The Spirit and the Church, Part 2

Pauline Perspectives on the Holy Spirit, the Contemporary Church, and a Postmodern World

“That was then. This is now.”
horn_meaningful.gifby Dr. Sam Horn

Read Part 1.

II. Contemporary Perspectives on the Spirit—How It Is Now

A. The Spirit Has Been Depersonalized in Contemporary Theology.

Fee notes that “Paul’s understanding of the Spirit is ultimately a matter of lived-out faith. The experience of the Spirit was how the early believers came to receive the salvation that Christ had brought, and how they came to understand themselves as living at the beginning of the end times. For them, the Spirit was both the evidence that God’s great future for his people had already made its way into the present and the guarantee that God would conclude what he had begun in Christ. Thus the Spirit is the foundational to their entire experience and understanding of their present life in Christ” (The Spirit, the Church, and the People of God, p. 2).

Dispensational concerns aside, what is clear from the above statement is that for Paul, life in the Spirit was the very essence of faith. This was not an academic, theological premise to be articulated in creedal belief—it was a theological truth to be dynamically experienced.

However, in recent centuries, modern believers have managed to keep the central focus and dynamic relationship with Christ theologically intact, but theologically the modern church has been less sure about the Holy Spirit. While believers sing about Him and affirm Him in creeds and doctrinal statements, He has been confined to prepositional theology.

Most Christians neither understand the personhood of the Holy Spirit nor experience a meaningful relationship with Him. The concept of being “filled” with the Spirit has perhaps created a view of the Spirit that has depersonalized Him and helped to create the warped view that He is a “power” or “energy force” that fills us much like fuel fills and drives an engine.

Ascribing the term ghost to Him has probably not helped matters. Most contemporary individuals do not think of ghosts or the spirit world in positive and relational terms.

All of that is not to say that the Spirit is not present in the church or in believers—the Scriptures confirm His constant presence. However, for many contemporary believers, He is not an experienced reality.

Modern theology has given little attention if any to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit until recently. When we do give theological attention to the Spirit, we have tended to focus more on His activity and work than on His nature and person. Our understanding of positional justification and sanctification has at times overshadowed the progressive aspects of these same doctrines. Since it is in the progressive aspects of justification and sanctification that we most experience the dynamic relationship with the Spirit, our lack of attention to these areas has led us to marginalize the Spirit theologically.

The net result of these combined reasons is the depersonalization of the third Person of the Godhead.

B. The Spirit Has Been Domesticated by the Contemporary Evangelical Church.

This theological marginalizing of the Spirit has had serious consequences in the contemporary church. Because we have reduced Him to creedal status, many contemporary churches experience the Spirit only in terms of theological statements, doctrinal or creedal expression, or singing.

Furthermore, He has been reduced to the role of the “power” or “fuel” for ministry. In some quarters of the contemporary church, He is sought after as the solution of greater power and effectiveness in ministry rather than as an individual Member of the Godhead to be related to in the same way the church relates to God the Father and God the Son.

Rejecting the excess in some churches in the name of the Spirit, others have avoided the Spirit altogether or at best have approached His involvement in the life and worship of the church with suspicion, fear, and apprehension. Phrases like “led by the Spirit,” “life in the Spirit,” “praying in the Spirit,” and “in the power of the Spirit” have been judiciously removed from our public expressions lest we be misunderstood, or worse, lest we unwittingly unleash an overemotional, seemingly irrational expression of “Spirit-driven worship” in the worship (corporate and private) of the body.

All of this has happened for good reasons. There have been gross excesses in the church that have been defended in the name of the Holy Spirit. However, the ensuing reaction has resulted in a truncated view of the Spirit—a view that has robbed the contemporary church of the very thing that was so essential for Paul and the early believers, namely an experienced life in the Spirit.

C. The Spirit Has Been Devalued by the Individual Believer.

Life in the Spirit has not only been marginalized by the church at large but also been devalued by the individual believer. This devaluation has come about as a result of four reasons:

First, there has been a lack of comprehensive teaching related to the Holy Spirit in the community of believers. Many individuals sincerely believe that the Holy Spirit is the third Member of the Godhead and that He is somehow connected to baptism, gifts, and tongues. However, that pretty much is the extent of their knowledge of the Holy Spirit. It is very difficult to have a dynamic relationship experience with someone about whom we know so little.

Second, the Spirit was an experienced reality in the early community because the greater part of them had come to Christ as adults and had recently experienced the Holy Spirit’s coming into their lives. The dynamic life transformation produced in them by Him was further evidence of the reality of their experience with Him. However, the modern church has been populated by believers who were saved as children and who for the most part have never experienced the radical life change that was experienced by those who came to Christ as adults. While we can be thankful that these young converts were spared from the effects of personal sin action, we should also realize that this blessing on the one hand has led to a truncated view of the Spirit on the other.

