Q & R with Brad Jersak: In whom and when does the Holy Spirit “enter” us?

Question: 

Thanks, Brad for bringing so much needed clarity to “the sons issue” in your blog post, “Are All People God’s Children or Only Christians?”

I would love to see a follow up to that in regards to the work of Holy Spirit. When does he enter, manifesting his presence as sons, etc.

Response: 

That’s an excellent question, the answer to which has filled volumes of books for two millennia. My brief response will cover just the two major features of your question:

First, “When does the Holy Spirit enter”? Some say we all “receive” the Spirit when we come to faith in Christ, others say it was at our baptism and still others associate the baptism of the Spirit as a subsequent occasion where there’s an outpouring with visible evidence. The debate over that has ironically been about as unspiritual as any other factious religious debate. I would rather approach that question with the prayer, “Abba, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit” and following Paul, “I’d like to keep being filled.” Don’t think of this spacially, like a bucket being filled, but instead, think of a child who is continually being nourished (filled) as she continues growing toward maturity in Christ.  

Of course, “enter” itself is a spatial metaphor, as if we were containers and only certain people had the Spirit in them and to various degrees (“be filled!”). But hang on, hasn’t the Spirit also been poured out “on all flesh” (Acts 2)? And didn’t Christ say the Spirit would testify as a witness concerning Christ? In other words, the Spirit doesn’t only direct Christians, but directs all people toward Christ. 

So there’s a both/and here that is illustrated beautifully in the story of Cornelius (Acts 10). First, the Spirit is a witness, leading Cornelius to Christ and then the Spirit also “falls on” and “fills” Cornelius as his heart responds to Christ. The Spirit had already “entered” Cornelius life as a guide on the path that then also culminated in his encounter with the Spirit’s power, confirming Peter’s message.

Second, you seemed to allude to Romans 8.Where do we start? Paul describes us as living in or by the Spirit, and the Spirit living in us. He talks about those who have the Spirit, belong to the Spirit and those who are led by the Spirit. He seems to look for evidence of those in whom the Spirit lives by watching who the Spirit leads—and names those as God’s children. That brings us to the Spirit-children connection in verses 14-17:

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

What’s most important to me in this section is that the Spirit is all about transforming us: rescuing us from slavery to fear and bringing about our adoption as God’s children. The key phrase is, “By him we cry, Abba,” because the Spirit testifies that we are God’s children. 

Here’s the difficult part. What does Paul mean?

·      Does the Spirit testify to those who become Christ-followers that they have now become God’s children? OR

·      Does the Spirit testify to all people that they are already God’s children, and this revelation leads them to become Christ-followers?

I’m still pondering Paul’s intention in this passage, because he seems to play with both models. Truthfully, I seem to see both versions happening all the time. What is our invitation? Is it, “The good news is if you come to Jesus and receive the Spirit, you’ll become God’s child”? Or is it, “The good news is that Jesus and the Spirit have come to tell you, “You’re God’s child! You can live in that Love now!”   

Regardless of Paul’s intent, I see the second version at work in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. I imagine it was the Spirit who brought the young man to his senses, reminding him of his Abba and prompting him to return home. Even then, the son imagined he had disqualified himself and could at best be one of the servants. Nevertheless, the Spirit guided his footsteps homeward and his Abba came running to greet “this son of mine!”

I’ll leave you to meditate on Romans 8 and its implications, but what I’m sure of is that Jesus Christ uniquely reveals God as Abba and the Holy Spirit of Grace opens our hearts from within to know that we are indeed God’s sons and daughters. 

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