According to Jesus, the Spirit really does influence humans and their behavior. As he explained to Nicodemus, pneuma “influences” pneuma (John 3: 6). The Greek pneuma is used in English to mean wind or air, as in pneumatic tools that work with high air pressure. In context, it is clear that Jesus was talking about how the Holy Spirit influences human spirits.
This simple proposition raises some profound questions. Can the supernatural intervene in the natural? This is a clumsy way to say ask whether “miracles” really happen. Take the definition of a miracle as an event for which there is no natural explanation. Can God make changes in the human body and brain that are beyond explanation by medical and brain sciences? Does God still do miracles today as he did in Bible times? I will pursue that in the next blog.
Right now, concentrate on the verb “influence.” In Greek, it is a long and difficult verb. Its primary meaning is to “beget,” as in Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob and so on down to a different Jacob who was the father of Joseph, who was the father of Jesus, who is called Christ. (Matthew 1:2-16). The second definition “to influence” makes more sense here. It is offered by the definitive Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. This verb describes the influence of one person on another, as the influence of a teacher on pupils. Thus, the Holy Spirit influences human spirits.
Later, on the Thursday before Passover and his crucifixion. Jesus explained to his disciples, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. . . I will not leave you as orphans. . . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14: 26, 18, 27).
Some twenty to thirty years later, the Apostle Paul of Tarsus explained how the Spirit works in the lives of believers in his 169 references to the Spirit in his letters to churches he planted and oversaw.
In the centuries of institutionalized Christian churches (from the fourth century to now), church leaders lost Paul’s perspective. It is organizationally difficult to accommodate the Spirit, who “like the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). In the 20th century, some of that understanding re-appeared in the movement now known as Pentecostal. Overall, my goal is to explain how this free-roaming Spirit can be understood in the context of classical Christian and Protestant theology. Ultimately the basic issue is how Christian church leaders can develop Spirit-shaped ministries.
Bible scholars have long known that God’s grace is a central theme in Paul’s writing. But the role of the Spirit is even more central. In Paul’s thinking, you can’t have one without the other. We love Paul’s explanation to the Ephesians: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
But at least Lutherans don’t know what to do with the next verse: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Not being saved by good works does not mean we no longer need to do good works. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the first half without the second “cheap grace.” Christ’s Spirit provides the link. The Spirit influences believers so that our motivation is changed. His work in our hearts turns “have to do” into “want to do.” Moved by the Spirit, we will want to become more like Christ, “reaching to the heights of his full stature” (Ephesians 4:13).
My blogs are my attempt to interpret these two central themes of Paul—Grace and Spirit—so that Christian church leaders can develop more Spirit-shaped and Grace-focused ministries.
Has your personality changed over the years? Are you experiencing more fruit produced by the Spirit, like love, joy, and peace? What can you do to have the Spirit influence your spirit?