Why should you read a long article like this on the nature of the New Birth? You should read it because belief and practice concerning this doctrine could radically affect the way your church functions and may affect your eternal destiny and present life ministry.
I recently watched a panel of three churchmen discussing the role of the church in South Africa today. Liberation Theology is prevalent in parts of the church in Africa and I expected it to flavour the discussions. However, as I listened to them I suspected that something deeper was at play and I had to ask, ‘are these men even born again, at least as I understand the term?’
I have preached and written about the need for spiritual rebirth before, but in this article, I want to dig down deeper into the subject, reflecting on the nature of rebirth, its connection to the doctrine of Regeneration, The Fall, human Trichotomy, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
In a 2014 article, titled ‘Stillborn Souls’, I suggested that much of the churches current aberrant doctrine and apathetic Christian practice might be due to many of its members not being born again. The church, in a measure, is the sum of its parts, so if its leaders and members are not born again, then the church will fail both doctrinally and practically. Additionally, ‘Christians’ who are not born again will neither manifest Christ Jesus in their lives nor enter into eternal fellowship with him. Jesus put it bluntly to Nicodemus when he said: ”I tell you the truth, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God… he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3.5). We need to take this challenging statement very seriously.
Several theological terms describe certain aspects of the New Birth yet are taken by some as substitutes for the central doctrine. Others use the term Salvation to describe the New Birth although that word encompasses the full span of new life in Christ from rebirth, through Sanctification, to Glorification. Conversion is another word associated with the New Birth although it is actually synonymous with the doctrine of Repentance. Regeneration is yet another term that many people use as a substitute for New Birth.
Conversion is a term that preachers and theologians sometimes use to describe the first phase of salvation. However, the word in both its dictionary meaning and Old Testament origin means ‘change’ in its various forms including ‘to turn back’. So, it is more appropriate to use the term ‘conversion’ concerning Repentance than New Birth. However, in Reformation theology conversion means the human response to spiritual regeneration. Among early Evangelicals, the word became associated with a crisis experience that inaugurates the new life in Christ and recent Evangelical theologians present Conversion as both an event and a process. In either of these ways of looking at it, the idea of conversion either replaces or subsumes the vital concept of New Birth.
I will be dealing more fully with this, but simply note for now how the idea of Conversion is directly associated with mental activities such as repentance, change of mind, act of will and so on. This may seem insignificant at first, but it strikes at the very heart of the nature of the New Birth.
The term Regeneration comes from the Latin for ‘create again’ and is therefore appropriate as a term associated with New Birth (born-again). However, 17th-century Reformed theologians started confusing the issue by equating regeneration with what they called ‘Effectual Calling’. They define this essentially as a stage in the order of salvation in which God calls a person to himself. They link it to the doctrines of ‘Divine Predestination’ and ‘Irresistible Grace’ and conflate Regeneration with Conversion within their particular theological model. Recent Reformed scholars have defined Regeneration as the ‘implanting of the ‘seed from which faith and repentance spring in the course of Effectual Calling’. Once again this understanding of the doctrine is directly associated with mental activities and Lutherans added to this confusion by identifying Regeneration as a moral change.
In both Conversion and Regeneration, the emphasis has shifted from spiritual rebirth to change of mind, moral change, or a transformational process. Now, is this what the Lord Jesus had in mind when he stated that we must be born again if we are to enter, or even perceive of, the eternal Kingdom of God? I do not think so.