Third, some contemporary believers have devalued the Holy Spirit in their misguided attempts to exalt Him. In claiming to live by the Spirit, very often the things they claim the Spirit has led them to do are in direct conflict with or outright contradiction to things the same Holy Spirit inspired in Scripture. This view devalues the Holy Spirit in the sense that it presents a Spirit that is either unable to maintain or unconcerned about maintaining any consistency with what He states in the Scriptures. In divorcing the Spirit from the Word, believers actually devalue the Spirit they claim to exalt.

Finally, some believers devalue the Spirit by misunderstanding His role and place in the progressive sanctification of their lives. Either they embrace a form of legalistic Christianity that depends almost exclusively on them (though token statements are made about the Spirit), or they stop any personal attempt to live in holiness and claim that it is “all of God and His Spirit and none of us.” Since we have no power to live in holiness, we will simply wait until the Spirit chooses to change us. These believers commit a grave error and in the process devalue the true nature and power of the Spirit.

D. The Spirit Has Been Deprecated by the Postmodern World

Jesus observed that when the Spirit arrived, He would have a powerful function in the world—that of reproving the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). This was certainly true on many occasions in the life and experience of the early church. Two examples will suffice. Acts 4 reveals the role that the Spirit played in reproving the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment in the account of Peter and John’s standing before the Sanhedrin for righteousness’ sake. Furthermore, the Spirit’s revelation and subsequent action with regard to the sin of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 was done before the “world,” and consequently many feared. Upon seeing both the judgment upon Ananias and Sapphira and the signs and wonders done by the apostles in the power of the Spirit, many believed (Acts 5:11-14). A second example of the Spirit’s activity of convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment is in Paul’s testimony before Felix in Acts 24:25. So powerful was this reproof that Felix trembled and begged Paul to depart and to come again at a more convenient time.

Sadly, the world no longer trembles at the reproof of the Spirit. This sad state has not come about simply because the world has progressed in hardness and wickedness—it has always been wicked and hard of heart. Rather, it has come about as believers have become increasingly more like the world they are to reprove by the Spirit. When unbelievers see believers adopting the values, activities, and lifestyles of the world around them, they have no real reason to value the Spirit who indwells these worldly believers.

Furthermore, instead of witnessing the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit through Spirit-empowered saints and experiencing the accompanying “fear” that Felix felt, the world has witnessed all manner of wicked behavior and foolish activity—all done by believers and often done in the name of the Holy Spirit. The laughing revival, the ecstatic utterances, the opulent and often sinful excess of believers are often justified as “the leading of the Spirit.” No wonder the watching world senses neither conviction nor fear. This certainly is not the Holy Spirit of the New Testament. Nonetheless, these abuses, combined with the worldly behavior of the church, have caused the unsaved to deprecate the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the world itself.

III. Future Perspectives on the Spirit—How Will It Be Tomorrow?

So where does all of this lead? What lies ahead for evangelical theology in regard to the Holy Spirit? While Fee does not address this particular issue in his work, we can draw some obvious conclusions from what he said. Evangelical theology must address at least five major areas related to the Spirit in the coming days if we are to chart a sound and biblical Pneumatology for the church living in a postmodern world.

A. The Spirit and the Word

Theology must address the recent developments in relationship to the Holy Spirit’s role in both hermeneutics and homiletics. It is no longer sufficient to rest in the belief that the battle for the Bible is over and won. The battle has resurfaced, and postmodern theologians are making subtle but significant shifts in areas related to inspiration, hermeneutics, and homiletics that do not bode well for the biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in these areas.

A new generation of apologists are needed—apologists for the person, nature, and role of the Spirit. The new openness to certain developments that have arisen to replace the old theories of higher criticism (narrative criticism and reader response criticism as examples), combined with a move away from propositional truth and toward image-driven truth, indicate that conservative evangelical theologians will soon have a battle on their hands. One of the main arenas of the fight will be understanding the Spirit’s role in the new hermeneutic.

B. The Spirit and Worship

The contemporary emphasis on worship has created a new interest and focus on the Spirit. Unfortunately, the lack of theological understanding on the part of most worshipers has led—and will continue to lead—the church at large into a precarious and shallow view of the Holy Spirit.

Additionally, there has been a distinct move away from corporate and controlled worship to a more spontaneous and individual expression of worship. Praise has replaced proclamation as the center of much contemporary worship. Singing is rapidly replacing preaching as the medium of biblical communication and instruction. While there is little doubt that the biblical role of singing did include instruction, the content of much of what is being sung in praise and worship is appallingly shallow in theological content. Furthermore, the worship of the contemporary church has become increasingly infiltrated by the values and mediums of the surrounding culture. This change has resulted in the unconverted feeling as comfortable with the church as they do with the world. Much of this worship is done in the name of the Spirit or with the Spirit as its focus. This development has grave ramifications for the future of evangelical Pneumatology.

