The Spirit as God’s Love – 3 of 7

This third discussion of Affective Theology features the Spirit’s heart-changing love. He offers God’s presence through Spirit-to-spirit companionship that begins with a “born again” encounter that restores the life Adam lost in Eden. It is “the Spirit who gives life” (John 3:6 & 6:63). This new birth is parallel to physical birth as a constituting reality of a person. Yet physical life is possible—as it was in the fallen Adam—without any participation in God’s life. And the aim of the Bible is to restore and expand Adam’s original creation communion with God.

New birth—regeneration—is experienced in the Spirit’s felt presence when he awakens a soul to God’s love. He then continues to influence, without overriding, the soul’s dispositions as he stirs new desires. God’s “low whisper” to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12, or Paul’s promise of heart-based illumination in Ephesians 1:17-20, speak of this new awareness. The main feature of his presence is his steady assurance of God’s unceasing care. Nonbelievers, by contrast, are utterly unaware of his work—apart from times when he confronts or “convicts” hearts about their sinful disaffection. It’s fair to assume every soul will have been stirred by him one or more times.

But first, some history. The Church-at-large has always wrestled with understanding the Spirit. The Nicene Creed of 325, for instance, affirmed key features that “we believe” about the Father and Son, but then ended softly with “and in the Holy Ghost.” In 381 the Council of Constantinople added more creedal content. But no council was devoted strictly to the Spirit’s role. And that left room for mischief that has since followed.

The Bible regularly elevates the Spirit. The Old Testament offered snapshots of him, and also made promises in Ezekiel and Jeremiah of a new role in times to come. Later on, with the New Testament writings and Acts in particular, this new role emerged. But in history his status in the Church has oscillated between virtual dismissal in some communities and dramatic excesses in others. Both extremes are spiritual cul-de-sacs. The witness of Jesus, and Bible boundaries set out by the apostles, make this clear: the Spirit focuses on Christ and not on himself (John 15:26)

Jesus, as he prepared to return to the Father, outlined the Spirit’s new role in John 14:16-17. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” The Spirit had “come upon” Jesus to launch his ministry, and when Jesus ascended to heaven the Spirit then “came upon” the church in Jerusalem so that the Spirit now offers spiritual continuity from Jesus until today.

In 1 Corinthians 2 the analogy of a deeper spiritual reality—certainly aligned with Paul’s use of “spirit,” “inner person,” and “heart”—starts with the Spirit disclosing and applying the Triune bond of loving unity. “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?” (verses 10-11). This explains every believer’s access to a dynamic Spirit-to-spirit communion as those who “love God.” With the added certainty that, “we have the mind of Christ” (verse 16).

As another reminder, the Trinity does not exist as two human-like beings of Father and Son, with a third “It.” Instead the one God exists with three mutually engaged— “interpenetrating”—distinctions. Each one brings distinct features of mutual conversation and concerns. It’s helpful, for instance, to recall the Spirit’s clear relational qualities. He “drove” Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). And in relations he can be grieved or quenched. Jesus also warned that dismissing the Spirit’s active ministry is the greatest of sins (Mark 3:28).

As he relates to us what stands out is the Spirit’s bonding love. This selfless, mutual love actively unites all those he engages into caring, heartfelt fellowship—similar to the coordinating neural features of a body (in Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12-14). This formative love is evident as he binds believers to become one in a Spirit-to-spirit unity. This represents the inclusive participation of all true believers in God’s life—his Body—with Jesus as its head.

The Spirit’s motivating presence, once again, is his love. This is the motor of Affective Theology as rooted in the Trinity. Augustine saw this clearly as he described the Trinity. The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Spirit is the Love between them. The Church, in turn, reflects this Spirit-accomplished communion. Augustine constantly repeated Romans 5:5 as the key verse on how faith works. In every believer, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” So, faith is an ongoing response to this love.

We also find the Spirit’s ministry emphasized in 1 John 4 with love elevated as the distinct feature of authentic faith. The Spirit is the change-agent here— “we know we abide in him [in Christ] because he has given us of his Spirit” …. And “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God” (verses 13 & 15). This, in turn, sets up the singular path of spiritual motivations: “We love because he first loved us” (19). And never the other way round.

