I never dreamed that I would set about to write about the Holy Spirit. Ever. The third person of the Godhead is a topic that has been clouded in a great deal of mystery and confusion for my entire life. I suppose that I am not alone in this. I am also probably in good company when I say that for most of my years on this earth I shrugged the topic off. There are many great minds in the church that have grappled with this subject, and have grappled with each other about this subject. Some of these scholars have probably spent more time studying the Holy Spirit and other related topics than I have spent studying the Bible. If they have a difficult time understanding the Spirit, then what hope did I have?
On the one hand I have friends and acquaintances in the charismatic movements that talk almost incessantly about the Holy Spirit. When speaking with them, it seems that He is under every rock, and directly involved in all of life’s minutia. He plays an important, powerful, and tangible role in their daily lives. On the other extreme I find friends and acquaintances, some of them brethren, who all but deny the existence of the Spirit. Then there are those who fall at all points in between on this spectrum. There have been many debates, divisions, and doctrines that have risen from this muddled mess. There is a great deal of strong emotion, and even stronger convictions that are wrapped up in this debate. Somewhere in amongst it all lies the truth as God revealed it.
I began to study this issue under duress about a decade ago. I found myself being pushed and pressured to take up this position or that position. This pressure came from folks that I counted as faithful brothers and sisters. Some simply let me know where they stood, and said that I had the freedom to disagree with them and be wrong. Others applied hard pressure, telling me that if I did not agree with their view that I could not be a faithful Christian. All around I could see some points that seemed compelling, but I could also see some arguments that contradicted clear teaching from other passages of Scripture, or else were based on flawed logic. Thus far it seems that I have managed to avoid being marked as a heretic by taking the position that I am still studying and learning, and so hadn’t settled on any firm conclusions.
I have memories of heated debates about the Holy Spirit within the congregation where I worshipped. Ultimately, these debates led to a series of splits in the church, and one or two preachers being invited to leave. At the time, I was more concerned with other things that either consumed gasoline or wore perfume, but I remember the controversy well.
As long as I can remember I have understood that where the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is concerned there are four possible positions:
- The Holy Spirit does not dwell in the Christian at all.
- The Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian “representatively through the Word”, and performs no miracles.
- The Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian “literally and bodily”, and performs no miracles.
- The Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian and performs miracles to and for him or her.
As it had always been explained to me, the first position was unacceptable, because it is a well-known and accepted fact that the Scriptures clearly teach that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian. The fourth position was unacceptable because it is a well-known and accepted fact that miracles have ceased. That left us with two possible positions, both of which have strong camps within the Lord’s church. For the most part, but not entirely, it seems that these two camps have agreed to disagree since the “mode of indwelling” is not a salvation issue. Yet, as I know from the pressure I found myself under, some of us do consider it to be a salvation issue, and a central tenet of their faith.
Recently I was asked to teach a class about the Holy Spirit at our local congregation. Since I was the one who had asked for requested Bible class topics, I hesitantly agreed to teach the class. Remembering the stir that this topic caused when I was younger, I decided to teach hermeneutics first, believing that a better understanding of how to properly understand the passages that talk about the Spirit would be a big help. I have also emphasized the need for patience, forbearance, love, and unity during each class session.
As I began considering how to prepare to teach this class, I turned to my library, where I found two entire shelves full of books about the Holy Spirit. Some of these books were five inches thick! No two of them seemed to agree with one another. So, I set those things aside, and decided to go directly to the source: the Holy Spirit HImself.
I undertook a study of the different names and descriptions applied to the Holy Spirit in the Bible. Then, I set about to find every single passage of Scripture that either talked about the Holy Spirit or might possibly be construed to do so. I was at once surprised at how short that list was! I determined that the best way for me to organize my thoughts, and develop some sort of cohesive understanding of all that the Spirit says about Himself in Holy Writ, was to approach this study topically. So, I began sifting through these passages and categorizing them based on topic as they related to the Holy Spirit. There were many of these passages that did not discuss the Spirit at all. There were also many that were rather straightforward and easy to understand. These I categorized. There were a few difficult passages that I put in a group all their own, so that I could spend more time with them, and also to allow the easier passages to inform my understanding of the difficult ones.
As I sorted through each topic I sought to create a harmony that was simple and understandable while being true to the text. As I wrestled with these texts I availed myself of a few trusted friends who I count as true Bible scholars, and certainly smarter than me. I tried to find friends on every side of the topic or issue in question. I badgered them relentlessly. With all of them I argued against them, and made them prove their point. I stopped only when the logic fell apart or when I could find no other objections to raise. Consequently, I am greatly indebted to these men of God for giving generously of their time, and maybe a few gray hairs.
After nearly a year and half of study, I have reached what feels like a conclusion. I can harmonize all of the passages in question, and lay out a unified, logical doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit that seems to hold up to scrutiny. Also, I managed to present this material in its entirety at the local church, yet have not caused any splits, haven’t been run off, and harmony seems to reign.
I make no claims of being an expert on the Holy Spirit, or to have all the answers. Nevertheless, I have at least reached a place where I no longer feel confusion and doubt when I study through passages that deal with Him in some way. I feel like I can intelligently discuss this topic that has eluded me for so long. I realize those are meager qualifications to take up pen and write on the subject, but I do so with a few considerations in mind. First, I am taking this opportunity to organize these thoughts better in my mind. It is also my hope that if I have missed something or made a mistake somewhere, that a brother or sister will reach out to me in gentleness and love and help me to have a more perfect understanding of God’s Word. Third, I have been urged to publish my thoughts by several friends, and so I do so to fulfill that request. Finally, it is my hope that by presenting this material, I can maybe help others to rise above the confusion and gain a clearer understanding of the Holy Spirit, and therefore, of God. Whether you end up agreeing with me or not, I pray that you will be blessed and grow in your understanding as you wrestle with these ideas.