Chapter 3: We Believe in the Holy Spirit
God manifests Himself upon the scene of our daily living as the Lord and Giver of life: interpreting the divine will to our human hearts, comforting us in our sore bereavements, awakening within us a hunger for the eternal, quickening our souls to repentance for sin, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God. The nature of the Holy Spirit often lies beyond the limits of our knowledge and understanding, but the glorious fact of His presence in our minds and hearts is the central certainty of our Christian experience.
Man’s Hunger for Guidance, Comfort, and Strength
There is nothing new about man’s spiritual hungers. They are as old as mankind. In many respects both primitive religion and the quest for spiritual power and peace that underlies the other non-Christian religions give evidence of it. So deep-seated is this correlation between religion and man’s spiritual hungers that some persons would say that religion as a whole is simply a projection of man’s own ego and its impulses — an unconscious desire to find comfort in an uncomfortable world.
We do not need to make this the sole explanation of the existence of religion, however. The Christian who believes in the objective revelation of God in Jesus Christ will not be content with any subjective explanation that denies or minimizes God’s taking the initiative in love for man’s salvation. Nevertheless, God has made us with these deep hungers, and they must be satisfied or life flounders in confusion and despair.
Man has always been thus hungering — and floundering. But because of the great complexity of our world today, man feels his own inadequacy more than ever before. There is a paradox here, for today, more than ever, man trusts not only in the physical sciences but also in scientific education for character building. He also depends upon social case work, upon vocational guidance and other forms of counseling, and, when all these fail, upon psychiatry to bring adjustment to maladjusted personalities. We must repeat that none of these pursuits should be disparaged. We may well believe God wants us to use the best knowledge and intelligence that we possess, and to do this, we must use these channels of help where they are needed and available. Yet the ultimate answer to man’s hunger for guidance, for comfort, and for strength is found in none of these. There are deep hungers that must be satisfied elsewhere.
The satisfaction of man’s deepest needs is found in the intimate, immanent presence of God as the living Christ and as the Holy Spirit. In the third affirmation of faith found in The Methodist Hymnal (the so-called Korean Creed) are these words:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, God present with us for guidance, for comfort and for strength. (The Methodist Hymnal, p. 512.)
That says it! The final answer to our need is God present with us in all our perplexities, troubles, and times of weakness. And this is what we mean by God as Holy Spirit. But now let us look further at this element of our faith.
Our Belief in the Holy Spirit
What does the Holy Spirit do? We shall not attempt to answer this question abstractly but in terms of the difference the Holy Spirit makes. Our initial statement tells us this in phrase after phrase. Therefore, we must look at it again.
God manifests Himself upon the scene of our daily living as the Lord and Giver of life: interpreting the divine will to our human hearts, comforting us in our sore bereavements, awakening within us a hunger for the eternal, quickening our souls to repentance for sin, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.
The Holy Spirit as Interpreter and Guide
We noted in the previous chapter how hard it is to know the will of God in specific matters of daily decision. Neither the words of Jesus nor the voice of the Holy Spirit will give us any rule of thumb, any automatic or legalistically precise answers. Having prayed earnestly for light, we must still seek it. We must use the best wisdom of our minds as well as the devotion of our hearts.
But what a difference the Holy Spirit makes when we pray earnestly and listen receptively! The difference may not be apparent all at once. Perhaps most of those who will read these words will have had times when they felt sure that God was speaking to them in some great service of worship, through the voice of a modern prophet, or in some soul-stirring personal experience. Yet most of us have also had other times when we were not sure. We have tried to pray and have found no response, or we have felt a compelling impulse which we have suspected might be the clamor of our own desires.
How then can we know when the Spirit speaks? There is no blueprint or precise set of rules to follow, but there are several signposts that will carry us far.
The first of these is “the mind of Christ.” “Have this mind among yourselves,” says Paul, “which you have in Christ Jesus.”
If anything that we think is the voice of the Holy Spirit prompts us to spite, to unkind words or acts, or to self-righteousness, we may be sure it is not God’s voice! The more we know about Jesus as he is revealed to us through the New Testament and in our daily companionship with Christ, the more clearly and potently the Spirit moves us to faith and love.
