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Mormonism and the Holy Ghost

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Mormonism and the Holy Ghost

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

A. Who Is the Holy Ghost?

According to the LDS Church, all heavenly spirits other than the Father and his celestial wife (our “heavenly mother”), including Jesus, are their spirit sons and daughters. This doctrinal view has led some Mormons naturally to the conclusion that the Holy Ghost is another of God’s spirit sons. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that the Holy Ghost is a spirit man, a spirit son of God the Father” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 6:249). In other words, according to some Mormons, the Holy Ghost is one of our spirit brothers in heaven—one who somehow became part of the Godhead. LDS leaders have officially neither endorsed nor denied this idea, and LDS theologians who advocate it have no explanation for how this might have happened.

The notion that the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit) is one of God’s many spirit sons or some other deity separate from God himself not only has no support whatsoever in the Bible, it is inconsistent with what the Bible teaches. As we saw in our study of Mormon doctrine and the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is one God with the Father and the Son, so that the Bible calls him the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Jesus Christ). This inseparable relationship between the Holy Spirit and the other two divine persons implies that as “the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14) he has always been this divine Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit is not a spiritual being who somehow advanced to the status of a member of the Godhead, but rather he is and always has been the Lord God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). By the grace of God in redemption, believers are adopted to become “brothers” to God’s one and only divine Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11-18). This means that we were not and are not brothers of the Holy Spirit; nor are we heavenly beings that the Holy Ghost helps to reach their divine potential. Rather, it is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we physical creatures are able to call God our Father (Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-6).

 B. Does the Holy Spirit Dwell in the Hearts of Believers?

Earlier we quoted Joseph Smith’s statement in 1843, “The Holy Ghost is a personage and a person cannot have the personage of the H[oly] G[host] in his heart.” This is how the statement reads in the diary of Joseph Smith kept for him in 1843 by Willard Richards. Years after Joseph’s death, this statement appeared in the History of the Church (5:325) rewritten as follows: “…the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.” This is also how the statement appears in D&C 130, which was added to Doctrine and Covenants in 1876 (see D&C 130:22). There is an apparent discrepancy between these two versions of Joseph Smith’s statement:

Joseph Smith’s sermon at Ramus, IL
(diary, April 1843)

History of the Church 5:325
D&C 130:22

“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s. The Son also, but the Holy Ghost is a personage and a person cannot have the personage of the H[oly] G[host] in his heart.”

“The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit.Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.”

Mormons reconcile these two doctrinal claims (not necessarily the above two versions of Joseph’s statement) by asserting that while the personage of the Holy Ghost cannot literally dwell in a human being’s heart, he can dwell in their hearts figuratively through the influence of the Spirit, the light of Christ. Gospel Principles, for example, states regarding the Holy Ghost, “He can be in only one place at a time, but His influence can be everywhere at the same time” (32). The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states, “In a figurative sense, the Holy Ghost dwells in the hearts of the righteous Saints of all dispensations” (2:649). According to Joseph Fielding Smith, there is a difference between the Holy Ghost (“also called the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of Truth, and the Comforter”), who is a personage, and “the other Spirit” that is the Light of Christ, which is an omnipresent influence:

"This man here, another one over there, and a man over in England, are confirmed members of the Church. The question arises, ‘How can the Holy Ghost be with them all at the same time?’ He does not have to be, but the power of the Holy Ghost is such that it can be manifest in every place at the same moment of time…. Thus when it becomes necessary to speak to us, he is able to do so by acting through the other Spirit, that is, through the Light of Christ" (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:38, 40).

There are at least two problems with these explanations. The first is that the distinction has no support in the Bible. The “Spirit of Christ” and the “Holy Spirit” refer to the same divine person in the New Testament (see especially 1 Peter 1:11-12). Biblically, there is no “other Spirit” besides the Holy Spirit; Christians believe in “one Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4). The idea of an impersonal Spirit, a kind of divine force or energy, is unbiblical.

The second problem also has significant implications for our understanding of God and of the Christian life. As we have seen, the LDS Church teaches that the Holy Ghost cannot be in more than one place at a time and does not literally dwell in people’s hearts, although his influence can be felt everywhere and in the hearts of all faithful believers. This may sound like a reasonable distinction, but D&C 130:22 undermines this distinction in a surprising way. It states that the Father and the Son cannot dwell in human hearts because each of them has a body of flesh and bones (see also 130:3). The assumption here is that a physical being cannot literally inhabit the body of another physical being (let alone the bodies of all believing human beings). On the other hand, the Holy Ghost can “dwell in us” because he is not a physical being but rather a personage of Spirit. Yet the LDS doctrine now is that the Holy Ghost does not actually dwell in anyone, and indeed cannot dwell in everyone who believes because he cannot be in more than one place at a time. He “dwells” in people’s hearts only in the sense that his influence reaches their hearts in the form of the “Light of Christ,” the “Spirit of Christ” that is an omnipresent power or force.

In this figurative sense of “dwelling” in people’s hearts through the medium of a spiritual power or influence, could we not say that the Father or the Son can also “dwell” in people’s hearts? If the dwelling in people’s hearts is figurative, what is it about having bodies of flesh and bones that prevents the Father or the Son from dwelling figuratively in people’s hearts through the supposed impersonal energy or power that extends their influence everywhere? The claim that the Holy Ghost’s dwelling in human hearts is figurative undermines the distinction in D&C 130:22 between the Father and the Son, who because they have physical bodies cannot dwell in people’s hearts, and the Holy Ghost, who because he is a personage of spirit can do so. That distinction is completely irrelevant if the Holy Ghost does not actually dwell in people’s hearts.

