Graham Cole, currently professor of biblical and theological studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is the author of two excellent books on the Holy Spirit.
In the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series he contributed the volume He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
He has also written a popular-level book, answering six common questions about the Spirit and his work: Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Real Questions, Practical Answers.
I think folks on both sides of the cessationist-continuationist divide will appreciate his work. (For example, even though Dr. Cole is not a charismatic per se, see this recommendation by C.J. Mahaney for both of these books.)
Dr. Cole recently agreed to answer a few questions for me—in essence, the same questions he addresses in Engaging with the Holy Spirit. Check out the book if you want to explore his perspective further. (You can read online for free the foreword by David Peterson, Cole’s introduction, and the first chapter on blaspheming the Holy Spirit.)
Christians throughout the ages have feared that they may have committed the unpardonable sin—blaspheming the Spirit. What’s your understanding of what Jesus meant by this sin? How would you counsel those who fear they’ve committed it?
A good and needful question! I have had more than one person ask me this question out of fear that they had committed it. These folk include theological students.
Given the sweep of biblical testimony I believe Jesus was speaking of a settled attitude of unbelief that rejects Jesus whose ministry is Spirit impelled.
I say “settled” because in Mark 3 when Jesus warns the teachers of the law about the sin he also reasons with them. They were claiming that Jesus’ mighty deeds were demonic in origin. Jesus mounts a brilliant ad hominem argument. Let’s say you teachers are right. Then does that not mean that Satan is fighting Satan? If so, how can his kingdom survive? The very fact that he reasons with them suggests strongly that despite what they were saying they had not yet committed the unpardonable sin.
So I say to people worried that they may have committed the sin: that very worry is a healthy sign of a conscience alive to God and that the unpardonable sin does not apply to them.
Is it okay to pray to the Holy Spirit?
Nowhere in Scripture do we find praying to the Spirit either described or commanded.
There are prayers to God in the Old Testament (e.g. the Psalms), praying to the Father in the New Testament (Matthew 6), to the Son (Acts 7)—but not to the Spirit. We do find that the Spirit prays for us however (Romans 8).
But the Spirit is God, and we are to pray to God surely. So on first principles we may indeed pray to the Spirit.
Yet I would counsel that the main way are to pray given the biblical testimony is to the Father in the name of the Son in the Spirit. I think that this structure wonderfully encapsulates the gospel. The great gospel benefit is that we are invited into the Son’s communion with the father through the Spirit (Romans 8 and Galatians 4). This way of praying preserves the mediatorship of Christ. After all, we are Christians not Spiritians.
Several times in Scripture we’re told of negative actions directed against the Holy Spirit. Stephen said the Israelites were resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and Paul warned the Church not to grieve or quench the Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). What does those actions entail?
To resist the Spirit is to set oneself against the Word of God whether heard or read. In Acts 7 it is a sin of the outsider. Those who heard Stephen were furious at what he said and gnashed their teeth against him. What a contrast with the crowd at Pentecost in Acts 2. When they heard Peter they were cut to the heart and asked Peter, “What shall we do?”
To grieve the Spirit quite simply in the argument of Ephesians 4 is to act like a pagan. The Spirit’s sorrow at this is real. The living God is no frozen absolute but is perfectly personal. Persons grieve when appropriate. Such grief is a sign of divine perfection and not divine weakness.
To quench the Spirit is a sin of the insider. It is to despise the word of God. Disregarding how that Word is engaging our conscience is an example of such quenching. As Calvin has taught us, the Lord relates to us by his Word and Spirit. How do we hear that Word today? We hear when the Scriptures are read publicly in the church, faithfully expounded from the pulpit, and privately read in our homes. To be biblically illiterate or unexposed to faithful Bible preaching and teaching is a tragedy for God’s people.
We are commanded to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). How do we do that?
A great question!
The first thing to notice is that Ephesians 5:18 is addressed to a congregation.
Next, it may be translated “Be filled by the Spirit!” In fact, in context Paul is contrasting the sort of behaviors you see in a pagan assembly (e.g., drunkenness) and what is to characterize a Christian one (e.g., making melody in your [plural] heart [singular] to the Lord and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ).
In my view, it is not about power for service for the individual. We obey this command when our Christian meeting is filled by the Spirit with these kinds of practices. Then we truly are the temple of the Holy Spirit that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 2.
However, Paul specifies no steps. So what’s the way forward? I suggest Acts 4 provides a paradigm case. These early Christians gathered in the face of persecution and prayed for boldness to proclaim the gospel. Interestingly they did not pray to be filled with the Spirit. And what did God do? He filled them with the Spirit and they spoke boldly indeed. So I would counsel if you want to be filled with the Spirit, set your heart and life prayerfully on the next step of Christian faith and obedience and you will be filled with the Spirit.
Back to Ephesians 5. When we as a congregation prayerfully fill our meeting with the practices set out in Ephesians 5:19-21 we can trust that our assembly really is the temple of the Spirit. In these practices the focus shifts from me to the Lord, and my brothers and sisters.