Here John was certainly echoing what Jesus said in John 14:23— “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” This, as the context makes clear, is achieved by the Spirit, and this sharing featured what Jesus offered the apostles and later Christians (in John 17:20). The Son, alone, shares a human life. As such the Spirit draws from the Son to inform the Church— “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (verse 26). This included the Spirit’s supervision of the writing of the New Testament, and also ensured God’s continued Bible communion with us.

In Romans Paul elevated God’s ambition to commune with all who respond in faith to his love. In chapter eight he cited the Spirit’s ministry of introducing God to believers as “Abba! Father!” He also turns a believer’s inarticulate efforts to speak to God into “groanings too deep for words.” And the Spirit’s love cited in Romans 5:5 reaches a crescendo in 8:37-39— “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Spirit still pours God’s love out in believer’s hearts today.

Another summary of the Spirit’s affective work in lives is the believer’s transformation “from glory to glory” in 2 Corinthians 3:18. What Moses once had as the fading experience of a fluorescing face after being in God’s presence, we all have as believers, with God-the-Spirit dwelling in us, as an ever-increasing inward glory.

All of this may seem to promise more than most Christians actually experience, and for all of us there is room to grow. Yet there is another boundary to remember. In the Bible the Spirit only uses ecstatic stirrings on rare occasions—as in Saul’s Old Testament bouts of prophesying. The main model of Spirit-to-spirit life is seen in Paul’s invitation for us to “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” The change, in other words, comes in steady and well-focused love—with reshaped desires and values—rather than exotic or self-elevating experiences. Then the world recognizes true disciples by their mutual love (John 13:35).

In our next entry we explore the role of the Bible as God’s tangible and surprising “love letter.”

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2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Gale

    Thanks so much for this week’s article Ron. After many years of Bible reading I now see how it is a major platform the Spirit uses to expand and continue the believers communion with God.

    Looking back I see more clearly how my initial repentance toward God was more birthed out of a selfish desire in regards to what God can do for me. Similar to the prodical son of Luke 15, who thought by returning to his Father as a hired servant would improve his circumstances from that of feeding pigs.

    Similar again to the repentance of Pharaoh in the Exodus account, a superficial declaration of his sin against God, from a motive that the plagues would cease, but was soon exposed as a hard heartedness toward God when he returned to his old ways when the plagues were lifted.

    We later see the people of Israel display a worldly sorrow in their selfish mourning after grumbling against the LORD, that disqualified them from entering the promised land, despite them having seen his glory and his signs with which he had led them out of slavery, (Ex.14:20-45). Their repentance was a response to the loss of what they could have had, and not for despising the LORD himself.

    Like in these accounts, my initial repentance was based in what God can do for me to improve my circumstances in the moment, and nothing to do with the long game of allowing the Spirit to transform me by the glory of Gods presence through the shinning of his glory into my heart in the face of his Son, as he leads me in communion with God through Bible reading.

    Despite my faithlessness, God has remained faithful. As with the prodical of Luke 15, the Spirit of God revealed the compassionate heart of our Father God through the Bible’s text. It was the
    Spirit’s felt presence when he awakened my soul to God’s love, presenting him as a loving Father, running out to meet me while I was a long off with embrace and a kiss. The meekness and humility Jesus displayed is an exact representation of who his Father is, and that created a response of love toward God in me, because of his dynamic and counter-religous expression of his love for me. This is not who I thought God was!

    My relationship with God is so different now. Each morning I know I need him to do it for me. I enter into the long game of participation with him, and open my Bible with a cup of coffee and allow him to change me in his time as his Spirit reveals more of his Son to me. It is by looking to Jesus that new desires for God are stirred in my heart, that his presence brings through the steady assurance of God’s unceasing care. The Spirit brings little attention to himself during this time of communion, but influences the gaze of my heart to be aware of the heart changing presence of Jesus in the text.

    For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
    (John 6:40)

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks so much for your story here, Jonathan! You and Hollie have taken the Lord’s call to “taste and see” his goodness in ways that bless and encourage me deeply. I pray that others will respond to the Father’s love offered in Jesus, witnessed by the Spirit, and unveiled in the Word in similar ways. Again, thank you for sharing.

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