Is the Holy Spirit "in" Everybody? (May 30, 2019)
Dear VICC family,
Since being installed as your lead pastor at the beginning 2013, the two most controversial things I think I have done have been 1) to rearrange the furniture a couple of times, and 2) to say in a sermon that the Holy Spirit is in some sense "in" all people, including unbelievers.
In my younger days, I was quite the controversialist. Nothing pleased me more than an argument over the existence of God with a non-Christian or an argument over Calvinism or the end-times with a fellow Christian. Thankfully, the accrued wisdom and exhaustion of adult life have beaten the taste for controversy out of me. Now, if anything, I try too hard to be diplomatic (though I admit to getting bent out of shape if I feel, rightly or wrongly, that people aren't returning the favor). Not that I think questions of God and predestination are meaningless by any stretch, as my chosen career-path probably makes plain. But having experienced church conflicts and broken relationships over the years, "conflict-as-self-entertainment" has lost its charm for me. At least, I think it has...
Of course, I am trying to be a little funny here. I am also hoping I've caught enough of your attention to keep you reading. No one, to my knowledge, has actually gotten upset that I said the Holy Spirit is "in" unbelievers. But the notion has certainly struck some people as quite odd. And I totally get it. When I googled the phrase, "Do non-Christians have the Holy Spirit" (or something similar), the first several links that popped up were to respectable evangelical ministries, all of whom gave an unequivocal "no" to the question. (For the record, as your pastor I do not necessarily endorse googling your questions about God and accepting whatever pops-up as your answer!). So, even though I know I am on biblical ground, my fear-of-man-o-meter started firing, worrying that people would think I'm a quack, that I've gone theologically liberal, or that I read too many of those darn theology books. I also became concerned that both those who liked, and those who were concerned, that I would make such a statement would read into it applications that I did not intend. And so below is going to be a somewhat long (but hopefully not too long) effort to show what I mean, provide some analogies, and give some application to the notion that the Holy Spirit is "in" all people.
I. The Holy Spirit is "in" all people
"Merely to be alive is to be endowed with life by the Spirit of God. To imagine the withdrawal of the Spirit is to think of death." - Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, p.530
Most Christians are comfortable with the idea that God is everywhere, and that he is everywhere all the time. "In him we live and move and have our being," says the apostle Paul to his Athenian audience, quoting a Greek philosopher (Acts 17:28). We are also comfortable, generally, with the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, "convicting the world about sin and righteousness and judgment," at least since Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension (John 16:8). We are also generally comfortable with the idea that the Holy Spirit is the source of biological life, the Spirit of God hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:3 and God breathing into Adam's nostrils "the breath of life" in Genesis 2:7 (even though this verse uses the Hebrew neshamah, "breath," not ruach "spirit/breath/wind"). But it is at this point that most evangelicals, being the modernists we are, become philosophical naturalists. God made everything. Maybe even God interacts with everything. But we balk, perhaps, at the idea that God sustains everything, that he is the active force at work behind all of life. We tend to think of God as the one who started creation, but don't think of God as the one who keeps it going. Or if we accept that idea, we are pretty vague in our minds about how exactly God does that. We tend to be more cause-and-effect naturalists when we look at the world around us. Perhaps we remember that Hebrews 1:3 says God the Son sustains the world by means of his word. But right here we forget the intimate link between God's Word and God's Spirit, which we readily acknowledge in any other area of Christian thought (the inspiration of the Bible, the earthly ministry of Jesus, prophetic utterances, and so on).
In my sermon on the Holy Spirit in nature, the examples I used were Genesis 1:3, Genesis 6:3, and Psalm 104:27-30. The controversial one would have been Genesis 6:3, where prior to the flood God declares his disgust with humankind and declares that his Spirit will not "contend with" or "remain in" people forever, but instead their lives will be limited to 120 years. I said this verse meant that, even in unbelievers, the Spirit is what keeps them alive. The Spirit is "in" them. These were unbelievers with whom God was angry, but his Spirit still "remained in" them even as God was getting tired of them. I will admit this interpretation is debatable. One could make different sense of what the Spirit is doing "contending with" or "remaining in" that sinful generation. But I think my reading of the verse is strengthened by a couple passages from Job.
