Implications for the indwelling of the Spirit

If you have followed this blog for some time, you will be familiar with some of its musings on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in respect to Old and New Covenant believers. You can see earlier posts here, here, here and here.

Discussion sought to avoid the horns of a dilemma; namely, not flattening out the plain meaning of the text on the coming of the Spirit whilst at the same time avoiding the error of dispensationalism. Likewise, we sought to avoid rejecting total depravity and its necessary solution – that is to uphold the view that only a regenerative work of the Spirit could lead to saving faith – whilst not pressing the reformed framework or presumptions further than the text permits.

We’ve seen how different theologians have handled the question of the work of the Spirit across the covenants (see table below). Particularly noteworthy is that things do not neatly delineate down reformed/dispensational lines (see here for further details).


We noted four key features of how the Spirit is presented in the Old Testament:

  1. God is presented with and among his people, rather than in them
    1. God’s own description of his presence (cf Gen. 26:3; 28:15; 31:3; 46:4; Exod. 3:12; 4:12; Josh. 1:5; 3:7; Judg. 6:16; 2 Sam. 7:9; 1 Kgs 11:38; 1 Chr. 17:8; Is. 41:10; 57:15; Jer. 1:8, 19; 15:20)
    2. The people express their desire for God to be with them and refer to Yahweh with others (there are 108 references of this kind).
    3. Any reference to God’s dwelling is always located in a place, never in the people.
  2. The emphasis is on God with the nation NOT in the individual
    1. Once Israel has become a people, after the Exodus, God dwells in the tabernacle among the people (e.g. Exod 25:8)
    2. Later, God dwells among his people in the Temple. Yahweh’s presence is in the Temple (1 Kgs 8:13) and the people pray towards the Temple because that’s where God’s presence is deemed to be (1 Kgs 8:44; Dan 6:10).
  3. The OT presence of God upon an individual always marked them out as extraordinary
    1. The Spirit mainly comes upon national leaders and prophets. When on others, it is always related to a temporary empowering for a specific task (eg Bezalel). All instances, leaders and non-leaders, relates to empowered service.
    2. For example, Moses had the Spirit upon him as a national leader. The 70 elders then receive the Spirit when they are appointed, marking them out from the rest of the people (Num 11:25f). Moses asks for the Spirit to come on all the people in like manner (11:29), which God rejects, implying they do not have the Spirit.
  4. The prophecies promising future outpouring of the Spirit suggest he was not possessed by every individual of the believing community at the time of writing
    1. Isa 32:15, 44:3; Ezek 36:27, 37:14, 39:29; Joel 2:28f


In respect to the Spirit in the New Testament, two verses are particularly key: John 7:39 and John 14:16f.

Now he said this concerning the Spirit, whom those who had believed in him were about to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified – John 7:39

The following points are significant:

  1. Those who had believed in Jesus were about to receive the Spirit
  2. John 1:12f states, and is reiterated in John 3, those who believe in Jesus have already been ‘born of God’ i.e. born of the Spirit
  3. If both (1) and (2) are true, then we must distinguish the new birth by the Spirit from receipt of the Spirit. That is, Regeneration and Indwelling refer to two distinct works of the Spirit
  4. Receipt of the Spirit, that is indwelling, will/did occur when Jesus is/was glorified

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwell with you and will be in you – John 14:16f

Again, the following points are significant:

  1. The Spirit dwells with the disciples but he will be in them
  2. When they receive the Spirit, he will remain with them permanently
  3. Both (1) and (2) suggest the Spirit is not currently in them and isn’t necessarily permanently with them. This constructions accords with what we read about the Spirit in the OT.
  4. These verses do not say the Spirit wasn’t active nor that he didn’t make people alive i.e. Regenerate (cf John 6:63). They say only that the Spirit hadn’t been received (cf. John 7:39) i.e. there was no indwelling.

Taken together, we are led to the following five points:

  1. The OT expected both a Spirit-anointed Messiah and a renewal by the Holy Spirit in the last days (e.g. Isa 61:1; Ezek 37:14)
  2. John presents Jesus as the Spirit-anointed messiah (John 1:32f; 3:34), who brings in the age to come (4:23; 5:25) and gives the Spirit to those who believe in him (15:26; 20:22). This messiah will be identified by the Spirit remaining (John 1:32-34)
  3. Added to this eschatological expectation of receiving the Holy Spirit, John tells us this will occur when Jesus is glorified (7:39)
  4. The OT never presents believers as indwelt, there was a future eschatological expectation of indwelling (suggesting it wasn’t present at the time) and the NT affirms that receipt of the Spirit (indwelling) occurs at Jesus’ glorification
  5. Therefore, we must conclude that only those who live in the age following Jesus’ glorification i.e. the cross, can be indwelt by the Spirit.

The question remains: if old covenant believers were not indwelt how did come to faith and remain faithful?

