I’m Not Dead and the Holy Spirit is Not a “Force”

“That’s not what I said!” “I didn’t do that!” “He doesn’t really know me!” “That never happened!” These are common expressions of someone who feels they have been misrepresented. Misrepresentation is one of the most frustrating dynamics in the human experience. To be misrepresented by a friend, a critic, a gossip, or a public report is infuriating. Whatever the motive, the effect is troubling. All of us like to be portrayed to others as accurately as possible. We want to be known correctly and honestly.

To be misrepresented by a friend, a critic, a gossip, or a public report is infuriating. Whatever the motive, the effect is troubling. All of us like to be portrayed to others as accurately as possible. We want to be known correctly and honestly.

If you were to search for me on Google, the top result would feature a picture of me and a brief description of my pastoral ministry. Then you would observe that, according to Google, I was born in 1880 and died in 1955! As you know, I am fully alive but I am also being dreadfully misrepresented. (Maybe one of these days Google will respond to our multiple requests and make this correction.)

Misrepresented Spirit?

I noted in a previous post that, according to a recent study by Lifeway Research, 56 percent of evangelical Christians say the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a person. In that same study, a quarter (28 percent) said the Spirit is a divine being but not equal to God the Father and Jesus. Half (51 percent) disagreed. Twenty-one percent were not sure.[i] Why do so many evangelicals have a warped understanding of the Holy Spirit? Could I suggest that, in large part, this is rooted in what we publicly say, sing, write, and teach (or fail to teach) in our Christian circles.

According to a recent study by Lifeway Research, 56 percent of evangelical Christians say the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a person.

 

Why do so many evangelicals have a warped understanding of the Holy Spirit? Could I suggest that, in large part, this is rooted in what we publicly say, sing, write, and teach (or fail to teach) in our Christian circles.

I am convinced that even among those who intellectually and theologically affirm that the Holy Spirit is a person, many still speak of Him as a “force” that mysteriously arrives from some obscure location. They describe Him in obscure third person language as “The Presence” or a “power” in the atmosphere. I am deeply concerned that the Holy Spirit, even in contexts where His work is emphasized and His presence evoked, has become the “misrepresented God.”

I am deeply concerned that the Holy Spirit, even in contexts where His work is emphasized and His presence evoked, has become the “misrepresented God.”

Francis Chan agrees: “He is not an indistinct ‘power’ or ‘thing.’ I often hear people referring to the Spirit as an ‘it,’ as if the ‘Spirit’ is a ‘thing’ or ‘force’ that we can control or use. This distinction may seem subtle or trivial, but is actually a very serious misunderstanding of the Spirit and his role in our lives.”[ii]

This confusion ultimately detracts from the compelling New Testament teaching on the person of the Spirit dwelling within us. This can subtly diminish our conscious, moment-by-moment enjoyment and consistent empowerment by the indwelling Christ. Most troubling, a confused view of the Holy Spirit can distort the sufficiency of our promised new covenant experience based on the glorious person, sufficient work, and clear promises of Jesus Christ.

Toward a New Covenant Vocabulary

Scottish New Testament scholar I.H. Marshall once noted, “Christians are adept at the loose use of language.”[iii] In Appendix Two of my book, Transforming Presence, I offered what I believe are some essential correctives in how we speak about the work of the Holy Spirit. I hope these clarifications will be helpful to you — particularly if you believe that the gospel changes everything, the finished work of Christ is monumental, that the new covenant is important, and that words matter. Martin Sanders, CEO of YouthScape, once tweeted, “If worship is an act of total devotion, then it demands our minds as well as our hearts.”

“Christians are adept at the loose use of language.” I.H. Marshall

 

“If worship is an act of total devotion, then it demands our minds as well as our hearts.” Martin Sanders

While discussing this book project with a theologically astute president of a Midwestern Bible college, he was somewhat astounded by my thesis. He admitted that what I was proposing was correct but that he, and many of us, would need to be more careful about how we typically speak about the work of the Holy Spirit. He suggested the clarification of a better vocabulary. So, with the belief that such a recommendation is profitable, here it is:

Instead of praying, “Thank You that we can come into Your presence” we could pray, “Thank You that Your presence has come into us.”

 

INSTEAD OF:HOW ABOUT:
“Lord, we welcome You.”
“Lord, we are grateful for Your indwelling presence,” or “Thank You for welcoming us at the cross; now we give You praise for the glory of the gospel.”
“We just want to soak in the Holy Spirit.”
“Lord, enable us to honor and obey the indwelling Holy Spirit.”
“The Holy Spirit came.”
“The Holy Spirit worked powerfully in our lives.”
“We seek Your manifest presence.”
“We surrender completely to Your indwelling presence,” or even, “We ask You to use us in one another’s lives as we obey the Holy Spirit.”
“Release Your Spirit.”
“We pledge ourselves to obey Your Holy Spirit, that He might work powerfully in and through us.”
“Holy Spirit, fall.”“Holy Spirit, fill, control, and dominate our lives.”
“Pour out Your Spirit.”“Spirit, take charge of our lives.”
“Fill this temple.”
“Indwelling Spirit, we give You control of our lives.”
“God showed up.”
“The Spirit worked powerfully in us and among us.”
“Welcome to the house of the Lord.”“Welcome to this gathering of God’s people.”
“This (the building) is the house of the Lord.”“You are the house of the Lord, indwelt by His Spirit.”
“Flood the atmosphere.”“Take control of our hearts.”
“The atmosphere is changing.”“The Holy Spirit is working in us to change us.”
“Let Your glory fall.”“Jesus, You are our glory. We seek Your will and word.”
“Thank You that we can come into Your presence.”“Thank You that Your presence has come into us.”
“Rain down on us.”“Take control of our hearts by Your indwelling Spirit.”
“We enthrone You.”“You are enthroned in glory. Rule in the temple of our hearts now.”
“Holy Spirit, move.”“Holy Spirit, we surrender to and obey You.”
“We want to feel Your presence.”“Thank You for the sure promise and power of Your indwelling presence.”
“When You come into the room...”“When we surrender to Your indwelling presence...”
“The Holy Spirit was thick.”“Our surrender and obedience to the power of the Holy Spirit was evident.”
“Spirit, flood this place.”“Indwelling Spirit, we surrender our lives to You. Take complete control of our entire being.”
“Reign in this place.”“Have full control of our hearts.”
“Lord, we want to attract Your presence.”“Jesus, thank You for attracting us through the cross, because now Your very person and presence lives gloriously in us.”

 

Instead of praying, “Lord, we want to attract your presence” we should exclaim, “Jesus, thank you for attracting us through the cross, because now Your very person and presence lives gloriously in us.”

(NOTE: If you have questions about any of these, please read the book for an extensive biblical background and clarification).


Copyright © 2018 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.

[i] http://blog.lifeway.com/newsroom/2016/09/27/americans-love-god-and-the-bible-are-fuzzy-on-the-details/

[ii] Francis Chan, Forgotten God, 70

[iii] I. Howard Marshall, in the preface to David Peterson, Engaging with God (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1992), 9