The Holy Spirit’s Old Testament Problem
Among churches of Christ the prevailing view of the work of the Spirit in Christians is that the Holy Spirit is provided to us as God’s gift at our baptism. Our possession of the Spirit is the seal of our faith, the guarantee of our inheritance, and often, considered to be the empowering influence of our faithfulness.
Central to this understanding is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the exclusive blessing of Christians. No one outside of Christ has it. And critically, no one before the glorification of Jesus ever received this blessing: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).
This position creates a significant problem once it attempts to describe the specific blessings the Spirit’s presence provides the Christian. The difficulty resides in fact that it is definitionally impossible for any saint of God before Acts 2 to receive the indwelling’s benefit from the Holy Spirit’s presence. If the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the seal of the Christian, then no Old Testament Jew ever experienced it. So then when proponents of the current understanding of the Spirit’s blessings describe any benefit gifted by the Spirit, they necessarily exclude that benefit from Old Testament saints. This creates a great conflict with the Old Testament as it describes the faithfulness of the Old Testament saints.
For example, it is common to hear preachers assert that the Holy Spirit’s presence is integral in our avoiding sin. Increasingly, our ability to avoid temptation is linked to (and sometimes given over to) the Spirit’s power working in us. If that is the case, every Old Testament saint’s struggle against sin becomes questionable. How was Daniel strengthened in the Lion’s Den without the Holy Spirit? How did three Hebrew young men with no help from the indwelling Spirit walk so confidently into a flame-filled furnace? We could compile an unending list of Jewish saints who served God and avoided sin daily all without the Spirit’s indwelling. By modern teachings, this should not be possible (or at least practical). If the Spirit’s help is needed for us to avoid sin, then He was needed for them to avoid sin as well. Yet, no one can hold to the modern view of the Spirit’s work and at the same time hold that the Spirit was present in the lives of the ancient saints.
This is no small problem. If one action, influence, leading, nudging, or direction of the Spirit is essential in our salvation today, then that influence’s absence should condemn every Old Testament saint. If a human’s ability to live a faithful life before God requires the presence of the Spirit, then no human can be saved without that presence. And since no Old Testament saint had that presence, if modern preachers are correct, no Old Testament saint was ever saved. Yet, if you have any doubts about salvation before the coming of the Spirit, just check Hebrews 11.
However, if the Spirit’s work in our lives is not essential to our salvation (which would account for the salvation of the ancient saints), then His benefit to us exists only of the margins of our faith (at best). His presence is supplemental, not essential. Relegating, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – the seal and guarantee of our faith – to a peripheral role seems inconsistent with a blessing so central to early gospel as the gift of the Spirit.
There must be an understanding of this great gift which allows it to be integral to the early gospel without calling into question the salvation of Old Testament saints.