Here, we must be clear what we mean by regeneration. Regeneration is the impartation of spiritual life that gives a new ability to perceive, understand and believe spiritual truth. It is equivalent to the Old Testament ‘circumcision of the heart’. We must also be clear at this point that regeneration and indwelling are not the same thing. For example, in John 3, Nicodemus does not understand Jesus because he has not been ‘born of the Spirit’. This seems parallel to ‘born of God’ in John 1:13. It is to have the ability to respond to spiritual truth (i.e. be regenerate). Nonetheless this episode comes before the receipt of the Spirit. Examples like these show John’s view of regeneration but do not detail what happens when the Spirit takes up residence in a believer’s heart, not least as these examples occurred prior to receipt of the Spirit.

The question of how Old Covenant believers came to faith is, then, a straighforward one. Simply put, God made them regenerate and they believed. God the Spirit operates upon an individual to see the truth of God’s Word and turn in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ. It was precisely the same way that people come to faith following Jesus’ glorification and in the church today. It is no less a work of the Spirit but prior to Jesus’ glorification, it didn’t simultaneously lead to indwelling in the way that it did following his glorification.

The question of how Old Covenant believers remained faithful is not as straightforward. Again, it helps to be clear on precisely what indwelling is at this point. Indwelling is, at heart, God’s covenant presence with his people. The Spirit continues Jesus’ presence with his people but does so by connecting Jesus’ ministry as the true Temple to the disciples function as God’s Temple (Paul makes the point explicit in 1 Cor 3:16: ‘Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’). As God dwelt in the tabernacle, then the Temple, then in the body of Jesus Christ as the True Temple, he now dwells in his people. Indwelling permits believers to mediate the blessings that were previously mediated by the Temple i.e. God’s presence and receipt of forgiveness by being a royal priesthood (see James Hamilton, The Indwelling Presence of God for a more fulsome discussion).

Ultimately, this means – as John 14:15-23 makes clear – regeneration & indwelling should not be conflated. The wording of these verses makes clear that God makes his home (indwells) those who already believe and obey (regeneration). If indwelling is required for obedience, according to these verses nobody could be indwelt because nobody can obey until they are indwelt. Nonetheless, it is regeneration that leads to obedience which, in turn, leads to indwelling.

Even if we separate regeneration from indwelling, the question remains: how did Old Covenant believers remain faithful? Hamilton argues it is due to their proximity to the temple. That is, God’s covenant presence with his people in the temple had a sanctifying effect on the people themselves. Thus the people were sanctified by the covenant presence of God through their proximity to the temple. He defend this with reference to 1 Kgs 8:57-58.

The problem with this view is that it doesn’t explain how believers remained faithful when they were not in proximity to any of the place in the Old Testament that God was said to dwell. Likewise, it raises a major problem for the exilic and post-exilic communities. Whilst these believers were away from proximity to the temple, and the temple was ultimately destroyed, how did they remain faithful during this period if it relies upon proximity to the temple itself?

A better solution lies in the distinction between regeneration and indwelling. If regeneration is the means by which believers come to perceive and respond to spiritual truth through the operation of the Spirit upon them, there is no reason to tie sanctification to indwelling; rather it is better understood as a product of regeneration. Just as the regenerate find the Spirit operating upon them from without, so too they may be kept faithful through the ongoing outer operation of the Spirit.

On this view, indwelling serves the same function as the temple building. Just as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a sign and seal of the New Covenant on those who believe, God’s presence in the Temple was a sign and seal of his covenant faithfulness to his people. Just as God’s covenant presence dwelt in the temple, then in the body of Christ, it now dwells in the bodies of God’s people. God’s people thus become the temple through the indwelling of the Spirit. In effect, we may see sanctification as the ongoing work of regeneration. Just as this operation by the Spirit occurred outwardly upon believers in the old covenant, it now occurs inwardly within believers in the new.

A final question of application could be raised here. Does this alter how we preach Old Testament narrative? If Old Covenant believers were not indwelt, does this affect how we apply passages about them to a New Covenant setting? For example, when we see sin in the Old Testament, can we expect those believers to be able to resist in the same way as us when they were not indwelt?

Hopefully, as has already been made clear, the answer is relatively straightforward. The Old Covenant believers had the same resources that New Covenant believers have to resist sin. The Spirit operated upon them in the same way as he now operates within us. There was still Spirit-empowered belief and thus Spirit-empowered action. The difference between the covenants is in how the sign and seal is known. In the Old Covenant, the sign of God’s covenant faithfulness was his presence in the temple. Likewise, in the New Covenant, the sign and seal of God’s covenant faithfulness is his presence in the temple. What has changed is simply what constitutes the temple. That is, no longer a building located in a single physical place but – as per Jesus words in John 4:21-26 – in Christ and subsequently in his people. This means this understanding of regeneration and the coming of the Spirit needn’t impact our application of Old Testament texts too drastically.