What Jesus Taught
John Chapter 3 contains what Jesus taught on the New Birth. The Lord prefaced his instruction with the solemn words “I tell you the truth”, and then went on, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:5). He was speaking to Nicodemus, a preeminent Jewish theologian of the time, who responded that a man could not enter again into his mother’s womb to be born again. Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (Vs.5). To make it clear that he wasn’t speaking about any sort of Jewish conversion rite, Jesus went on to say, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (vs. 7-8). Jesus also explained that the New Birth, though a spiritual phenomenon, was something that occurred not in heaven but here on Earth (vs. 12). He then used an Old Testament analogy to explain the ‘way’ in which a person may be born again: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Vs. 14-15). Nicodemus would have been very familiar with the story of the fiery serpents recorded in the book of Numbers. Some sort of viper that hid in the sands over which they journeyed was plaguing the Israelites. Many of them had died from venomous bites and the people cried out to Moses to do something about it. God explained to Moses that he should construct a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Anyone bitten could then look up at the bronze snake and live (Numbers 21:8-9). When they did this they were not putting their faith in a snake effigy, but in God’s provision for their healing. Jesus’ message was therefore that he was the divine provision for spiritual healing and life and that anyone who had faith in him would be saved from the serpent-bite of death. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.
On the evening of Resurrection Sunday, Jesus appeared to his disciples and after greeting them he did something unusual. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Over the years there has been much discussion concerning this act by the resurrected Lord of life. It is quite common to see theologians writing that Jesus was previewing the Day of Pentecost experience that was later to occur. This does not make sense to me and renders Jesus’ actions as merely symbolic. The allusion is actually to how God created a living man at the dawn of time: ‘The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). It is more obvious to take his breathing on the disciples as an act of spiritual re-creation, the very first rebirth event, than as a symbolic forecast of Pentecost. I believe that the disciples were born again from that moment, but that they still needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. This initially took place ten days after Jesus ascended into Heaven. I will deal with the difference between rebirth and spiritual infilling later in this article. First though, some comments on what Peter and Paul wrote concerning the New Birth.
Further Light Shed by Peter and Paul
Peter wrote: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3). Here he confirms some of Jesus’ teachings on the New Birth and also makes it clear that what Jesus said to Nicodemus applies to all people everywhere. He links the New Birth with the Resurrection.
Paul expanded on what Jesus taught and reinforced the idea that when the Lord breathed on his disciples he was re-enacting creation: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The Essential Nature of Man and The Fall
The Genesis creation account climaxes with God making man in his image and likeness. Some teach that ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ encompass two different things, but the ostensible use of Hebrew parallelism points strongly to them being synonyms. God created man to resemble his own constitution. Some say that man possesses will, intelligence, and so on, and as such resembles the divine. However, God’s uniquely defining characteristic is that he is a tri-unity, three yet one. So I find the simplest meaning of likeness-image to be that God created us as triune beings just as he is a triune being.
In developing this concept of the nature of man, some of the early Church Fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa) taught that man is a Trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit. It is obvious to all that whilst in this earthly life humans are functionally unitary beings. However, what is equally obvious is that we all have both a material and a non-material dimension. The brain is a body part yet it generates ‘mind’, the sum of will, memory, emotion, memory, creativity, and so on. These elements are not physical and have a degree of independence from the body. I hold that mind is what the bible calls ‘Soul’. However, the non-material part of man is not just Soul but also Spirit. Hebrews 4:12 points us to this where it says: ‘For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’. While ‘Soul’ describes the human capacity to relate to self and others, ‘Spirit’ describes the capacity to relate to God. This Trichomotist view, championed by some of the early church scholars, also includes the idea that upon physical death, the body disintegrates (dust to dust) while the Soul and Spirit live on forever, either in God’s presence or apart from him.
Some early theologians and modern Pentecostal teachers view the human being as composed of three distinct parts but this presents some obvious problems and also opens the door to gnostic error. My view is very similar to J.Rodman Williams who regards the soul, in one respect, as the product of the spirit of man acting through the body. He writes in Renewal Theology that ‘we are not to understand this (soul) as a third part of man but as the resulting expression of spirit functioning though body’. Concerning the human spirit, he writes: ‘The spirit, accordingly, is the very essence of human nature. Not only does the spirit transcend all other aspects of human existence, but these aspects are all grounded in it. The spirit is the quintessential self – that which has been inbreathed by God – and although it does not in this world stand in isolation from the body or the various other functions of the living person, the spirit is the base and centre of them all. The spirit operates through the mind, the will, and the emotions but is to be identified with none of them.’
