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The Empowering Spirit

2009 February 10
by Mike

I heard this consistent message growing up: that God’s Spirit dwells in us only through the Word of scripture.

I don’t know if that bizarre teaching was a reaction against excesses of Pentecostalism . . . or a religious expression of rationalism and modernism (ironically!) . . . or just a fundamental misunderstanding of scripture.

But the more I’ve studied (especially) Paul’s letters, the more I wondered how we got that one so wrong. Paul stakes his gospel on the gracious sending of the Father: the sending of the Son who lived faithfully and died for us and the sending of the Spirit to shape cruciform lives in the followers of the Son — lives of faithfulness and love.

Yes, there are specific passages that make the old “word only” position impossible. But it’s more than that: it’s that the whole undergirding narrative of Paul depends on the indwelling and empowering of God’s Spirit.

We are no longer under the age of the Law. It’s anachronistic. The Law has pointed us to the Messiah, and all of us who are in the Messiah have been filled with the Spirit. The Spirit of God is the one who offers the power of transformation. Therefore, cruciform lives are called “the fruit of the Spirit.”

I don’t think Paul would call the “word only” idea a minor problem. It alters the foundational story of our faith.

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

29 Responses leave one →
  1. February 10, 2009

    The thought of trying to live the Christian life without the Spirit’s help is a terrifying one!

  2. don permalink
    February 10, 2009

    “I don’t think Paul would call the “word only” idea a minor problem. It alters the foundational story of our faith.”

    Amen. It’s also made us afraid to talk about the Spirit.

  3. Tim permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I remember hearing you say several years ago that you thought that “phase” was the low point in the history of our movement. I still agree.

  4. February 10, 2009

    Thanks for your reflection today. This is an issue I have been battling for the last couple of years. I truly believe and know that Christ Spirit dwells in me, but there is still a false teaching about the indwelling Holy Spirit. I thank God that he has given us his power because there is no other way to fight the spiritual battle of the unknown world.

    This passage gives me great peace and confidence knowing the fullness of Christ dwells in me.
    Col 2:9-10

    Would love to see you blog about what you have heard about the teaching on “the word” vs. “the Spirit.”

  5. February 10, 2009

    I was raised Catholic and was baptized into Christ in the context of independent Christian Churches and never heard this “through the word only” concept until I went to Harding. Fortunately, my profs there were all against it. That isn’t to say they spent a lot of time talking about what the Spirit of God actually does in a believer’s life, but at least they didn’t go the wrong direction on that one.

  6. February 10, 2009

    I was raised in a church that taught the “word only” view. The problem did not seem to have anything to do with modernism. There was a reaction to the excesses of other more charismatic churches, which was preached against on more than one occasion (especially since there was an Assembly of God church across the street). BUt I believe the biggest reason for having the “word only” view is that we just accepted at face value the teaching passed on to us from other CoC’s and never looked at what scripture says. There were certain passages that just were danced around.

    Thankfully neither I nor that congregation holds to the word only view any more.

    Grace and peace,


  7. February 10, 2009

    This is a very serious and heretical teaching, that I do now even find debated among any of the issues the early church worked through. It is the consistent longing of the Old Testament Prophets and the absolute distinquishing mark of the new covenant and the church. Otherwise, we are worse off than being under the law. How any movement could even come to that conclusion shows how far removed it is from truly understanding the gospel, the purpose of Scripture and how God works in the world today. The church I grew up in is fighting over this issue now, each armed with their KJV’s pointed at each other. I have seen how on an individual and personal basis among my own family how that teaching has robbed people I love of any assurance and joy as they face serious health issues where death is a very real possibility.
    It is purely reactionary against Pentecostalism and seeks to contol people’s emotions.
    It comes from a misunderstanding of passages that say “The Spirit is the Truth.” Funny how Jesus being the Word is not intrepreted in the same way, or “God is love, truth, etc.
    It gives Satan unlimited access to our hearts and minds while access to God is limited to when we pick up our Bibles and read it correctly.
    It rejects the very gift God has given us to be able to intrepret and understand scripture….which explains why there has been so much division and fighting.
    It is what forms Christ in us and transforms our minds.
    A person can HEAR the gospel and be saved and never have access to the Bible or be able to read it because of his context, yet be sealed by the Holy Spirit. In fact, historically, that has been the case for most people until the printing press.
    The very idea that the battle places one (the Word)against the other (the Spirit)is deeply saddening.

