Who on earth is the Holy Spirit?

holy_spiritWho on earth is the Holy Spirit? by Tim Chester and Christopher de la Hoyde is written to reassure believers about the experience of the Spirit in their lives. It’s also written to help believers become more aware of the work of the Spirit. The writers want to raise people’s expectations…

When you pray, we want you to expect the Spirit to work miracles. When you talk about Jesus, we want you to expect the Spirit to create faith in people’s hearts. When you read God’s word, we want you to expect the Spirit to create intimacy with the Father. When you’re tempted, we want you to expect the Spirit to give you alternative desires.

In your daily life, we want you to expect the Spirit to show you how you can serve others in love. We want you to be able to appeal to the experience of the Spirit as Paul does in Galatians 3 v 2-5.  (p8-9)

These are wonderful aims for the book, and filled me with great anticipation as I set about reading another book in the Questions Christians Ask series. The book begins by demonstrating the fundamental role of the Spirit in giving us spiritual life. Without the Spirit’s work we are unable to recognise the beauty of Jesus and the power of his work, or to turn to him and trust him. The Spirit gives us new birth or ‘regeneration’. The life-giving work of the Spirit reveals that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. It is entirely a work of grace—even our faith is a gift from God. Put simply, if we don’t have the Spirit then we cannot be Christian.

If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. (Romans 8:9)

God was at work through his Spirit in the work of creation, bringing order out of disorder. The work of the Spirit continues to sustain and renew the creation. The Spirit is God’s seal upon his people, rather like God’s name tag, stating clearly that we belong to him. And the Spirit gives us a foretaste of life in the new creation. He’s the first instalment of the new creation, given to us as a guarantee that it really is coming. This is more than an a divine engagement ring, given as a pledge of the marriage to come—it’s more like a lover’s kiss, given as a foretaste of what is to be experienced.

Chester and de la Hoyde show us from the Scriptures how the Spirit is at work in us, making Christ present in and among believers. He dwells in the church and individual believers, and works in us to transform us into Christ’s likeness. We are reminded of the wonderful promise that if we live by the Spirit, we won’t gratify the desires of our sinful natures. (Galatians 5:16).

I appreciated the chapter entitled The Spirit of love where we are reminded that throughout all eternity God has been a Trinity of persons-in-relationship, an eternal family, a community of love. (p40) God has existed forever in a relationship of love between Father, Son and Spirit. Thus God can be known simply as being ‘love’. He always has been—it’s part of his essential being. The extraordinary thing is that we can be drawn into this family of love by the Spirit. God adopts us into his family and he wants us to know that we belong to him and are loved by him. (Galatians 4:4-7)

However, I also found some of the author’s comments about our relationship to the Spirit ambiguous and potentially unhelpful…

But it’s possible to grow less aware or sensitive to the Spirit’s prompting in our hearts. It’s possible to find ourselves acting more like God’s employees than his children. That’s what’s happened to the Galatians. They’ve lost their joy (4 v 15) Why? Because they’ve been duped into thinking they can earn their relationship with God. They’re going back to the law (4 v 8-11). They’ve become deaf to the Spirit. (p51)

I agree that the Galatians are being drawn back to reliance on the law, thinking they can earn their way to God. This is not the way of the Spirit. They began with the Spirit in reliance on Christ alone, and they are called to continue in the same fashion. I understand that this is, in fact, becoming deaf to the Spirit. However, describing this as growing less aware or sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings opens the way to confusion and misunderstanding. I don’t believe that the Galatians’ problem was one of failing to tune into ‘promptings’, but that of being drawn away from the true gospel of grace to a self-righteous gospel of works of the law.

The language of ‘being sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit’ (eg. p64) is used by the authors on a number of occasions in this book and I’m not persuaded it’s helpful. Don’t get me wrong—I believe whole-heartedly that the Spirit can prompt people, and that he has prompted me on many occasions. Yet, the authors seem to me to go beyond the promises of Scripture on this matter. They seem to be greater advocates of the freedom of God than the explicit promises of God. We need to be careful about ‘tuning into promptings’ and be encouraged to weigh up carefully the ideas of others, our inner hunches, the desires of our hearts, the circumstantial evidence, the feelings that these things must be from God. We also need to be careful not dismiss what is of God. Thus, we will do well to follow the advice of Paul to the Thessalonians:

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)

I had a couple of other minor complaints about this book, such as the author’s unwillingness to state clearly that the baptism in the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:13 refers to the conversion experience of being united with Christ, rather than a second experience of the Spirit after becoming Christian. I am persuaded that to understand Paul to be speaking of an experience subsequent to conversion, is to undo his argument in this passage altogether. The authors may agree with me, but they leave it ambiguous. Perhaps, they do not want to make an issue of this point thereby making their book more accessible to a broader readership.

Despite my reservations, this book has much to commend it. It’s anchored in Scripture and it warmly invites the reader to embrace the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. We have nothing to fear in doing this. Rather, we enter more deeply into the blessings of God for his beloved children.

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