T. PIERCE BROWN
Last night in a Bible class there was a question posed that had been raised to one of our most capable teachers as he was engaged in a personal evangelistic study. It was something like this: If the Holy Spirit indwells a faithful Christian, does He leave that Christian if that person sins or departs from the faith, and come back when the Christian repents? One of the problems in dealing with a question like that is our effort to define or describe a profound thought or experience in simple terms. When we try to express the inexpressible, we always have problems. The book of Revelation indicates that even God finds it difficult to express in human language to human minds that about which there are no human words that suffice.
Even such simple questions as “How can God sit on His throne in heaven and at the same time ‘dwell in them and walk in them’ (2 Corinthians6:16)” may be difficult to understand or explain. When you are able to explain how a little human sperm can transmit the nature of the father into that of his offspring, you may be able to be a little more effective in “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (2 Corinthians 2:13). You might then be able to explain clearly how we become partakers of the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) as we obey the gospel and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
However, although far more capable and scholarly men have written extensively on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we shall try to cast a little light on the question that was raised about the indwelling and/or outgoing of the Holy Spirit. We will not bother to list the many references that indicate that the Holy Spirit is said to dwell in the sons of God. However, as in the cases already mentioned, if one raises the question, “How can one ‘person’ dwell in another person, much less dwell in millions of different persons in different localities?” we will realize again that trying to describe spiritual realities in terms of mere human concepts is practically impossible.
Most of those who read this will be aware that long discussions have been carried on about whether the Holy Spirit “personally” dwells in a Christian, or whether He “impersonally” dwells there, or “representatively” dwells there as the Word of God influences the Christian. There is very little difference in the conclusion of sound gospel preachers that the Holy Spirit only operates in a Christian by means of His word. The argument usually occurs over whether the Holy Spirit “actually,” “personally,” “literally” or “directly” dwells in a Christian, or only “figuratively” or “representatively” does so. Since none of these terms are used in the Bible as it tells us the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we expect these arguments to continue.
It is our considered judgment that such discussions would be more profitable if we would be more concerned with how we are influenced by the Holy Spirit and the results of that influence rather than trying to figure out semantic problems that are mostly the result of trying to express spiritual realities in mere human or physical terms. For example, if one takes a physical birth over which the child has no control and assumes that the spiritual birth must be the same, he then concludes that God arbitrarily makes all the choices and has no explanation for dozens of passages that teach otherwise. Let us now look at some passages that should help us to come to some practical conclusions with regard to the question of whether or not the Spirit may depart and re-enter a person in some way.
In Ephesians5:18we find, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” In the parallel passage in Colossians 3:16 we find, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” It should not be hard to see that the way to be filled with the Spirit is to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom. The degree to which we are filled with the Spirit is the degree to which the word of Christ dwells in and influences us. If we try to think of the indwelling of the Spirit in terms of how He influences us rather than in terms of visualizing us as an empty vessel and God trying to fill up that vessel by pouring out His Spirit into it, we can begin to see some answers to some profound questions. This does not imply that the Spirit is merely an influence. But the Spirit has an influence, and this is the thing that counts.
If one has not the spirit of Christ he is none of his (Romans 8:9). If we can understand to some degree what it means to have the spirit of Christ in us, perhaps we can see more clearly what is involved in having the Holy Spirit in us. We can at least have a little idea what it means to have a spirit of compassion, an humble spirit, a serving spirit, and any other attribute that characterized the spirit of Christ. Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” The degree to which Christ influences our lives through His Word is the degree to which we have the spirit of Christ.
The same thing is true with the Holy Spirit. A person can be “filled with the Spirit,” in the sense that he lets every desire and practice be directed by what he understands that the Spirit has authorized. The only way he can find what the Spirit has authorized is by reading and meditating on the words of the Spirit. That begins to touch the question of whether or not the Spirit can leave and return in some fashion at any given moment. If one can think of being filled with the Spirit as being completely under His influence, one can think of the Spirit leaving in the sense that His influence is not the controlling factor in our lives. Again, it does not help much if we simply think of ourselves as a vessel that is full of something and it gets tipped over and the contents spill out. But it may help if we consider the degree of influence the Spirit has on our lives.
