What do Christians have that non-Christians don’t have?

Some non-Christians seem a lot more Christian than Christians. They’re nicer, kinder, happier, more giving, more sociable, more involved in the community, more even-tempered, more disciplined, and better adjusted. It’s a bit discouraging when you’re a Christian bumping into people like that, because if non-Christians can be such good people, why bother being Christian? Or, put another way, what difference does Christianity make if you can be very ‘Christian’ without it? 

Paul answers that in Romans 8:9. “You (Christians), however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” The difference between Christians and non-Christians is who is in control of their lives. What a person does, therefore, isn’t as important as who’s doing it.

So, who is doing it? Is it one’s sinful nature or the Spirit, because it can only be one or the other. All people fall into two categories: those who are controlled by the sinful nature (the law of sin and death), and those who are controlled by the Spirit (the law of the Spirit of life). And it makes a huge difference as to which of those two is in control, because “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires,” verse 5.

So, what does “the sinful nature” desire? Well, it certainly doesn’t desire God, “because the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God,” verses 7-8. That’s stating it bluntly, but clearly – that the sinful nature has no interest in God.

In contrast to that, what does “the Spirit” desire instead? Well, the Spirit isn’t hostile to God, for “you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father,'” verse 15. The Spirit also desires that “the righteous requirements of the law be fully met in us,” verse 4, so that we can submit to God’s law. And as far as pleasing God, the Spirit “puts to death the misdeeds of the body,” verse 13, which pleases God immensely because it frees us personally “from the law of sin and death,” verse 2. In three clear ways, then, the Spirit’s desires are the absolute opposite to the desires of the sinful nature.   

So that’s what Christians have that non-Christians don’t have: They have the Holy Spirit constantly tuning their minds and hearts to God’s nature, rather than being blown all over the place by the whims and desires of the sinful nature. 

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Baptism with the Holy Spirit: What difference does it make?

“I baptize you with water,” John the Baptist said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” Mark 1:8. So what’s the difference between the two baptisms, and does it matter?

It certainly mattered to Paul when he discovered some disciples in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-2, because the big question on Paul’s mind was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” No, they replied, they’d never “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” which made Paul wonder what baptism they’d received instead.

“John’s baptism,” they said, which to Paul was all well and good as a “baptism to repentance,” but far more important was belief in Jesus, verse 4. So they were all baptized again, this time “into the name of the Lord Jesus,” at which point “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 5.

But what difference did the Holy Spirit coming on them make? There’s a clue in verse 13. Some Jewish exorcists were using “the name of the Lord Jesus” to try and rid people of evil spirits. But it hadn’t worked (verse 15-16). To have power over evil, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed. But what?

A famous sorcerer in Acts 8 knew the answer to that. He’d watched many of his followers being baptized when they heard about “the name of Jesus Christ,” verse 12. He was even baptized himself (verse 15). But when Peter and John arrived, “they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verses 15-16.

So, again, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed, and Simon the sorcerer saw what it was. When he “saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’.”

Simon knew where the power was. It was in the Holy Spirit, and if he could lay his hands on people like the apostles did and that kind of power was released in people, how much more famous Simon could be. He’d watched Philip, for instance, cast out evil spirits and heal paralytics (verse 7), so think of the power the Holy Spirit would give him too.

HE knew what difference the Holy Spirit makes. The Spirit has the power to cure anything that ails us. A baptism to repentance doesn’t do that, nor does baptism in the name of Jesus. It’s only by receiving the Spirit AS WELL that power over evil is possible.

Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

We need the Holy Spirit because the Spirit makes Christ’s love real (Ephesians 3:16-19). And to Paul that was a burning passion, that we understand Christ’s love for us so well that we’ll trust our lives to Christ like a woman trusts her life to a man in marriage (2 Corinthians 11:2).

Paul knew what the Holy Spirit would then do in people who could love and trust Jesus like that. The Spirit would “transform (them) into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory,” 2 Corinthians 3:18. Just as the workings inside the body of a young, gangly girl transform her into a poised and beautiful woman, so does the Holy Spirit work inside us to grow us up into the beauty and likeness of Christ in everything (Ephesians 4:13-15).

We can “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us,” Ephesians 5:1. Imagine being a person like that – where nothing but “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” is what we think about and say to people, Ephesians 4:29. But this is where the Holy Spirit comes in. I can’t make myself into such a person, but the Spirit can, and wants to.

