Much of the denominational world are Calvinists in doctrine. They believe that there must be a direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the heart of a man before he can be converted. Nathan Rice (a Presbyterian) made this statement – “We believe and teach, that in conversion and sanctification, there is an influence of the Spirit in addition to that of the word, and distinct from it – an influence, without which the arguments and motives of the gospel would never convert and sanctify one of Adam’s ruined race” (Campbell – Rice debate, 1843, p, 628). Again, he said – “It is, then, perfectly clear, that every individual must experience a radical change in his moral character, before he ever will love God or embrace the gospel of Christ. But are the truths of revelation sufficient to effect this change? They are not.” (ibid, p. 633).
However, the Bible is clear – one can hear and obey before receiving the Holy Spirit. This was true at Jerusalem (Acts 2:36-38), at Samaria (Acts 8:4-5, 12, 14-17), and at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6).
In this article, four different passages will be considered. These four passages relate to the Holy Spirit’s work in conversion.
John 3:5, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
Only one birth is in view, not two. This one birth has two elements: water and spirit.
What is meant by “water”? The obvious answer is that it refers to baptism. Water is connected with baptism in this very chapter (cf. John 3:23). John Hobbs has written – “For the first 1,500 years of the church’s existence, all scholars without question understood that the ‘water’ in John 3:5 to refer to Christian baptism. While the history of an interpretation if a passage does not make it right, the fact that 1,500 years of understanding a passage in a certain way does give the view considerable weight” (John Hobbs, Searching for Biblical Truth, pp. 183-184). Baptism is certainly necessary for salvation (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21).
What is meant by “spirit”? (1) Some have thought that this refers to the human spirit (cf. Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:20-24). That is, repentance. Note: The definite article is not present here, but it is present in verse 8. (2) Some have thought that this refers to the word which came from the Holy Spirit (a metonymy). Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). The seed is the word (Luke 8:11). Man is begotten by the word (James 1:18; 1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Peter 1:22-23). John Hobbs commented, “Acts 2:1-47 is the best interpretation of what the Lord meant by the new birth. The Jews were born of ‘spirit’ when they heard the word (John 6:63) and decided to do something about it (Acts 2:37-38). They were born of ‘water’ when they submitted to baptism (Acts 2:41, 47)” (John Hobbs, p. 193). The word leads one to baptism.
Yes, this verse is difficult. However, nothing here implies a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, there is not clear account of conversion which teaches such.
John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This is admittedly a difficult verse. One difficulty is whether “wind” or “spirit” is the best way to render pneuma. Another difficulty is whether “blows” or “breathes” is the best way to render pnei.
It seems to me that “spirit” is the best rendering of pneuma. It is so rendered elsewhere in this chapter (John 3:5; 3:6; 3:8 – at the end of this same verse!). Marion Fox commented, “The word pneuma in this verse should be translated as the footnote in the ASV because it is translated ‘spirit’ in all instances except one. It is found in almost 400 instances (in the New Testament – B.H.). It is contrary to common sense for a word to change meaning, in the same sentence without warning of the change.” (Fox, The Work of the Holy Spirit, Vol. 1, p. 153). The Spirit’s breathing or blowing is equated elsewhere with inspiration (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21). Thus, this may mean that the Spirit’s role in the new birth is to reveal or breathe out instructions. Man cannot see the Spirit. However, they can hear what is revealed and can accept the inspired message as being from God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). No one can be born of the spirit any other way. Guy Woods commented, “This is simply to say that one is born of water and the spirit by receiving the Spirit’s message” (Woods, A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 63). Marion Fox commented, “All who have been born in the same manner, which is by hearing (by Synecdoche = obeying) the voice of the Spirit” (Fox, p. 154).
Others think this to be a metaphor of double entendre. Just as one cannot see the wind, but can see its effects; even so, one cannot see the Spirit working in a man through the word (Philippians 2:13 cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13), but the effects can be seen (1 Thessalonians 1:5-10).
Nothing in the text demands that this is speaking of a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. God has left the response to man (Joshua 24:15; Matthew 23:37; Acts 17:32-38; 28:24).
