January 17, 2021

Another Look: A.W. Tozer on the Holy Spirit

“A doctrine has practical value only as far as it isprominent in our thoughts and makes a difference in our lives. By this test the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as held by evangelical Christians today has almost no practical value at all. In most Christian churches the Spirit is quite entirely overlooked. Whether He is present or absent makes no real difference to anyone. Brief reference is made to Him in the Doxology and the Benediction. Further than that He might well as not exist. So completely do we ignore Him that it is only by courtesy that we can be called Trinitarian….

“…The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life and light and love. In His uncreated nature He is a boundless sea of fire, flowing, moving ever, performing as He moves the eternal purposes of God. Toward nature He performs one sort of work, toward the world another and toward the Church still another. And every act of His accords with the will of the Triune God. Never does He act on impulse nor move after a quick or arbitrary decision. Since He is the Spirit of the Father He feels toward His people exactly as the Father feels, so there need be on our part no sense of strangeness in His presence. He will always act like Jesus, toward sinners in compassion, toward saints in warm affection, toward human suffering in tenderest pity and love.

“It is time for us to repent, for our transgressions against the blessed Third Person have been many and much aggravated. We have bitterly mistreated Him in the house of His friends. We have crucified Him in His own temple as they crucified the Eternal Son on the hill above Jerusalem. And the nails we used were not of iron, but of the finer and more precious stuff of which human life is made. Out of our hearts we took the refined metals of will and feeling and thought, and from them we fashioned the nails of suspicion and rebellion and neglect. By unworthy thoughts about Him and unfriendly attitudes toward Him days without end.”

“The Forgotten One,”
from The Divine Conquest (or, God’s Pursuit of Man), pp. 64-75


  1. The Holy Spirit does lead us to repentance. All the time.

    Someone once said, “Do you want to know if the Holy Spiirit is at work in you? You’re still breathing, aren’t you?”

  2. I still wonder about what place the Holy Spirit has in the consciousness of the church. For instance, I feel like I understand what a Christ-centered (or Christ-filled) church is. But then is there something beyond that that is known as “Spirit-filled” Am I to conceive of the Spirit as one who is there wherever faith in Christ is, or, like the Samaritans in Acts 8 the Word is sometimes believed but the Spirit could not yet be received?

    I was taught at one point in my Spirit-filled church experience that there are churches when the spirit is present, and churches where he isn’t, and perhaps a short spectrum in between. This may have functioned as an excuse to baptize one’s criticism of churches that are different than one’s own, and perhaps even de-center from Christ because there’s more “exciting” stuff out there. Yet if there is a difference within the tri-personal unity of God between Christ and the Spirit, is there some particular way to understand the Spirit’s presence that is not covered by the notion of Christ’s presence in the Church, like this teaching seems to suggest?

    Right now I’m kind of hovering at the conclusion that where Christ is, there the Spirit is, because the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and the Risen Christ is the “housing” of the Spirit, and thus by extension the Spirit’s presence is “in” the church, because the Risen Christ is. But it’s still a tenuous conclusion for me. When Paul says “walk in the Spirit” is he implying that a church that is “in Christ” could also NOT be “in the Spirit?”

    Or is it simply a matter of evidence at a given time….you could be “in” Christ fundamentally, but not currently displaying the fruit of the Spirit?

    I’m interested in hearing what others have to say.

    • I think you are right…where Christ is, His Spirit is.

      “Where two or three are gathered…”

      You want to see what the Holy Spirit looks like? Look around at the people in church on Sunday morning. There is the Spirit.

      You don’t have to have people waving their arms in the air or having certain emotional experiences. Who’s to say that isn’t just our inner manifestations of what we think the Spirit should look like? To me, so much of that stuff is very un-Jesus-like, from what we know about Jesus.

      • I agree. If the Spirit reveals Himself as anything which Christ is not, then we have a problem. It would imply that the Godhead does not truly dwell fully in Jesus (Colossians 2:9), that the Holy Spirit had more to reveal that Jesus could not.

