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How do you know you have the Holy Spirit? The wording of the question is legitimate enough
because we find Paul and Peter using speech that implies that people “have” it [see Acts 2:38 and 19:2
and places like Galatians 3:14]. But we can use the same language as scripture but not have quite the
same stress in our speech. There is always the danger [especially in an acquisitive generation] of our seeing
the Spirit as a “possession”—something that’s “ours”—like a book or a nice chair or a fine painting [gifts
from friends, perhaps].
There is nothing like that in Scripture about God, who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Spirit.
We sometimes speak of “my” husband or wife or son but when we speak in this way about “our” families
or friends we don’t have “possession” in mind. We’re thinking more of a “relationship” and certainly there’s
no suggestion that we “own” anyone.
It’s perfectly legitimate to say, “We have friends” but we don’t mean that we have friends in the same way
that we “have a brain our head”. In one case we mean there is an actual functioning organ inside our head and
in the other we mean [something like] we are part of a relationship with some others that involves mutual warmth, admiration and devotion.
So far so good and none of the above is controversial.
When someone says, “I have the Holy Spirit” we hope he doesn’t mean [and we don’t think he does mean] that he “owns” the Holy Spirit. Most likely he means that the Holy Spirit is actually inside his body [and this is most often what people do mean—at least most people I speak to mean that]. That is, there was a time when he was not a follower of the Lord Jesus, he became a follower and at that moment the Holy Spirit, which was outside his body, entered his body and there remains.
There are texts that can be used to support that view of the matter. The more pointed ones are texts like 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19 and others, like Acts 2:38; 5:32, can reasonably be used in a less pointed manner to support that view. [“If we receive the Spirit he must ‘enter’ us, surely.”]
I’m aware of the texts but I’m not persuaded that they should be understood to say that the Holy Spirit actually takes up “bodily” residence in each Christian—that is, once he was “outside” and now he is “inside” their bodies. My own view, at present, is that this is temple imagery and that we should not press it beyond that. No more than we should press relational phrases that say we “dwell in God” or that we are “parts one of another”.
We are not permitted however to deny that in some true sense we have the Spirit and that he has been given to us. We are not to deny that the Spirit empowers us or comforts us for we are explicitly told these truths. Questions remain however. In what way do we have the Spirit? Who is it that has the Spirit? [Is it each Christian as a free-standing and independent person or is it each of us as mutual sharers of that “indwelling” of the one Spirit who indwells “the body of Christ”?]
You might be interested in reading the brief pieces in this section on the above questions.
But I’m more interested in right now in the opening question: “How do we know we have the Holy Spirit?”
I think it’s a bit like asking, “How do we know prayers are answered?”
We all have wonderful stories about much needed help arriving just in time, in response to prayer. The trouble with using these as proof of answered prayers is that non-believers have stories just as wonderful and some religious people for whom we have absolutely no respect they have stories even more wonderful. You must understand that I’m not denying that God answers prayer; I’m simply saying that to prove such a truth is another matter.
If, however, we saw or experienced an undoubted miracle [which is a self-evidencing act that someone with supernatural power has acted] in immediate response to prayer it would be a stubborn man or woman who would deny the implication. [But even that is possible, so the Bible tells us.] See John 11:11-44 as a single illustration of what I mean by miraculous "proof". Apart from the obviously miraculous, if a reasonable person needed proof that God’s answers prayers we’d have a hard time supplying it.
[It doesn’t help for deeply religious people to sneer at peoples’ doubts and act as though anyone with half a brain should know better. Impatience in these matters doesn’t become those who profess the Lord Jesus and much less does sneering.]
Moving on. How does one know that they have the Holy Spirit? Can we prove such a truth? Do Christians do things that are indisputable proof that they have the Holy Spirit?
There are those who say the miraculous gift of speaking languages unknown to oneself is an indispensable mark of one having the Holy Spirit. That has an appeal to it but it isn’t as simple as it appears and it certainly is not [as I recently heard someone say] “unarguably true”. [It’s a nice thing to be agreeable but if something isn’t true it isn’t true!] Some in that group would say you don’t have the Holy Spirit unless you speak in tongues. That clearly won’t work for numerous reasons but one of them is that Paul said not every Christian was so gifted [1 Corinthians 12:18, 27-30].