C. The Spirit and Spiritual Warfare

Postmodernism’s new openness to the “spiritual world” has opened the door for a host of errors and excesses in the Christian community related to the Holy Spirit. It is becoming more common to hear of new strategies by which the church can bind Satan, demons, and territorial spirits—all in the name of Christ and through the power of the Spirit.

An increasingly detailed understanding of the spirit world has been fleshed out by some Christian communities, extending far beyond anything revealed in the Bible. Believers are increasingly exhorted to “seize the power” that is available to them in the Spirit and to go to war against the “gates of hell.”

Another aspect in this area facing evangelical theology is the renewed emphasis on the continuation of the sign gifts for believers of all ages. The church as a whole and individual believers are being encouraged again to seek to recover the missing or lost gifts. The lack of power and the worldliness of the church are explained as the result of the loss of these gifts from the contemporary church. There is a new emphasis on experiencing the Spirit in a dynamic and fresh way, but the modern presentation of dynamic-experienced Spirit life are very different from that which Paul described in his letters.

D. The Spirit and the Gospel

Postmodernism’s foundational commitments to relativism and pluralism have grave ramifications for almost every area of soteriology. There is a new openness to Christianity and the gospel on the part of modern society, but their idea of the gospel is very different from the exclusive gospel of the New Testament. Since the Spirit plays a pivotal role in every area related to soteriology, these new shifts will by nature affect the future understanding of His role by the believing community.

Furthermore, postmodernism’s commitment to radical individualism will have major implications for the communal life of the Body. The unity and common life of the church is directly tied to the Spirit’s ministry. In the future, discussions related to the Spirit’s baptism, gifts, and empowerment for service will be areas of possible debate given the radical commitment to individualism pervasive in postmodern thinking.

Finally, new thinking related to sanctification lies ahead for the evangelical community. There are rising debates between those who hold strongly to the experiential side of progressive sanctification and those who focus more on the positional truth of sanctification. All of this discussion will affect the church’s view of Pneumatology in the future.

E. The Spirit and the Future—Eschatology

A final area of potential debate relates to the Spirit and the future. With interest in covenant theology on the rise, believers will need to prepare for the coming trend to rethink much of the Spirit’s role in eschatology. Progressive dispensationalists have increasingly blurred the distinction between Israel and the church and have adopted the “already-not-yet” eschatology of Ladd. This development will have ramifications related to certain works of the Spirit that are clearly tied to the coming of the Kingdom. If, in fact, the promised Old Testament Kingdom has already been inaugurated, then on what basis are the gifts, signs, and wonders that accompany the inauguration of that Kingdom prohibited by the contemporary church? The cessationist position with regard to certain spiritual gifts will come under increasing attack in the future.

Furthermore, the debate over the openness of God has brought the nature and role of prophetic utterance into serious question. As the Holy Spirit is directly involved in prophetic utterance, these new questions will eventually have major implications for the understanding of His role both in prophetic speech and ultimately in inspiration.


Having begun with Fee’s own words, it seems only appropriate to end this discussion by letting him have the last word.

If the church is going to be effective in our post-modern world, we need to stop paying mere lip service to the Spirit and to recapture Paul’s perspective: The Spirit as the experienced, empowering return of God’s own personal presence in and among us, who enables us to live as a radically eschatological people in the present world while we await the consummation. All the rest, including fruits and gifts … serve to that end.

Hence I offer this “invitation” to read Paul afresh, to recognize the crucial role of the Spirit in his life and thought, and in that of his churches. Such a reading, I insist, must be thoroughly exegetical … and fully theological, to see how the Spirit fits into the bigger picture of things Pauline. This fresh reading of Paul will make clear that for him the presence of the Spirit, as an experienced and living reality, was the crucial matter for Christian life, from beginning to end (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, p. xv).

How is this to be accomplished on a practical level? Fee offers three final suggestions as a way forward. First, we need the Spirit to bring life into our present institution, theologies, and liturgies. The answer is not necessarily tearing down the structures we have but rather asking the Spirit of God to revive and revitalize them. Second, we need to recapture a genuine understanding of Paul’s theological understanding of the Holy Spirit, and then we need to experience that understanding as he and the early church experienced Him. Finally, as we live out our theology of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, this dynamic life of the Spirit will result in a more effective evangelism of the lost and thereby breathe fresh life into existing communities of believers.

Dr. Sam HornDr. Sam Horn is pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church (Brookfield, WI). He received a B.A. in Bible, M.A. in Bible, and Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). In 1996, Dr. Horn joined the administration of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) and serves as vice president for ministerial training. While at BJU, he served as faculty member and director of extended education. He is an experienced pastor, conference speaker, and board member of several Christian organizations. He and his wife, Beth, have two children. This article is reprinted by permission of Brookside Baptist Church.
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