Understanding the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit

Do all people – even unbelievers – have the Holy Spirit? My theory is that He lives in everybody, but they don’t become aware of His presence until they accept Christ as Savior. I remember stealing something once when I was a child – long before I became a believer – and hearing a little voice inside my head telling me that what I had done was wrong. Wasn’t that the voice of the Spirit?

The New Testament Scriptures clearly teach that no one has the Holy Spirit until he or she turns to God and asks to receive His indwelling presence (Luke 11:13) through faith in Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, it would be accurate to say that this indwelling is the mechanism whereby the Christian’s salvation is accomplished and sealed.

We’ll go further than this and assert that the anointing of the Spirit is the single most important mark distinguishing believers from non-believers. As Paul writes in Romans 8:7-9, “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” Elsewhere the same apostle says, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). And Jesus Himself tells His disciples, “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).

Biblically speaking, it’s important to understand that fallen, unregenerate man is not totally bad nor even as bad as he might possibly be. Though he has a sin nature and is not yet indwelt by the Holy Spirit, this does not mean that he is completely devoid of the knowledge of God, of good and evil, and of right and wrong. On the contrary, Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-20 that the unsaved are responsible for their actions, since “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”

The “little voice” you heard as a child telling you that it’s wrong to steal was not the Holy Spirit – it was your conscience. Even the unredeemed have a conscience (though some have seared or hardened it to the point where it’s gone dormant – see 1 Timothy 4:2). As Paul writes in the second chapter of Romans, “When the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (verses 14 and 15). So then, even the natural man, as a human being made in the Creator’s image, possesses a natural understanding of God’s truth and moral standards. But this is not the same thing as saying that he possesses (or is possessed by) the Holy Spirit.

If you’d like to talk further, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to discuss your questions and concerns with you over the phone.

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