“It Is The Spirit Who Gives Life”

In John 7: 37-39, Jesus claimed that through coming to him one would receive the “living water” synonymous with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  By the work of Jesus, the Spirit will come in fullness and power to mark out the people of God by evidence of true belief. In John 4, Jesus had said that this water would “become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” This is a fulfillment of Isaiah. 44:1-5 and we find the image reiterated in Revelation 22:17. This ever-flowing stream of living water brings both the present reality and the sure future inheritance of eternal life. 

Has any ever received eternal life without this living water? Here in John 7 Jesus speaks of the Spirit’s coming in the fulfillment of the New Covenant, creating a people as a community, not by circumcision but by the new birth, creating a fellowship whose common trait is forgiveness of sins and the sanctifying operations of the Spirit. Israel was not that community, for they were marked off by ceremonies, particularly the ceremony of circumcision of males, not by the moral and spiritual perceptions peculiarly the mark of those called and sanctified by the Spirit. 

The Spirit had not yet been given in that way, as the creator of the community, but he had been given to individuals among the remnant of Israel and even to those elect among other peoples. All of those that had the persevering faith leading to eternal life could not have been void of the Spirit of God. Both faith and faithfulness are the fruit of the Spirit’s operations; both of these necessarily existed in those people of faith in Hebrews 11. The affections described there could not have existed without the operation of the Spirit of God. Noah’s “reverent fear” was a manifestation of the presence of the Spirit in his life; Abraham’s “looking forward to the city that has foundations” was evidence of the abiding presence of the Spirit; Moses’ “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” and his consideration of “the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” show the secret but continual presence of the Spirit’s gracious work. 

None of these affections or loyalties is possible to exist on the one hand or to be maintained on the other apart from their being the constant production of the Holy Spirit. If these in the roll call of faith did not have the Spirit, they would have no principle in them that opposed the desires of the flesh, would be given over to those desires as are the reprobate, and would thus “not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:17-21). Paul wrote, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9.) This does not refer to a superfluity of blessing, or the possession of a gift irrelevant to eternal life; it instead establishes a condition of moral necessity true of any believer in any age. If Abel did not have the Spirit of Christ, did he belong to him? If Joseph did not have the Spirit of Christ, he did not belong to him? If those “wandering about in deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth” did not have the Spirit of Christ, even they did not belong to him. But they did belong to him, and that belonging was effected by the abiding presence of the Spirit. 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Is one that has no indwelling of the Spirit a spiritual man? If not, then he considers the things of the Spirit of God as folly. Did Moses consider the Exodus folly or the Passover folly? These were spiritual things, and Moses saw their significance as types of the redemptive work of Christ, the “reproach of Christ.” After Jesus had said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” Peter said, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:65, 69). Did he believe this and confess this without an initiating and continuing effectual work of the Holy Spirit? Regeneration and indwelling are operations of the Spirit morally necessary for faith and perseverance in that faith. 

Covenantally and morally, therefore, never has there been nor will there ever be a believer who has not been loved and elected by the Father, unredeemed particularly by and with no perceptive knowledge of the Promised One, and not regenerated, led to receive the Promise, and indwelt by the Spirit of God. Every believer, of all ages, may pray with David expecting that this grace is sealed, “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. …And uphold me by your generous Spirit” (Psalm 51:11, 12). They also may rejoice that their faith is the same as that of Abraham and is given certainty in the same way: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? … That the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. … God gave it to Abraham by a promise. … Walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. … If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 3:3, 14, 18; 5:16, 25). If Abraham lived by the Spirit (Has there ever been a believer who found spiritual life another way?), then also he walked in the Spirit.

Since the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth, his operations in sanctification in the new covenant are more powerful and thorough than before the coming of Christ, for the shadows and types now are fulfilled and made clear by His appearing. The explanation of the person and work of Christ by the inspiration of the Spirit may now have full effect in securing for Christ a people of his own possession zealous of good works (Titus 2:11-14). As distinct from that remnant of true believers in Israel, these believers have the example of Christ, the teaching of Christ, the dying grace of Christ, the fullness of the revelation in Scripture, the community of saints to exhort, reprove, and encourage, and the variety of gifts granted to the church by the Spirit in Christ’s ascension (Ephesians 4:1-7). After Christ’s ascension this gift of the Spirit marked the new community and people that believed in him with corporate holiness, personal holiness, and gifts for teaching and order (1 Corinthians 12:3-13).  It is this context that we understand the inspired observation of the writer of Hebrews, “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise [they did by the Spirit receive the promise in its truthfulness but did not the One who was the full substance, even the incarnate Promise], God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11:39, 40).

We thank God for regenerating grace and persevering grace given believers in all ages by the Spirit; we thank him for the special gifts given when Christ was glorified putting us into a fellowship of  believers and granting each member of that believing body a gift of the Spirit so that we will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly” (Ephesians 4:15, 16). 

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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