While some modern-day theologians reject the view that man is other than a unitary being (Monism), the majority of Evangelical theologians espouse Dichotomism of some kind or other. This view has dominated academic thinking on the nature of man since the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. One of the ‘proofs’ for Dichotomism is that the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are sometimes used interchangeably in the bible and therefore both described the one immaterial aspect of man. I have never found this to be a convincing argument. Bible versions translate the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ mainly as soul, mind, will, person, and life, and the word ‘ruach’ as spirit, breath, and wind. The versions translate the Greek word ‘psuche’ as soul, life, and mind, but not as spirit, and the word ‘pneuma’ exclusively as ‘spirit’ (I established these uses from the Englishman’s Concordance linked to the KJV translation). So I guess that this argument is based more on a belief in the doctrine of Dichotomy itself than on biblical reasons for belief in that doctrine.
Turning from word games to more direct biblical evidence of Trichotomy, proponents of both Monism and Dichotomism cannot provide any convincing arguments as to why we should not take 1 Thessalonians 5:23 as its plain and contextual meaning indicates. The benediction, ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ indicates trichotomy as constituting the whole nature of man. Paul uses three distinct words, ‘pneuma, psuche, and soma’ and there is no indication that Paul is using synonyms. The moderately Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem contends that Paul could simply be using several synonyms for emphasis and he supports his contention by citing Mark 12:30 where Jesus uses heart, soul, mind, and strength together. I find this a very thin argument that takes no account of the immediate context of Thessalonians 5:23.
In my acceptance of the doctrine of Trichotomy, at least as I understand it, I stand in a long line of theologians. In addition to some of the early Church Fathers, they include Martin Luther, Adam Clarke, Henry Alford, Soreen Kierkegaard, William Smith, Andrew Murray, F.B.Meyer, Lewis Sperry Chafer, T.A.Sparks, Gleason Archer, and J.R. Williams. However, some theologically schooled people reading this article will disagree with my contentions. One reason for this will no doubt be that dichotomy has become the default doctrine of seminaries and denominations. This makes it hard for many to embrace another way of understanding the essential nature of man.
There are other problems with Monism and Dichotomy that have a bearing on the problem that confronts Christians as articulated in this article and I will address these under a separate heading. For now, though, I want to deal with the Fall of Man and its connection to the doctrine of New Birth.
After creating him, God told Adam that he would die if he disobeyed and placed his trust in anyone or anything other than his maker. Adam and Eve did disobey and transfer their trust to Satan, but they did not instantly drop down dead. Adam lived on for 930 years before physically dying (Genesis 5:5). The Monist and Dischotomist explanation is that the word translated as ‘die’ more accurately means ‘separate’ and that God had meant that by sinning, Adam and Eve would be separated from him. This is partially true, but the account of the fall goes on to record that after the fall God still visited with Adam and Eve and that they were able to converse with him (Genesis 3:8-19). If one accepts that this account is a true record of what took place, then it is obvious that man was not separated from God at either a physical or a mental (Soul) level. Trichotomism does not present the same problem because it envisages separation/death as occurring over an extended timeline. Adam died spiritually immediately, just as God said he would. He became progressively separated from the mind of God (wisdom, knowledge etc) over many years. He died physically at the end of his earthly life span, which in Adam’s case was nearly a thousand years. Genesis 2:17 speaks of how Adam would die on the day he disobeyed, so the Trichotomist theory provides the best explanation of what happened on that day.
Now, if we understand Salvation, in part, as a reversal of The Fall, then the timeline of the process of salvation is an immediate rebirth of the spirit, a progressive renewal of the soul, and an ultimate resurrection of the body. To put it another way: at the fall, Adam instantly died (was separated from God) but at the rebirth, a person can be born again spiritually. After the fall, Adam became progressively separated from the knowledge and wisdom of God, but after rebirth, a person is progressively sanctified by the renewal of his mind. After the fall, Adam eventually died physically, but for the reborn person there awaits a glorious physical resurrection. These considerations lead to another important associated subject.
