REVIEW



"THE HOLY SPIRIT"

THE activity of God by His Spirit is a wonderful theme. It embraces His creative work in the beginning. His sustaining power ever since, and above all His activity for the redemption of His saints, from ancient times to the present day. It is a work which affects our lives, as followers of Christ in these latter days, and so must be of intense interest to us. By its very nature, however, the Holy Spirit is bound to be difficult to write about. Clearly anyone undertaking the task must discipline his thought and expression so that they agree with me only clear revelation we have on the subject, the Word of God itself. By that standard alone must this 75 page booklet by Brother Edgar Wille be judged.
 
 

Refreshing Reminders

The author has many refreshing things to say. He warns us against the dangers of reading the Bible in a "sterile" way, of looking at God's revelation in Christ as if it were purely of historical interest, of regarding the risen Lord in heaven as if he were an "absentee landlord", of relying upon our own works for our justification, of failing to take seriously the promise that Jesus would dwell with those who abide in him and to grasp what God is prepared to do for us by His Spirit. All these points are good and sound; it is unfortunate, however, that the author frequently makes them with an exaggeration which throws his treatment of this exalted theme out of true Biblical balance.
 
 

He calls his booklet "An Exploratory Survey of Scripture Teaching"; it is rather a piece of special pleading for & particular way of understanding the activity of the Holy Spirit in the saints.
 
 

The Significance of Pentecost

He begins with Pentecost (Acts 2), and indeed his interpretation of the events of that day in Jerusalem when the assembled disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit and went forth to preach to the multitudes, dominates the whole of his exposition. "Jesus had in effect said (to the disciples) '...Don't begin your witness until I come unto you in a new form and endow you with an inner witness'... Their mission could not begin... until they had a new experience and a unique participation in Christ". "Jesus was in their midst, giving them an experience of him and an inner conviction of his presence." The "experience" also affected the multitude; "You have felt (Jesus) in your midst", Peter is represented as saying in effect (p. 6). "Not only was he in their midst, but also in their hearts convicting them of sin". As soon as Peter had finished speaking, "this inner conviction wrought, by the Holy Spirit caused them to be 'cut to the heart',". "Conversion is a revelation of Christ which he gives, us as he gave the early church on the day of Pentecost" (p; 7). "The significance of Pentecost -... the gift of ability to witness and the inner witness which convicted multitudes of sin... this dynamic power from the Lord Jesus" (p. 32). So was ushered in "the age of the Spirit".
 
 

But a careful reading of Acts leads to a different understanding. . The disciples had been promised "power from on high", which came accompanied by cloven tongues of fire, and the power to witness in other languages than their own. The assembled multitude were "pricked in their heart", (their mind, conscience) by Peter's revelation that Jesus of Nazareth had really been their Messiah, that God had demonstrated it by raising him from the dead, and yet they were the ones who had actually crucified him (twice asserted, 2:23, 36). It was this dreadful realisation that they had actually put to, death their own Messiah which affected their hearts. It is only, after this that Peter, upon their earnest cry, "What shall we do?", tells them to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins, and then God would grant them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The witness for them and in them would come afterwards-it was not the cause of their repentance.
 
 

The Baptism of Jesus

The same misrepresentation of the Spirit's activity appears in the author's account of the baptism of Jesus. "Something new and different happened when the Holy Spirit, took up residence in him by Jordan's waters" (p: 15). "The baptism of the Spirit was the breaking in of the Spirit upon the Son... Christ is now 'another man', able to go forward "and grapple with the tempter's power" (p. 16). "In his baptism of the Holy Spirit lay the power to realise his divine Sonship, to lay his spell on those who should come to him" (p. 17). But Jesus was by this time 30 years old. What had he been doing in, say, the previous ten years? Must he not already have "realised" his "divine Sonship"? Surely, for he bad already grown sufficiently in grace and divine wisdom deliberately to undertake his great ministry knowing what the end of it would mean for him; he was already the kind of "man" God needed. In what significant sense then could he at his baptism have "become another man"? The author's interpretation is a misrepresentation of the record of the Gospels, where the "descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus in dove form at his baptism was a witness, first to himself and then through John the Baptist to the multitude (John 1: 32-34), that he was "my beloved: Son, in whom I am well pleased"; and it was a grant to him of special equipment for his work.
 
 

Interpretation

The writer of these lines has spent many hours carefully studying this booklet, and feels as a result that to follow in this review the author through his frequently repetitious comments on the documents of the New Testament would be a long and frankly trying task, because so many of them are interpretations based upon his view of the manifestation of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost. The author sees, for example, the indwelling Christ active everywhere in the events described in the Acts of the Apostles. As a careful reading of Acts shows, however, the activity of the Holy Spirit appears in direct interventions (Paul on the way to Damascus, Cornelius, etc.), by explicit messages through visions or in some unexplained way, and in the Apostles' "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"; Christ is indeed directing the progress of the Gospel, but the thought of his indwelling in the believers hardly appears in the book at all. It is the same with the author's treatment of the book of Revelation. His long treatment of the Epistles reveals many Scriptural expressions pressed into the service of his theme in a manner which their context and plain sense do not justify. It is better to turn to consider some of the more general implications of his thesis.
 