How I must “grieve the Holy Spirit,” verse 30 – or break the Spirit’s heart – when I forget I have the HOLY GOD living and breathing his life in me all the time. God has made himself as intimate to me as he can, by actually “sealing” himself inside me (verse 30). He’s willingly stuck himself inside me for life, with no escape. He has no intention of escaping either, because now that he’s in me he can do what it takes to repair all the damage, suture up the wounds, do a heart transplant and pump his life into my bloodstream. And I’ve got that now working inside me, simply for believing Christ really does love me and I trust him.

That was all it took for the door to my spirit to open up to the Holy Spirit. “Believe in the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” Acts 8:12, and because of that belief the Holy Spirit “comes upon us,” verse 16-17. Now the power begins – transformation, healing, and growing us up into an entirely new creation from the inside out, unrecognizable from the “infants” we used to be “blown here and there by every wind of doctrine and the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming,” Ephesians 4:14.

No more are we the easily influenced youngsters we were. We’re being grown up to become wise, strong and beautiful, fit to be the wife of Christ himself (2 Corinthians 11:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit’s great pleasure to do that for everyone.

Confident, free, and no worries. How?

There are two Covenants and two ministries being compared in 2 Corinthians 3, and both of them are called “glorious” by Paul – which seems a little strange, because how could a ministry that “brought death” and “condemns men” (verses 7 and 9) be glorious?

Paul’s talking about the Old Covenant that was “engraved in letters on stone” (verse 7). He called it a Covenant “of the letter,” but, he says, “the letter kills” (verse 6) – which doesn’t sound very glorious at all. He also says its “radiance was fading away” (verse 13), so it wasn’t even meant to last either. It was just a temporary arrangement that condemned and killed people.

But it clearly served a glorious purpose as a comparison to the New Covenant, which Paul called a Covenant “of the Spirit,” and it’s so much “greater” than the Old Covenant (verse 11) that “what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” of the New.

But how is this new ministry so surpassing in its glory? Because, verse 3, it’s “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” – and whatever the Spirit is writing on human hearts it “gives life” (verse 6), it “brings righteousness” (verse 9), and it “lasts” (verse 11).

And it’s all being done by God himself, because, Paul writes in verse 17, “the Lord is the Spirit.” The Spirit, therefore, is not only “the Spirit OF the living God” (verse 3), the Spirit IS God. The Spirit is “Lord” too, so in the New Covenant it is God himself who is ministering to us. Everything in our lives now “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit,” verse 18.

This is why the New Covenant is so much greater than the Old Covenant; it’s because none of it depends on our doing. We “are BEING transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” This is something the Spirit Lord is doing to us. It’s not like the Old Covenant where blessings of any kind depended entirely on the obedience of the individual or the nation. This is the New Covenant where the blessings of life, righteousness and gradual transformation into “the Lord’s glory” (verse 18) all come from the Spirit Lord, and do not depend on anything we do.

That’s why “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” because in the New Covenant the Spirit is totally in charge of our lives, and he is doing the job of transforming our hearts perfectly. “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold,” verse 12. We can walk through life every day utterly “confident” (verse 4). We have no worries. We are free.

Born of the Spirit

I got my first real whiff of what being “born again” is like when our 6 year old granddaughter came to stay with us for a week. She was ecstatically happy to be with us, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out why. I’m a doddery old codger now and not much fun to be with, and I can’t run around like I used to. I’m risking injury just walking fast.

When she came to stay, therefore, I wondered what on earth we could do together to keep her occupied. She had the energy of three nuclear power stations, while I tottered in her wake on worn out batteries. Would she be so bored by Day 2 that she’d be crying for home?

By Day 6, however, she was still happy. She scampered down the front path each morning as happily as she did on Day 1. To her, it didn’t matter where we were going either, because wherever Granpy was going was just fine with her. And if all Granpy could manage was a trip to the Library where he collapsed in exhaustion with a newspaper, it was still fine, because for her being together was enough.

Her trust and contentment in whatever we did together was a joy – and a revelation, too, because this was John 3. In that chapter, Jesus is telling Nicodemus what being born again is like, and comes up with this remarkable explanation in verse 8: “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.”

When I’m born of the Spirit I have no idea where the Spirit’s taking me, just like my granddaughter had no idea where I was taking her each day. It was no problem for her, though. Granpy knew where he was going, and that’s all that mattered. She could scamper into each day in total trust and contentment. And that’s what it’s like being born of the Spirit. The Spirit knows where he’s going, so what else matters? And every morning it’s the same. Out we go together, the Spirit and I, just like I did with my granddaughter.

