Are Evangelicals Losing An Orthodox Understanding of the Holy Spirit?

Holy SpiritImagine a typical American evangelical congregation of 200. How many of the 200 do you guess would say the Holy Spirit is accurately characterized as a “force?”

“Force” as a noun in this case would mean an influence or movement of raw power without personal attributes like will or intelligence or wisdom — as in Star Wars with its greeting, “May the force be with you.”

Living Research, a careful Southern Baptist organization put the question about the Holy Spirit as a force to 3000 believers. Sixty-four percent responded they would “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that the word “force” adequately substituted for the Holy Spirit.

Apply that percentage to the above imaginary evangelical congregation of 200 and 64 percent or 128 members would be in some measure accepting of “force” as an adequate synonym for the Holy Spirit.

Would their response be in keeping with the best reading of the Christian Scriptures? And how would it fit with the convictions of the Christian church across the centuries?

In his letters, the Apostle Paul makes reference to the Holy Spirit by name at least 163 times. One might find among those numerous references a verse here or there where the meaning of “Holy Spirit” might be attributed to a mere impersonal “force.”

For example, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “My message and my preaching were … with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). One could argue in this case it is not necessary to consider the Holy Spirit as manifesting the attributes of personhood.

But when one weighs that reference, and a scant number like it, against all the references in Paul’s letters, the Holy Spirit has the attributes of a person. “Force” as an alternate title falls far short of New Testament truth.

The great majority of other references to the Holy Spirit show him as the personal agent of God most closely involved in human life on behalf of the godhead. A particularly rich source of understanding of the Holy Spirit is found in the account of the early church, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. In that book, the Holy Spirit is described unmistakably as a person. Recall that Simon Peter charged Ananias with lying to the Holy Spirit and thus to God (Acts 5:4). One cannot lie to a force, or an inanimate object, or even an animal, but one can lie to a person.

Later in this book, while the church at Antioch was worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke to the believers, instructing them to launch the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2). In doing so they believed they were responding to the prompting of an unseen presence — the Holy Spirit of God.

At the close of the first church council in Jerusalem, after long discussion and weighing of issues, the leaders of the church wrote their conclusions to be shared among the churches in the following words, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us … (Acts 15:28).

They gave the Holy Spirit priority! And they believed they had discerned and shared his wisdom as a personal, leading presence.

Among Free Methodism’s three articles of religion on the Holy Spirit we find affirmations like this: “The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Proceeding from the Father and the Son, he is one with them, the eternal Godhead, equal in deity, majesty and power.”

Historic Christianity has long held that the Holy Spirit is the third “person” of the Trinity, and the executive of the godhead in carrying out the will of God in the church, while at the same time bringing conviction of sin in the world.

When we look at the almost immeasurable dissimilarity between his scripturally-described nature as the “Holy Spirit,” and the term, “force”, we feel a great perplexity that 64 percent of a representative group of evangelicals could settle in some measure with the latter.

The fathers of the church throughout history would call it heresy.

How much more appealing for awakened and instructed believers to live with the confidence that we are indwelt by the ever-present God in the person of his Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is God’s way of living among his people to teach, direct, comfort, and keep them accountable.

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Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble (via flickr.com)

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One thought on “Are Evangelicals Losing An Orthodox Understanding of the Holy Spirit?

  1. If my understanding of evangelical is correct,then I certainly include myself as evangelical by conviction

    As I see it,at baptism ,every Christian promises to be an evangelical.That is to seek to spread the Lord’s Gospel and win disciples for Christ.

    That’s how Christianity works ,how it has spread these two millennia.How we outreach to all those our Lord wants to save,which is everyone.

    But starting to read this week’s blog ,I wouldn’t disagree that the Holy Spirit is like a force.A rushing wind ,as in Acts.But that’s not all.Also like a descending dove ,as at Christ’s baptism.

    But of course ,our Lord the Holy Spirit is far greater than that.Crucially,essentially,substantially, our Lord the Holy Spirit is God,the third person of Triune God,proceeding equally from God the Father and God the Son.

    So force in no way adequately describes the Spirit.

    Sometimes I think of Triune God this way.The Father makes us and all of heaven and earth ,all that is ,seen and unseen.The Son saves us,redeems us,buys us with His Blood.The Spirit indwells us,makes us Holy.

    It is the person of God who indwells us ,not something impersonal or abstract ,but God Himself, the third Person.

    Pastor,by careful close reference to the Pauline letters and to Luke’s Acts ,you show us where the Bible tells us this.

    Furthermore ,the two Free Methodist Catechisms I have clearly spell out the personhood of the Holy Ghost.I got these two catechisms online ,after you alerted me to the existence of Free Methodist catechisms in an earlier blog.One is ideal for adults ,the other for all ages.

    Some other Trinitarian Christian catechisms I’ve seen also point out the Spirit is substantially the third Person of God.

    Christ lived among us ,died on the Cross,was resurrected ,risen stayed with us a while longer for Christians to witness the truth of His ressurection then ascended into heaven.Before he ascended he told our people to wait in Jerusalem.They waited togethjer in an upstairs room and at Pentecost the Holy Spirit came like a rush of wind, and descended upon each.Witnesses described it as like tongues of flame descending uopon each person.This is how God came into them.

    Christ will come again.Of that we are assured.But where would we be now without the Holy Spirit to inspire and indwell us .Not an abstract,something objective.But subjectively ,personally God.Our Lord the Holy Spirit,third Person of God.

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