 

Pentecost for every Believer?

In Acts Pentecost was a corporate experience in which the power of the Spirit came upon the assembled apostles for the foundation of the church, and not upon them as individuals. The author, however, applies the term Pentecost to the experience of all believers in a way which the Scriptures do not; "Every believer has his Pentecost and only through it can he enter fully into the full persuasion and inner experience of the Lord's death and resurrection" (p. 35). Hence his great emphasis is upon "experience": "Christianity is an experience, not a philosophy or a theology.." (p. 7) "The Spirit of truth, the Comforter, would draw from the things of Christ and make them known in the inner experience of believers" (p. 22). He quotes an unnamed writer who, reviewing passages where the saints are said to suffer, die, be raised and quickened in Christ, adds; "These passages.. show that the relationship described is one of mystical fellowship in Christ" (p. 29). (This quotation with approval of the vague, unscriptural expression "mystical fellowship" is, to say the least, unwise). "No mere intellectual pursuit could bring (a Christian) to recognise Jesus as Lord; it is a divine act that creates the realization in the mind and heart of man and brings about the consequent commitment. The written Word (etc...) are media through which the Spirit works, but the Spirit is the creator of the conviction." (p. 41).
 
 

There is the risk of misunderstanding the author here in the way things are said, yet it should be pointed out that the Scriptural emphasis places the believer's "experience" in a different order. Christianity is indeed more than "a theology"; but properly theology is the study of God, and the believer needs to learn of Him through His word, to appreciate divine righteousness and human sin, to grasp the hope of the Gospel of grace, and to humble his heart in repentance, "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor (humble), and of a contrite spirit (repentant), and that trembleth at my word" is surely just as true of New Testament times as it was of Israel. With such a man God can cooperate by His Spirit, can indeed come and "dwell with him". Then the believer's "experience" can be rich indeed; but it does not precede the understanding, it follows it, and it is its "fruit".
 
 

Experience

So the author's emphasis upon "experience" leads him to lay insufficient stress upon the believer's need to understand God's revelation and its teaching. The believers "share the fellowship of the Father and the Son" (p. 31). True; but upon what basis? That expressed by Jesus in John 17 runs like this: "They have kept thy wordÖ the words which thou gavest me I have given unto them... Sanctify them in thy truth; thy word is truth ... I made known unto them thy name", with all that implies in understanding of the character of God and His redemption in Jesus. It is against such a background that we must understand "... they may be one... thou in me ... I in thee... they may be one in us". It is an identity of name and word and truth, the work of the Spirit, but not of a "mystical indwelling" of Christ,
 
 

The Words of the Spirit

The author's view of the understanding of those who do not agree with his thesis is often expressed in crude terms. "Christ is not only in a written record" (p. 24); believing the Gospel is not "mere objective, intellectual reasoning" and believers are not "slaves blindly obeying" some form of "legalism" (p. 27). "More than black words on white paper are needed" (p. 28), The conversion of the Thessalonians involved "something more than the appeal of mere words to the intellect" (p. 60), and our view of the activity of the Holy Spirit in New Testament times must not be that it produced "complete wonder working... men and women reduced to mere automatons" (p. 31). Such descriptions are almost a caricature of the understanding of the Truth found in the majority of our community, and they certainly do not form the only alternative to the author's thesis. It is true that we come to know God and His Son firstly through words printed in a book-but what words! They are the words of the Spirit and as such they have "dynamic power" (to use Brother John Carter's phrase) sufficient to enable the believer to draw near to God. When the mind is prepared by intimate contact with the "sacred Scriptures, inspired of God, profitable for... instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete" (2 Tim. 3: 16-17, RV), then God will surely add, according to His promise what blessing is needed and appropriate, and He will do it by His Spirit.
 
 

"This receiving of the new life of the Spirit", writes the author, "was not possible till after Jesus was glorified" (p. 21), Only when Jesus was risen and ascended "could he fully perform the work of re-creating men and women" (p. 19). This is "the divine initiative in the recreation of men and women" presented in the New Testament as "the truth, and reality, in contrast with the racial, legal and material shadows which had preceded it" (p. 20) He quotes, evidently with approval, an unnamed writer: "The Spirit was in John the Baptist as it was in the ancient psalmists and prophets, and not as it afterwards dwelt in the apostles ... not as it now dwells in all believers" (p. 14), These expressions imply that the spiritual life of the faithful under the old covenant was seriously inferior to that of the believers today, for it was not possible for them to be "re-created" with "the new life of the Spirit" before Christ had risen from the dead; and they much reduce the power of prayers like David's "Create in me a clean heart, O God."
 