A second directive is suggested by the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. What does this tell us about conditions under which the Holy Spirit works?
The Holy Spirit came to the first Christians when they were in a receptive mood and were waiting for it. And it had the effect of prompting them to share not only their prayers and praise, but their possessions — even their daily bread. Furthermore, it came not to each one in isolation, but in a fellowship.
Today the natural channel for the witness of the Spirit is the Church, but not simply the church as a large and highly organized institution. The Holy Spirit speaks where Christians in churches listen for God’s voice above the clamor of the world, accept the obligations of discipleship, and reinforce one another in love.
In many instances where difficult decisions have had to be made, the best counsel has come through corporate listening to God and a corporate sharing of deep concerns in the spirit of loving service. The experience of the Quakers is a good example.
Finally, an indispensable requirement for having the witness of the Spirit is the spirit of willing obedience. It is reported that Jesus replied to those who questioned his authority, “If any man’s will is to do his [the Father’s] will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God. . . .” (John 7:17.)
The Holy Spirit as Comforter
In the King James Version of the Bible John says that Jesus spoke the following words to the Twelve in his farewell address in the upper room:
These things have I spoken unto you, being yet
present with you.
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom
the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you
all things, and bring all things to your remembrance,
whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:25-26)
The Revised Standard Version not only translates “Holy Ghost” as “Holy Spirit,” but it also translates “the Comforter” as “the Counselor.” This is a more accurate translation, which we would do well to follow. But the change in wording does not alter the fact that the Holy Spirit is not only a counselor — as we saw in the last section — but a comforter as well.
How often we have heard Christians say after some deep bereavement or other trouble, “I could not have taken it if the Lord had not seen me through it!” This simple statement speaks for many of us. But so also do the great, familiar words of Paul with which he opens the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
We shall not speak more upon this theme, for one who has passed through deep waters and experienced this comfort will need no elaboration of its meaning. Furthermore, others who have never felt this comfort could scarcely grasp its greatness. It is enough to say that, without it, life at many points would be stark and terrible. With it there is a joy that can transcend pain and renew life.
The English preacher of a generation ago, G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, put this truth in unforgettable words when he wrote:
Peace does not mean the end of all our striving,
Joy does no mean the drying of our tears;
Peace is the power that comes to souls arriving
Up to the light where God himself appears.
(From “The Suffering God” in The Unutterable Beauty [New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1936], p. 4. Used by permission.)
The Holy Spirit as Quickener and Life-Giver
Our initial statement affirms that God manifests himself “as the Lord and Giver of life: . . . awakening within us a hunger for the eternal, quickening our souls to repentance for sin.” Although the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, each has been considered as having a special relationship.
Traditionally, the Father has been thought of as the Creator, Christ as the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier and Life-giver. This means that the same God who gave us life in the beginning gives newness of life through Christ and builds us up in it through the Holy Spirit. We are not sanctified to perfect sinlessness; that belongs only to Jesus Christ. If we assume that we can be perfectly sinless, the term “sanctification” takes on a dangerous tinge of self-righteousness. Nevertheless, we can be –and ought to be — sanctified by the Holy Spirit in the sense that we are enabled to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3 :18.)
We are tempted to think we can grow to spiritual maturity by our own devising. But we are likely to come to the same conclusion that Paul reached when he said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . .I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (Romans 7:15, 18b.) Only God’s grace can speak to our futility and sin. Yet this grace, which is the gift of God to conquer sin, is not simply thrust upon us; it must be sought with an openness of spirit and a hunger of the soul. It is at this point that the work of the Holy Spirit, “awakening in us a hunger for the eternal,” becomes manifest. Both initially and all the way in our Christian pilgrimage the Holy Spirit spurs and leads us on. It never coerces or drags us to submission against our wills. But it does speak to us ever insistently in the manner portrayed by Francis Thompson in his great poem “The Hound of Heaven.”
