The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

SERIES INTRO: The New Paganism

As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, both traditional religions and unambiguous atheism are being rejected by many and an undefined spirituality—a fuzzy spiritual agnosticism—has been embraced, which lives by the axiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

For all practical purposes, they live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality. In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the culture the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. The only thing forbidden in this new paganism is believing your faith is the only true path.

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Here’s a quick recap for your convenience:

Exclusivism – The traditional Christian view that salvation can come only through Jesus Christ’s free gift of salvation; thus, biblical Christianity is the only true path to God. 

Inclusivism – The belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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Does the Holy Spirit Save Apart from Christ?

Respected scholar and inclusivist Clark Pinnock explains that the work of the Holy Spirit is “central” to his view of salvation. The Holy Spirit proceeds before Christ preparing the way. In other words, the Spirit is at work in non-Christians even when they do not know the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Citing John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), Pinnock states the Spirit is “under nobody’s control” and not confined to inside the church and free to grace anyone regardless of their place in life since Christians “do not have a monopoly on the Spirit.”

Interestingly, he makes clear that neither general revelation nor the religions themselves play a central role in his understanding of inclusivism, but only the Holy Spirit, through whom God shows “every person the mystery of his grace, because in their hearts… he works in unseen ways.” [1]

Pinnock’s idea that the Holy Spirit may “work” on someone before they come to saving faith in Christ, to prepare them to be convicted by the truth of the gospel and to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior is not a controversial idea. Yet, his idea that the Holy Spirt may grant someone salvation apart from Christ is controversial, and this idea is what we must examine with Scripture.

 

The Work of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit’s work is certainly essential in bringing one to saving faith – to salvation – in Christ, but the biblical evidence shows that saving faith only comes after the unbeliever first hears a gospel proclamation and, second, the Holy Spirit convicts him of the truth of that proclamation and converts him.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we see the Spirit ever working independently of Christ or in a saving way apart from the gospel of Christ. The Spirit is the companion of Christ “[f]rom womb to tomb to throne,” and the Spirit’s work is as “chief witness” to Christ, leading to saving faith specifically in him. [2] The biblical evidence is clear that no one comes to saving faith prior to hearing the gospel of Christ and being convicted by it by the Holy Spirit. (More on this below.)

In his letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14), we see the work of the Holy Spirit closely connected to the work of the Father and, especially, the Son. Paul begins his letter by writing of the work of the Trinitarian God in bringing one to salvation in sequence: first writing of the work of the Father, then the work of the Son, and then the work of the Holy Spirit:

The Father:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

The Son:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 

The Holy Spirit:

13In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Here, we see the work of the Spirit is not separate from the work of the rest of the Trinitarian Godhead.

Returning again to 1 John 4:2–3, (By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already), Theologian John Stott sums up the message of this section of John’s letter: “Those who deny the Son have neither the Father nor the Spirit.” [3]

The Spirit cannot come before Christ. Contra Pinnock, Scripture says you cannot have the Spirit without having the Son.

First Corinthians 12:3 states,

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

Moreover, “Jesus taught that it is the Holy Spirit’s particular ministry both to testify to, and to glorify, him” [4]:

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (John 15:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

Clearly, the work of the Spirit flows from Christ Jesus, and thus, after Christ Jesus.

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Regeneration: Being Born Again

Jesus taught that one must experience regeneration – being born again – to have salvation.

Jesus says in John 3:3,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Theologian Wayne Grudem points out that in John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), when Jesus speaks of “being born of the Spirit,” Jesus “indicates that it is especially God the Holy Spirit who produces regeneration” (though God the Father is also involved). [5]

The Holy Spirit convinces an unbeliever of the truth of Christ, and may even prepare the person to hear that truth; thus, the work of the Holy Spirit is conversion. But an adherent to a religion that denies Christ Jesus, the second person of the Trinitarian God, as Lord and Savior cannot have the Holy Spirit, and without the indwelling Holy Spirit there is no regeneration and no salvation.

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.'” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6)

 

NEXT: But isn’t there evidence of saved pagans in the Bible?

[1] Pinnock, Clark H. “An Inclusivist View.” In Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Worldedited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.

[2] Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Faith Comes By Hearing. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Kindle. Loc 2067.

[3] & [4] Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Pages 155-156.

[5] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Page 700.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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