Additionally, it simply isn’t true that the NT gives “receiving the gift of languages” as a pattern when people are converted. In Acts 2 the apostles are not newly converted when they receive the gift of tongues so they shouldn’t be used as part of a pattern of “converts”. Acts 2:38-41 says nothing about “the gift of languages” for these new converts, nor do Acts 5:32; 8:15-17; 8:26-40; 16:25-34 and 18:8-11.
There are others difficulties too facing this claim [and I confess I haven’t them all worked out yet though they are there]. Jesus envisions some workers of miracles as unknown to him—that is, as no part of his faithful servants so viewing tongues or other miracles as “indisputable” marks of having the Holy Spirit is problematic [Matthew 7:22-23]. Then there’s that [in some ways] puzzling 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 which seems to say one can be completely equipped with miraculous power and yet loveless. Should we view the loveless as those who have the Holy Spirit when among the fruit of the Spirit is love [Galatians 5:22]? Then there was that rascal, Caiaphas who prophesied and yet crucified the Lord Jesus [John 11:49-51].
Then there's always the matter of our proving that we have the miraculous ability to speak foreign languages. All we hear today is talk about prayer languages that no one recognizes. The claim is made but since people recorded the sounds and demonstrated they weren't human languages "the gift of tongues" became private prayer languages or the tongues of angels. Poof goes the proof.
So how do we know we have the Holy Spirit? I recently heard someone say we’re not simply to take the word of God’s word for it because the Bible won’t settle for that. His entire aim in the message was to find indisputable proof that we have the Holy Spirit—he was looking for a sign. He settled on Galatians 5:22-23 as giving unarguable proof that we have the Holy Spirit—that is, if we are loving, patient, good, kind, joyful and meek people, this is the unarguable proof that we have the Holy Spirit.
Realizing that even in this awfully wicked world there are millions of people who live lives as virtuous as many Christians he felt the need to say something about non-Christians. He explicitly denied that non-Christians can be virtuous because they are “in the flesh” [that is, outside of the Lord Jesus and therefore incapable of being good and kind and long-suffering]—a very Reformed view—total depravity sort of thing. These millions he dismissed in a sentence. [This the Calvinist John Piper does with vigor except that he argues his case at some length.]
But does the preacher who dismissed these non-Christians as incapable of virtue treat the Wal-Mart check-out lady as if she is totally depraved and incapable of patience or kindness? Does he speak that way of a non-Christian teacher who might teach his children? You can be sure that he thanks hosts of non-Christians for their kindness and gentleness and patience and such. It’s only in the pulpit we say such things because we must—they go along with the direction of our sermon and we must be consistent, you see.
Paul assures us in Galatians 5 that if we live in shameless immorality, claiming it is what the Spirit has given us the freedom in the Lord Jesus to do, we are blind. He insists that the Spirit would not produce such a lifestyle. The fruit he produces is [not exhaustively] laid out in 5:22-23. But it isn’t Paul’s point to say that the existence of virtues is the unarguable proof that the Holy Spirit indwells us [or that, as a consequence, we are part of the “body of Christ”].
Does the Holy Spirit produce the “virtues” named in Galatians 5:22-23? Of course he does and he will lead us to do no evil! Are these “virtues” unarguable proof that we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us? No, they’re not because God works in the lives of non-Christians as surely as in Christians [Cornelius is a classic proof of that]. Bless me, we don't even have unarguable proof that God exists why would we think we had indisputable proof that he is dwelling in us?
[It’s at this point we need to consider just what is distinctively Christian about a Christian.]
If you have indeed in trusting repentance been baptized into the Lord Jesus, take God’s word for it that you are part of his Body in which he dwells by his Holy Spirit. Let others look for unarguable signs and proof and simply enjoy the gift of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit who does work in us [among other things] to bring into being in us Christ-imaging righteousness and moral beauty.
If you would care to engage me on this, please do.
[To be continued, God enabling]