Infusing or Indwelling
Another doctrine, even more deeply entrenched in today’s theological world, is the doctrine of the permanently indwelling presence of the person of the Holy Spirit in the believer. I want to approach this ‘holy cow’ doctrine now, but with great reverence for the person of the Holy Spirit.
Is rebirth a spiritual quickening/re-creation by the Holy Spirit, or is it when the Holy Spirit personally indwells a human being? The traditional and majority view of theologians is that upon spiritual regeneration the Holy Spirit takes up personal and permanent residence in the believer. There are several texts on which to base this belief, but perhaps the matter is not as simple and clear as it at first appears.
For instance, Jesus told his disciples that he would send them another like himself, whom he called the Spirit of Truth who would be with them and in them (John 14:15-17). However, the Greek word translated here as ‘in’ (‘en’ Strongs 1722) can also be translated as ‘among’ as in John 1:14 and ‘with’ as in John 1:26, 28, 31, 33).
There is no clear contextual or linguistic reason why we could not translate what Jesus said as “he lives with you and will be among you”.
John also wrote in 1 John 4:4 that ‘the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world’. That little Greek word ‘en’ appears twice in this sentence and could be understood as the Holy Spirit among the people of God being greater than the devil, who is in the world system.
Another text often cited is James 4:5 which the NIV translates in a footnote as ‘God jealously longs for the spirit that he made to live in us’. This makes little sense if James is referring to the person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead, so in what way would God jealously long for God? But if the reference is to the spiritual power and seal of ownership that the Holy Spirit deposits in us at rebirth, then the idea makes sense. Of course, it could simply mean that God created man to be a spiritual being in his image and therefore this verse in James is referring to humans in general. In his commentary on James, Douglas Moo writes that it is not clear whether James thinks of the spirit which he has made to dwell in us as the Holy Spirit given to believers or as God’s creative spirit by which he has invigorated mankind’. Perhaps the matter would be clearer if we knew the scripture James claims to be quoting, but there is no direct equivalent anywhere in the Old Testament.
The text that most theologians develop to support the concept of the indwelling presence of the person of the Holy Spirit in the believer is Romans 8:9-11. Apart from the same problems with Greek prepositions that I have already mentioned, Paul connects the word ‘spirit’ to both God (the Spirit of God in vs 9) and Jesus (the Spirit of Jesus). He also uses the word ‘Christ’ several times and this word, particularly as used by Paul in Romans, is usually an epithet of Jesus. It seems easier to understand that Paul is speaking of the presence within the believer of the spiritual deposit/seal that the person of the Holy Spirit imparts upon rebirth. Indeed, Paul uses that language in 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13-14. He also uses the words ‘be filled with the spirit’ in Ephesians 5:18 as indicating a work of the Holy Spirit rather than the person of the Holy Spirit.
There is another way of looking at the matter of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and that is to consider that the term applies figuratively and representationally rather than literally. This idea finds a degree of support in texts such as Romans 8:10, 15 and Galatians 4:6 where the indwelling spirit is variously described as Christ, a spirit of adoption, and the spirit of God’s Son. Indwelling could thus refer to God’s presence with us and his values etc. incorporated into us. To put it another way, ‘in you’ could simply be a way of saying that God’s presence is with us in an intimate and permanent way.
Over the centuries several theologians and philosophers have attempted to construct coherent models to explain the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The philosopher William Alston described three models, one of which he called ‘Fiat’, although he settled on another model, which he labelled ‘Partial Sharing’. In terms of the Fiat Model, God implants a new disposition in the believer. This is similar to my proposals in this article. More recently, Ray Yoe of Prairie College, Canada, wrote a paper titled ‘Towards a Model of Indwelling’ in which he stated that ‘for God to infuse his love within our hearts is for the resurrected and living incarnate Christ to partially share his ongoing human loving disposition with us by means of the Holy Spirit.’
