Sunday, April 26, 2015

SP2. The Holy Spirit enacts the will of the Father and Son in the world.

This is now the second post in a unit on the Holy Spirit in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and the second was on Christology and Atonement.
SP2. The Holy Spirit enacts the will of the Father and Son in the world.

The Holy Spirit is God's presence in the world, and the Spirit acts for God in the world.

1. Christian tradition does not hold that God the Father is only beyond the creation (transcendent) and the God the Holy Spirit is only in the creation (immanent). Nevertheless, in terms of the predominant domains where we find the Father and the Spirit operating in Scripture, we find the Spirit overwhelmingly mentioned in relation to this universe.

"Spirit" thus indicates at least two features of the Holy Spirit. First, spirit suggests otherness in the sense of heavenly origins. The Spirit is "stuff" from beyond the creation that is present here in the creation. In this way, the Holy Spirit is the "heavenly gift" and a taste of the "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:4-5).

"Spirit" also suggests that God is not limited by embodiment. He is everywhere present in the universe. At the very beginning of creation, we find the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial, unformed waters (Gen. 1:2). The Holy Spirit is thus the primary manifestation of God immanent in the creation, the primary presence of God in the universe in this age.

2. As such the Holy Spirit is the primary agent of God's action in the world. When we read of God's word doing whatever God sends it out to do in Isaiah 55:11, we should think of the Holy Spirit as the one enacting God's will. In Genesis 1, when God speaks and his will is accomplished, we should think of the Holy Spirit as the one accomplishing the creation of light or living things in the waters or the creation of humanity.

When Proverbs 8 uses the metaphor of wisdom working alongside God in creation (8:22-31), we should more literally think of God's Holy Spirit as the one who enacted the will of the Trinity for the creation of the world. Although John 1 ultimately correlates the Logos or "Word" with Jesus, surely much of the biblical imagery about God's word acting in the world should technically be related to the work of the Holy Spirit. When we hear that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword," we are hearing about the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

3. In the next two articles, we will discuss how the Spirit works in the Church and in the individual. Yet we have also seen that the Holy Spirit also works in the creation and in the world. Here, the work of the pre-incarnate Christ and the Holy Spirit seem to blur into each other. For example, the hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 is clearly about Christ, but it is arguably based on Jewish traditions about God's word. So some of the poetry about Christ here may more literally relate to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

For example, in a poetic sense, Christ holds all things together (Col. 1:17). But in a more literal sense, the Holy Spirit sustains the creation. The different roles that the individual persons of the Trinity play are not always clearly distinguished in Scripture but blur into each other. [1]

Although Christ will come again to judge the world on God's behalf, in this present age the Spirit both convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11). The conviction of the Spirit in relation to sin ideally leads to salvation, but perhaps most of the world ultimately rejects the prompting of the Spirit in "prevenient grace," God's reaching out to us before we even know it (Matt. 7:13-14).

The Spirit convicts the world of righteousness in the sense that he works with our consciences to move us to act in the right way. He is an "inner light" that shows us the right way but leaves the choice of how to go to us. To be sure, our consciences are overwhelmingly formed by our cultures and the environments in which we are born and raised. However, the Holy Spirit also reaches out to everyone who comes into the world with God's prevenient grace and prompts us to move in the right direction.

Those who do not respond to the Spirit's prompting may eventually "grieve" the Holy Spirit to where God gives us up on us (Heb. 10:29). Although the Spirit has made it such that we should know God and his power (Rom. 1:20), God may eventually "give us up" (Rom. 1:28). We should assume that those parts of Scripture that talk about God hardening someone's heart (e.g., Exod. 7:3; Rom. 9:18) relate to individuals who have already rejected the initial prompting of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit also enacts God's judgment in this current time. We see such judgment clearly in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Peter indicts them for trying to "lie" to the Holy Spirit (5:3) and they both drop dead. It is thus not only clear that judgment takes place in the age of the new covenant as well as the old. But the Holy Spirit is the primary agent of judgment at this time.

4. The idea of an "unpardonable sin" comes especially from Matthew 12:31-32 and Mark 3:28-29. In that context, it refers to attributing to Satan an act of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Hebrews 6:4-6 and other passages in Hebrews also suggest there is a point of apostasy beyond which one cannot be saved.

Theologically, we must assume that the individuals involved in these passages are people who have decisively rejected the promptings of the Holy Spirit toward salvation. We must assume that the Holy Spirit has already reached out to them, offering them the possibility of reconciliation, but they have rejected the light given them. Therefore, these acts--of blaspheming the Spirit or committing final apostasy--are the embodiment of a pattern of rejecting God. It is not the act itself that is permanently condemning but the permanent condemnation is what results when the Holy Spirit stops prompting.

Repentance, a decisive turn from sin toward God, is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, anyone who is drawn toward God has not been abandoned by God and thus has not committed an unpardonable sin. Yet there is no promise that the Holy Spirit will prompt indefinitely. Christianity, not even Wesleyan-Arminian Christianity, does not technically teach free will. It teaches that God gives everyone a chance to move toward him.

But there is no promise that this chance will always be present in our lives. We cannot assume that we can wait until our death bed to move toward God. The Holy Spirit may not be around to prompt us toward him any more. We may know we need to repent but not find the power to repent within. We may seek a place of repentance and not find it (Heb. 12:17). We thus need to seek God while he may be found (Isa. 55:6).

The Holy Spirit is God's presence in the world and enacts the will of the Trinity in the universe. He convicts the world of its sin, of what righteousness is, and he administers God's judgment in this current age.

Next week: SP3. The Spirit sanctifies the Church.

[1] This is an important reminder that God did not reveal most of the truths of the Bible systematically but situationally. This is why systematic theology is not only a valid enterprise, but a necessary one. It is also why we would be foolish to ignore 2000 years of Christian reflection on Scripture--surely the Spirit has continued to unpack in his Church both the significance of Christ but also the implications of Scripture.

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