Paul the Apostle

The Holy Spirit and our Newness of Life

John Hemer, 05/09/2016

If the Law was the thing that enabled a Jew to be at rights with God, in some ways its Christian equivalent is the Holy Spirit. A Jewish boy at the age of twelve makes his bar mitzvah – making him a “son of the commandment” or son of the Law. A Catholic youth is confirmed around the same age, but the decisive thing here is the reception of the Holy Spirit; it will be the Spirit who guides the young person's life from now on. The Church’s current practise seems to illustrate what Paul was trying to say: when an adult is baptised he or she is confirmed immediately, illustrating the same. We saw in Rms 3 and 4 how God had done in Christ what the Law could not do. The Holy Spirit is the Power that makes it possible for each Christian to do what Christ did. The Law was good in itself but hijacked by sin. The Holy Spirit is a power for good that cannot be hijacked.


This is made clear by the very structure of Romans. Ch. 7 paints a gloomy picture of life under the Law, finishing with an almost theatrical plea: Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Two verses later Paul provides the answer: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the Law of sin and death. Under the Law, even people who wanted to do the will of God were frustrated and held back. But Paul tells the Romans that they need no longer suffer such frustration because the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (8:4).


We must be careful not to become too cerebral when speaking of the Holy Spirit. Paul uses a great variety of language and images and these all point to an experience. The Spirit is not a concept or idea, but an experience, just as Paul knows the risen Christ not through the reports of others but through his own direct encounter with him. As Catholics we tend to reason that if a person has been baptized and confirmed that have the Holy Spirit – whether they feel it or not. Paul approaches the matter from the other end, as it were. In 8:9-14 he argues that if people are leading lives clearly led by the Spirit, i.e. if they experience his guidance, then they belong to Christ.


Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity in this country. Its Catholic form, the Charismatic movement, has enriched the lives of millions and avoided most of the worst excesses of independent Pentecostalism. It is no doubt a force for good. However, we do meet Christians who make seemingly exaggerated claims about the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, claims that can seem incompatible with Christian orthodoxy (and indeed human sanity.) Paul is aware of this difficulty. Mere religious enthusiasm, just feeling moved by the Spirit, is by no means a guarantee that one is so moved. So he gives us two ways to tell the difference between religious enthusiasm generated psychologically or by a group and the real movement of the Spirit.


The first is that it must be demonstrably the Spirit of Christ. If an interior movement seems to be leading to behave or ways of thinking contrary to the teaching or practice of Christ, then it’s not the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 12.3, 2 Cor 3:18, Gal 5:22-23). The work of the Spirit is not to produce signs and wonders, but to transform people into the divine likeness which is Christ. As Dunn puts it: “The character of Jesus’ ministry had become a defining character of the Spirit. In a tradition which had learned to be wary in attributing inspiration to the Spirit of God, this would have provided an invaluable test: only that power was to be recognized as the spirit of God which manifested the character of Jesus.”


The other criteria Paul offers is that the Holy Spirit makes us lead moral lives. In 1 Cor 6:9-11 Paul gives a list of vices (which the Corinthians had been personally very well acquainted with) and reminds the community that now that they have received the Spirit they have distanced themselves from those ways of acting. It was indeed a major contribution of the Old Testament to see that the experience of the transcendent, which is common to all ancient peoples, must go together with moral behaviour if it is to be considered a genuine experience of the living God. The Holy Spirit sets the seal on this insight.



Reflect prayerfully on the two great hymns to the Holy Spirit: ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ and ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’. Their best-known English translations are respectively: ‘Come Holy Ghost’ and ‘Holy Spirit Lord of Light’.



© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.

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