“The Holy Spirit Is Not Real” – Or Is He?
This week The Gospel Coalition posted about recent research indicating that among self-identified Christians, 58 percent contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity. Surprisingly, those who identify as born-again Christians are even more likely to hold that view (62 percent). Even among those holding the most biblical worldview 40 percent have an unbiblical view of the Holy Spirit.[i]
Among self-identified Christians, 58 percent contend that the Holy Spirit is not a real, living being but is merely a symbol of God’s power, presence, or purity.
In my book, Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything from the Inside Out I noted a recent study by Lifeway Research stating that 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.[ii]
For now, we will presume that you understand that the Holy Spirit is, indeed, the third person of the Trinity –fully God, fully personal, and indwelling every believer because of the finished work of Christ. Not only do I elaborate on this extensively in Transforming Presence but The Gospel Coalition article I referenced also provides a good summary.
But why do so many evangelicals have a warped understanding of the Holy Spirit? 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.”
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.”[iii]
“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.” Francis Chan
This confusion ultimately detracts from the compelling New Testament teaching on the person of the Spirit dwelling within us. Many of our common statements about the Holy Spirit are rooted in Old Testament language. But, on this side of the cross, the personal nature of the Holy Spirit is abundantly clear because all Jesus explained in the Upper Room. The Spirit, is as much of a diving person as is the Father or Jesus, and now He permanently indwells us.
When we are confused about this we 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.
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.
R.A. Torrey wrote:
“It is of the highest importance from the standpoint of worship that we decide whether the Holy Spirit is a Divine Person, worthy to receive our adoration, our faith, our love, and our entire surrender to Himself, or whether it is simply an influence emanating from God or a power or an illumination that God imparts to us. If the Holy Spirit is a person, and a Divine Person, and we do not know Him as such, then we are robbing a Divine Being of the worship and faith and the love and the surrender to Himself which are His due.”
Toward a New Covenant Vocabulary
Scottish New Testament scholar I.H. Marshall once noted, “Christians are adept at the loose use of language.”[iv] 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.
“Christians are adept at the loose use of language.” Scottish New Testament scholar I.H. Marshall
|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.”|
Because “words create worlds” 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 Holy Spirit is a divine person, 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.”
“If worship is an act of total devotion, then it demands our minds as well as our hearts.” Martin Sanders, CEO of YouthScape
I pray that our hearts and minds will embrace the truth taught by Jesus, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16–17) I long that we will embrace the promise declared by the Apostle Paul, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)
Copyright © 2021 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.
[iii] Francis Chan, Forgotten God, 70
[iv] I. Howard Marshall, in the preface to David Peterson, Engaging with God (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1992), 9