Heidelberg 53: We Believe In The Holy Spirit (1)

53. What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit ?

First, that He is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that He is also given to me, by true faith makes me a partaker of Christ and all His benefits, comforts me and shall abide with me forever (Heidelberg Catechism).

Before the outbreak of neo-Pentecostalism in Topeka (1901) and Azusa St (1906) there was Cane Ridge (1801) and before Cane Ridge there was Northampton (1730s and 40s) and before Northampton there was Thuringia (1520s). Whatever the differences between the First Great Awakening and the Second, one thing that united them is a quest for an immediate experience of the Holy Spirit.1 Particularly in the nineteenth-century revivals American evangelical piety has been dominated by versions of Anabaptist theology and piety. Two centuries before Northampton, Thomas Muntzer (1489–1525) and others like him were advancing the notion that true believers must replicate the experience of the apostolic church (as reconstructed by the Muntzer et al). In this they were following the Montantists from the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries and various medieval primitivists in-between.2

Because the notion that, if only we have enough faith or if only we use the right techniques (or both) we can recapture the original apostolic experience is so widespread it is very difficult for American evangelical Christians to understand or appreciate the Reformed confession of the person and work of the Holy Spirit because the contrast between the Reformed understanding of the person and work of the Spirit is starkly different from that of neb-pentecostalism in all its forms. To put it bluntly: if one’s idea of the work of the Holy Spirit involves rolling on the floor or even talking in unknown languages, the Reformed view of the Spirit may not seem like a view of the Spirit at all. What hath Heidelberg to do with Azusa? Not much. They represent two radically different paradigms. The Reformed faith is one thing and the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements are another, attempts to synthesize them notwithstanding. Those attempts, however, well intentioned, must do violence to one or the other. The Reformed theology and piety begins with the sufficiency of Scripture. Pentecostalism certainly and the charismatic theology and piety to a lesser degree begin explicitly or implicitly with the insufficiency of Scripture. The “due use of ordinary means” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 88) is essential to Reformed theology and piety but it is not the Pentecostal and the Charismatic movements. The union of Reformed theology and these movements is achieved by radically re-defining Reformed theology, by reducing it to a single element: divine sovereignty and by adding that to Pentecostalism or Charismatic piety.

In order to understand the Reformed doctrine and piety of the Holy Spirit it must be received and judged on its own terms. If it is judged by the standards of Münster, Cane Ridge, Azusa, or even Safenwil, it will, of course, fail but those are false tests. Confessional Reformed Christianity rejects Montanism, Anabaptism, revivalism and existential encounters with the Word. We do, however, accept the teaching of God’s Holy Word and the holy catholic faith.

Scripture has a deep and robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He is revealed as hovering over the face of the deep in the acts of creation (Gen 1:2). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. He manifested himself in the history of redemption in the glory cloud, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13:21). The salvation of his people has always been the work of all three persons of the holy Trinity. (1 Cor 10:1–14). That same Holy Spirit inspired and sustained the prophets. Our Lord Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1) was led by the same Spirit who led the church through the wilderness for forty days. He communed with the Spirit and the Spirit sustained and co-operated with the Son in Christ’s ministry (e.g., Luke 4;14, 18; 10:21). Our Savior promised that his disciples would be baptized in the Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8) and they were. He empowered them to speak known, natural foreign languages supernaturally (Acts 2:4, 7) and to perform apostolic miracles. By his power they healed the lame (Acts 3:7), raised the dead (Acts 9:41), and even put to death the disobedient (Acts 5). These were not “healing services” in which the miracle was contingent upon one’s faith (or lack thereof). The prophecies they gave, the revelations they received were not “fallible. ” They were Spirit-inspired, holy, inerrant words from God’s Spirit. When a viper bit the Apostle Paul (Acts 28:4) he was unhurt. He was no Arkansas snake-handler. He was an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostles had a divinely instituted office, an objective authority, and power by the Spirit that ended when they died. Every attempt to replicate their ministry or to claim a restoration must re-describe ordinary post-apostolic experience in biblical terms (pasting over the discontinuities and radical differences) or simply fabricate experiences (post-apostolic “glossolalia”) that is both common to world religions and completely different from what was given to the Apostles and the Apostolic Church.

The Reformed churches are deeply committed to the person and work of the Holy Spirit but we are not wedded to Montanism, Anabaptism, neo-Pentecostalism, or the Charismatic renewal movements. We want to be biblical in our understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We think we are.

The transition, however, from the evangelical-charismatic-Pentecostal paradigm to the Reformed confession of the Spirit can be difficult and even painful. The first step is to recognize that Reformed and Pentecostal/Charismatic piety are two distinct things but that Reformed piety is every bit as “spiritual” (and even more so) than the Anabaptist-Pentecostal attempts to recreate the Apostolic experiences. At the same time, Reformed Christians need to stop feeling ashamed that they are not Charismatics or Pentecostals. This is especially true for those who’ve grown up in Reformed congregations and who wonder whether they might be “missing out” on something special. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Trust me. You’re not missing out on anything.

Next: The universal Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit.

All the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. See the chapter on the QIRE in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

2. For more on this see “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91.

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  1. It’s ironic that Calvinists are deemed “frozen chosen” for the rejection of the decisonist’s practice of altar calling, etc. It’s the emphasis of the Spirit’s sovereign work to regenerate (and the de-emphasis of human will) that drives that rejection in favor upon a simple placarding of Christ and call to believe, and the opposite that drives the decisionist’s practice.

  2. Dr. Clark, I note the equation of Jonathan Edwards’s ministry (Northampton) with those others that are obviously far inferior theologically. Do the confessionally Reformed reject the First Great Awakening as being wrought by a spirit other than God?

  3. Can you provide any scripture that supports the idea that miracles will cease when the twelve apostles die? Remember in Luke 10 that Jesus sent out the seventy to heal the sick and raise the dead. Jesus did all his miracles as man, not as God. If he lived his life on earth as God then it means little to me, for I, a mere man cannot follow his example. No Jesus taught us how to do miracles to demonstrate the kingdom of God. Paul won a few souls to Christ when he argued with words, but won multitudes when he relied on the power of the Holy Spirit.

    • Tobias,

      Three things.

      1. The Christology articulated in your objection is heretical. It is contrary to God’s Holy Word. Jesus is one person with two natures. He did his miracles as a one person with two natures. Yes, he is true man AND true God but assigning his miracles only to his humanity is arbitrary and contrary to the repeated and explicit teaching of Scripture, where his miracles are given as evidence of his deity.

      2. Go back and re-read the essay and note the implied test for continuing miracles. No one in the post-apostolic world did or is doing what the apostles did. They had a unique office that ended.

      3. So, salvation from the wrath of God is nothing? You want to re-think that.

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