We’re in the season of giving gifts, and while the traditional Advent study focuses on God’s gift of His Son and our anticipation of His return, I wanted to look more closely at the gift He has given believers in the interim: His Holy Spirit.
It’s a little hard for me to believe that there believers in Christ who would actually answer that question with a strident “No.” Some are actually offended that the question is being asked.
In Acts 2, Peter (filled with the Holy Spirit himself), quotes a long passage from the prophet Joel and proclaims it as fulfilled on the spot at that time:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Are we still living in the last days, or have the last days spoken of in scripture somehow passed without Jesus returning?
Is anyone left out of that prophecy? Young people? Old people? Men? Women?
When Peter’s message convicts the crowd of Pentecost feast-goers, they begged to know what they could/should do:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Was the promise just for them and their children and for all who lived far away then? Or for ALL who lived far away in distance and generation?
Among those who believe that the Holy Spirit is no longer given to dwell in the hearts of believers, many will maintain that He has been replaced by or is present only as the word of God which a believer will have memorized.
The usual defense for this position is three-fold. First, proponents of Spirit-in-written-word-only-today are likely to quote any number of passages about the hearing, reading, believing and especially obeying the word, including (but not restricted to):
There is nothing to argue with about the importance of hearing/reading, believing and obeying the written word, but it is worth pointing out that scripture …
- Does not say that the word itself IS the Spirit. Scripture is inspired by God’s breath (2 Timothy 3:16; Acts 28:25), but inspiration is different from being. Jesus IS the Word (John 1); the Spirit is His (Luke 23:46; Acts 16:7, etc.) … but the Word is distinct from the written word. Jesus the Word fulfills the word that is written.
- Does not not say that hearing/reading the word is the only way God makes His will known to those who would believe (faith may also begin in deducing God from Creation – Romans 1:19-20)
- Does not say that the only way faith comes is by hearing (it is also the gift of God – 1 Corinthians 12:9; Ephesians 2:8). The Lord sent blindness to Saul of Tarsus, but He also sent him Ananias. He sent an angel to Cornelius, but He also sent him Peter. God can give faith in unusually-wrapped packages.
Part two of the defense of the Spirit-in-written-word-only-today proposition is that the summation of 1 Corinthians 13 declares that the gifts of the Spirit will be done away with when “that which is perfect is come,” and “that which is perfect” means the Bible, the written word. (That is why some will put so much emphasis on the belief that the Bible is the inerrant or perfect word of God – it is a cornerstone of the proposition.)
Scripture describes no such transformation – reduction, I’d say – of the Spirit’s role in our lives from Counselor and Comforter and Dweller-Within and Reminder-of-Christ and Convicter-of-Heart to a simple collection of memory verses.
Scripture also does not speak of itself as perfect. The will of God is perfect, to be sure, but it’s a stretch to say that all of God’s will is completely revealed within scripture – and that is also a meaning of the word translated “perfect” – “complete” and/or “mature.” Indeed, scripture is complete with regard to what man generally must do in response to God’s grace – but as far as direction signs for individual journeys go, scripture is largely silent.
The third tenet of the Spirit-in-written-word-only-today belief is that the promises made by Jesus in John 14-17 (that the Advocate would teach, remind them, guide them into all truth, and show them things to come) were made only to the twelve apostles. That would mean that there is no promise of indwelling Advocate, Comforter, Counselor to any beyond those few that the apostles laid their hands upon.
But those promises include Jesus preparing a place for and coming back for the one whom He is addressing (John 14:1-3). And there are commands like, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Are those only for the twelve also?
Jude’s question dispels any notion that knowing Jesus was just for them; Jesus answer is “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:22-23).
I think a lot of the motivation behind the Spirit-in-the-written-word-only-today view is a fear that things would get out of control among believers if everyone acted on newly-revealed instructions from the Holy Spirit – and I concur that there has been much abuse of this human tendency to describe self-desires as God’s desires, from the lie of Ananias and Sapphira and the confusion of the church at Corinth to the ill-fated followers of the likes of Jim Jones of Jonestown and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.
There is a test for the “prophecy” of such individuals, and though it is found in the Old Testament, it remains useful:
If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. ~ Deuteronomy 18:22
Also, there is no need to fear that the Spirit would further reveal something of the will of God that would contradict what has already been revealed in scripture through the inspiration of the very same Spirit.
But when we ask in prayer for individual direction beyond the encouragement given generally to all in the written word, how else should one expect an answer if not through His Spirit? No scripture revealed to Paul that he should not go to Bithynia; what prevented him from going was the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus is spoken of in scripture as perfect (Hebrews 5:9) as well as the perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Surely we are not meant to do without what God has promised and given as living Comforter and Counselor in His absence until He comes! For He had already come once when Paul wrote to Corinth:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:9-11
While this passage speaks to both the completeness and maturity that is to come, the sense of perfect can only be attributed to God, especially as revealed through Jesus. When He returns, the gifts given through His Spirit will no longer be needed.
Are they still needed? I would daresay that no one can prove than the need for the gifts given through the Spirit has dissipated at all, let alone disappeared. The gifts given through the Spirit and the Spirit’s presence Himself are different – but that’s the subject for another post. So, even if the gifts given through the Holy Spirit can be said to have ceased, it does not necessarily mean that His presence in our hearts has also been withdrawn.
To believe that is to believe that Jesus’ promise was not to all, or to all who are afar off, but only to a few in the first century (or so).
That would mean:
Is that what we believe scripture says?
I have most often found it to be the case that people believe what they want to believe. I freely admit that I want to believe that God would deliver what is promised in scripture – not more Spirit for one generation, and less Spirit for those to follow. It would be the first time I’m aware of that God has backed off of a promise made to all, and I do not want to believe that.
So I think it is fair to ask those who advocate a Spirit-in-the-word-only-today view: Why would anyone want to believe that?
Can the written word be grieved, as a Person can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30)? Can the written word be lied to, as a Person can be lied to (Acts 5:3)? Can the written word intercede for us with groans as a Person can (Romans 8:26)? Can the written word testify with our spirits that we are God’s children (Romans 8:16)?
One can believe that the written word provides the armament of God described in Ephesians 6, but surely not the full armament; too many of those weapons are so deeply associated with the Spirit Himself for them to accompany one but not Him. And every so-called religion has its own holy book; to the soul unfamiliar with the Bible, how does one convince him that this book holds the unique power of resurrected self unless it is demonstrated by the power of an humble, obedient life itself (1 Corinthians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 4:7)? Will that soul be convinced to read or hear without seeing that power in the inner being (Ephesians 3:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:5) of believers?
One can perhaps picture the written word offering comfort and counsel in much the same way as a stack of letters from a departed love one … but I cannot see how that compares to the promise made of a Spirit of unity within us, offering relationship with the divine as intimate as the loving oneness in marriage; a Spirit breathing life to the metaphor of Christ and His bride, the church.
I cannot help but conclude that the Spirit given to believers now as then is the living Holy Spirit, welcome and dwelling within the soul who opens the door to Jesus’ knocking.
If we ask for and accept and attempt to legislate anything less than God’s full promise, we are in a world of hurt and all but helpless to help save it.