Who is the Holy Spirit?: A Book Review

by Sam Parkison January 3, 2020

I love Malcom Yarnell’s new book, Who is the Holy Spirit? Biblical Insights into His Divine Person. I love it because it is rather unexpected. Pop-level books on the Holy Spirit tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they deal strictly with the spiritual disciplines of the reader—sometimes veering into weird, sub-Christian mysticism—or they argue for the continuation or cessation of the spiritual gifts (viz. 1 Cor 12, 14). If you’re looking for either of those kinds of books, Who is the Holy Spirit? will disappoint. But this is precisely why I love it. Dr. Yarnell, as a Christian theologian, is not firstly considered with how to use the third person of the Trinity. The first business of a Christian theologian (and any other Christian, for that matter) is to know and worship God. As an eternal member of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit does not exist for us, we exist for him. Our primary responsibility to the Holy Spirit is not to try to leverage him for our own benefit, rather, as Yarnell shows, our responsibility is to get to know him, that we might worship him.

However, all this is the punchline. Most of the book is steady case-building. With the exception of his conclusion, every chapter is an exposition of—and theological gleaning from—one key passage of Scripture. Along the mountain range of the Bible, Yarnell chooses six peaks to explore: Genesis 1, 1 Samuel 10-19, Psalm 51, the gospel of Matthew, the gospel of John, and Romans 8. In this way, Yarnell is able to paint a picture of the Holy Spirit with many shades and hues, with colors drawn from a spectrum of biblical genres located at various points within redemptive history. The finished portrait is anything but flat.

From the creation account, Yarnell shows how the Holy Spirit is the mysterious, mighty, mover: “There is nothing to which we can compare God because there was nothing else in existence before God and His Spirit and His Word created it” (pg. 6-7).

Taking insights from the story of Israel’s first two monarch’s in 1 Samuel 10-19, Yarnell shatters the notion that the Spirit is an impersonal energy, and is rather the sovereign Lord, who empowers according to his own will: “The gifts of God may not be presumed upon by anyone… The Spirit of God remains sovereign, no matter what human sovereigns desires” (pg. 29). He calls the shots, because God calls the shots, and he is God.

From the life of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, Yarnell points out the Spirit’s indispensable role in the high point of redemptive history: the person and work of Jesus Christ. “The human person within Mary’s womb,” Yarnell points out, “is a product whose origin is the Holy Spirit himself” (pg. 57). Without the virgin conception, the wilderness temptation, the miraculous teaching ministry of Christ, the active and passive obedience of Christ for believers, and more, the gospel is not possible. This much is obvious to most Christians. What is not obvious to most is the fact that without the ministry of the Holy Spirit in and alongside the person and work of Christ, none of these gospel non-negotiables are possible.

Yarnell continues to build his case like this for some hundred pages. This book, however, is not a random collection of insights drawn from various places in the Scripture. This systematic exercise is not sterile. He is taking the reader somewhere. Yarnell takes us on a tour through Scripture’s forest, and although the sights are breathtaking in their own right, he won’t let us stop until we’ve reached our destination, which is something like a chapel in the middle of the forest. Yarnell takes us to church. Every step along the way is intended to culminate not in a central action: doxology.

In his conclusion, Yarnell punctuates his brief volume in an invitation to wonder at the Spirit’s incomprehensibility, and his condescending self-revelation (i.e., negative theology, and positive theology). “The transcendent mystery of the Spirit,” says Yarnell, musing on the incomprehensible nature of God, “is intended to drive us to worship of the Spirit. We cannot grasp the Holy Spirit, but he can grasp us by grace” (pg. 117). That this immense and glorious God would actually reveal himself to us boggles the mind. We cannot comprehend him fully, but we can nevertheless know and talk of him truly, on account of his condescending self-disclosure. “The mystery of God drives us to speechless worship, but the revelation of God drives us to speak toward a worship full of words” (pg. 118).

I read this book in one sitting, and I recommend you read it that way if you can. Such a reading experience has the effect of flattening you under the full weight of the book’s argument in this final, worshipful chapter. But if you aren’t able to read it through in one sitting, keep the end in mind: Yarnell is trying to introduce you to a person of the Godhead so that you might worship him. “If you believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ through the sovereign work of the Spirit, then come with me and let us together worship God the Father, God the Son, and, yes, also God the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit, too, is the eternal God” (pg. 120-121). Amen.

Editor's Note: Who is the Holy Spirit? is available now online or wherever books are sold.