And Jesus said it would be like this in John 14:16-18, too. The Spirit would live with us and be with us forever. Every moment of every day, then, we’d have a Spirit guide. Where he’s going, we do not know, but he knows – and for my granddaughter with me as her guide – that was all that mattered.

Is the Holy Spirit a person or a power?

Whether person or power, the Holy Spirit is named separately from the Father and the Son. But it’s in relationship with the Father and Son that we discover who or what the Holy Spirit is – as we see in Acts 16:7, for instance, where the Holy Spirit is called the “Spirit of Jesus.”

That’s because Jesus’ entire life was intimately related to the Spirit. He was conceived by the Spirit, identified by the Spirit at his baptism, led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and in his first public address Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” Luke 4:18. Jesus identified the Spirit as being in close, intimate relationship with him.

The Spirit is also called “the Spirit of your Father,” Matthew 10:20, so the Spirit is intimately related to the Father too. In John 14:26, the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, so in trying to discover who or what the Holy Spirit is, Scripture clearly identifies the Spirit in intimate relationship with both Father and Son.

And just as Jesus never said or did anything on his own authority (John 12:49-50), the Spirit does “not speak on his own (authority)” either, John 16:13. What we see in Scripture, then, is the Father, Son and Spirit operating in total harmony together. It’s a wonderful window into who and what God is. God is a communion of love, an intimate relationship, as we see again in the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, because Jesus’ great goal in his life, death, resurrection and ascension was to have the Holy Spirit given to us (John 14:16, 16:13, Acts 1:8, 2:38). But it’s the Spirit’s great purpose to bring us into union with Christ (Ephesians 3:16-17, 1 John 4:13).

So we’ve got Christ’s great desire being to unite us to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s great desire to unite us to Christ. In the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus, then, we have the same window into God, and again it’s all about God being an intimate relationship of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We don’t see God primarily as persons or powers, we see God as a relationship always operating in total harmony together. And the Holy Spirit is identified as being part of that relationship, operating in exactly the same way as the Father and Son do, in close, intimate relationship together. When thinking of the Holy Spirit, therefore, it’s in relationship with the Father and Son, operating in total harmony together on our behalf. That’s the focus in Scripture, not on whether the Holy Spirit is a separate person or a power.

What does the Holy Spirit do for us?

     In Romans 8 there are seven things the Holy Spirit does for us:

     1) The Spirit sets us free from sin and death (verse 2)

     2) “Live according to the Spirit” and we can fully meet the righteous requirements of God’s law (verse 4), “put to death the misdeeds of the body (verse 13),” and we desire what the Spirit desires, not what our sinful nature desires (verse 5).

     3) A mind “controlled by the Spirit” is life and peace, meaning it’s no longer hostile to God, it has no trouble submitting to God’s law and it’s able to please God (verses 6-8).

     4) If the Spirit of God (or Christ) “lives” in us, we are not controlled by our sinful nature anymore (verse 9), we “belong to Christ (verse 9),” God gives life to our mortal bodies (verse 11) and our “spirit is alive (verse 10).”

     5) If we’re “led by the Spirit” we are “sons of God (verse 14),” we’ve received the “Spirit of sonship (verse 15),” and “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children (and therefore) heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (verses 16-17).”

     6) We’ll never be slaves to a spirit of fear again (verse 15). 

     7) The Spirit “helps us in our weakness,” “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express,” and “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (verses 26-27).”

     What more could we ask for? The Spirit frees us from what’s killing us, puts new desires in our heads that are good for us, creates a new and wonderful relationship with God for us, gives us life and peace, removes our fears, helps us when we’re weak, enables us to obey God’s will for our eternal benefit, and helps us realize we’re God’s children and we belong to him. There’s no reason, therefore, to go back to a life of worrying what’s going to happen to us. The Spirit takes care of our every need, past, present and future.  

     The wonderful result of having such a Spirit (as well as personal proof we’ve got the Spirit too), is a confidence in God and our relationship with him. “We know,” as Paul writes in verse 28, “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We just know God is always working everything out exactly according to his purpose for us. And how do we know? Because we have “the mind of the Spirit (verse 27)” that not only helps us helpless humans obey God, but also totally trust him, too.