  8. Terry permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I feel my tribe is finally bursting from the cacoon. Makes our walk with the Holy Spirit a reality many could not express.

  9. clint permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I hope this is the beginning of a discussion on the working of the Holy Spirit and how that relates to discerning the Scriptures.

    “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians 2:14

    I do not believe that we speak enough about Spiritual discernment. But that may be because we are not very spiritual.

    “the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God.” Romans 8:7

  10. February 10, 2009

    I remember one of my first interviews for a preaching position with a church being asked this question. Fortunately, they opposed this teaching as well (and were asking to make sure I didn’t believe this, as at least one of their former preachers had to their detriment).

    I have been fortunate that even though I have been in conservative and traditional churches I have never been with a church where the ‘Spirit-only’ teaching was the majority opinion. This makes things much easier when it comes to discussing scripture and encouraging people to be ‘open’ to the Spirit working within the church.

  11. japierpont permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Mike – This is good stuff. I hope that you will probe this further.

    Some news – I have accepted a job in St Johnsbury, VT. I will be starting in a couple of weeks and we’ll be moving permanently once the house is sold.

    The loons are calling…

  12. Leland Vickers permalink
    February 10, 2009

    I did not see the presentation, but heard from others about a traveling drama group from Pepperdine (or ACC/ACU?) in the 1970s. Much of the content of their skits was tongue-in-cheek and self-critical. One was a list of short definitions, and the one that I heard about was: “Holy Spirit”…….”retired author”. Fortunately, the audience thought this was humorous, and it struck a familiar chord.

  13. February 10, 2009

    Actually, I think if we read the NT without anyone prescribing such ideas, we’d still think that tongues and healings and all the manifestations of the Holy Spirit were to continue until Christ returned… That old line about I Cor 13:10 is referring to the completion of the NT is about the same notion as a “Word only” interaction… There’s no indication in the NT that anything supernatural was going to change before the return of Christ. My big question is, why don’t we seem to experience the moving of the Spirit in the C of C like we see in the NT???

  14. Ray B. permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Not everyone has taught the word only view. There is a very large number of those in the church of Christ that have taught and believed in the personal indwelling of the Spirit and that the Spirit does work in our behalf. It is not a matter of what “we” have taught and how “we” could have gotten this so wrong. Some have taught word only ; others have taught personal indwelling. I think of writers like Baxter,Floyd,Kearley,Rogers and others who have written over several decades about the personal indwelling of the Spirit.

  15. February 10, 2009

    Boy am I thankful I don’t live under the old covenant or the Law!! Over recent years, I have learned a great deal about the Holy Spirit and I am conviced of His immeasurable and immense capacity to indwell, empower, and transform otherwise lifeless vesels. Me being one of them. I am so very thankful that He is my constant Advocate and ceaseless Intercessor before the Throne of Grace. I want to live in a posture that welcomes and embraces His Presence and His rich power. I would be unrecognized without the gift of the precious Holy Spirit, that is for sure!

  16. February 10, 2009

    I knew that this error existed, and I suppose in some quarters it still does. It is really almost unbelievable that any serious Bible student could come to such a conclusion.

    In what sense did they think Christ is “in us”? Off the cuff I can think of several passages that clearly teach an indwelling of God by His Spirit. Was it a refusal to believe what is clearly there, or ignorance?

    I don’t think I’m going on a limb too far to beieve that even for those who in ignorance did not believe in the indwelling and direct work of the Holy Spirit He was there working “both to will and to do His good pleasure”.

    Good stuff as always,

  17. February 10, 2009

    As a hobby I sell old religious books. I once sold a bunch of books from the library of L.O. Sanderson. Many of you will remember him for his hymn writing. He also had a very interesting library full of first edition copies of books by our folks. I remember one book in particular, “The Spirit and the Word.” To my knowledge this was “the” book used to defend the “word only” view. The copy in Sanderson’s library was first owned by Foy E. Wallace Jr., and both men made copious notes throughout the book. I could be wrong but it seems that Wallace might have pushed the “word only” notion more than anyone else among Churches of Christ. I do not agree with this position, but out of respect I am not sure I would use the word “bizarre” to describe the position.