My conclusion, drawn from these considerations and many texts, is that the bible contains numerous references to both the person of the Holy Spirit and the power that he provides. The Holy Spirit speaks, directs, guides, reveals, grieves, and so on. He also provides the power by which healings, miracles, and creative acts are accomplished. In his capacity as the 3rd person in the Godhead he, by the application of his power, re-creates the dead/separated spirit of each person who qualifies. Qualification is for all who repent of the sin of personal rebellion, who believe in the deity and unique saving capacity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and who ask for, receive, and then testify to the reality the new birth received. He also, after the new birth, empowers (fills, anoints) the believer with ‘power from on high’ to enable disciples to live Christ-like lives and to minister effectively in his power (Acts 1:4). He progressively transforms us through the activity of the Holy Spirit and his work of regeneration within. I find this to be the simplest, most reasonable, and biblically faithful way of understanding and applying the doctrines of The New Birth and the Indwelling and infusion of the Holy Spirit in the believer.
Having said all this I freely and thankfully acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is a multi-dimensional spiritual being restricted by neither space nor time. He can be present with and indeed in all believers simultaneously anywhere and at any time. He can be both in, with, and among with no contradiction to Christian philosophy or biblical revelation. The reason I think that the distinctions I have been at pains to make are important is that our understanding of these things radically affects the way we view salvation, conversion, ministry, and indeed life in general. I will be dealing with some aspects of this in the next section of the article. For now, let me simply point out certain problematic perspectives.
For instance, if the Holy Spirit is constantly and personally present in each believer, then we are little more than carriers and automatons. The Holy Spirit determines whatever we think, say, and do and we have no real say in anything in which we are involved. In terms of this perspective, Calvinism would be the only valid theology to believe in and live by. Alternatively, if the Holy Spirit personally and permanently indwells us, and we are not simply carriers and automatons, then it means that we can resist his will and determine what he can and cannot do in and through us. I find this idea as blasphemous as I find Calvinist doctrine derogatory.
Equally, if the Holy Spirit dwells in us then any infilling, anointing, baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit is both redundant and illogical. This then makes a nonsense of the scriptures that speak of the spirit coming upon us, being poured out on us, and clothing us (1 Samuel 10:6, Luke 1:35 and 24:49, Acts 2:33, 8:16 and 10:45 et al).
I concede that I may be overstating my case and that there might be room for both-and thinking or for other ways of understanding. However, I do not think that traditional concepts regarding the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit align well with what Jesus taught and modelled, nor with how the early disciples, Paul, and others ministered. These and other conceptions have distinct consequences in the life and ministry of believers and the witness and effectiveness of the church. I will deal with this now in the next section.
A summary of Where I Stand on these Matters
Before moving on entirely to practical outworkings, let me state in brief what I believe concerning the indwelling presence and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit is the 3rd person of the Godhead and not just a euphemism for spiritual energy. However, he is the person of the Trinity who generates and imparts supernatural power. Just as Jesus, the 2nd person of the Godhead, was with and among his people whilst on Earth, so the person of the Holy Spirit is with and among the people of God today. He is the one who regenerates the spirit of man at rebirth (New Birth) and he is the one who imparts spiritual energy to those who have experienced the New Birth. I do not think that the scriptures are clear on the ‘location’ of the Holy Spirit in or with believers and in and through the church. However, the way we understand these things can radically affect the way we minister and live our Christian lives. This is why I have set out my doctrine of the Spirit the way I have in this article and my other works. We are beings who are limited by our lack of capacity to even perceive, let alone adequately describe, spiritual realities, but we can and do determine how we minister and live. God is real, sovereign, and essentially mysterious, whatever we think or understand. He has created us and set the parameters of how we live. All of the matters discussed in this article would be quite irrelevant if God’s chosen way of dealing with man was inflexibly pre-determined. (Calvinism). However, I hold that the biblical evidence and the example of Jesus overwhelmingly teach that God has granted man a meaningful degree of discretion. That is why what we understand and believe is important. What we think determines what we choose to say and do and how we live and minister. To speak and act in the power of the Holy Spirit we need models and constructs that enable us to respond in faith and effectiveness. This is why I believe that what I have been writing about in this article is so important.
