Heidelberg 53: We Believe In The Holy Spirit (3)

In part 2 we looked at what the church catholic (universal) has confessed about the Holy Spirit and how our confession of the person and work of the Spirit developed.

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).

In a religious, spiritual, and theological context in which the extraordinary—”spiritual gifts”—is valued over the ordinary—Word and sacrament ministry—and where “apostolic” is re-defined to mean “what the local Pentecostal/charismatic/Roman pastor does or says” it has often seemed to many outside the Reformed confession, particularly adherents to pietism, to be “dry” and “sterile.”1 Nevertheless, considered on its own terms the Reformed confess that the Holy Spirit brings us into a most intimate and wonderful union and communion with Christ.

As John Owen (1616–83) reminded us in Communion With God (1657) the Apostle John declared (1 John 1:3) that not only do we have fellowship with one another but “indeed the communion (κοινωνία) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”2 We have been “called into the communion (κοινωνία) of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). The apostolic benediction (blessing) declares that believers are recipients of the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion (κοινωνία) of the Holy Spirit….” (2 Cor 13:13). So closely are we united to Christ that Paul warns that believers who participate in holy communion, in the Lord’s Supper, may not then also become communicants (κοινωνός) with demons by participating in a pagan feast (1 Cor 10:20).

We were created to exist in communion with God “and live with Him in eternal blessedness” (Heidelberg Catechism 6). That promised communion, symbolized by the tree of life (Gen 2:9), conditioned upon Adam’s perfect obedience, however, was made impossible by sin. The promise of communion with God was replaced with enmity, death, and judgment (Gen 3:15). Of ourselves, as Owen said, we lost our “interest” (not just our subjective experience but our right of belonging to) in God, we became alienated (Eph 2:12) and the very possibility of being returned to God’s favor (grace) was entirely dependent upon his mercy (not visiting upon us the consequences of our sin) and grace, his undeserved favor earned for us by Christ. He became our substitute, the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45), the righteousness of God for us. He earned for all his people a return to the favor of God. How then, do we come into possession of Christ’s benefits? Calvin explains:

We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:27]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain (consequi) this by faith (fide). Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits. (Institutes, 3.1.1; emphasis added)

How do we obtain all that Christ has purchased for us? Did you notice the highlighted phrase, “It is true that we obtain this by faith”? We “grasp” this Spiritual, mystical union and communion with Christ by faith. A living trust that rests in and receives Christ and his benefits is not only the sole instrument of our justification (sola fide) but we confess:

for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness…faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits (Belgic Confession, art.22

How do we come to faith? Who gives us new life and with it true faith by which we are united to Christ? The Holy Spirit. Paul encouraged the Philippians to continue growing by reminding them of the reality they possessed in Christ:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any communion (κοινωνία) in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy…. (Phil 2:1)

There is encouragement (παράκλησις), there is consolation (παραμύθιον), and there is communion in the Holy Spirit. Above I asked “how” do we have these things and answered with a “who,” the Holy Spirit. That’s because the “how” is a little difficult to answer. How does the Spirit bring the spiritually dead to life? Our Lord Jesus appealed to the analogy of the wind. As we experience the wind it blows one way, then the other. So it is with the Spirit. He operates mysteriously. That’s not to say that he has not chosen to operate through means and instruments to accomplish his purposes. He certainly has. That’s why we confess in Heidelberg Catechism 65 that the “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.” The way to communion with God, in Christ, by the Spirit is by what we call “the due use of ordinary means” (Westminster Confession 1.7). This confession, this understanding of Scripture distinguishes us from the Anabaptists, the pietists, and the revivalists who have sought communion with God by an unmediated (lit. without means) encounter. No, we understand that God the Spirit communicates (shares) himself and his blessings with us through these means. It’s through hearing the Gospel preached that the Spirit creates faith and it is through the gospel made visible in the sacraments—we do call the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion— that our faith is strengthened. There is a direct correlation to periods of spiritual “dryness,” i.e., those seasons during which God may seem remote and our attendance to the means of grace. The WCF is quite helpful here when it says

a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of [infallible assurance]: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. (WCF 18.3)

We confess that we do experience the presence of the Spirit, that we are “enabled by the Spirit” to perceive the riches that we have in Christ and that we come to a renewed sense of these things “without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means….” We don’t need a second blessing. Against the Gnostics, the Montanists, and the neo-Pentecostals, there are not two classes of Christians. Rather, there is only one head, one baptism, and one body united in communion with the one Holy Spirit.

All the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. See e.g., Greg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 537; Gregory D. Schuringa, “Embracing Leer And Leven: The Theology of Simon Oomius in the Context of Nadere Reformatie Orthodoxy,” PhD Diss. Calvin Theological Seminary (2003), 1–2; Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, repr. 1996), 51.

2. John Owen, The Works of John Owen ed. William H. Goold. Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.).

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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