The Holy Spirit of Ephesians


Ephesians has a lot to say about the Holy Spirit. The simplest way to develop an Ephesian pneumatology is to survey some of the verses that refer to the Holy Spirit. Another, perhaps more exciting way, is to explore the implications and inferences one can draw from Ephesians, especially regarding the Holy Spirit as he relates to God's people. Finally, a third way to explore Ephesian pneumatology is to think about what it means for God to live inside the Christian, and the implications for daily Christian life.

The Holy Spirit is called the “Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance . . .” in Ephesians 1:13-14. John Stott elaborates on three designations given in these verses. First, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of promise because he is the promised Spirit. That is, God promised to give his Spirit to his people in the New Covenant, a promise Jesus echoed in the Gospels. Second, he is the pledge, or seal of our inheritance. The Holy Spirit is God's mark of ownership and identification for his covenant people. Third, he is the pledge, earnest, or guarantee of God's promise to fully redeem the church. Stott argues that the word implies not only a promise of payment, but a first installment of that payment. In this case he is similar to the down payment one makes on a house; he is of the same nature of the object guaranteed. Stott writes: “In giving him to us, God is not just promising us our final inheritance but actually giving us a foretaste of it . . .”1

Ephesians 2:18 says: “For through [Christ] we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” This is a fine example of Ephesian trinitarianism, but it also offers a glimpse into one of the Holy Spirit's roles in God's redemptive activity toward his people. The emphasis of the verse is on Christ's work, but in passing Paul mentions the Holy Spirit as a part of the road to the Father. Jesus claimed in John 14 that nobody comes to the Father apart from Christ, something Paul affirms here, but there is another person one must also go through – the Holy Spirit.

It seems there is a difference in how one goes through the Spirit versus through Christ to the Father. Here Paul's point is the unity of Jew and Gentile in the church, and the unity of the Spirit through whom the church worships. The point here is that there is only one Spirit through whom the church must go; there is not a spirit for the Jews and a spirit for the Gentiles. If one wants to worship the Father, one must do so through the one Holy Spirit. The implications for church unity are obvious.

A few verses later, in 2:22 Paul mentions the Spirit again, this time giving a little more information about his part in our relationship to the Father. He writes: “in whom [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” The NASB is a little confusing here. It is unclear whether this means the Spirit is where the dwelling of God is, or if God dwells in the church through his spirit, or something else. The word translated “in [the Spirit]” is the Greek word en, which is also legitimately translated “by means of.” This is how the ESV takes it: “. . . a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” This offers more clarity, and probably points to Paul's intention. The Spirit is the one who builds the church into a unified temple for God. Christ is the cornerstone of this new temple, the Church. Through regeneration, sanctification, unification, and all kinds of personal work in each believer and in each congregation, the Holy Spirit slowly but surely builds on the foundation. He is building a holy and unified temple for God to dwell in.

One of the classic proof-texts for the personhood of the Holy Spirit is Ephesians 4:30. It reads: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Surprising as it may be, the Christian can grieve the Holy Spirit. One obvious implication is that the God the Spirit feels a certain personal stake in the holiness of the church. This must be because it is his goal to build a holy temple for God (2:22). This is probably also because, as God has adopted his people as his children, he feels a certain sadness at their sin because sin hurts the sinner. It always grieves a parent to see his children choosing what is destructive to their souls; how much more the omniscient God. Perhaps the primary reason the Holy Spirit is grieved when the church walks in sin is because of the relational damage sin does. In the context, Paul is talking about relational sins between believers. He gives certain examples of how to live in accordance with the theological realities he has already enumerated. This is all under the main instructions of 4:1-3, one of which is to “[be] diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In Ephesians, one of the main roles of the Holy Spirit is to unify the church – no wonder it grieves him to see individuals tearing down the work he has done.

Another classic verse about the Holy Spirit in Ephesians is 5:18-21 , which says:

"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." (ESV)


The question of what it means to be filled with the Spirit sparks no small controversy, and is indeed an important issue, but a simple exposition of the text reveals a simple answer. The ESV translation reflects Paul's word choice; he modifies “be filled with the Spirit” with four participles. Simply read and simply put, Ephesians 5:18-21 teaches that the ministry of the Holy Spirit includes at least four activities in the believer's life. First, being filled with the Spirit results in ministry to others, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . . .” Second, it includes worship: “singing and making melody to the Lord . . .” The third result is gratitude: “giving thanks always and for everything . . .” And fourth, being filled with the spirit results in humility, as believers learn to “[submit] to one another . . .”