If we would go forward in the Christian life, there is one step we must take. This requirement is repentance. This is not the same as a tangled guilt complex that is more properly called remorse. Instead, repentance means true contrition — an eagerness to seek the Father’s forgiveness and a willingness to “bring forth fruits meet for repentance.” We must repent not once, but many times; for life is a continuing battle against sin even after its power has been broken by the divine mercy and forgiveness. In the famous words of Martin Luther, the Christian is simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and a sinner). And in this quickening of the soul to repentance the Holy Spirit speaks.
The Holy Spirit as Witness
The emphasis on the witness of the Spirit in Methodism arises from John Wesley’s recognition of the central importance of Christian experience. Neither the sacraments of the church nor right doctrines can save a man from sin or bring him into a living fellowship with God in Christ. Only a change of heart can do this.
It is only when we “truly and earnestly repent of our sins” and intend, by the power of God, to lead a new life that the miracle of the new birth transforms us and gives us assurance of salvation. And such assurance we need not lack, for it is “the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit” that enables us to know that the Father has received us as his children and has set us upon a new course.
Although the witness of the Spirit as an assurance of salvation was central to Wesley and is also important for us, it is apparent from what has already been said that no Christian ought to be “at ease in Zion” in his assurance of salvation. Salvation is not a once-and-for-all, static process. Instead, the new birth must be followed by growth in love and by holiness in living. The Holy Spirit not only witnesses to the change wrought within us but it also quickens us to repentance and to action in daily decisions and duties.
The Holy Spirit — Power or Person?
There is much we can agree upon concerning the nature and work of the Holy Spirit without raising the issue implied in the question above. Therefore we have left this discussion until now. But we ought not to bypass it entirely.
The nature of the Holy Spirit often lies beyond the limits of our knowledge and understanding, but the glorious fact of His presence in our minds and hearts is the central certainty of our Christian experience.
It is interesting to notice that the personal pronoun “His” is used in this statement. But is this necessary? The Bible itself presents two points of view concerning this question. Therefore let us look further at the biblical foundations of this doctrine.
In the Old Testament there are numerous references to the Spirit of God, such as the great passage “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7a.) It is also interesting to note that in this context the word “Spirit” means “God present” and “God acting.” In most of these passages we find no adjective before the word “Spirit,” and in the familiar prayer of Psalms 51:11,
“Cast me not away from thy presence
and take not thy holy Spirit from me,”
the word “holy” is simply an adjective and is written with a small “h.”
In the New Testament, however, we find that the term “Holy Spirit” refers not only to the Spirit of God but also to the presence of the living Christ.
It is significant that in the earliest New Testament writings — the Letters of Paul — the terms “Holy Spirit,” “the Spirit of God,” “the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” or simply “Christ,” “the Lord,” or “the Spirit” are used interchangeably. This identification becomes complete in 2 Corinthians 3:17, which says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit.”
Without getting into the intricate controversies that came a little later in the church, Paul, from experience as a Christian, could think of “the Lord” as God, as Jesus Christ, or as the Holy Spirit. And so can we.
Therefore we ask, Is the Holy Spirit “he” or “it”? Such passages as these would certainly prompt us to use the same pronoun as we would for God or Christ, and this is reinforced by the baptismal formula of Matthew 28 :19 and the apostolic benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:14. In the Last Supper discourse, which promises that upon our Lord’s going away “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit,” will be sent in his name, the reference is decidedly personal.
However, there are other passages — both in John’s Gospel and in Acts — in which the Holy Spirit is referred to as the gift of God, much as we might speak of God’s grace or power. The Holy Spirit thus came upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
It is promised that the heavenly Father, with a greater love than that of an earthly parent, will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Jesus and others in various passages are said to have been “filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Therefore, we may properly speak of the Holy Spirit either as “he” or “it.” The pronoun to be used depends on whether what we want to stress is the unity of the Holy Spirit with God in Christ or the gift of God’s presence for guidance, comfort, and strength.
So here we had better let the matter rest. There is no real contradiction between the Holy Spirit as God himself and as his gift to us of guidance, grace, and power for every need. The context in which we speak determines the pronoun that we use. And though we may never fathom the full mystery of God’s nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we still can know the glorious fact of his presence in our minds and hearts.
Amid the conditions of our confused world wherein many discordant voices blare and earthly wisdom often seems inadequate, is anything more needed?