you sometimes feel that God is absent from your life?
The Holy Spirit can change that for you.
The New Testament writers insisted that Christians living in their day were experiencing God’s living presence. But is he present for us today? If so, how is he present?
How God is with us
The answer is that today, as in New Testament times, God can live in us through the Holy Spirit. Here’s what we need to know: Are we experiencing the Spirit’s indwelling? If not, how may we do so?
Gordon D. Fee, in his book God’s Empowering Presence, repeats a student’s telling remark about the Holy Spirit. It illustrates our often hazy view of the Holy Spirit’s nature and activity: “God the Father makes perfectly good sense to me,” the student said. “God the Son I can quite understand, but the Holy Spirit is a gray, oblong blur.”
Gray—oblong—blur. Indeed! Certainly not the presence of a personal and powerful God. “The Spirit has become God’s specter, if you will,” says Fee, “an unseen, less than dynamic, vibrant influence, hardly God very God.” Such incomplete perspectives are partially due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is just that—spirit. He is, as Jesus said, like the wind and isn’t seen.
As a Christian scholar once said, “The Holy Spirit leaves no footprints in the sand.” Being invisible to our senses, he’s easily missed and easily misunderstood. On the other hand, our knowledge of Jesus Christ is set on firmer soil. Because our Savior was a human being, God living among us in human flesh, Jesus Christ has a face for us. And God the Son put a “face” on God the Father as well. Jesus insisted that those who had seen him had “seen” the Father as well.
Both Father and Son are with Spirit-filled Christians today. They are present within Christians through the Holy Spirit. Because of that, we would surely want to know more about the Spirit, and experience him in a personal way. Through the Spirit, believers experience the closeness of God and are empowered to apply his love.
For the apostles, John in particular, the Holy Spirit is the Counselor or Comforter. He is someone called in to help in time of trouble or need. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” said Paul. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).
Those who are led by the Holy Spirit are God’s people, said Paul. More than this, they are sons and daughters of God, who are able to call him their Father. By being filled with the Spirit, God’s people are able to live in spiritual freedom. No longer enslaved to the sinful nature, they live new lives of inspiration and oneness with God. This is the radical change the Holy Spirit creates in people at their conversion.
Their desires are therefore reoriented from this world to God. Paul spoke of this transformation as “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The presence of the Holy Spirit is the defining reality of conversion. No Spirit; no conversion; no spiritual rebirth. That’s why Paul could say, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9). (Since God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “Spirit of Christ” is simply another way of referring to the Holy Spirit.)
On the other hand, if a person is truly converted, Christ will live in him or her through the Holy Spirit. Such people belong to God because he has made them his with his Spirit.
People often think being born into a Christian culture and performing a church’s rituals—or accepting its dogmas—are enough. In other words, if you are christened as a Christian and raised as a Christian, you are a Christian. This paradox is pointed up in a story R.C. Sproul tells in The Mystery of the Holy Spirit. In 1957, wrote Sproul, he was converted to Jesus Christ. Sproul rushed to share his newfound faith with his fiancée. When he did, however, she expressed confusion. “What do you mean that you’ve become a Christian?” his fiancée asked. “You have always been a Christian. You were baptized, confirmed, and all the rest.”Sproul had been, until his conversion, a product of the same process as hundreds of millions of Christians. For centuries, people have become Christians by birth and culture, not necessarily by responding to the Holy Spirit. They were Christian in name but not in Christlike spiritual values, because they were not led by the Holy Spirit. True spiritual renewal, however, takes place in our innermost thoughts by the action of the Holy Spirit.
How can we have the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and know that the Spirit of God lives in us? The New Testament writers, especially Paul, said empowerment comes as a result of a person’s response to an appeal. The appeal is to accept God’s grace in Jesus Christ, forsake old ways of thinking and to begin to live by the Spirit.
That’s why we need to be encouraged to be led by the Spirit, to walk by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit. How to do this is spelled out in broad principle in the books of the New Testament. The apostle Paul insisted that Christians need to “stir up” the Spirit to help them live by virtues that include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
When understood in a New Testament context, these qualities are more than concepts or good thoughts. They reflect real spiritual power within believers, as given by the Holy Spirit. This strength is waiting to be put to use in every life circumstance.
When put into action, virtues become the “fruit” or evidence that the Holy Spirit is operating in us. The way to be empowered by the Spirit is to ask God for and then be led by the virtue-creating presence of the Spirit.
As the Spirit leads God’s people, the Spirit also empowers the life of the church and its institutions. That’s the only way the church as a corporate structure can be empowered—by individual believers living by the Spirit. That means we must be careful not to mistake aspects of corporate church life—such as its programs, ceremonies or beliefs—for the Holy Spirit’s dynamic activity within the lives of human beings.
Christians in love
The most important evidence or quality of the Holy Spirit’s work within believers is love. This quality defines the essence of who God is—and it identifies Spirit-led believers. This love is what the apostle Paul and the other New Testament teachers were always concerned about first and foremost. They wanted to know whether individual Christian lives were being empowered and transformed by the love of the Holy Spirit.
Spiritual gifts, church service and inspired teaching were (and are) important for the church. To Paul, however, of vastly more importance was the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit’s love within believers in Christ.
- Paul could speak “in the tongues of men and of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). But if he lacked love, he said he was nothing but a noisemaker.
- Paul could also “have the gift of prophecy,” be able to “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” and even “have a faith that can move mountains” (verse 2). But if he lacked love, he was nothing. Not even a storehouse of biblical knowledge, theological orthodoxy or strong beliefs could substitute for the empowerment of the Spirit’s love.
- Paul could even say, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (verse 3). Not even doing good works for their own sake should be confused with the working of the Holy Spirit in love.
What is crucial for believers is the active presence of the Holy Spirit, and that we respond to the Spirit. Paul insists that the true people of God—real Christians—are those who have been renewed, reborn and transformed to reflect God’s love in their lives. There is only one way this transformation can take place in us. It is through a life led and lived by the love of the indwelling Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is the personal presence of God in our hearts and minds.