, but the application loses some power by the neglect of the new creation in Christ—who is to grow progressively more like Christ. Our battle is not that of an old nature and a new nature fighting a constant equal tug of war. Progressive sanctification is one new person with the regenerated capacities to fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Sproul’s final three chapters on the baptism of the Spirit (chapter 8), the fruit of the Spirit (chapter nine), and the Other Comforter (chapter ten) are not to be missed. Though very different in style, these chapters address core questions asked by every believer.
His discussion of the Holy Spirit as our Paraclete—Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, Encourager, Giver of consolation—has great application for biblical pastoral counseling. Are we “parakaletic counselors” who know how to bring the Spirit’s comfort, consolation, and counsel to hurting and suffering people? Like the Spirit, do we offer people both solace for their wounds and strength for the battle? Speaking of the Spirit, Sproul writes, “He is the most tender source of solace the wounded, the defeated, or the grief-stricken person can know” (p. 155). Do we offer people biblical encouragement—strength for the journey, as the Spirit does? “The promised Paraclete … will come to give us strength and assistance for the battle” (p. 155).
R. C. Sproul in The Mystery of the Spirit has honored the Spirit’s mystery while also respecting the Bible’s descriptions of Who the Spirit is and what ministries the Spirit performs. As an introduction to the topic that balances theology and life, The Mystery of the Spirit is well-worth reading.