Finally, the Spirit is an integral part of the church's warfare against her Satanic enemy. Paul writes: “put on the full armor of God . . . And take the helmet of salvation, and he sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit . . .” (Eph. 6:10, 17-18a). The NASB stands almost alone in its separation of these two verses. Most translations connect verses 17 and 18, either by a semi-colon or colon, or even a comma. There is a definite connection between the two thoughts, taking up the sword, and prayer. Some translations express this by translating it “. . . praying” so that it could read that Paul is instructing the church to wield the sword of the Spirit, God's word, by means of prayer in the Spirit. Regardless of how strong the connection, the point is this: the word of God cannot be properly wielded apart from the Spirit of God and Spirit-empowered prayer.



God's spirit, it has been seen, is his mark of identification and ownership on his church. Much of the instruction in Ephesians is simply an exhortation for Christians to live in accordance with their true nature. In other words, God has marked his people by giving them his Spirit, and now he wants them to act like it. The Spirit not only marks the church, however, but he also builds the church into that which he says she is. This is exciting! God has rescued each believer, then marked them as his own by giving his Spirit to live in them, and then begins to beautify the church by transforming each individual into a holy building block, with an aim toward making a suitable temple for his own dwelling place. How encouraging to know that God is personally involved in sanctification. How empowering to know that when we fight for holiness, we are aligning ourselves with Almighty God. What confidence against the flesh! When we are tempted by sin, our expectation of success or failure can be a test of our belief in spiritual power.

More than a mark, God the Spirit is given as a down payment on God's redemption. In John 17 Jesus gave a definition of eternal life: “to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The Holy Spirit, then, as a taste of eternal life, is a taste of what it means to know God. It is not too much of a stretch, then, to say that what the Spirit does in us here and now should inform our understanding of eternal life, and our biblical understanding of eternal life might have something to say about what the spirit does for us here and now. If eternal life is soul-satisfying, the Spirit is a taste of that satisfaction. If the Holy Spirit is the unifier of the church, then eternity will bring perfect unity. The challenge is obvious. Does my experience of the Holy Spirit match what Scripture says? If no, either Scripture missed it or I have. I believe most of us spend our time bouncing around somewhere between yes and no, but the challenge is applicable to all. If one trusts God's word, the challenge is to ask God to vindicate his word in one's life. Where is the unity, satisfaction, love, and power the Holy Spirit brings?

Perhaps the greatest emphasis in Ephesians regarding the Spirit's work is on the unity of the church. If the Holy Spirit of God is given to the church as the unifying factor, how should this shape our priorities and values? The same Spirit lives in Jewish and Gentile believers. The same Spirit even lives in Baptist and Anglican Christians. This same Spirit has the same goals: unity and holiness. He is building the one universal church into a unified, holy temple for God. It seems, as one reads Ephesians, that holiness and unity are high priorities for the Spirit. Peripheral theology almost seems to ride in the back seat. Do the church's priorities and values match those of the Spirit who formed her, who builds her, who unifies her? Do mine?

In some circles, especially those that embrace the reformation tradition, doctrine has been in the driver's seat for a long time. Theology (ironically, often monergistic theology) is sometimes even ascribed salvific powers, let alone sanctifying and unifying power. Has theology taken over the Spirit's role, and perhaps replaced the Spirit's priorities with it's own doctrinal pets? This is not the place to explore these questions, but a study of the Spirit in Ephesians certainly makes us ask them. It would be worth the church's time to carefully align herself with the goals and objectives of her builder.



Regardless of one's view of the proper relationships between theology, unity, holiness, etc., pneumatology has certain obvious implications for the church. This section need not be very long, because it is precisely this that Paul spends half his epistle delineating. The priorities of unity and holiness play into almost every decision a Christian makes throughout the day – especially the relational decisions. Paul gives examples of what spirit-filled living has to say regarding work, anger, sex, gratitude, church gatherings, mental discipline, spiritual warfare, family relationships, the believer's relationship to the world, and more.

How this plays out in one's own life will be discovered as one wields sword of the Spirit in prayer. Surely he will teach each one how to “show tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” As Christians obey the command to be filled with the Spirit, it will play out in myriad ways. Far from inspiring a divisive attitude that says you must roll on the floor and bark like a dog to prove your Christianity, or that the Spirit's main role is to point out our sins (isn't that Satan's job description?), the Spirit of God will teach us each to serve each other, to worship God, to be grateful, and to be humble. As we learn to relate to God and each other by his Spirit, we will learn what unity and holiness look like; we will learn what eternal life is like.

1 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 48-49.