Holy Spirit—Union With God
I steep and soak in my reflections on what it means to be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I have been reading, studying, asking questions, and organizing my thoughts in a non-stop immersion since just after Easter of this year. I have, of course, studied this aspect of Christian faith before now, but I have followed a hunger to really pull out all stops and dig deeply into a myriad of unsettled questions I have had and see where my studies and God’s Spirit leads me.
Most recently, after reading a few books and reflecting in Scripture, an analogy I have pondered previously began to clarify and take on deeper meaning to me. I should probably do a little context work before I proceed further.
One of the questions I have been asking lately is in response to my personal witness of the Christian journey; that is, the daily life lived out in the pursuit of becoming perfected in the likeness of Jesus Christ. I have written out many of my thoughts on this subject over the course of the past decade, but consolidated some of those ideas in a recent series here (see link). Essentially, I am wondering aloud, if we are able to complete the Christian journey intact (aka eternally perfected—saved) without the “full in-filling” or baptism of the Holy Spirit as it is spoken about in Scripture. I realize there are many thoughts and doctrine about this teaching with a great deal of diversity and disparity of interpretation therein, but the role and work of the Holy Spirit, as mysterious as it may be, is very prominent in the Scriptures from beginning to end. Considering this prominence, I cannot help but be very drawn to trying to understand what my response should be to the influence of the Holy Spirit.
There are a few assumed conclusions I have settled upon at this juncture of my studies (always subject to change as I continue to study and learn) and subsequent understanding; they are as follows:
- We are incapable of living out the life of holiness God commands us to live without the work of the Holy Spirit within us. In other words, we cannot become what God wants of us without God within us.
- Christian perfection (becoming like Christ in every way) is part of the plan of God from before the beginning of time.
- Not becoming perfected (especially willful refusal to grow in the ways of spiritual maturity) in the Way of Christ can influence our eternal future.
- Visible manifestations and measurable evidences (spiritual fruit) are part of the Christian journey and useful in the grading (aka judging) one another’s progression and course of discipleship.
I might share a few more questions floating around my head before describing my analogy. I wonder at what point a person is filled with or baptized with the Holy Spirit. Is it something that happens at the moment of spiritual rebirth/regeneration? Is it a specific second work of grace that takes place subsequent to regenerative conversion? If being “born again” and “filled with the Spirit” are a singular event, how do we explain the discrepancies for singularity we read about in the Bible (the original followers of Jesus, the household of Cornelius, and the believers at Ephesus are a few examples). Is the total surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer an optional path of discipleship? There are other questions influencing my study, but I consider these sufficient to provide a backdrop for my analogy.
Union with God ◊ Marriage Metaphors
All throughout Scripture, God employs the use of marriage and sexual intimacy as strong metaphors to describe the relationship between man and the Triune Godhead. God calls the people of Israel “adulterers and adulteresses” for forsaking their primacy of relationship with Him for other gods. He also gives Hosea specific instructions to marry a prostitute in order to construct a visual aid for all to see how He perceives His relationship with the chosen people of Israel. Likewise, the beauty of intimacy is described in vivid detail with the Song of Solomon, and is believed to be a metaphor for the bond of love between Christ and the Church. The Church is mentioned as the “Bride” of Christ, and the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb” is a prominent event mentioned in Scripture, especially in the Book of the Revelation. The description of a man and woman becoming “one flesh” and the “oneness” described by Jesus in his Priestly Prayer (John 17) cannot be ignored as we consider all these descriptions, metaphors, and analogies. What is it that God is portraying for us in them? How are we to interpret what God is speaking through these descriptions? Why is it that these particular and strong word pictures are featured so predominately?
One last disclaimer and qualifier: Every metaphor limps—because no metaphor is perfect. This is why we use metaphors, because the “perfect explanation” is out of our reach and our closest approximation is to say, “Blank is like blank.” Remember; like is not is.
I think the Christian journey as the baptism of the Holy Spirit relates to it is like the courtship to marriage relationship.
- I think many persons will make their first steps toward Christian rebirth under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches the Holy Spirit is involved with drawing fallen humans to God. I see similarity between the “wooing” of the Spirit and how the courtship of a man and woman might progress. Whereas the spiritual journey might see the respondent opening to their awareness to God, the physical relationship between a man and a woman might similarly see them opening to one another (becoming more agreeable to conversations and the depth of information each other are willing to disclose). I might liken these first steps to an introductory or initial dating phase.
- As dating and courtship continue between human relationships, so does the relationship between man and God. As the man’s curiosity and awareness to the presence and activity of God is heightened, he is driven and drawn to learn more about this God who “woos” him. Similarly, we see the same behavior exhibited between a man and woman as they learn the dance of romance as well as determine their compatibility and need for one another.
