Through the centuries the Church’s perception of the Holy Spirit has often been overstated or understated.
The Montanists, for instance, stirred a strong reaction by their claims of immediate Spirit-direction. And centuries later Joachim of Fiore mistakenly posited a new Age of the Spirit to displace the presumed passing of the ages of the Father and the Son. Many followed his lead, to the growing concern of church leaders.
The 17th century Puritans were then equally errant—in the face of cultic Spirit groups like the Familists—by reducing the Spirit’s role to the invisible “doctrine of means”: holding that he only works indirectly, through “means of grace” such as preaching, praying, Bible reading, and the like.
So what is the proper place of the Spirit in the Church for today?
The answer, of course, is: Whatever God wants it to be. And he gives us some clear indications in the Bible. The book of Acts, for instance, tells us how the Spirit was the overt director of early Church growth. His activism was powerful and pervasive.
Yet there are arguable hesitations in treating all the descriptions in Acts of the Spirit’s activism as normative for today. So in asking how the Spirit means to minister today, especially given the historic cycle of abuses-and-suppressive reactions, we look for guidance from the Bible.
And the New Testament epistles offer as much as we need to know about the Spirit’s work. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for instance, we have crucial coaching on the Spirit’s role in forming faith. Paul’s Spirit-rich ministry was described in Acts; then in Romans Paul presents the Spirit’s work with special care. So let’s go there.
In an overview reading of Romans we find what might be called Spirit-bursts among longer stretches of relative silence. The epistle starts with a reference to the Spirit in Paul’s introductory remarks. Following that are one-off references in 2:29, 5:5, and 7:6. Chapter 8 then explodes with 21 references—the greatest concentration in the Bible—followed by notices in 9:1, 11:8, 12:11, and 14:17. And, finally, there Paul ends with a micro-burst of 4 references in chapter 15.
References to the Father and the Son, by comparison, are much more common and evenly distributed. And that raises a question: is the Spirit’s role diminished by Paul’s relatively localized references?
No. The same pattern is found in the Gospels and elsewhere in Scripture. John, for one, has his own major Spirit discussions in chapters 3 and 14-16. Even the Old Testament has concentrations as in Isaiah 63 and Ezekiel 36-37.
Reasons for this pattern grow out of the Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.