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Substitutes for the Spirit

We have endless substitutes for the actual, dynamic, personal presence of the Spirit in our thinking.  Here's a sketch of just a few off the top of my head.

Of course, many or all of these are means by which the Spirit works.  Yet if they are cut off from the Source they have no life in them:


Doctrine of Omnipotence

An a-topic, abstract power is assigned to God, equivalent to a similarly ill-defined notion called ‘sovereignty'. This is all rather than the active and immanent Person who is God's Power - the Spirit of Christ.

Doctrine of Omnipresence

‘God is everywhere' becomes a substitute for the indwelling personal presence of the Spirit

Doctrine of Omniscience

This happens, for instance, when the living nature of the Spirit-breathed Word is replaced by a doctrine of God's omniscience in the original authorship of the Bible.  What is side-lined is a doctrine of the Spirit as the Dei loquentis persona (God speaking in person).  Instead the spotlight falls on God's omniscience in inspiring the text thousands of years ago such that it would speak to every generation.  A fossilization of the living word?


Assurance found in moral performance.

Romans 8:16 says ‘the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.' Few preachers I hear teach that we should seek our assurance in the fellowship we have with the Spirit.  Usually we're encouraged to look to our works.


Fellowship of believers

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit' (2 Cor 13:4) is not a Spirit-generated church-fellowship! Yet so many take it in this way. No, just as the love of God is an enjoyment of God in His love and just as the grace of Christ is an enjoyment of Christ in His grace, so the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is fellowship with the Spirit!

‘Now but not yet'. 

We often speak of this age (truly) in terms of absence and in-between-ness. We live in between the comings of Christ. This is all absolutely correct and vitally important. But let's not forget the presence! This is the age of the Spirit. The Spirit's presence is the 'now' in the 'now-and-not-yet'.  Let's remember Jesus said 'It is for your good I am going away... if I go I will send Him to you'! (John 16:7).


Fruit of the Spirit

At one time I was praying through the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 and using these nine characteristics as a moral checklist.  I confessed my lack of fruit and prayed for more.  One day I was doing this and got a picture in my mind of the Holy Spirit coming to my door laden with a big basket of fruit and me saying to Him 'Thanks Spirit, just leave the fruit and I'll see you later.'  I was praying for fruit when I should really have been praying for the Spirit Himself.  These fruit grow organically from a relationship with Him.  Let's desire Him and not simply His gifts.


Application in preaching

So much preaching advice assumes that it's the preacher's job to bridge the gap between text and congregation.  Surely it is the Spirit's work to drive home the Word to our hearts!  How often preaching is thought to really live when the preacher 'applies' the text to Monday morning and the 'nitty-gritty' of life.  Yet the Spirit, in living power, makes the Word alive and applies it to our lives in ways more nuanced, powerful and incisive than any preacher could.


Human advice

In the realm of guidance

Human aptitude

In the realm of gifts


In the realm of evangelism


In the realm of Kingdom-work

Oratory skill

In the realm of preaching


Grammatical-historical method.

Text critical tools give the meaning of the Bible, not the Author Himself


Any more we can add to the list?


0 thoughts on “Substitutes for the Spirit

  1. kc

    Glen I've been so busy that I've had to miss out on commenting and most discussions but I just had to drop in and commend you once again on another excellent article.

    In short, "AMEN!" ;-)

  2. dorsey

    I have a friend who changed churches three times in a couple year's time. Each time, he told me, "Yeah, we really feel that this is where the Spirit is directing us." The last time, I replied, "Dude, your holy spirit needs either a GPS or to make up his mind."

    Funny, haven't heard from my friend since the last time.

    Anyway, I see this type of thing an awful lot. People preface all their decisions with "I really feel the Lord leading me to..." I'm not sure if that falls under the substitutes-for-the-Spirit category or merely the blame-God-for-your-own-bullsh*t category. I see it as a clever means of doing as you see fit and framing it in a way that can't easily be questioned.

    Good post.

  3. glenscriv

    Hi KC,

    Good to hear from you. And good to hear there are more important things in life than blogging too. (Such a thing!)

    Hi Dorsey,

    Yeah I think that's flesh masquerading as Spirit - which is always what flesh does! Flesh turns us in on our own desires (the lusts (epithumea) of the flesh). And for every Spirit-led opportunity there's a flesh-driven counterfeit. I'm guessing the counterfeit with your friends is "How can this church meet my needs?" I just hate when people try to sanction their own desires with "The Spirit is leading me..."

    I'm always hearing from single Christian women who get single men telling them "The Spirit told me we have to be together." I just want to shake those guys and say "Don't you dare get the 'Spirit' to rubber stamp your flesh!" Aren't we meant to test the spirits??

    Anyway, must stop before this turns into a full blown rant. Thanks for dropping by.


  4. Dan Hames

    Love it.

    Omniscience one is particularly damning!

    Glen, somebody (guess who?!) started me reading Barth. Last night, I begun III.1... magical mystery tour! I'm seeing him in your post already!

  5. Dave K

    picking up on your point about fruits of the Spirit I love Luke 11 which says "ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened." and then you get to v. 13 which assumes that the gift the Father gives in response to your prayers is the Spirit itself, full stop.

