Still seeking a convincing answer… insights welcome

A few weeks ago I posted here regarding a conundrum relating to regeneration, salvation and Old Testament believers. 

In his farewell message to his disciples, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. He states “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Unless Jesus is making an arbitrary distinction, there must be some difference between the current state of affairs and the Spirit’s coming. In other words, the Spirit cannot simply have been present with the disciples prior to Jesus’ ascension with no actual difference between the two states.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel (36:24-28) stated:

“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Ezekiel sees a time in the future when God will put his Spirit in the hearts of his people. Again, unless Ezekiel is making an arbitrary distinction, it seems clear this Spirit is not currently in the hearts of God’s people and there will be a notable difference when this occurs.

To restate the problem briefly, if the Spirit is required in the work of regeneration and this precedes repentance in the ordo salutis, how did believers come to repentance prior to Christ’s ascension when the Spirit was not present in their hearts?

The best answer I have achieved can be found in the final paragraph here. I am essentially trying to avoid two horns of a dilemma: (a) on the one hand, arguing repentance is not entirely a work initiated by God whilst; (b) on the other, claiming that Ezekiel, and Jesus in particular, were somehow making an arbitrary distinction relating to the Spirit’s coming.

I would really value some comments on this as I have yet to reach a satisfactory answer. 

2 comments

  1. I think the distinction is between the spirit being given for particular people at particular times for a particular purpose in the old testament – eg. Bezalel, gideon, samson list goes on 'spirit was on them' and as you rightly point out God's desire to pour out his spirit on all people (Joel) and put a new heart within them (Ezekiel). This outpouring very clearly begins on the day of Pentecost and is very clearly distinct from all that has gone before – i think before only a few good experience the in filling of Gods presence and power, and maybe even then it was in a different way. I don't think its about how you experience salvation. Clearly people could identify Jesus as messiah and believe in him before the day of Pentecost, and in acts we see believers who then receive the holy spirit. Your question was primarily about salvation but i think its coming down to whether there is a distinction between God's ability to influence hearts and minds (by his spirit) and God's desire to create people experiencing the presence of his spirit drenching them as a separate thing. Peter sees that Jesus is the Christ and Jesus says that is because his father in heaven has revealed it to him, the Peter who then has a dramatic encounter with Gods spirit on the day of Pentecost is then a separate issue not just restricted to the question of salvation. In the OT they achieve their salvation through faith, though they do not know the means, and it is credited to them, but they do not get to know the Holy Spirit the way we do. And perhaps if that is not clear in many churches, if it looks just like knowing God in the old testament, maybe that is because the teaching on the Holy Spirit isn't in line with what God has done.

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  2. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your comments. Certainly some helpful things in there.

    I think we must be careful about suggesting “the distinction is between the spirit being given for particular people at particular times for a particular purpose in the old testament”. This is the very Dispensationalism we are trying to avoid!

    Scripture is clear that salvation was (a) always by faith and, (b) never limited to the Jews alone. Paul says “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9:7f) and the OT is replete with non-Jews coming to faith (Rahab, Ruth, Nebuchadnezzar, Naaman, etc). In the case of Nebuchadnezzar specifically, here we have a nation used as a judgment against the Jews becoming a light to other nations at a time when Israel were spiritually nowhere. So, faith was always the means of salvation and this always extended beyond a “particular people”.

    You seem to be emphasising the manifestations of the Spirit and bring Joel to boot in your comment. On this, you are right that Pentecost marks the first point in salvation-history where Joel’s prophecy takes hold. However, I specifically didn’t refer to Joel because he is dealing with an altogether different issue that is not really pertinent to the question (though not entirely unrelated).

    Ezekiel, on the other hand, envisages a time at which God’s Spirit will be placed into the hearts of believers, the fruit of which is an ability to keep God’s law as we ought. Unless Ezekiel is wrong, or making an arbitrary distinction, this must mean that God’s Spirit was not in the hearts of believers (at the time of writing) and they were not able to keep God’s law as they ought. This seems to be directly related to the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

    Paul makes clear that saving faith is the result of the regenerating work of the Spirit in our hearts. So, the question follows, how were believers previously saved if the Spirit did not dwell in their hearts? It may appear either Ezekiel is wrong (the Spirit already dwelt in hearts despite his statement to the contrary) or, Paul is wrong (the regenerating work of the Spirit is not always necessary for salvation (cf. Rom 8:9ff). Of course, the truth is there must be some answer that unifies both.

    I’m hoping my next post will illuminate some of these issues (I am just waiting for appropriate permissions) but I think I have a tentative answer.

    Briefly, I think the on/in distinction between covenants is significant and Paul’s comment could easily apply to the Spirit ‘on’ those in the OT just as it applies to the Spirit ‘in’ those in the NT. The distinguishing feature between the on/in would appear to be (a) the ongoing process of sanctification prior to glorification (Rom 8:26) and; (b) the inner testifying witness of the Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5; 8:16) both of which accord with Ezekiel’s view of the differences between these two covenantal states.

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