Our theology concerning the essential nature of man (Monism, Dichotomism, Trichotomism) will make little difference to whether or not one is born again. The human conditions for the New Birth are not prescribed by any particular doctrinal position, but are simply, repentance for sin, acknowledgement of Jesus as God and Saviour, asking from the basis of belief, receiving the gift of new spiritual life, and testifying to this new reality. However, our theological position can make a big difference to how we relate to the Holy Spirit, what we expect, and how we live and minister.
In terms of the doctrine of Monism, when people die physically they simply cease to exist and this contradicts the many scriptures that indicate continuing life after physical death (Psalm 6:9, Luke 23:43, Acts 7:59, Philippians 1:23-24 and so on). This has a profound effect on how we view the purpose of life and the saving work of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:19).
In terms of both Monism and Dichotomism, it is hard to differentiate humans from animals for all creatures have bodies and a degree of mental capacity. Apes, Octopi, and Dolphins have well-developed souls (minds), but does this mean that they too live on eternally and that they can relate personally to God?
The doctrine of Dichotomy makes little if any distinction between soul and spirit. As a result, in terms of this thinking, the Christian life experience consists simply of mental processes and physical disciplines. Therefore, to be Born Again can be mistaken as just committing to God’s ways, changing ones thinking, and aligning with the Lord’s will. There is no place in this philosophy for a metaphysical, supernatural ‘rebirth’. In terms of this, Christianity becomes more a matter of learning, willing, and doing than a supernatural relationship, spirit to spirit, with Jesus Christ. There is also little room for ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit and the Charisma of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are redefined purely in mental or physical terms. For instance, Prophecy becomes preaching, the Word of Knowledge becomes teaching, the Word of Wisdom becomes counselling, and so on. I view this tacit denial of the truly ‘spiritual’ nature of Christian life and ministry as a serious problem in much of the church of our day. The focus on knowledge in relating to God was Adam’s downfall and it is still a problem today.
Our churches are, in many cases, filled with members and adherents who are little different to non-Christians in belief and behaviour. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the failure of preachers and teachers to clearly articulate the fundamental need for spiritual New Birth.
Unless those who profess to be Christians experience the supernatural rebirth of the spirit then the following will most likely be their reality:
- Their salvation testimony will be either that they were born into a Christian family, or that they try to live their lives in a Christian way, or that a church incorporated them and taught them how to be good Christians.
- They will be unable to recall a time when they repented of rebellion against God, accepted the deity and exclusive way of salvation in and through Jesus, etc. There will have been no radical and memorable life-changing moment for them, but just gradual conformity to the Christian way.
- Some might recall and rely on a while-all-heads-are-bowed form of altar-call or on a water baptism, but they will not be able to attest to either the spiritual reality and impact of what happened on that occasion or how their lives changed from that moment.
- They will have no real sense of assurance that they are in relationship with the Lord Jesus and they will be uncertain of their eternal destiny.
- They will have no experience of supernatural ministry to others. Perhaps they might recall times when they prayed for someone who later got well or blessed in some other way.
- For them, the bible will be simply a religious history, a rulebook, or a source of promises.
This is not the radical discipleship that Jesus requires and nor is it a satisfying, meaningful, and effective way to live.
Rebirth and Infilling
For many Pentecostals and Charismatics, effective ministry depends mainly on the anointing of the Holy Spirit that they usually refer to as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Of course, unless we are born again of and by the Holy Spirit then how can we be filled with spiritual power, and how can we then minister in that power. Jesus told his disciples to “wait for the gift my Father promised which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit “ (Acts 1:4-5). However, John records that at about the same time, Jesus ‘breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”’. I have read several explanations of this, chief of which is the idea that Jesus was previewing the Pentecost experience. This makes little sense to me and as I have previously stated, a simpler explanation is that when Jesus breathed on them he was giving them new spiritual life (the New Birth). It appears that Jesus purposefully repeated what happened at the dawn of time when he breathed the breath of life into Adam. A few days after Jesus breathed spiritual life into his disciples, they were filled with power from on high (Pentecost). One event followed the other; first, they were born again and then they were filled with power.
