All the evangelical books on the Holy Spirit I have read seem to fall into two categories. First are the books by cessationists, who focus on the Spirit’s role within the godhead, his work in creation and regeneration and his ongoing role in sanctification. The charismatics on the other hand tend to quickly skip by these aspects so they can get to the more exciting and dynamic topics of power, baptism in the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit. I have been waiting for some time to find a book that adequately covers both sides of the story.
So I was quite excited to discover Simon Ponsonby’s God Inside Out book, which is subtitled, “An In-Depth Study of the Holy Spirit”. It is 332 pages long, which is long enough to cover a broad range of topics, but not so long that it effectively becomes a reference book. It had its genesis as a 15 week “school of theology” course he ran, and the continuity can be seen throughout the book.
Part One – The Holy Spirit and God
In the first section, he introduces the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, arguing for his divinity and showing the different biblical titles and pictures of the Spirit. One of the strengths of the book is the interest he has in church history, and there are lots of quotes from various church fathers and theologians. He has a good way of explaining complex debates in simple terms, and is willing to both learn from and critically evaluate the insights of previous generations.
In speaking of the person of the Spirit, Ponsonby portrays him as the “God we experience, the God who encounters us”. So while the discussion is theological and even academic, his passion that we would encounter God the Holy Spirit rather than merely understand him shines through.
We must not attempt to domesticate this wild wind of God – rather we must inhale deep draughts of this vivifying divine life, setting the sail to be carried wherever he wills.
In a chapter on Jesus and the Holy Spirit, he follows Pinnock in arguing that “The Son’s self-emptying meant that Jesus was compelled to rely on the Spirit … the Son decided not to make use of divine attributes independently but experience what it would mean to be truly human.” I think this understanding of Jesus’ operating as a man under the power of the Spirit is vital to our own understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. However, he cautions us that the parallel is perhaps better drawn between Jesus and the church – together as the body of Christ we walk in his example as a people filled with the Spirit.
Part Two – The Holy Spirit and the World
This section deals with some tricky subjects, including the Spirit’s role in Creation, and asks questions of what ways in which the Spirit is active in the world outside of the church & believer. Ponsonby interacts with various liberal theologians who see the Spirit at work in secular movements for political justice as well as in works of art.
The Spirit-led ministry of Christ was to the whole of man, not just the soul. … We are not saved on the basis of our ministry to the needy, but proof that we are saved is found in our ministry to the needy.
Part Three – The Holy Spirit and the Christian
This section deals quite brilliantly with regeneration, and moves on to consider the Spirit’s role in sanctification, and our sonship. One interesting theme he develops is that our salvation does more than restore us to our pre-fallen state – we are raised to a higher place than Adam was, seated with God in the heavenly places, and co-heirs with Christ. He also laments that sanctification is being neglected in the church at present.
Regrettably in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, sanctification as a theological foundational doctrine, and holiness as a personal and communal imperative, do not seem to be high on the agenda. Holiness has become a dirty word, as the Church has become rather dirty.
The chapter on satisfaction seems to be a condensed version of his book “More: how you can have more of the Spirit when you already have everything in Christ“. I was struck by his observation that the “works of the flesh” list in Gal 5 can be seen as “human attempts to find the satisfaction which the Spirit alone brings.” He presents the satisfaction the Spirit brings as being “love unfathomable, joy unspeakable, peace unshakable and a stream unstoppable”.
The final chapter in this section is on power. He interprets Acts 1:8 as not promising power (i.e. boldness) for witness, but promising power (i.e. for attesting signs and wonders) that would accompany their witness. He argues that “God never withdrew the power of the Spirit to work signs and wonders”, drawing on Stanley Burgess’ research.
Part Found – The Holy Spirit and the Church
The final section is on the Spirit and the church. He starts off with an examination of the ever-controversial “baptism in the Spirit”, which he sees as being for joining to the church and equipping for ministry. It is this concept of being joined to the church that causes him to take up a “third wave” position, in seeing this as being another term for regeneration.
His arguments against a subsequence viewpoint are the main ones found elsewhere – it makes out that two-millennia of Christians are “second-class”, and sees 1 Cor 12:13 as insisting that Spirit baptism is a universal Christian experience. He claims that Luke uses “saved” and “granted repentance” interchangeably with “baptism in the Spirit”, but I did not find this convincing. He is also convinced that Acts 19 refers to unbelievers. I was disappointed to find that he had not interacted with Pawson’s view, which seems to have been ignored by every third wave theologian I have read.
Having said all this, the chapter takes a surprising turn as he considers the position of the Church Fathers who taught a post-conversion reception of the Spirit through the imposition of the laying-on of hands. He develops this theme to talk about a “divine equipping for service” or “transmission”, which “may come suddenly like a violent wind, or gradually like the rising of the sun.”
The chapter on gifts of the Spirit does not go into great depth, but gives broad definitions of many of the gifts listed in Scripture. They are not to be understood as natural giftings, but all are given supernaturally by the Spirit. The section on cessationism is very helpful as he tracks the gifts throughout history and considers why their use has been lacking for much of the time.
There are some other great chapters in this section. One on the Spirit and the Word considers how the Spirit speaks through Scripture, but also outside of Scripture. He suggests that the Puritans understood this better than the Reformers.
The book closes appropriately with the Spirit’s role in mission, from which it gets its title. The Spirit is “God inside out to bring those outside in”. The Spirit is not given simply for our personal benefit, or even for our church to be blessed, but that the world might be reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If you’re looking for a well-rounded theology of the Spirit that will engage your mind and heart, look no further. I have underlined quotes on almost every page. Its a much more stimulating way to learn about the Spirit than simply reading the relevant chapters in a systematic theology. Read it and get a bigger picture of who God the Holy Spirit really is.