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Paul’s Appeal to the Experience of the Holy Spirit

Paul is well-known for writing on the true use and understanding of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians, and in stressing that there are different gifts of the Spirit distributed throughout the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12–30; Romans 12:4–8). But it is not usually recognised how often, throughout the letters that are attributed to him, Paul appeals to the experience of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer as proof of the reality of his gospel message.

In his first letter, 1 Thessalonians, he reminds the members of the first church he founded how the gospel came to them, not just in word, but “in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:5). His appeal is to their experience of God’s Spirit. This is what they must remember. As a Jew, Paul knows the importance of Israel remembering what God had done for them, commemorated in the Passover haggadah each year. “Remember” is the call of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 6:4–9).

The Thessalonians also welcomed the gospel “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6) — this empowering of the Spirit was a key aspect of their accepting the gospel and experiencing the power of God acting in their lives.

Again, when Paul wrote his angry letter to the Galatians because they had apparently accepted the teaching of the ‘Judaizers’ that they should be subject to the whole of the Jewish Law, even as Christians, he set out a series of proofs that salvation does not come by law. The first of these is their experience of God’s Spirit (Gal 3:1–5). The result of their belief in the message, Paul wrote, is that God acted to “supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you” (Gal 3:5).

He then goes on to remind them of the experience of Abraham and God’s promises to him (as a midrash) (Gal 3:6–26), their experience of baptism (Gal 3:27–29), their experience of being children of God (Gal 4:1–11), and finally their experience of Paul as the messenger of God (Gal 4:12–20). His proofs are entirely based on experiences of God by them and by others.

When Paul wrote to the Romans, his letter turned to the hope that has come through Christ: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). Again, he appeals to their experience of the love of God that came into their hearts “through the Holy Spirit.” It is only by their experience through the Holy Spirit that they have come to experience the love of God, and thus their salvation.

In Romans 7, his contrast between ‘life in the Spirit’ and ‘life under the law’ is central to his argument about salvation and the role of faith. Paul, of course, is essentially arguing in these letters that a gentile does not need to become a Jew to receive salvation. His proof is of the difference between ‘life in the Spirit’ and life under the Jewish law which will not give life. Rom 5:5 is central to his argument — it is the action of the Spirit through which we experience the love of God and thus enter into this new life in the Spirit.

In Rom 8:15–16, Paul again appeals to the experience of the Holy Spirit: “When we cry ‘Abba, Father!,’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Roman Christians obviously used ‘Abba’ as a way of addressing God, just as Jesus was said to have done (Mark 14:36), and it is a word of intimacy of relationship. They experience that intimate, personal relationship because of the Holy Spirit working in their own spirits.

Rom 8:14–17 is also an appeal to their experience of the Spirit, and it is central to his argument. In Rom 8:26–27, the Spirit seems to be the medium of communion with God.

In Rom 14:17, Paul says that the kingdom of God is “joy in the Holy Spirit.” The kingdom of God becomes what is experienced through the Holy Spirit.

Paul was well-versed in the philosophies of the day. He had been trained as a Pharisee. Yet when he comes to proving the gospel, he again and again turns to the felt experience of believers. They know the truth of his gospel message and experience the kingdom of God because they have experienced the reality of the Holy Spirit acting on them.

Today, too, the gospel cannot be proclaimed without this appeal to the experience of the Holy Spirit. It is essential today to appeal to this personal experience in order to counter the loss of belief in a personal God, particularly through New Age thought and the influence of some Eastern religions. The appeal to the loving actions of a personal God is now more essential than ever. What better model do we have than Paul, the first evangelist to the Gentiles, who, when forced to justify his message, repeatedly turned to believers’ personal experience of the Holy Spirit.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in your faith, so that in the power of the Holy Spirit you may be rich in hope (Rom 15:13)