 

The Spirit of the Old Testament

But what are we to make of statements like these: "The old covenant did not provide for forgiveness of sins, only cleansing from ceremonial defilements . . . the new one would provide for forgiveness of sins and would restore them to fellowship with God" (p. 50). "The inner work of the new covenant is superior to the merely outward ministry of Law, with its absence of real forgiveness" (p. 70). It is difficult to believe that the author intends us to take these statements literally, for to do so would mean that when David repented of his sin, "I acknowledged my sin unto thee... and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Psa. 32:5), he was mistaken, and that when he prayed, "Cleanse me from my sin ... Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation" (Psa. 51:2, 12), he was not being restored to fellowship with God at all. The fact, however, that the author can use such expressions suggests a confusion of thought between the forgiveness of the individual and the ultimate atonement for sin in Christ, and indicates a serious failure to appreciate the Spirit of the Old Testament and the continuity of spiritual experience from the faithful before Christ to the believers in him after his resurrection.
 
 

The author is right to be critical of that attitude which relies upon "works" for salvation, and equally right to insist upon the reality of the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ. But the strength of his condemnation leads him into unbalanced expressions. The Epistles are "continually saying that I must surrender my own efforts to be righteous, stop trying and start trusting". Our sad story of failure springs from an inability to believe fully in the indwelling Spirit and consequent failure, to let the Spirit take over the running of our lives" (p. 50). "All a man has to do is to believe, have faith, trust that he has been included in Christ, then his sins are forgiven-he is justified by faith" (p. 53). "Our bodies are to be yielded to Christ, so that he may work his righteous will through them. He uses us as his instruments ... Our behaviour is not our own, but another is using us... The very use of 'yield' in Romans 6 suggests that we are mastered by a power greater than ourselves, far greater than our own resolution could be" (p. 54). "We get... gospel blessings, not by doing something, but by believing" (p. 59).
 
 

Grace--and Action

That these expressions are really half-truths is revealed by a careful reading of the New Testament Epistles. The Apostles vigorously teach that our salvation is not by our works, and that our forgiveness is through God's grace and not our merit, yet they are constantly exhorting the faithful to action. Those who inherit eternal life, says Paul, do it "by patient continuance in well-doing" (Rom. 2:7). To the Galatians: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (note the onus placed upon us by that "let us", and the practical nature of "walk", the regular Scriptural expression for conduct, manner of life). To the Colossians: "Mortify therefore your members..." (3:12). To the Thessalonians: "Abstain from every form of evil" (1, 5: 22); and of course his, "work out your own salvation..." (Phil. 2:12). The author's preference for Phillips' translation of this last quotation, "Work Out the salvation that God has given you", where for once he abandons the NEB, indicates the difficulty he finds in giving Paul's "Work out your own salvation" any real weight. And his preference for "experience" rather than "action" emerges in his choice of the NEB version of Paul's "As ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him", which reads,"... live your lives in union with him". In the counsel of the Apostles there is a marvellous balance between faith, spiritual understanding and love on the one hand, and the need to direct our lives into right ways and to avoid evil practices on the other. It is a balance which the author's booklet fails to express.
 
 

In his concluding chapter the author writes; "This book ... has aimed simply to stir believers to a greater awareness of the work in their lives, both as individuals and as a community, of the living God and the risen Jesus, which work is said consistently in the New Testament to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit". With this aim all sincere believers will have great sympathy. It is a matter of regret that the author's exposition appears to place the emphasis on a power that "does something to you", rather than on a power which works in proportion to our "intelligent and affectionate response" (Dr. Thomas) to what God has revealed to us and done for us. That same power, incidentally, can cleanse and destroy, according, to a man's relationship with God...
 
 

In his last chapter the author provides us with a practical piece of advice: "Instead of introducing prospective enquiries (he means in a search for certainty, etc.) we should concentrate on our part of the partnership, working out our own salvation in fear and trembling" (p. 73). Amen to that. We may safely trust God and the Lord Jesus to carry out what they have promised, though we may not feel we understand just how they will do it. If the Apostle says that we can be "strengthened with power through (God's) Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith" (Eph. 3: 16), then we ought wholeheartedly to believe him and rejoice in the privilege*. Let us then address ourselves to what we can do; work out our own salvation in reverent submission to the will of God as He has revealed it to us in His Word, confident that He will work in us what His infinite goodness wills to accomplish.
 
 

FRED PEARCE

The Christadelphian - 1976 pages 13 - 15
 
 

* See The Spirit A general Exposition (p. C:189-191) for a more accurate exposition of this passage.