The Holy Spirit: Position in the Preaching Epistles

These three articles give teaching concerning the Spirit as presented in the epistles which were written prior to Paul’s first imprisonment.


The epistles covered in this article are Romans, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, and 1st and 2nd Thessalonians. They were all written by the apostle Paul about the time of the events recorded between Acts 18 to 20, an extremely busy time in the life and service of the apostle. In addition to the burden of care he carried for the saints in various places, he was experiencing opposition and suffering from many external sources. Despite all this, he took time to send this written ministry. In each case, Paul knew that the saints were in need of the teaching given.

It is clear from the letters to Thessalonica, Corinth, and Galatia that the writer had originally taken the gospel message to them. They were his children in the faith (1 Thess 2:7-9, 13; 1 Cor 4:15; Gal 4:13-19). It is equally clear that some other servant or servants of the Lord had taken the message to Rome. Paul’s epistles to Rome and Colosse are the only ones from him to places which he never personally visited. His help to these assemblies, unknown to him by face, is a striking example to us today. Our consideration will be restricted to the various references made in these letters to the Holy Spirit of God. It is proposed to consider it under three particular aspects of the Spirit’s work, drawing appropriate mentions from the epistles involved. These aspects are particularly suitable, since we are considering preaching as the background to these letters.

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

These NT letters are, for the present consideration, termed “preaching epistles,” and those who labor in gospel work know that blessing only comes from God, when preaching is in the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 1:5). The danger of relying on natural verbal ability when preaching the gospel message is particularly stressed to the saints at Corinth. Theirs was a city which placed great importance on “excellency of speech” and human wisdom. It is evident from the New Testament that Paul possessed such abilities, but was “determined” not to rely upon those natural gifts. His preaching was “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). Later he underlines this by speaking of their washing and justification being “by the Spirit of our God” (6:11). It is good to note in this respect that, although Paul was the preacher, he claimed no credit for the divine activity which had taken place. He knew that salvation is a work of God, it is “of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9). He had been commissioned to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13, Gal 2:8), and he knew his work of gospel preaching amongst them, accompanied by mighty signs and wonders, was “by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom 15:19).

In these letters we learn not only of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the preacher, but also in the hearts of the hearers. His sanctifying work is spoken of. “God hath from the beginning, chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess 2:13). Although “beginning” here is sometimes rendered “firstfruits,” the majority of available literal translators retain the language of the AV. Alford states, “From the beginning must be taken in the general sense. It answers to ‘before the worlds’ (1 Cor 2:7), ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph 1:4), and ‘before eternal ages’ (2 Tim 1:9). There is, in the work of salvation, that which cannot be explained by human intellect. We must always preach with a view to the hearing and obedience of faith, but we know that before the preacher’s voice is heard, and again after it is silent, the Holy Spirit of God is working in many hearts.” On “sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth,” Alford also remarks as follows: “Sanctification… This is the divine side of the element; the human side follows, -‘your own reception, by faith, of the truth’.”

The Holy Spirit and Security

Because of conditions at Corinth, it was necessary in the first epistle to teach the objective side of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in a local assembly. By the time of writing the second epistle, a change in their spiritual condition had been effected, allowing more teaching on the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit within the individual believer. Here we learn that the Spirit of God is our anointing, seal, and earnest (1:21-22). In the anointing we have the security of power for service, and in the seal the security of our ownership by God. The earnest gives us the security of knowing now the foretaste of future blessing.

The authority and power given to those raised up to serve God in the Old Testament was signified by their anointing with oil. This was seen in prophets, priests, and kings, securing and empowering them for the work they were to do. Yet, the anointing given to every child of God at conversion is infinitely superior. The oil was but a symbol, but in our day each receives the divine person of the Holy Spirit. Ephesus was a well known seaport, and often by the quayside, heavy cargo would lie, awaiting transit. It would bear the initials of the owner, or even some rough likeness of the owner imprinted on wax. But the child of God does not merely bear the likeness of His owner, he is sealed by the presence of a divine person, the Holy Spirit of God. In Genesis 24, the servant of Abraham gave Rebekah tangible evidence of the wealth she would enjoy in her union with Isaac. He gave “jewels of silver, jewels of gold, and raiment” (v.53). This was a foretaste (an earnest) for her to enjoy. Thus, the anointing implies the divinely given authority to engage in service for God. The seal is the God-given mark of ownership, and the earnest is the Holy Spirit’s ministry within the believer, enabling him to presently enjoy a foretaste of joys and blessings which will be his eternally.

The Spirit and Sanctification

The Holy Spirit is mentioned once in the first seven chapters of the epistle to the Romans, but in ch 8 there are 19 mentions. The writer has been dealing with problems in the life of the believer, regarding both sin and the law. How can there be victory over sin? How can the child of God live above the demands of the law? The answer lies in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who indwells all who are born of God. Just as life within a growing plant defies the law of gravity, so the Holy Spirit has made the believer free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2). The teaching of Romans 8 is vital for every child of God to read and understand. It is here we learn of the Spirit’s power in the mortal body. While verse 10 is more often interpreted as future resurrection, there is a strong case for it to be describing present experience. The same chapter also stresses the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is not restricted to our taking part in the collective gatherings. It refers to the whole life. If I am led by the Spirit of God in my life generally, then the part I play in the assembly will also be under His control. The ministry of this divine person in our prayer life is also worthy of study here. The great theme of holiness of life is described in each of these preaching epistles. When it is spoken of, the Holy Spirit’s presence as a resident within our body is emphasized (Rom 8:13; 1 Cor 6:18-19; Gal 5:16-17; 1 Thess 4:7-8).

And every virtue we possess, and every victory won,
And every thought of holiness, are His alone.