Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Jan 2019

Synthesizing Indwelling, Omnipresence, and Sanctification


The question of the absence or presence of the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is a relatively new question in theology. Prior to the twentieth century, the question is almost entirely absent from the literature. In fact, one is hard pressed to find a treatment of “indwelling” at all—it was simply not a theological category in those days. Instead, it was more-or-less universally understood that regeneration inaugurated an ongoing, sanctifying relationship of the Spirit with all true believers, irrespective of the age in which they lived.

In the early twentieth century, several theologians of the dispensational persuasion broke from this tradition in what I would argue was an overzealous quest to find theological discontinuities in the wrong places. Arguing from texts such as John 7:39 and 14:17 (together with OT texts that see the Spirit coming and going), these suggested that the Holy Spirit was not permanently “in” but only occasionally “with” believers in the OT. One instructor explained to me that in the OT, the Spirit “sat on the believer’s shoulder,” but afterward relocated “inside the believer”; another flatly told me that OT saints, unlike NT saints, were “on their own” for their sanctification, receiving assistance only rarely from the Spirit. [NOTE: I want to stress that this is not “the” dispensational position—to my knowledge, the faculty of DBTS have uniformly affirmed OT indwelling for a good 35 years.]

Surprisingly, in the last decade or so, a similar idea has become popular in some Reformed circles, mostly among those of the progressive covenantal community. These argue, somewhat differently than the dispensationalist, that the Spirit was housed in the Temple under the old covenant and could only be accessed through regular pilgrimage, but that this restrictive situation was typical of the new and greater situation, realized in the new covenant, in which the Spirit would be dispersed variously to individual believers, the collective Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).

I have two major theological tensions with both approaches. Firstly, I am bewildered by the assumption in both models that God’s “indwelling” is primarily a matter of location. The Spirit is omnipresent, so the idea that he may be restricted to a building or to “sitting on the shoulder” is a strange one. The fact of the matter is that the biblical concept of indwelling is a metaphor. By it we mean that the believer and the Spirit are in union such that the believer is no longer a “natural” but a “spiritual man” (so 1 Cor 2). The Spirit’s location has not changed (it can’t), but rather his activity. He has opened blind eyes, unstopped deaf ears, softened obdurate hearts, and illuminated darkened minds by the miracle of regeneration, and afterward he preserves this new condition in believers until the day they die. This is what is meant by indwelling.

Secondly, I am troubled by the prospect that salvation was at any time in history other than what I have just described. If, in fact, the Spirit’s sustaining presence was not necessary to the regeneration and/or perseverance of saints before the Father (and the Son) sent the Spirit on his New Testament mission, then we really are looking at two ways of salvation—one in which believers “have the Spirit” and are thus “his” (Rom 8:9) and another by which believers may be “his” without having the Spirit, which (Paul informs us) is scandalous.

I am convinced that both the dispensational and progressive covenantal versions of indwelling as a “new” experience in the aftermath of Christ’s first advent are instances of biblical theologies forced unnaturally upon texts without regard for the steadying hand of systematic theology. While I am amenable to variations of Spirit activity from age to age (or from dispensation to dispensation or from covenant to covenant—take your pick), the “indwelling” work of the Spirit (such as it is) is necessary for believers of every age.

10 Responses

  1. paul

    I seem to remember an article by one of the DBTS professors dealing with this topic. I was searching just recently for it on the Journal archives page and couldn’t find it. Are you aware of such an article Dr. Snoeberger?

    1. paul

      Thanks John – that’s it. I see now it was listed in the archives. I was wanting to reread it. Glad for the post.

  2. paul

    Very important and helpful points I think about what “indwelling” is and the value of systematic theology interacting with biblical theology. I’m thankful for this post and for the seminary hosting this site.

  3. David


    Really good food for thought. Every time I read you I come away stimulated, edified, and even challenged to think better theologically. You did it again in this post. You are shaking a few pillars of discontinuity theology. A couple of questions to get your further thoughts:

    1. The imagery of indwelling in the NT (e.g. 1 Cor 6:19; Eph 2:19-22) harkens back to God’s indwelling presence in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle or First Temple which was definitely locative. The location had significance. So why downplay the locative significance in the “indwelling” of the church/NT believers? Do you believe that the locative idea has more of a relational meaning rather than a spatial one like the idea of God’s nearness to an OT believer (Psa 73:27-28)?

    2. From your studies, what would be the fundamental distinctions between the Spirit’s indwelling of the OT believer and the NT believer?

    Thank you again. Keep up the really good work.

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      David, You bring up a good point that there are localized manifestations of God mentioned variously in Scripture. We pray, for instance, “Our Father in heaven,” with the understanding that while God is everywhere, he manifests his presence more spectacularly in heaven than on earth. This seems to be the case with the divine presence in the Temple. Today, the Shekinah is long gone, but the regenerate body of Christ collectively manifests God’s sanctifying influence in a way that, say, the mixed (and largely unregenerate) community of Israel did not.

      What gives me pause is the idea that Scripture can flatly refuse salvation in the present age to anyone who fails to manifest the Spirit’s indwelling (Rom 8:9), but also deny that believers in previous ages were indwelled at all. That seems to require two distinct ways of salvation. So…in answer to your last question, I would say that there is no difference at all between OT indwelling and NT indwelling.

      That doesn’t mean that the Spirit is bound to slavish sameness. He did spectacular things for the judges, the Davidic kings, the prophets, and the apostles that we don’t see happening today. On the other hand, his baptism of believers into a new, multi-ethnic body (the church) is something he does today that he did not do previously. I would venture that John 14:17, a text frequently cited as proof that indwelling is a new phenomenon, contextually references the Spirit’s unique work in the Apostles. While Christ, who had the Spirit without measure, was with his apostles, he encouraged them simply to watch and listen, promising afterward that the Spirit would do an invisible work of causing them to remember and inerrantly testify of what they had heard (cf. John 20:22). I hold this understanding tentatively, because there are a great many other options. What I am very hesitant to do is make this verse about indwelling.

      And that is because, in summary, while the Spirit’s whole body of activity is not perfectly uniform throughout history, his saving work is.

      Thanks, David, for the gentle pushback. It makes for good conversation.

  4. David

    Thank you, Mark, for such a thoughtful reply. The immensity of our Triune God is so vast and unmeasured that we are still left in wonder how He works “in” and for us. Appreciate your teaching ministry and for stretching my thoughts about the true and living God.