The issue here is not merely one of abstract theological interest. It pertains directly to what sort of God we claim to worship and how we relate to this God. The three Gods of the LDS Church’s doctrine are all embodied, localized deities that can each be in only one place at a time. None of these Gods is actually here with us, right now. None of them can actually dwell in our hearts (or at least not in all of us all at once and so not in any of us at all times). The Holy Ghost is not really God (though in a secondary sense he is “a God”), but is one of the sons of Heavenly Father and the heavenly mother, and he can be “present” only through the medium of an impersonal force or power. When a Mormon thinks he feels the power of the Holy Ghost, what his own doctrine says is that he is feeling, not the personal presence of God himself, but an impersonal force emanating from one of several divine beings whose relationship to God is not even known.

How different the biblical conception of the Holy Spirit is! The Holy Spirit is himself the Lord; he is God (Acts 5:3-9; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). God is one indivisible, infinite Spirit, personally and fully present everywhere at the same time (Genesis 28:15; 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24; John 4:20-24; Acts 17:27-28; Ephesians 4:10-11). Thus, because he is God, the Holy Spirit can and does dwell in the hearts of everyone who truly believes in the Son Jesus Christ (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 John 4:4). In fact, because God is one indivisible being, those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells have the Father and the Son dwelling in them as well (John 14:23; 2 Corinthians 13:5). This personal union with Christ through the literal dwelling of the Holy Spirit provides to those who truly trust in Christ a quiet but firm assurance of God’s acceptance and of eternal life (Romans 8:9-16).

C. What the Holy Spirit Does

Some of what the LDS Church teaches about the work or activities of the Holy Ghost agrees with the Bible. Mormons believe that the Holy Ghost bears witness to the Father and the Son (Gospel Principles, 32). Similarly, the Bible affirms that the Holy Spirit bears witness especially to the Son, Jesus Christ, revealing him to be our Savior and Lord (John 15:26; Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 5:6).

On the other hand, some LDS teachings about the work of the Holy Spirit do not agree with the Bible. Three examples appear in the Gospel Principles chapter on the Holy Spirit.

  1. The LDS Church teaches that the Holy Ghost taught Adam and Eve the gospel: “The Lord sent the Holy Ghost to testify of the Father and of the Son and to teach Adam and Eve the gospel” (Gospel Principles, 31). This statement reflects the LDS belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ—the “plan of salvation”—was known just as clearly and explicitly thousands of years before Jesus came as it is today. We see this idea especially in the Book of Mormon, where prophets hundreds of years before Jesus actually referred to him by name and explicitly described his work of salvation. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that godly people, and even holy angels, before the coming of Jesus into the world did not know what God had planned. Even the Old Testament prophets who prophesied about the coming Messiah did not know specifically who, when, or how:“As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).
  2. Gospel Principles makes the claim that the Holy Spirit “will help us understand that we can become exalted like our heavenly Father. (See Romans 8:16-17.)” (32). Here is what Paul says: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17). What Paul says is that we can become glorified like Christ, not exalted like Heavenly Father. There is a big difference. To become glorified like Christ means to become perfect human beings bearing the image of God as exemplified in his Son Jesus Christ, resurrected to perfect, immortal life (Romans 8:18-29). What Mormons mean by becoming exalted like Heavenly Father is becoming a God—something that will never happen (Isaiah 43:10).
  3. Finally, the LDS Church claims that the Holy Ghost will bear “witness” to the truth of Mormonism. As has just been mentioned, Gospel Principles claims that the Holy Ghost will help us understand that we can become Gods. It also asserts that the Holy Ghost will testify to us that we were preexistent spirit children of the Father (32). More generally, the LDS Church claims that we should seek a witness of the Holy Ghost as the means to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5), including the truth of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the LDS Church itself. To this we must insist that the Holy Spirit will never reveal or testify to anything that disagrees with what he has already revealed in the Bible, which he inspired (2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16). That is, the Holy Spirit will never contradict himself. Thus, when Joseph Smith begins by teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, changes to the view that they are two personages in one Godhead, and finally moves to the view that they are three Gods, we know that these supposed revelations cannot all come from the Holy Spirit. The way God wants us to determine if new teaching is from God is to compare that teaching with what we already know is Scripture (Acts 17:11). If we honestly and humbly seek God’s truth from his Word in this way, we may be assured that the real Holy Spirit will communicate truth to us consistently through the genuine Scriptures that he inspired (2 Timothy 3:15-17).


For Further Reflection

  • Why is it important to know whether the Holy Spirit really dwells in the hearts of true believers in Christ?
  • Can the Holy Spirit ever disagree with the Holy Spirit? If not, what implications does this principle have?

For Further Study:

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study.” Outline with over a thousand biblical citations and a minimum of commentary in support of the doctrine of the Trinity. Includes a section specifically on the person of the Holy Spirit.

Wilson, Luke P. “Joseph Smith’s Changing Doctrine of Deity.” A study of how Joseph’s theology developed from monotheism to plurality of Gods.