  18. February 10, 2009

    Does anyone believe there would be churches, without the bible?
    And how does the spirit act differently in Christians, than in non-Christians, or does the spirit act at all in non-Christians ?

  19. clint permalink
    February 10, 2009

    rc, I was baptized by Wilson Wallace (the son of Foy Wallace Jr) and I would agree that the word “bizarre” is not a good description of such an impotent belief.

  20. February 10, 2009

    Our preacher just did a sermon on the spirit of God: it was amazing and wonderful just to think of the power we have in God’s Spirit, who guides us and dwells in us. Our God is truly awesome!

  21. February 10, 2009

    It seems to me that every false doctrine we espouse is a knee jerk reaction to another false doctrine. Instead of getting back into the middle we swing way to far to the other side.

  22. Dee permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Growing up in Texas and Arkansas and listening to my dad, Burton Coffman (and a couple of Burton’s brothers), Tillit S Teddlie, Horace Busby, George Bailey, Gayle Oler, Frank L Cox, George S Benson, Charlie Hodge (back in his “young” days), Clifton L Ganus, and dozens of other preachers (we made every gospel meeting within 50 miles, I think), I NEVER heard the “word only” theory until I was in one of Jimmy Allen’s upper level Bible classes…and he shared it with us as one of three views people have of the Holy Spirit.

  23. February 10, 2009

    laymond, the church existed before the Bible did.

  24. Joel Quile permalink
    February 10, 2009

    Mike, I blame it on the goons that called it a “ghost” for so long. That is scary. I’d want to lock a ghost up in a book.

    Good reminder.

  25. February 11, 2009

    Wendy, admittedly you are right, “church before bible” but if you notice I said “churches” without Paul’s letters, would the church as we know it today exist? would the Spirit that some say dwell within them have guided us to where we are today? (divided) I was taught that the spirit guided the writers of the “word” we depend upon, and that is how we get to know God, who he was, and who he is. I heard nothing about an indwelling spirit, although I was taught about an indwelling guide, the one God promised when he said the new covenant would be written in man’s heart, not on a stone. This guide is a good conscience, speaking of Paul I believe he also mentioned this thing called conscience. He said something to the effect, how can these people who were never under the law, know what to do? Then I believe he referred to the conscience God wrote upon, not an undisclosed spirit.

  26. February 11, 2009

    The book mentioned in an earlier comment, The Spirit and the Word, was written by a Disciples minister, Z. T. Sweeney.

    The book was a favorite of Guy N. Woods. I agree, you have to be reading something other than the NT to come out with the “word only” view.

  27. February 11, 2009

    I talked to an older preacher about this once when I was much younger, and ask why, if there is no indwelling, do people insist on something they cannot prove? His answer convinced me why some insist there is. His answer went something like this, “well if they don’t have to prove what they say is truth, then you can’t prove it is not” he continued, “If they can convince you that God has chosen them to guide personally, and only left you a book, it is proof they are better Christians than you”

  28. February 11, 2009

    It’s worth noting that the deficiency in Apollos’ teaching (in Ephesus? qb doesn’t recall) centered on this very thing. Paul had to come behind him and clean up after him, sorta. qb gets the impression from Luke’s description of Apollos as a learned and eloquent man that he was more of a scholar/orator type, a left-brainer whose theology did not have much room for the mysterious and the numinous. Methinks we should give Apollos and our modern Word-only brethren a bit of grace here; if you’re hard-wired into the concrete and the tangible, it’s not easy to break free and engage the abstract and invisible.

    Not a day goes by that qb doesn’t wrestle with his own left-brainedness about God and his providential work. Though they’re out of context here, Jesus’ words to Thomas haunt me: “blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe.”

    I guess qb’s arguing for a gentle, charitable spirit of tolerance rather than strident impatience on this. The Scriptures seem pretty clear on the piont, but actually internalizing the doctrine and coming to grips with it in daily life can be a real struggle. Walking by faith and not by sight, and all that.


  29. Doug Post permalink
    July 4, 2017

    It seems to me believing Deity dwells, literally, bodily, and spatially within your flesh is bizarre. And it also seems there is a “mob mentality” of ignorance and misunderstanding regarding what is termed “word only.”

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