Does everyone have the Holy Spirit?

[updated 5/22/2019]

A key understanding of incarnational Trinitarian theology is that God has included everyone in his love and life through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and through what Jesus did at Pentecost in pouring out the Holy Spirit on all humanity. Are we then saying that all people have the Holy Spirit? There are several factors at work that I'll briefly address here.

St. Peter's Holy Spirit window
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

First, there is the nature and the timing of God’s call. Paul writes in Romans 8:30 that, "...those he [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." Here Paul addresses the broad sweep of salvation history in which he sees all humanity as included in Christ---in what he accomplished for all through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. This is the objective reality of salvation history located in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And what Paul says here is truly stunning good news for all people.

However, as Paul also notes, salvation history has a subjective reality. Through the Holy Spirit, God calls individuals so they might learn of the objective reality of salvation and then receive it personally. In Romans 10, Paul wonders how this personal response can occur if each person does not hear about and then respond to the objective reality of the gospel (Romans 10:9-15).

It is important to note here that there is no meaning to this subjective/personal response, if the objective reality is not first true (which it is). Moreover, there is no possibility an individual will be able to hear (understand) and thus respond personally to this objective reality if the Holy Spirit has not first been poured out on all people as Peter, on the day of Pentecost following Jesus' ascension, declared (Acts 2:14-21). Said another way, every aspect of the objective and subjective reality of our salvation is wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Because of the objective outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh at Pentecost (a truly revolutionary and stunning new event in salvation history) it is possible from that time forward that, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:21). Sometimes people object to seeing this outpouring as meaning that all people from that moment forward "have the Holy Spirit." By that particular phrase they probably mean that all people everywhere are converted to Christ. But that is not what an incarnational Trinitarian theology declares. Speaking of people as "having the Holy Spirit" typically reflects a reductionist view of salvation that sees it as a mere transaction wherein we give God our repentance and faith and, in return, he gives us the Holy Spirit for the first time (a misunderstanding of Acts 2:38--for a detailed exegesis of that passage, click here).

The truth of the gospel is that through Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, all people everywhere and for all time are, in Christ, included in God's love and life. All are "accepted in the beloved" as Paul says in Ephesians 1:6 (KJV). However, what is objectively true for all in Christ, must personally (subjectively) be received. And thus the ministry of Jesus from his ascension forward is to send the Holy Spirit to "all flesh" in a particular way (Acts 2:17, KJV), in order that those who are ignorant of their true identity in Christ may come to know the glorious truth, hear God's invitation to repent (change their thinking about God and about themselves), believe (accept the truth in faith), then pick up their cross and follow Jesus.

We would not even think about doing any of this unless Jesus had taken upon himself and made in our humanity a "home" for the Spirit and then poured out the Spirit in such a way that he then calls people "out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9) into "fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor 1:9). This calling, in Christ, to God (1Thess 2:12, 1Pet 5:10 and 2Pet 1:3) is the work of the Holy Spirit---a work God initiates and accomplishes for us in the vicarious (substitutionary, representative) humanity of Jesus.

Thus, all people are already, in, by and through Christ, called to God in an objective sense. But that call becomes personal in our personal (subjective) experience when the Spirit moves in a particular way in our life. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit comes to us for the first time, but that now he is working (moving) in us in a particular (often mysterious) way.

Theologians sometimes refer to this new movement of the Spirit as the “personal call” to distinguish it from the “general call” that has gone out to all humanity through the declaration of the gospel (2 Thess 2:14). The Holy Spirit, working sovereignly in people’s minds, turns the general call into a personal call—opening the person’s mind and summoning them to put their trust in God and to follow Jesus. Unless God works in a person’s mind (heart) in this way, there is no possibility of them coming to Jesus (apparently John's point in John 6:44). For an example of this personal call, see Acts 16:14 where God "opened" Lydia's heart "to respond to Paul's message."

When the Holy Spirit moves in a person's mind and heart in this new way, that person is summoned by God to respond individually. God gives them the ability and thus the freedom to respond to his call with either their personal “yes” or  their personal “no.” Note, however, that God never forces this personal response, for love never uses coercion as a tactic (and, as we are told in Scripture, "God is love"). Note also that our "yes" to God has no meaning unless God has first said "Yes" to us, and Jesus in his humanity had, on our behalf, already given his "Yes" on behalf of everyone back to God.

In light of this freedom, which God grants, we understand the importance of prayer in personal evangelism. We are called to pray that God will both call a particular person and that their personal response to God will be in the affirmative. Our responsibility then continues in our calling to share the message of the gospel with individuals so that God may use our words as part of both his general and personal call in people's lives.

Note that it is vitally important to see Christ's incarnation, birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit as one seamless “Christ event” by which God placed humanity on a new footing—removing it from the parentage of the “first Adam” into that of the “second Adam” who is Jesus Christ (see Romans 5). The stunning truth is that through the Christ event, humanity is re-created.

This being so, a more relevant question to ask concerning what happened on the day of Pentecost following Jesus' ascension is this: In what sense was the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh at Pentecost? First, it is important to understand that this “outpouring” was Jesus' sending of the Holy Spirit to all humanity in a new way (as pertains to the New Covenant). No longer was the Spirit being sent to only a few individuals within the Old Covenant community. From that day forward, the Spirit is being sent to all humanity. This is in accord with the prophecies of the Messianic Age (as Peter shows by citing the prophet Joel).

Of course, the Holy Spirit has been with all people all along in the sense that in the triune God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). However, now Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to humanity in a new, personal way—the personal presence of Jesus himself with all people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this as Jesus “sharing the place” of all people—this is the nature of humanity now by virtue of what theologians refer to as the "hypostatic union" of God and humanity in the person of Jesus and also involving the outpouring of the Spirit on humanity.

Do all people know of this inclusion of humanity in God's love and life---what Paul refers to as what God has done in Christ to reconcile all people to himself (2 Cor. 5:17-20)? No, our true humanity is now “hidden in Christ” (Colossians 3:3)---it is not seen and thus not experienced by all. Why don’t all (perhaps most) people know this? Because the Spirit has not yet performed the miracle often referred to by theologians as “illumination.” That miracle will come to each person in God’s perfect timing—at just the opportune time for each one.

This timing, of course, is in God’s sovereign hands, and remains a mystery to us. However, what we are to do is no mystery—the Holy Spirit leads us to cooperate with Jesus in what he is doing through the church, out to the world—declaring the gospel (the truth of people’s true identity in Christ) and then helping people commit their lives to Jesus and then share in his ongoing gospel-shaped work. That work occurs as the Holy Spirit opens people's eyes to see what they had not seen before, then repent, believe, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.

For other posts that address the objective and subjective realities of salvation in Christ, click here and here. For another article on the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, click here. For an essay from Gary Deddo that addresses the biblical distinctions between believers and non-believers, click here.