The more you study the Bible the more your views will change. It is inevitable and it is good. Somehow change has become a byword in our fellowship especially in two areas: worship practices and our view on the Holy Spirit.
I grew up like many people in my fellowship, believing the Holy Spirit had little to nothing to do with my life. The work of the Spirit was complete as soon as the last word of Revelation was penned. The work of the Spirit was confined to the inspiration of the scriptures and little more as far as our lives today were concerned and I believed that to be true and argued vigorously with others that was the case. The perfect in 1 Cor 13:13 was the Bible so that when the perfect, the Bible, was complete there was no more need for the gifts of the Spirit outlined in 1 Cor 12-13.
In many ways my argument was more of an anti-other-group argument more than a biblical argument. That doesn’t mean my argument didn’t come from the Bible. It did. It came from texts cobbled together to fit a structure that already existed in my mind. I had the blueprint and the Bible contained the material I needed to construct my house of cards. My theology was a reactionary theology rather than biblical theology. I knew the other guys (Pentecostals in this case) were wrong and so there must be another way to explain the verses that would otherwise prove them right and me wrong. With enough muscle and the right shovel I could be sure to win the day. So I had to find a way to make sense of those verses even if that meant ignoring context, biblical languages, etc. It was a classic case of eisegesis, although I wasn’t aware of that word at that time that is what it was – reading my biases and preconceived ideas and even conclusions back into the text, overriding the meaning of scripture and bending the text to my view rather than digging into the text and allowing it muscle me around to hear what it wanted to say and me bending my view to it.
Here was my preconceived conclusion, my bias, the Holy Spirit no longer operated in any meaningful way today. The Spirit told us everything that needs to be said in the Bible, via inspiration, and so the Spirit’s work is done. The Spirit has no meaningful relationship with us in this day and age. All we need is the Bible. Period. Anyone who taught otherwise was wrong and maybe even a false teacher.
Now, in a sense, part of what I just said is true. All we need is the Bible. Irony of ironies…what unraveled my view on the Spirit was the very Bible that was supposed to show me that the Spirit no longer operated in our lives today. The more I studied and the more I came to understand what the Holy Spirit inspired in the words of scripture, which had authority over my life and doctrine, were telling me that if the Spirit doesn’t operate today then I am in a heap of trouble. It was my conservatism (that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God no matter what anyone else tells you on a matter) that lead me to change my view on the Spirit because I was accepting what the Bible had to say on this in spite of what my tradition was saying to me in those days.
Coming to understand the Spirit as active today did not necessitate embracing miraculous gifts like they had in the first century. This was the assumption I came to the discussion with and since I thought that was indensible I thought I had an open and shut case against the work of the Spirit. It was the Bible that began to show me that the Spirit had far more work to do that enable people to do the gifts we see in the New Testament. In fact, the most vital work the Spirit does has nothing to do with those things. So what I had set out to prove or disprove wasn’t even the right conversation from the start once I understood the work of the Spirit had more to it than miraculous gifts.
Here were some key verses for me changing my mind on the Spirit.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” – Rom 8:1-2
If the Spirit isn’t working today I have no means to be set free from the law of sin and death. I am stuck. Someone might say the Bible is the law of the Spirit but notice it is the Spirit who is identified as the one who gives us life. Without the Spirit’s work we are dead.
Then Paul writes,
“5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” – Rom 8:5-6
I believe living in accordance with the Bible is to live in accordance with the Spirit but Paul didn’t say it that way. He said those who live in accordance with the Spirit are connected with the very desires of the Spirit himself. I see no way that can occur without the activity of the Spirit, today, in some way. Then Paul writes that this mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. Paul is directly saying that our mind can be governed and must be governed by the Holy Spirit. Sounds like work to me…it sounds like the necessary work of the Spirit in the life of the believer that without we are in a mess. I want that and I saw no way to think I would be okay without the Spirit doing that with me today.
I will get to other passages outside Romans 8 in a moment but I want to stick with Paul’s line of thinking for one more comment,
“9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” – Romans 8:9-14
As Christians we live in the realm of the Spirit. That sounds difficult, impossible even, if the Spirit is distant and has no function in the world today. I certainly want to belong to Christ and in verse 9 Paul says directly we can’t without the Spirit. Then notice verses 10-14 where Paul directly says the Spirit does specific actions: “The Spirit gives life…”, “The Spirit…will also give life to your mortal bodies…”, “those who are led by the Spirit.” These are all necessary actions of the Spirit across all generations.
It sounded to me like without the Spirit’s work in my life I was dead, not raised, and was in a heap of trouble but with the Spirit at work, today, these things were just as true in my life today as they were in the first century.
The last verse in Romans 8 that taught me the Spirit is very much at work today was verse 26 where the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know what we ought to pray for. How is that cessation of the Spirit’s activity?
What I began to realize was that in my quest to understand things in absolute terms I had reject things I could only know in part. Well, to be truthful although I couldn’t see it at the time, I had actually been picking and choosing which things I was comfortable knowing with what I thought was absolute knowledge and those things that I was uncomfortable with. The Spirit landed firmly in the arena of uncomfortability whereas things like the Father and the Son never registered. How could I understand the Father in absolute terms or with absolute knowledge and yet I hadn’t rejected God’s work in the world! How strange.
I found help in Galatians, Ephesians and in 1 Corinthians. My biggest reactions had been against visible miraculous manifestations of the Spirit (as they had in the first century – speaking in tongues, prophesy, etc) and against the Spirit speaking to people in ways other than the Bible. I began to see that neither of those things had to be necessary in order for the Spirit to still be at work today. More on that later but my point here is, that what I had been rejecting went too far, and left no room for the Spirit’s work in any meaningful way in my life apart from the Word of God. Yet, the very words the Spirit inspired were pointing me to the very reality of the Spirit’s ever present work in our world today, that is, if I am to take the Bible seriously.
I learned in Ephesians 1 that when someone becomes a Christian they are marked with a seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13). That certainly seems like a universal promise and has nothing to do with miraculous gifts that I had been taught to reject. I saw in Eph 2:18 that it is by the Spirit that we have access to the Father. This would make sense given what we covered in Romans 8:26 but I knew I wanted access to the Father and that sure seemed to be the Spirit’s work, today. I learned in Ephesians 4 that it is the Spirit who brings unity to God’s people. That doesn’t sound like the Spirit is no longer at work either. I certainly wanted the Spirit to do that, maybe I shouldn’t just want the Spirit to do these things, rather I should expect the Spirit to do these things!
On and on the list could go but it was the Bible itself that undermined my idea that the Spirit’s work was complete when the last word of the Bible was penned. The door was cracked open. There was so much more to see once I got my foot in the door! More on that later.
What has been your experience in our biblical view on the Holy Spirit in Churches of Christ? What have you found refreshing? What have you found challenging? Has your view changed over time? Why or why not?