The Theology Behind Spiritual Impotence

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Thirteen years ago I published a book called ‘Prayer, Power, and Proclamation’ in which I attempted to address the question:Prayer Power and Proclamation Book

‘Why do we see so few genuine miracles in our day?’

 

It is not that these do not occasionally occur, but they are scarce. I do not crave great and breathtaking acts of God, although they would be wonderful, but I do miss the regular powerful manifestations of his presence that I associate with genuine church experiences. Another way of stating the question is, ‘Why is there such general spiritual impotence in the church of our day?’ and this is what I specifically respond to in this current article.

There are several reasons for spiritual impotence that I can think of such as fear of fake manifestations, lack of expectation, and so on, but I suspect that there is a deeper and more theological issue underlying the lack of spiritual power in personal and church life.

Now, I do not want to lose you in many words and details, so before going any further, I need to state upfront what I believe a major part of the problem to be:

The theological stance of many church leaders is a barrier to receiving and ministering the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, they replace spiritual anointing with animated presentations and church optics.

Theology is Important

What we say, do, and expect within the scope of our devotional and church lives depends largely on our theology. So, in this article, I want to explore aspects of doctrine that I suspect stand behind what I have presented as a major problem in the church of our day.

Teachings that have a profound bearing on a lack of spiritual anointing in individual and church life concern:

  1. The Infusion of power by the Holy Spirit and
  2. The Indwelling of the person of the Holy Spirit.

In April 2021 I published an article on The Nature of the New Birth, in which I explained much of what I am addressing here in this present article.  Here is an adaptation of part of what I wrote then concerning the Infusing and Indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

“A doctrine 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.

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 ‘en’, translated in this verse as ‘in’, can also be translated as ‘among’ as in John 1:14 or ‘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 in John 14:17 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 understood to be 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. 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 the power 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 to his values incorporated into us. To put it another way, ‘in you’ could simply be a way of saying that God’s presence is with us intimately and permanently.

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, the Holy Spirit, by the application of his power, re-creates the dead/separated spirit of each person who qualifies (the New Birth). The ‘qualification’ is repentance of the sin of personal rebellion, belief in the deity and unique saving capacity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and asking for, receiving, and then testifying to the reality the new birth received. The Holy Spirit 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). Believers are progressively transformed 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. However, 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 believe 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.

If the Holy Spirit personally and permanently indwells us, and we are not simply automatons without discretion, then it means that we can resist his will and determine what he can and cannot do in and through us. For me, this is an untenable idea! Equally, if the Holy Spirit personally dwells in us, then any infilling, anointing, or 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 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

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 tangibly 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 as 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.

If our primary 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 receiving this power and we can only give what we have received from him. We are therefore dependent on the Holy Spirit”.

I stated earlier that the theological stance of some leaders is a barrier to receiving and ministering the power of the Holy Spirit. In terms of what I have just set out, let me now state how I see this working in practice.

The Theological Barrier to Receiving and Ministering

Although the Holy Spirit can indeed be within as well as with us, the way we understand this affects how we behave. A leader who sees the person of the Holy Spirit primarily as residing within him (‘her’ also applies throughout) must surely feel constrained; he sees the Spirit as being responsible for how he ministers to others and he sees himself as unable to initiate ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. If he doesn’t see evidence of spiritual ministry then he may attempt to remove any personal obstacles to the Holy Spirit by attempting to make himself more transparent to the Holy Spirit by searching his heart for any sin issues he needs to deal with. On the one hand, he sees the Holy Spirit as responsible for initiating ministry, but on the other hand, he sees himself as responsible for allowing the Holy Spirit to minister. This stance will invariably lead to passivity, spiritual impotence and frustration.

However, if a leader believes himself to be filled with Holy Spirit energy as a result of receiving power from the person of God the Holy Spirit, then two things will flow naturally from this stance:

  1. He will repeatedly ask the Holy Spirit to fill him with power and
  2. He will feel personally accountable for how, when, and why he ministers this ‘power from on high’ to others.

This stance will usually lead to dynamic ministry and blessings to the people of God.

Three of the many glorious biblical examples of this principle in action are:
  • Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” (Luke 8:46)
  • I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)
  • Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. (Acts 3:6-7)
Application

As already stated, I strongly suspect that a major underlying reason for spiritual impotence is the theology of the church leaders concerned. To change this situation they would need to do the following:

  • Review their theology concerning indwelling and infilling using the biblical revelation of the life, words, and works of the Lord Jesus as their main yardstick. Even if they still do not concur with me, they can at least acknowledge that their chosen position makes a profound difference in how they minister.
  • Realise that they need both to teach their people and to be an example to them. The leaders should surely be the first to be publically and privately asking the Holy Spirit to fill them with his power. They should also be the first to step out in faith and actively minister this spiritual power to those in need.
Conclusion

I have thought long and hard about writing this article at all. It is likely that those who need to take heed will either not read it or will read but not associate themselves with its content. Matters concerning the things I have been dealing with here are sometimes seen as peripheral and subject to personal preference and tradition rather than matters of vital spiritual life for themselves and those to whom they minister.

What I have written may appear critical but it flows not out of theological dogmatism, but from a deep sadness for ministers and their people who effectively, if unconsciously, have a form of godliness but deny its power (ref. 2 Timothy 3:5)

 

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Christopher Peppler

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1 thought on “The Theology Behind Spiritual Impotence”

  1. I think what you have written is very important. The Holy Spirit as “another comforter” in my understanding means, like Jesus exposed His disciples to the kingdom way of life, which is a life in the “realm” of the the Spirit (Romans 8:8), so the rebirth by the Spirit gives us access into the kingdom (John 3:5), which is a fellowship of the Spirit – a participation in the Triune life of God, and a partnership with God in His ongoing mission to the world.

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.