Now if this is the correct way of understanding New Birth and spiritual infilling, as I think it is, then it has a profound effect on how we minister ‘in the power of the Holy Spirit’. If our understanding is that the Holy Spirit resides permanently in us, then spiritual ministry consists only of what God chooses to do through us and when he so wills to do it. If we understand that we can be filled with power from on high as an infusion into our re-created spirits, then spiritual ministry consists of imparting that power to others to affect whatever it is that is needed. We are dependent on the Holy Spirit for this as we can only give what we have received from him. A wonderful example of this principle in action is the account in Acts 3 of how Peter and John ministered to the lame beggar. Peter said to him, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Vs. 6).
Another problem presented by the two non-trichotomous doctrines of human nature is to explain and live with what happens at the moment of spiritual regeneration. Most theologians accept that regeneration affects the whole person and not just the spiritual dimension. However, neither Monism nor Dichotamism adequately explains the phenomenon of progressive sanctification and ultimate glorification. However, in terms of Trichotomy, the spirit of a person is instantly made alive through the direct action of the Holy Spirit upon it. The soul is then transformed and sanctified over time as the Holy Spirit works through the regenerated human spirit. The body is only directly affected by spiritual regeneration in the resurrection at the end of time.
Concluding Comments and Recommendations
As a Christian for over 40 years, more than 25 years of that spent pastoring a local church, I have often pondered over two questions.
- Why do so many church members, leaders, and teachers seem focused on social, political and religious issues and not on Jesus and his kingdom?
- Why do we experience so little genuine evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit?
These are not judgmental accusations, but simply genuine heartfelt questions arising from personal observation and experience. From my current perspective as a 73-year-old man, my answers are that what I observe is primarily caused by a lack of understanding and experience of (a) the true nature and necessity of the New Birth of the spirit, and (b) of the infilling of the power of the Holy Spirit and ministering in this power.
My book ‘Prayer, Power and Proclamation: Understanding Christian ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit from a Jesus-perspective’, deals with this reality but does not adequately explain the key doctrines and philosophies that lie behind the problems we observe. This article is an attempt to rectify this shortcoming.
I suspect that Christians of every age have asked the sort of questions I am posing and I am not sure that there are any answers, except one, that anyone could offer. Jesus told the parable of the weeds among the wheat to help us to realise that the Kingdom of God contains both. However, let me make two suggestions before presenting what I believe to be the only satisfactory remedy.
Firstly, those who are teachers or influencers in our churches or have larger platforms should commit to consistently teaching the nature and importance of the New Birth. Jesus could have addressed Nicodemus on any number of topics, but he chose just one, the necessity of being born again. Secondly, Christian teachers and leaders should address the urgent need for all believers to be filled with the Spirit of God and to minister in that power. Beyond that, they should demonstrate what it is to be ministers filled with power from on high. For this to happen many of them would have to re-examine their doctrine and theological frameworks, perhaps radically change the way they think, and then call out to the Holy Spirit for empowerment.
Now, the only prescription I know of that would facilitate both of these remedies and distribute them far and wide is…Revival. Genuine, Jesus-centred, Holy Spirit revival. The church would probably not exist at all if it wasn’t for God pouring out his spirit on 120 people on the day of Pentecost. It would perhaps not be as dominant in the world as it is today were it not for regular revivals sent by God upon his people. Church history is replete with times of great spiritual decline followed by magnificent revivals. The Welsh revival, the great awakening, the Hebrides revival, the Azusa Street Revival, and many more. So pray for revival! Pray urgently and ceaselessly for revival!