    Lots of good posts at the moment

  6. Pingback: The Flesh « Christ the Truth

  7. glenscriv

    Hi Dan,
    Reading Barth's not too hard is it? It's too long, but it's not too hard! And if you don't understand something you never have to worry because he'll definitely circle round and repeat himself in about 10 pages time anyway! ;-)

    I find him hugely hugely helpful on theological method (Christ alone) and just so thorough-going on this point that he creates a whole world of Christian discourse that seems brilliant and strange and expansive and deeply deeply *Christian*. Even if you don't go everywhere he goes he gives you the tools to think far more christologically about things. I've written a paper on him and preaching here.

    I'm afraid though it's like its subject matter - too long!

    Hi Dave,
    Yes, yes. What God gives is not stuff. His is a complete self-giving - the Son who is made ours in the Spirit. (cf Gal 4:4-6) Stunningly what we receive as Christians is not divinely mediated blessings or some substance called 'grace/favour/mercy'. It is the Living God's own self-bestowal - the Triune God is Giver and Gift. Therefore in light of this radical personalization of God's grace might I correct you and say "the Spirit HIMself" rather than 'itself'? ;-)

  8. Dave K

    Therefore in light of this radical personalization of God’s grace might I correct you and say “the Spirit HIMself” rather than ‘itself’? ;-)

    You may. I have been trying to get out of that habit in my thinking for years, but the disease runs deep in my mind and comes out when I type fast and think little. Thank you for the correction.

  9. jeff

    Romans 8:16 says ‘the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.’ Few preachers I hear teach that we should seek our assurance in the fellowship we have with the Spirit. Usually we’re encouraged to look to our works.

    This is a tremendous insight. God's nature and His intention for us is so truly communal, in every aspect.

    'Works' has so much to do with self-reliance. And we will find no 'assurance' alone...

  10. glenscriv

    Dave, Reminds me of a youth talk I once heard of "Remember guys, the Spirit's not an it - it's a Him!" ;-)

    Jeff, yeah that's pretty much the definition of works - self-reliance. Funny that we should look to self to know if we're saved - given that salvation is from the LORD!

  11. Bobby Grow


    on Grammatical-historical:

    why can't it be the Spirit who has provided the text with these realities . . . so that we don't create a false dichotomy between the who and the what of scripture?

    And on omniscience:

    why can't it be both/and? A deposit and the living Word speaking through that deposit via the Holy Spirit's ongoing 'magnifying work'? In the Perfect Tense of course.

  12. glenscriv

    Yes indeed Bobby. Hence my bolded comment 'they are means by which the Spirit works' with the qualifier 'if they are cut off from the Source they have no life in them.'

    The word 'ongoing' seems to be the key here. The Spirit continues to reveal what He has written in the past. Interestingly in that key passage (John 5) the Father has witnessed (perfect tense) in v37 and *also*, v39, the Scriptures continue to witness in the present.

  13. yemsee

    great stuff glen

    "I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD."

    in regards to "now but not yet"
    - how would you define 'the time of the Spirit'?

    Scripture is anything but dead! it's a Person speaking before and after! =)

    how would you preach assurance by fellowship with the Spirit?

  14. glenscriv

    'the time of the Spirit' is I guess the time of Pentecost/ingathering prior to the trumpet call. (Lev 23:15ff)

    How to preach assurance by fellowship with Spirit? Dunno, let me think out loud. He's the Spirit of sonship/adoption (Rom 8:15) who so unites us to the Son that we cry Abba, Father. And He unites us to Christ such that we know we are united to Him. (see also parallel with Gal 4:4-6). In both Rom 8 and Gal 4, prayer seems to be central. There is a sharing in Christ's Abba-prayer (Mk 14:36) which in its Mark 4 and Romans 8 context is in the midst of great suffering. Putting all that together could you say that it's an experience (especially in prayer) of fellowship with Christ when there is no earthly reason to feel assured. Or to put it another way it's an experience (especially in prayer) of the good Fatherhood of God when everything in the world would say otherwise. It's an experience (especially in prayer) of access to the Father through the Son. If you know that personally, that is the Spirit testifying with your spirit.

    What do you think?

  15. yemsee

    about the time of the Spirit..
    the question was more like, the Spirit was around before, so what is the difference? i have a few hints here and there but not really anything concrete

    i guess it would be comparable to preaching assurance of Scripture being the Word of God...
    quoting Calvin:
    “Scripture indeed is self-authenticated, hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning, and the certainty it deserves with us, it attains with the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence with us by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore illumined by His power we believe neither by our own nor anyone else’s judgement that Scripture is from God, but above human judgement we affirm with utter certainty, just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God Himself, that it is flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness on which our judgement may lean, but we subject our judgement and wit to it, far beyond any guesswork.”

    the experience of Abba! Father! is always written in opposition to fear in slavery, so i guess it's the testimony of freedom in Christ, which can only be experienced by a son of God as opposed to a slave of either the law or to those who are by nature not gods?

  16. glenscriv

    just as Son is active pre-incarnation but the time fully comes when God sends His incarnate Son (Gal 4:4), so the Spirit is always active but has His 'time' is pentecost to parousia. Jesus goes, the Spirit comes (John 16:7). The mystery kept hidden now disclosed is the Spirit in you gentiles (Col 1:27). Cf John 7:39. The Spirit comes into His own when He equips the international church to take the gosepl internationally (ingathering = pentecost).

    love the Calvin quote

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