Personal Indwelling vs. Word-Only Indwelling – There is No Real Difference

February 13, 2014 in , Holy Spirit

What the Ethiopian Nobleman Teaches Us About the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit

by: Jonathan Jenkins

Two prevailing views exist in churches of Christ about the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The most widely held belief is that the Spirit personally indwells the Christian and exerts His influence on the saint in conjunction with God’s word.[1] The second view is that the Spirit only indwells the Christian through the mediation of God’s word and He influences the saint only through the effect of God’s word upon him.[2]

For decades, brethren have argued over which thought is correct. Unfortunately, many brethren have caused division and/or shunned those of differing opinions on the matter. The real tragedy in this contention is that for most of us there is no practical, real-world distinction between these two positions. I believe an examination of the Holy Spirit’s influence on the Ethiopian nobleman of Acts 8 will highlight the true commonality in these two views.

As we look at the conversion of the Ethiopian, we will be seeking to answer one question:

 “Did the Ethiopian’s limited access to the word of God limit the extent of the Holy Spirit’s influence on him?”

 Before seeking to answer the question, consider for a moment why the question is important. The Ethiopian’s circumstance after his conversion is unique in the book of Acts. Prior to Acts 8 and the dispersion of the saints throughout the world (Acts 8:1-4), every Christian was under the immediate influence of apostolic direction. The consequence of that fact is that every saint had access to the revelation of God. Even after Acts 8, the dispersed saints carried the prophetic gifts given to them by the apostles into the world.[3] In addition, the apostles were intent on ensuring that the developing Christian communities had access to the word of God.[4] However, we know with certainty that the Ethiopian was the first saint who began his Christian walk outside of the apostolic and prophetic protection.

We can know the Ethiopian resided in this condition, at least temporarily, because of the manner of his conversion. Like the Samaritans, the Ethiopian was taught not by an apostle, but by an inspired prophet. However, unlike the Samaritans who continued to have Philip in their midst until the apostles brought the prophetic gifts to them, the Ethiopian’s access to revelation was removed once Philip was carried away by the Spirit (Acts 8:39). As Philip was incapable of performing the apostolic function of empowering the Ethiopian with prophetic gifts, we know that the Ethiopian’s access to the revelation of God’s word ended the moment the inspired prophet left.[5]

What existed then in the life of the Ethiopian was that a newly converted Christian existed with very limited access to the word of God. It can be proven that he had access to Isaiah 53 and whatever portion of that book was contained in the scroll from which he was reading (Acts 8:32-33). He had access to the contents of Philip’s sermon in which “he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Beyond the truth contained in those two sources, it cannot be proven that the Ethiopian had access to any other revelation from God.

The question of this article derives from that thought. Did the Ethiopian’s lack of access to God’s word in anyway limit the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead him?

 A “Word-Only” Ethiopian

For the word-only view, the answer is a simple and necessary “yes.” If it is the case that the Spirit leads a man only through the mediation of God’s word and that man has only a few pages of that word, the Spirit would be incapable of directing him in the ways of truth revealed outside of those pages. For the Ethiopian, how could the Spirit have led him to worship God in acceptable Christian worship unless Philip instructed how to do so in his sermon? Neither worship, nor dozens of other Christian concepts are contained in Isaiah’s writings and would not have been germane to Philip’s sermon. If the Spirit influences only through the word and man does not know the word (or cannot know it in the Ethiopian’s case), the Spirit cannot influence man to respond to those truths.

 A “Personal Indwelling” Ethiopian

For the personal indwelling view, the answer is more interesting. Undoubtedly, some would give a negative answer to our question. There are those in churches of Christ who view the Spirit’s influence as a blessing from God that is wholly independent from God’s word. This view has growing support among us, but is one fraught with the dangers of Calvinism. A later article will highlight how the case of the Ethiopian highlights those concerns.

However, most people within the personal indwelling community of churches of Christ hold that the Spirit’s influence is done “in conjunction with” the word of God. Most often, they argue that the Spirit works in ways beyond the word, but not independently from it. Recently I heard a gospel preacher state the case this way: “The word is the sword of the Spirit, but it is the Spirit who is wielding the sword.”[6] He argued from Acts 16:14 that God worked through His Spirit beyond the word to help men obey the word. It was stated that this influence provided man the “moral power” he needed to live a sanctified life. While this preacher did believe this operation of the Spirit was direct (i.e. not through the mediation of the word), he was careful to state that this influence was not irresistible (i.e. the irresistible grace concept of Calvinism), nor did it provide specific revelation as to what a man should do.