    • Nate – I agree with you. In my understand of Scripture one can’t be a Christian without receiving the Spirit, so all of us who have received Jesus have received the Spirit as well. And the filling of the Spirit isn’t a one-time initiation into a higher plain of spiritual living, but rather a regular event that comes from seeking Him and His kingdom first. So, a Christ-filled church would be a Spirit-filled church.

      “When Paul says ‘walk in the Spirit’ is he implying that a church that is ‘in Christ’ could also NOT be ‘in the Spirit?’”

      I think when Paul says “in Christ” he is speaking of our position. When he says “in the Spirit” he is referring to our method of living as opposed to “in the flesh.” So yes, there would be a sense where a Christian or whole church can be “in Christ” and yet walking “in the flesh.”

      1 Corinthians 3:1-3
      Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly —mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?

      • “When he says “in the Spirit” he is referring to our method of living as opposed to “in the flesh.”

        Those terms need to be handled with caution. We are always “in the flesh” until we are in a hole in the ground. The resurrection gives us hope we will be in the flesh once again. “Method of living” is an interesting way to put it. The problem is that often those who claim to be “in the spirit” are the most sold out to the flesh, through emotionalism and legalism, and, as mentioned in recent posts, a strange gnosticism which allows rudeness and even vulgarity from those who are demonstrating “gifts”. Those who demonstrate their life “in the Spirit” through quiet, unpretentious, faithful performance of ones vocation are the ones often accused of being “in the flesh”, because they are not obsessed with speculative, esoteric spiritual experiences.

        • I was trying to capture (maybe unsuccessfully) the distinction in terminology that I see in my Bible translations where Paul talks about “by the Spirit” and “in the Spirit” as opposed to sinfully living “in the flesh” and “according to the flesh.” You are referring to the neutral fact that we have a physical body, which I see translated as “in the body.” The concepts are all there but I guess to really sort it out would require looking at it in Koine Greek. But I have no skill in such things so I am limited to the language of the translators.

  3. By this test the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as held by evangelical Christians today has almost no practical value at all. In most Christian churches the Spirit is quite entirely overlooked. Whether He is present or absent makes no real difference to anyone. Brief reference is made to Him in the Doxology and the Benediction. Further than that He might well as not exist.

    I don’t think this observation need be limited to Evangelical Protestant Christians. Even churches that make abundant reference to the Holy Spirit can effectively entirely overlook the Spirit as well.

    An Eastern Orthodox friend began work on a dissertation for an online Orthodox seminary to rebut the oft-made charge (by some Charismatics/Pentecostals) that when the church became organized with bishops, hierarchy, institutionalization, etc. – i.e., 3rd-4th century – the Holy Spirit in effect left the church. He was formerly Protestant Charismatic, and was eager to defend the Orthodox Church against such a charge and to show that the Holy Spirit indeed continued to be active in the life of the Church. After several months of reading and research and writing, however, he saw his dissertation “fall apart in his hands” (his words) as he was reluctantly having to conclude that the charge had a basis in history and fact.

    I don’t know if he finished his dissertation (I know he continued working on it, as his adviser apparently encouraged him to do so, even though it would reflect negatively on the Orthodox Church), but he subsequently left the Orthodox Church.

    • As with Steve comment above, if Jesus isn’t present, neither is the Spirit.

      “…when the church became organized with bishops, hierarchy, institutionalization, etc…the Holy Spirit in effect left the church.”

      Montanism? I see a pattern, where people embrace “the spirit” whenever they what to shed authority and accountability and do whatever you feel and blame it on “the spirit”. I think there is a need for objective leadership and credal belief balanced with subjective experience. In John Wesley’s quadrilateral (yes, some debate whether this was his idea), there is a place for experience, but only after scripture, tradition, and reason. Reversing the order is putting the cart before the horse.

  4. Tozer is a favorite of mine. I would love to see more people today take note of his writings. He has so many relevant things to say.