In Job 33:4, the young Elihu tells Job, "The Spirit [ruach] of God has made me, the breath [neshamah] of the Almighty gives me life." This verse tells us, by way of Hebrew parallelism, that the "Spirit of God" and the "breath of the Almighty" are two ways of saying the same thing (since God=the Almighty, breath must equal Spirit...which lends credence to the idea that Genesis 2:7 is indirectly referring to the Spirit as the very thing which made Adam "a living being"). In the next chapter, Elihu goes on to say that if God "withdrew his Spirit and breath, all humanity would perish together and mankind would return to the dust" (Job 34:14-15). So here in Job we see, in the words of young Elihu (who is almost certainly supposed to be understood as being righteous in what he says, as opposed to Job's three comforters), that the Spirit is both source and sustainer of the biological life of humanity. And these passages from Job give credence to our reading of Genesis 2:7 and 6:3, that the Spirit is "in" human beings as the very thing keeping them alive. Without the Spirit, they would die and "return to the dust."
As Gary D. Badcock says, "Such associations between breath, or spirit, and physical life appear in the Bible, as in 'breath of life' texts of Genesis (6:17; 7:15, 22) and in the poetry of the Psalms (104:25-30) - though most spectacularly in the 'valley of dry bones' vision of Ezekiel 37...The biblical link between breath and physical life, however, easily yields in overall significance to the theme of the Spirit's gift of 'spiritual' life" (Gary D. Badcock, "Holy Spirit, Doctrine of the," in Kevin Vanhoozer, ed., Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible, p.303). In other words, the Bible is clear that our physical life is given and sustained by the Spirit of God, but the Bible's emphasis is on the Holy Spirit's role in redemption much more than on the Spirit's role in the natural world. Now that we have thought about this, what are some analogies that might help us understand how the Bible can say the Spirit is "in" all people, keeping them alive, while later saying unbelievers "do not have the Spirit" (Jude 1:19)?
II. Some Analogies from Scripture
Because the Bible's emphasis is on the redemptive work of the Spirit, especially in the New Testament, we are much more used to things like the apostle Paul's distinction between being "in the flesh" and "in the Spirit" than we are the Holy Spirit's work in all people. We think of passages like John 7:39, where we are told "the Spirit had not yet been given" to believers because "Jesus was not yet glorified" through his death and resurrection. So how could the Spirit already be "in" people, especially those who don't believe in Christ? Ephesians 2:2 talks about "the spirit who is at work in those who are disobedient" to God, and that spirit is clearly not the Holy Spirit! But if, as evangelicals, we believe the Bible is internally consistent, then there has to be some way of reconciling what we see in Genesis and Job with what we see in other parts of the Bible. So what are some analogies from Scripture we can deploy to help us make sense of these apparent contradictions? I will highlight two...
The first analogous situation I find in Scripture, which is almost the same situation described in different terms, is another apparent contradiction. In his speech to the intellectual elite of Athens in Acts 17, the apostle Paul quotes the philosopher Epimenides with words we've already seen, "For in [God] we live and move and have our being" (verse 28). Paul even goes so far as to say, "We [believing Paul and unbelieving Athenians alike] are God's offspring" (verse 29), earlier having said that God "is not far from any of us" (verse 27). At first blush, this probably doesn't strike any of us as odd. But then we remember Paul's words to the Ephesian believers, describing their pre-Christian life as "without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). Jesus tells his unbelieving audience, when they claim God as their father, that they are actually children of the devil (John 8:41-45). So here we have all people, believers and unbelievers alike, being described as God's children (his "offspring") as far as their natural lives are concerned. However, we also see that unbelievers do not live as God's children because they do not have a living relationship to God. To borrow from Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, God has "fathered" them, but they've left his house. Similarly, all of God's beloved creation "lives" and "has its being" in God, including unbelieving human beings. However, in another sense, unbelievers are "without God," despite his close proximity to them every nanosecond of their lives. Unbelievers live "without hope," even though God is "not far" from them, and desires to be sought. Really, this is almost exactly the same thing as what we have been looking at regarding the presence of the Holy Spirit in unbelievers.