However, limiting the Spirit to an influence that is resistible and non-revelatory has an important effect in the account of Acts 8. With those limitations in place it becomes necessary that this view must believe that the Spirit’s influence on the word-deprived Ethiopian would be limited. If the Spirit cannot communicate specific revelation to a man and man must willingly submit to that influence, his mind must be involved in the decision-making process. Yet, if man has no access to the revelation of God’s mind on the matter, the judgment centers of his brain cannot be engaged in the choice he is making. There is no benefit to the Spirit’s providing “moral power” to make the right choice if the man has no method of learning what the right choice is. In this view, the Spirit could provide man the power to reject the temple worship of Judaism and accept the worship of God through Christ, but until the Ethiopian received the revelation of the Spirit about the nature of that new worship, he would never be able to worship as God desired him to do.

Without the word, this view provides a blessing with no effect.

 Personal Indwelling is Word Only is Personal Indwelling

Yet if the presence of the word is necessary before the effect of the Spirit’s personal indwelling helps us, in practical terms and experience, there is no difference between the personal indwelling view and the word-only view.  Both views allow the Spirit’s influence to be effective only when the word of God is present. Both views require man to know the word, before the Spirit can influence/empower him to keep that word. Ironically, while most people in both camps hold that the Spirit empowers God’s word, the reality is that both views have the effect of stating that the word is what empowers the influence of the Spirit.

Further, since in churches of Christ most proponents of the personal indwelling view the Spirit’s influence beyond the word as non-revelatory, non-communicative, and not specifically discernable by the individual, there can be no confirmatory evidence of the Spirit’s active influence in the life of the saint. That why so many of us state, “I don’t know how the Spirit is working in my life, I just know that He is.” We express great faith that since God’s word tells us the Spirit is working for us we then know that He is. However, in so doing we acknowledge that the Spirit’s work is indiscernible in the material world. Many believe that the Spirit does provide us the “moral power” to avoid sin, but very few of us would affirm that we have perceived the specific times the Spirit led us to do right separate and apart of God’s word.

Yet, if we are unwilling to acknowledge that the Spirit’s influence apart from God’s word can be discerned in our lives, the distinction between the personal indwelling view and the word-only view becomes a distinction without a difference. The only way to create a practical distinction between the two views is for the personal indwelling proponent to argue that the Spirit’s influence over the Ethiopian was not limited by his lack of access to God’s word. However, in doing so, he can no longer argue that the Spirit works “in conjunction with the word of God.” He must believe that the Spirit influences man directly and independently from the word of God. That is a position that most of us have rightly rejected.


What the Ethiopian highlights is that much of the controversy between the prevailing views in churches Christ of the Spirit’s influence on the saint has been misplaced. Unless we are willing to disconnect completely the Spirit’s influence from the word of God, there exists no meaningful distinction between the two views. We have been having a semantic debate while holding to beliefs that should dwell together in peace.


[1] This view will be called the personal indwelling view in this article.

[2] This view will be called the word-only view in this article.

[3] Philip’s preaching in Samaria is a prime example of this.

[4] The apostles’ immediate reaction to Samaria’s receiving the gospel shows that intention (Acts 8:13ff).

[5] It is certainly possible that a Christian community existed in Ethiopia because of the dispersion of the saints that began in Acts 8. However, it is apparent that the Ethiopian knew nothing about Jesus prior to Philip’s sermon (Acts 8:31, 34). His life provides no evidence that a Christian community in Ethiopia had influenced him prior to his journey to the temple. While it is possible he integrated himself into an existing Christian community when he arrived home, it is also possible that his task was to create that community. At the very least, we know that on his travel home, which would have taken several days or weeks, he did so without access to further revelation.

[6]The preacher’s name is purposefully omitted from this article. His view was in line with what many believe on the topic. Moreover, this article is not intended as a review and/or rebuke of his position. Including his name would only add personality discussions into the topic.