  5. That’s some good stuff that Tozer wrote.

    I read this on wikipedia about him: “Among the more than 40 books that he authored, at least two are regarded as Christian classics: The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy.His books impress on the reader the possibility and necessity for a deeper relationship with God.
    Living a simple and non-materialistic lifestyle, he and his wife, Ada Cecelia Pfautz, never owned a car, preferring bus and train travel. Even after becoming a well-known Christian author, Tozer signed away much of his royalties to those who were in need.”

    He sounds like a guy I need to add to my list of writers whose works I will read.

  6. The Knowledge of the Holy. Keys to the Deeper Life. When I pick up a Tozer book, its like drinking from a fresh mountain stream; a deeply spiritual thinker I cannot put down.

  7. What’s distressing to me is that people like Tozer – or maybe I should say specifically Tozer and Hannah Whitall Smith, author of the classic The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life – apparently had and lived lives that in many ways contradicted their writings; I.e., their teachings really didn’t work for them. Almost as if their mysticism/spirituality was a way to avoid people, life, and the world, not love and save them. http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/aw-tozer-a-passion-for-god

    • Tozer was a passionate lover of God while at the same time a less than perfect husband and father. Sounds a lot like David, the man after God’s own heart. A real mixed bag of seeking after God and stumbling in many of the practical areas of life. Are any of us really different than that?

      • Yes, I think and believe and know that some of us are different than that. Because I think it’s worse when one writes high and lofty spiritual-sounding things and they don’t come from experience and one’s real walk with Christ, and are in fact belied by one’s real life. I.e., if it’s not working for you, don’t write and talk and act like it does. Or if you do talk about it, don’t fail to speak of your constant real-life failures in these areas.

        When our “deeper life” pastor of many years fell, so to speak., what was maybe worse than what he did was how he responded. I.e., all his talk about being crucified with Christ, dying to self, living by the cross, etc., was pretty much negated by the way he responded – cover-ups, denials, hiding, blaming others, turning the church against those confronting him, etc. – when some things were exposed; i.e., the exact opposite of what he taught and preached to others how to be, having led others to believe that he had “arrived” and was living by “Christ in you (i.e., him), the hope of glory,” etc. After some reflection and learning more about cults and cult leaders, some of us concluded we were dealing with someone with NPD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

        • Joseph (the original) says

          don’t get up on a soapbox & tell others to practice what you preach…

          simply preach what you practice. the obvious will be, well, obvious…


        • The difference is that Tozer never “fell.” That is a different matter. What you have in Tozer’s life is a contemplative introvert who had trouble reaching out and connecting on a one-to-one level. The same contemplative nature that aided him in his inward pursuits inhibited him in his personal human interaction. But he struggled against it his whole life. That is entirely different than the situation you referred to with your former pastor.

          • I agree they’re different situations, but if one’s public or published or preached “life in Christ” “how to know Christ” “how to live/walk in the Spirit” doesn’t or can’t translate to or work in one’s own life, then I’d rather spend time reading or listening to someone else’s spiritual advice. YMMV.

          • “…if one’s public or published or preached ‘life in Christ’ ‘how to know Christ’ ‘how to live/walk in the Spirit’ doesn’t or can’t translate to or work in one’s own life, then I’d rather spend time reading or listening to someone else’s spiritual advice.”

            Everyone struggles with something. The conflicting accounts of how Francis Schaeffer dealt with his chronic depression are a perfect example. I still read Schaeffer despite his sons disputed accounts of his bad behavior. Seeing all the good that men like Tozer and Schaeffer did in spite of their internal struggles gives me hope and makes me admire them all the more. They were screw ups just like me, King David, St. Peter, etc.

            So we aren’t just talking about people who fall and don’t repent (I would probably agree with you on those). Beyond that you don’t even want to read a writer who struggles with aspects of their personality. Then I would advise you not to look to closely at the lives of those you admire or your reading list might get pretty short.

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