This is doubtless what Paul had in mind when he said in 1 Thessalonians5:19, “Quench not the Spirit.” One may argue, “One cannot quench the Spirit if the Spirit is not literally or personally there.” That does not follow, for we are again trying to use human terminology and figurative language to express a spiritual reality. The example of a burning fire that can be quenched suggesting that the Spirit can be quenched does not imply that that the Spirit is not a personality, but simply an influence or a power. The fact that one can quench the Spirit strongly suggests that one may refuse in varying degrees to let the Spirit influence his life. In that way, and to that degree, the Spirit has departed from him. If one defines it in those Biblical terms, then one can say that the Spirit can depart from a Christian any time to the degree and extent of that Christian’s deliberate failure to follow the instructions of the Spirit. We can, therefore conclude that the Spirit will return to the Christian in the same way any time the Christian repents of his sin and determines that he will surrender to the demands of the Spirit.
A realization of that fact, and emphasis on it, would perhaps prevent some of the endless discussions about how the Spirit operates. Do you know all about how your own spirit operates, and why it leaves your body if you receive a fatal blow on the head with a club, but does not leave your body if you are only hit on a leg with the same force? Does more of your spirit abide in your head than in your leg? If you had to know that before you could operate properly, you would probably be dead. If you really think it is important to know that, you may be brain dead anyway.
So if a person wants an answer to the question as to whether the Spirit departs from him when he deliberately sins, and returns when he repents, the answer is “Yes,” if he understands that the expression simply relates to how much he allows the Spirit of God to direct and control his life and influence his thought and action as tries to follow the word of God. Remember that the Word is called “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians6:17). We do not have to guess how the Spirit operated on the heart of sinners, for Acts2:37clearly shows us that when they heard the words of the Spirit, they were “pricked in their heart.” When one approaches the matter in this way he does not have to worry about whether the Spirit “literally” dwells in him, or whether it only “spiritually” or “figuratively” dwells in him, for the end result and the practical value of being “led by the Spirit” are the same.
One should not teach that since the Spirit dwells in us, being “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14) means some feeling that “is better felt than told” lets us know what God wants. We only know what God wants by what the Holy Spirit has revealed through His word, for it contains “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (1 Peter 1:3). So one can be led by the Spirit whether the Spirit is actually dwelling in a person, or whether one simply listens to the words of the Spirit and is led to obey them.
If one had to understand how it is that a red cow eats green grass which produces white milk and yellow butter before he would eat, he would starve to death. So we should not get so “hung up” on exactly how the Spirit dwells in us that we fail to get on with the business of living for God in terms of what the Spirit has plainly revealed. Suppose a person came to a conclusion that as a Christian he was always “filled with the Spirit” and the Spirit would never leave him. At the same time he refused to follow the direction of the Spirit. What value would that concept be to him? On the other hand, suppose a person assumed that every time he made a mistake in judgment and did something that displeased God, the Spirit left him, yet he repented of every sin and made whatever correction he could in his life when he learned what he should do. Would his lack of understanding of whether he had the Spirit dwelling in him at some particular time cause God to reject his penitent prayer for forgiveness?
An additional related thought may be found in 1 Samuel 16:14, “But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.” If one is simply asking the question, “May the Spirit depart from a person?” the answer seems apparent. He did depart from Saul. That does not completely answer the question, but the conclusion agrees with what we have already said, and it seems probable that if the Spirit departed from Saul when he was plainly disobedient, He would return when/if Saul repented and came back to the Lord. But the basic truth we have been emphasizing is that regardless of our conclusion about this, the primary thing is to let the Spirit lead you through your giving heed to and obeying His word as revealed in the New Testament, and it will make little difference whether or not you know if the Spirit is literally dwelling in you. You will be “strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man” and “Christ will dwell in your heart by faith” (Ephesians3:16-17) as you in faithful obedience do what Christ and the Holy Spirit authorize in the Word.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.