Part Two of The Holy Spirit in John
The Holy Spirit gives new birth and life from above. The famous dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:3-8 makes this clear:
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
As we do at multiple points in John’s gospel, we find a pairing of water and Spirit here. I’m inclined to think that John intends for us to hear a reference to baptism in the word “water.” Water, paired with the Spirit, is the key to entering the kingdom of God. The contrast of flesh and Spirit is clearly adversative; the pairing of water and Spirit appears to me to be complementary.
In a similar manner, Luke pairs baptism and the Holy Spirit. That’s not to say the relationship is mechanical or formulaic. In Acts, baptism sometimes precedes the coming of the Spirit, sometimes accompanies and sometimes follows. The fact is, however, they always belong in the same constellation of events. Peter’s establishes the association in Acts 2:38:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Like Luke, John sees the gift of the Spirit coming to every Christian – “every one of you” – at the beginning of their life in Christ. Again, the activity of the Spirit cannot be reduced to a formula or a ritual. The Spirit acts with God’s own freedom. The wind blows where it wills. Still, there is no life in Christ apart from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Where there is spiritual life, it is the work of God through the power of the Spirit.
I’ve seen surveys that ask Christians if they are “born again Christians,” and I’m always surprised that the affirmatives don’t equal 100%. A “born again” or “born from above” Christian is the only kind of Christian there is. To be clear, I don’t mean that “my version” of being born again is the only way to be a Christian. Being a “born from above Christian” isn’t a matter of style or outlook or experience or even theology. Jesus is simply stating a fact. Everyone who has spiritual life has it because God gave it to them.
Again, I’ve seen surveys asking Christians if they were filled with the Spirit. And again the answer for all is “Yes.” All Christians have the Holy Spirit It’s not a matter of speaking in tongues or ecstatic experiences or raising one’s hand in worship or any other caricature of the Spirit’s presence. Without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, there is no spiritual life! Like the gift of being “born from above,” the endowment of the Holy Spirit is a gift from God. It is, in fact, the same gift. The presence of the Spirit is the one and only means by which a person can have life from above. Recognizing that my life in God is the work of his Spirit is not a claim of privilege; it is an acknowledgment of dependency.
That’s not to say that anyone is born of God apart from faith. John begins his gospel by announcing:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John 1:12-13
And he concludes Jesus’ dialog with Nicodemus with multiple affirmations about the relationship between faith and life:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
In John 5:24, Jesus says that those who have faith in Jesus’ words as the word of God have eternal life:
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
John 6:63 recapitulates the relationship between the Spirit and life:
The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.
The contrast between Spirit and flesh is still present, but this time the Spirit partners with the words of Jesus instead of the waters of baptism. We will turn to the association between Jesus’ words and the Holy Spirit in a subsequent section.