The second analogy I can think of is the distinction, in Pentecostal theology, between being born again by the Holy Spirit and being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Aside from certain aberrant groups, mainstream Pentecostal theology has always taught that all believers are born-again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. However, Pentecostals also believe in a second work of grace whereby these same believers can enter a different dimension of life in the Spirit by experiencing a "baptism" in him. This theology is similar to beliefs taught by the early Methodists, certain anabaptist groups, some Puritans, medieval mystics, and others going all the way back to the early, post-New Testament church, whose baptism liturgy taught a two-stage reception of the Holy Spirit, believers being "born again" through faith and baptism and then receiving "the charisms," or gifts, of the Spirit through the laying on of hands (often including the gifts of prophecy and tongues in those early centuries [see Killian McDonald and George Montague, Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries]). While the analogy here is not perfect, it is an instance of the Holy Spirit being "in" people already, granting them life (in this case, spiritual life), who then go on to experience the Holy Spirit in their lives in another, perhaps more intensified, way. The danger with this analogy is that we might create for ourselves three classes of people - non-Christians, "mere" Christians, and "super Christians" who have the Holy Spirit "even more" than their "non-Spirit-baptized" fellow believers. But so long as we protect against that, understanding Spirit-baptism as an empowering/encouraging experience or the impartation of spiritual gifts rather than receiving "more" of the Spirit than other Christians have, then maybe the analogy is helpful.
III. So What's the Point?
Well, for the two or three of you who have kept reading, let's get to the point. Let's come up with some application, shall we? I can think of at least three ways this doctrine (that the Holy Spirit is "in" all people) might be helpful for our Christian understanding.
First, recognizing that the Holy Spirit is the literal source and sustainer of life gives us a brand new appreciation for the holiness of life, the sanctity of life. If God himself is the sustainer of life, then life truly is sacred. Granted, God allows death in this world for the time being, and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), but God is life and he literally sustains the life of all people. He is the author of life. And therefore Christians, of all people, should have a radical respect for life, especially human life.
Second, understanding that God the Spirit is the one keeping everyone (even atheists) alive every moment should open our eyes to the nature of God's radical grace and love. Sin is in the world, and the devil is in the world, but sin and the devil cannot create or sustain life. Only God can do that. And that means that even those who curse God are upheld by his gracious hand. Those who use their God-given abilities to disobey God are sustained by that same God even as they mock him and attempt to destroy his world. Granted, this also amplifies the grace and freewill, why-does-God-allow-evil-and-suffering question, but we'd still have that problem even if we denied the scriptural teaching that the Spirit is granting and sustaining the life of all people. It makes God mysterious, but to keep believing in God at all is nearly impossible if we don't take the next step and actually trust him. We don't know entirely why God has allowed evil and suffering in the world, but we do know that God will be glorified, his children will be delivered, and that he will work all things for the good (Romans 8:28, which is different than saying all things are good and in fact implies otherwise). Nevertheless, if we believe that God "so loved the world" and that he genuinely loves and desires the salvation of all people, then the radical grace and love of God in upholding and sustaining even the "worst" unbelievers by his Holy Spirit should make our hearts bow in worship and adoration.
And third, understanding that the Holy Spirit is at work throughout the whole world, sustaining the life of all people, should make us realize that wherever we go with the gospel, whenever we open our mouths to speak of Jesus, whenever we pray for the salvation of a friend, we join God in a work he is already doing. As Thomas Oden writes, "The Spirit is present in preparing all humanity for God's own coming in the Son...[and] is preparing the conditions for bringing contrite sinners into communion with God" (Classic Christianity, pp.530-31). We join God in his mission. And we can be confident that as we do our part, he bears the heavier load.
Your partner on the journey,