1 Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jew or Greeks, whether slave or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”
The “body” refers to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27). It is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:4, 5:23).
How does not become a member of the body? The answer is that “by one spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
What does this mean? (1) The text says that it is “by” (KJV, NKJV, NASB) or “in” (ASV, ESV) one Spirit we were baptized. The original preposition is en. The word can be used in a variety of ways. One of the usages is “of instrument or means by or with which anything is accomplished” (Thayer). This same preposition occurs four other times in this chapter (v. 3, 3, 9, 9). In these four cases, the language refers to something which from the spirit and not to the spirit itself. (2) Compare this passage with Ephesians 3:6, which says that both Jew and Gentile are “of the same body” (the church of Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4 – B.H.) …through the gospel.” Yet, this message was revealed by the Spirit to the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5 cf. 2:18, 20). Foy Wallace Jr., commented, “It is by and through the teaching of the Spirit that we are builded together in the church” (Wallace, The Mission and Medium of the Holy Spirit, p. 81). (3) Compare this passage with Galatians 3:26-28, which reads, “For you are all Sons of God through faith (literally ‘The faith’ – B.H.) in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek… all are one in Christ Jesus.” Both passages speak of being baptized into (eis) Christ, or the body of Christ (Galatians 3:27 cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). One passage mentions “the faith.” The other mentions “one spirit.” Wasn’t that one faith revealed by that one Spirit? Furthermore, the language of being baptized into (eis) Christ, or Jesus refers to water baptism (notice the original language Acts 8:16; 19:5).
What is meant by the words “have all been made to drink into one spirit”? Foy Wallace Jr. suggested that it means “to imbibe the teaching of the Spirit” (Wallace, p. 81). Others believe that the meaning is they had received miraculous gifts by the one Spirit. This seems to fit the immediate context (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-13).
Why this language? Here is a possible reason. Marion Fox suggested, “The church at Corinth had many members who had been idol worshippers prior to their obedience to the gospel (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). They would, naturally, have some unsound idolatrous concepts after their conversion. One concept of idol worshippers was that different gods existed who performed different functions. It seems that they may have come to the wrong conclusion that different spirits caused different gifts” (Fox, The Work of the Holy Spirit, Vol. 1, p. 306).
Titus 3:5-6, “He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit whom He pours out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior…”
God saves man. He does so “through” (dia, “the means or instrument by which anything is effected – Vine’s): (1) The washing of regeneration. This washing refers to the washing away of sins in baptism (cf. Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Hebrews 10:22; Ephesians 5:26). The word “regeneration” (palingenesia) literally means “again birth.” Does this not sound like John 3:3, 5? No, it is not exactly the same in the original language. However, it is similar. (2) The renewing of the Holy Spirit. (a) Some have thought that this is simply a rewording of the previous clause. The conjunction kai can be translated “and,” but in some contexts it is best rendered “even.” (b) However, let’s assume that this is a distinct point. The Bible speaks of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 4:20-24). How does the Holy Spirit renew our minds? Directly? No, this is something we do. We do it after learning (Ephesians 4:20-21 cf. 4:22-24). The Holy Spirit provides the message which transforms man’s thinking. This is an indirect process and not a direct process.
Who or what was poured out abundantly? Some translations read “which” (KJV, ASV) was poured out. Other translations read “whom” (NASB, NKJV, ESV) was poured out. The pronoun is either masculine gender or neuter gender, and thus could be rendered either way. (a) If the masculine gender was intended, then the antecedent is “His mercy” (Titus 3:5). “According to His mercy He saved us… whom he poured out on us abundantly.” (b) If the neuter gender was intended, then the antecedent is the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). The language would take one back to the book of Acts and what it says about the pouring out of the Spirit (cf. Acts 2:4, 17-18, 2-33, 37). The pouring out of the Spirit refers to the coming of inspired revelation. Thus the point would be: God has made this saving message available, abundantly.
Some see in this a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. However, one should draw only such conclusions which are warranted by the evidence.