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Substitutes for the Spirit [Thawed out Thursday]

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 of these can be 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.  This is all rather than the active and immanent Person who is God's Power - the Spirit of Christ.

Doctrine of Omnipresence

We say "God is here" because we believe ‘God is everywhere' in an abstract sense.  Rather than acknowledging the indwelling personal presence of the Spirit of Jesus.

Doctrine of Omniscience

This happens in, for instance, biblical interpretation.  Often the living nature of the Spirit-breathed Word is replaced by a doctrine of God's omniscience in the original authorship of the Bible.  We have faith in God's omniscience - that He inspired the text thousands of years ago in such a way that it would speak to every generation.  This takes the place in our thinking of the Spirit as the Dei loquentis persona (God speaking in person).  Instead of the dynamic, contemporary ministry of the Spirit, our spotlight falls on an ancient omniscience.  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 assurance comes in the fellowship we enjoy with the Spirit.  An inward moral check is emphasized rather than the Spirit's inward testimony.


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?


7 thoughts on “Substitutes for the Spirit [Thawed out Thursday]

  1. Heather


    I really appreciate this post as it is a good reminder to one (namely, me) who tends to look for tangible "proof" of the Holy Spirit's presence.

    I've been known to panic over not having a big enough pile of "fruit" to indicate that the Spirit is at work in my life. And have often struggled with the temptation to fill up my head with "right doctrine" or look to morality as my reassurance.

    Perhaps one of your other categories encompasses my addition, but I would include "Ease of Existence" in your list. Whether or not we openly subscribe to the health and prosperity "gospel", it seems to have infected the thinking of many Westernized Christians on at least some level. When circumstances become unpleasant, we often wonder where God went--or what did we do to "deserve" it?

  2. Tom


    I'm sure (hope) that you would agree that good apologetics, used in evangelism is no example of spiritual poverty. Paul's evangelistic ministry made apologetics a central concern, if not the dominant missiological attitude.

    But I'd like to see a more detailed picture of how you see apologetics as a spirit quenching endeavour. Do you mean - in abuse, and inadequate use? So for example, leading someone into a conversation on W.L. Craig's Five Ways, rather than confronting them with the message of the gospel?

    Bit more detail please pal :) I want to hear every critique of apologetics out there, both to test my own life, and practice, but also to make sure that I understand what others are saying about apologetics.


  3. Heather

    I assumed the problem Glen was cautioning against was in a reliance on apologetics (or any of the other listed things) as a substitute for a vibrant, interactive relationship with Christ via the Holy Spirit.

    I think the danger is more in engaging in empty, lifeless religion, perhaps such as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13

  4. Glen

    ...says - that comes when we are suffering and insulted for Christ.

    (sorry accidentally hit submit halfway through)

    Hi Tom,

    I think pretty much every substitute on the list can be a very good thing when viewed as a *means* of the Spirit's work and in an explicitly Spirit-led context. For evangelism - the Spirit's work is promised in and through the Word. So to have Spirit-led apologetics would mean an 'apologetics' that is driven by the Scriptures (which has to be the kind of apologetics you're arguing for if you say it's Paul's "dominant missiological attitude").

    In which case - go for your life.

    You could read more of my stuff on apologetics here:

  5. Paul Blackham

    Apologetics is such a slippery and dangerous temptation.

    If we mean something like giving a good explanation of the person and work of Jesus when people want to know why we live as we do then that is a great thing. If we are sharing the Bible's testimony to Jesus, speaking of Him, explaining His teaching, sharing our new creation hopes... then we may trust in the Spirit and keep our eyes on Jesus.

    However, if we are trying to render the 'concept of god' as reasonable or if we are trying to 'demonstrate' that the Bible is the Word of God or if we are deploying philosophical arguments that never end up with 'ergo, Jesus is the glory of God, the eternal Son of the Father'... then we are obviously trusting in the flesh. Of course we want to believe that if only we work hard enough or organise well enough or develop the best campaign or get the new 'technique' then we don't really need to fast and pray, we don't need to follow Jesus in sheer dependence on the Spirit on the way to crucifixion. Yet, the truth is that when the apostle Peter spoke of giving an apologia, he did so in a letter that consistently argues that the glory comes after suffering, that we will be thought strange for the way we live, that we should be living such good lives that people ask us about Jesus.

    If I am never asked for the reason for the hope that is in me... then don't I need to repent, turn from my fleshly ways and turn towards Jesus, obeying Him rather than 'believing' in Him?

    [It's easy to 'believe' in Jesus... so long as I don't actually need to trust Him in the actual day-to-day business of life!]

    It is good to go back to Van Til. He is still a good therapy from apologetics, with that bracing Dutch Reformed confidence in the Living God. I find that if I put the name of Jesus in most of the places where Van Til speaks simply of 'God' then it does the business.

  6. Tom


    I describe apologetics as giving ‘a reasonable case’ and hold that this is a biblical view.

    Sometimes I put it like this: apologetics is a compassionate branch of Christian
    theology that seeks to:
     Engage with objections and questions
     Understand and relate to contemporary
     Think carefully and critically
     Proclaim biblical truth – not to be separated
    from proclamation
     Subvert or deconstruct, ideas or worldviews
    hostile to the gospel

    As you point out attempting to give "a reasonable case" can be trusting the flesh - this is a risk, but, I think that the continued and dogged example of the apostle Paul shows us that we still press on with the apologetic task of giving 'a reasonable, and rational case'.

    After all, we risk 'trusting the flesh' when we organise church services where people can hear God speaking to them through his word. There is much human activity, and we could trust in the latest techniques here too, but we press on - mindful of the dangers, but determined to do what we have been commanded to do.

    As you also say the apologetic must converge on the person of Christ. It shouldn't be about obscuring the gospel, or bothering someone with complexity for no reason, or indulging in idolatrous rationalism, or wimping out of communicating the gospel message. The apologist who tries to "make reasonable" the genuine mysteries of the gospel is clearly engaged in idolatory - let me say this clearly.

    Instead the apologist is charged with communicating and explaining the gospel message, so that its profundity is understood, not merely heard. I believe that apologetics which do not move towards the cross are unbiblical. I see apologetics/evangelism as inseparable.

    To your expressed concern about the danger of 'making reasonable' things which should not be made reasonable, I want to agree, somewhat cautiously.

    We can make a reasonable case, under God, without 'trusting in the flesh'.

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