- Counting the cost of relationship is wise advice according to the words of Jesus. I believe this applies to temporal relationships between men and women as much as it applies to the temporal-eternal relationship between man and God. A woman might consider how a man will treat her, provide for her materially and emotionally… what kind of father he might be to her children, and etc. Likewise, Jesus advises the potential follower-disciple to evaluate the cost involved in following or “being married to” Him.
- Eventually there comes a nexus where betrothal, engagement, or the promise to marry becomes the primary question. In this moment, a commitment takes place between the parties consigning devotion to one another. I think this same process occurs in the spiritual relationship with Christ. The speed and the means by which the process unfolds might look differently from person to person, but the realization of the question, answer, and ultimate decision is probably very similar.
- Marriage. The Covenant agreement. In both cases there seems intellectual and soulful agreement to belong to one another. Jesus’ promise to all who would follow Him devotedly is that He would never leave or forsake them. Similarly, the covenant agreement in marriage vows echoes a “forever” commitment, “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” I don’t know the ritual covenantal vows for all cultures and Christian denominations, but would imagine they might be very common to those I mention. Jesus, on many occasions, uses the marriage metaphor to describe the relationship between his followers and himself (Matt 9:15; 25:1-10; John 3:29). I completed a study and wrote an essay on the parallels of marriage as a divine institution some years ago that has more information on these thoughts (see link).
- Consummation. I believe the in-filling or baptism of the Holy Spirit might be likened to the consummation of a marriage. I realize how stark and intimate this metaphor seems, but it is the analogy that God uses throughout the Holy Scriptures to describe the relationship between Himself and mankind. As I mentioned in point number five, I believe that becoming “born again” may happen at the time of intellectual and soulful agreement to the person of Jesus Christ and the affirmation of the atoning sacrifice of his life for our sin. I believe in accordance to the teaching of Scripture that this is a justifying act of grace declared by the voice and hand of God who declares that soul as “saved.” This declaration is a divinely valid agreement and the person over whom it is declared is as eternally secure and “saved” as they can or ever will be. I think the same can be said for the person who is married… they are never any more legally married or bound to their respective spouse on the first day of marriage than they are on their fiftieth year of marriage. Can a person be legally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically married without the act of conjugal consummation? I believe the answer is yes, but in many cultures, the lack of consummation can be grounds for annulment of the marriage…not divorce, but annulment. Annulment states specific grounds for which the marriage is declared void—as if it never took place—and was never actualized as a real marriage. Jesus declares the baptism of the Holy Spirit a divine imperative; consummation of the divine relationship is a mandate and expectation. Jesus speaks very explicitly about this union with his followers in his teaching about abiding in him (John 15) and in the prayer for unity and oneness found in John chapter seventeen. The parallel is also seen when Jesus reminds the teachers of the Law that it was God’s divine planning for a man to leave his family to be “joined as one flesh” with his wife. It is the joining of the Holy Spirit with the believer that makes him or her more than they were as their former self. Jesus said believers would receive “power from on high” when the Holy Spirit came to take up residence within them. This is the ultimate form of love in union. It requires absolute trust and absolute surrender. We are taught by Jesus that he “chose us as his own” for the purpose of bearing fruit for His Father, God, and His Kingdom. Christian fruit (john 15) can only come from “consummation” of the relationship (infilling/baptism of the Holy Spirit) just the same as children from a couple can only come through consummation of marital relationship. The reciprocity of surrender and giving of selves to one another naturally produce godly “fruit”—this might be manifest in the most basic of levels, with children…and in other manifestations deeper intimacy of relationship and “knowing” one another. Perhaps… this might help us to understand why it is that Jesus speaks so forthrightly about men and women who professed their “marriage” to Christ on the Day of Judgment. Jesus speaks the following words from the Gospel of Matthew chapter seven:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:21-23)
It is interesting to me the word Jesus uses “knew” is the same word, and I believe the same contextual meaning, as his mother, Mary, used when she answered to the angel Gabriel for example in Luke 1:34, “And Mary [a virgin] said to the angel, ‘How will this be since I do not know (Strongs-1097 /ginṓskō = sexual intimacy) a man.
It may be that without the active infilling and baptism of the Holy Spirit, Jesus does not know us in the strictest and most important way we are to be known.
I think ultimately we also need to realize that living in union and communion with God is not about being perfect or achieving some level of Christian perfection. I definitively believe and understand the process of Christian formation or entire sanctification is not measured by perfection, but is measured by the level of our surrender to the process and to the Holy Spirit who guides it.