“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:5-6)
There is some confusion among the people of God as to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. The confusion arises when the following question is asked: “Were the Old Testament saints regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit?”
I will endeavor to give evidence that the Old Testament saints were regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost.
My thesis is: The Holy Spirit is the agent of spiritual life. He has always been so. For there to be spiritual life, the agent of such life must be present in the life of a believer, and His presence is what I mean by “indwelling.”
From Adam to the present, the Holy Spirit has always operated as regenerator and indweller.
The Terms “Born of the Spirit” and “Regeneration” are Identical
Regeneration is the gracious act of God through the Holy Spirit whereby a spiritually-dead sinner who repents and exercises biblical faith is made spiritually alive.
The term occurs with this meaning only in Titus 3:5: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration (palingenesia) and renewing of the Holy Ghost,” or as another translation puts it, “giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.”1
The term “regeneration” (palingenesia) means “new birth, reproduction, renewal, regeneration.” It is speaking of the new birth that occurs in conversion. The clearest declaration of the necessity of regeneration (or being born again) is found in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:1-8).
There Jesus said that one must be born of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. Since Jesus made this statement prior to Pentecost, the birthing (or regenerating) ministry of the Spirit must have been available to Nicodemus before Pentecost (John 3:5-6).2
The Old Testament text upon which Jesus based His “new birth” teaching is from the prophet Ezekiel:
Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (Ezekiel 36:25–27)
Nicodemus, a notable scholar and authority on the Hebrew Scripture, should have recognized the phraseology as coming from Ezekiel. Jesus’ phrase “born of water” is equivalent to Ezekiel’s phrase “sprinkle clean water upon you,” which speaks of the outward change of lifestyle that occurs when a person is born again. At conversion one stops his sinful activities.
Jesus’ phrase “born of the Spirit” is equivalent to Ezekiel’s statement: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you….”
This speaks of the inward change of heart and attitude that occurs when a person is converted. The power to live in obedience to God’s Word comes from the regenerating and indwelling Holy Spirit. Because regeneration or the new birth was taught by Ezekiel and by Jesus before Pentecost, the Holy Spirit must have been operative in the Old Testament dispensation3 as the agent of the new birth.
When a person turned to God for salvation prior to Pentecost (by grace through faith, not of works, as illustrated by the justification of Abraham, Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4), the Holy Spirit regenerated that person and indwelt him. It is doubtful, however, that many of the Old Testament believers understood this.
But the lack of theological knowledge does not preclude theological reality. The Holy Spirit was the agent of spiritual life and indwelt all Old Testament believers. Some people believe that the activity of the Holy Spirit in Old Testament saints was more of an “in-working” than an “indwelling.” They suggest that the Holy Spirit was among men, but did not permanently abide in them.4
It is true that the Holy Spirit did empower certain individuals for special activities which did not involve salvation from sin.5
There are, however, individuals in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt. Take for example Joshua. Joshua was described as “a man in whom is the spirit” (Num. 27:18). David feared, when he sinned with Bathsheba, that God would remove His Spirit from him (Psa. 51:11).
Saul was given “a new heart” by God (1 Sam. 10:9). This implies a new birth (regeneration). Nowhere in Scripture is the word “heart” used as a metaphor for “kingly abilities” or “administrative leadership,” as some would suggest. The Holy Spirit came into Saul’s life and made him a new man.
Years later, due to disobedience and failure to repent truly, the Holy Spirit departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). Another line of evidence to establish that the Holy Spirit regenerated and indwelt Old Testament saints is provided by the New Testament.
Consider the following:
- The New Testament states that the unregenerate man perceives the things of God as foolishness and does not receive them (1 Cor. 2:14a), whereas the Old Testament believer is said to delight in the Law of the Lord (Psa. 1:2), to meditate in it day and night, to hide God’s Word in his heart (Psa. 119:11), to love God’s Law (Psa. 119:97), to take God’s testimonies as an heritage forever (Psa. 119:111), to rejoice in God’s Word (Psa. 119:162), and to eat God’s words (Jer. 15:16).
- The New Testament states that the unregenerate man’s understanding is darkened and characterized by ignorance, and that he cannot know the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14b), whereas the Old Testament believer is said to have light and understanding through the entrance of God’s words (Psa. 119:130), to be enlightened and made wise by the testimony of the Lord (Psa. 19:7-8), and to understand all things (Pro. 28:5).
- The New Testament states that the unregenerate man is an enemy of God (Rom. 5:10) and at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7a), whereas the Old Testament believer is spoken of as loving the Lord (Psa. 116:1), blessing the Lord, and praising Him (Psa. 34:1), magnifying and exalting the Lord (Psa. 34:3). And Abraham is called the friend of God (Isa. 41:8; Jas. 2:23).
- The New Testament states that the unregenerate man is not subject to the Law of God, and is not able to be (Rom. 8:7), whereas the Old Testament believer is spoken of as keeping God’s Law, seeking His precepts, inclining his heart to perform God’s statutes (Psa. 119:44-45), loving God’s commandments above gold, and esteeming His precepts to be right (Psa. 119:112-13).
- The New Testament states that the unregenerate man cannot please God (Rom. 8:8), whereas the Old Testament believer is spoken of as pleasing the Lord (Pro. 16:7) and through faith pleasing God (Heb. 11:5-8, 20-23, 31-33).6 Frankly, there is nothing in the Old or New Testament which says that regeneration is a new covenant distinctive. There is no real basis for denying regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to a saved individual of any dispensation.
Objections to the View That OT Saints Were Regenerated and Indwelt by the Holy Spirit Prior to Pentecost
The primary objection to the belief that the Old Testament saints were regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit are two New Testament texts: John 14:17 and John 7:37-39. Let’s look at them.
THE SPIRIT “DWELLS WITH YOU AND SHALL BE IN YOU” (JOHN 14:17)
In John 14, Jesus is explaining the future role of the Holy Spirit as Comforter in the life of each believer. Prior to his ascension, Jesus had been acting as Comforter. This role began at His anointing by the Spirit subsequent to His baptism under John.
Prior to His anointing, He had done no miracles, had not functioned in the role of Messiah, nor in the role of Comforter. After His anointing with the Holy Spirit, He began his ministry and assumed the role of Messiah and Comforter. Jesus said to his followers:
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you [in the role of Comforter in Jesus’ life], and shall be in you [in the role of Comforter in your life]. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you [the Comforter makes Jesus real to us].
Through the anointing fullness of the Spirit, Jesus was Comforter Number One. Jesus said He would send Comforter Number Two (“another” comforter).
The Holy Spirit, apart from His ministry through Jesus, was not operating as Comforter directly to individual believers. He was operating in the role of regenerator and indweller, but not in the role of Comforter. The Holy Spirit was dwelling “with them” in the person of Christ and was enabling Jesus to be Comforter Number One.
When Jesus rose from the dead, the Holy Spirit was directed to assume the role of Comforter Number Two in the life of each believer. The significance of being Comforter Number Two is to make Jesus real to them.
Note John 14:18: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” The Holy Spirit, in the new role of Comforter Number Two, makes Jesus real to each believer.
On Resurrection Day, Jesus met with His disciples in the upper room and “breathed on them and said, ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22). They did, but not in the sense of regeneration for they were already saved. They received Him in the sense of “Comforter Number Two.” After this experience not one of His followers complained of Jesus’ bodily absence.
In the Upper Room (Luke 24:49), Jesus told his saved disciples to wait for the promise of the Father. The promise of the Father occurred at Pentecost, Acts 2, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. In my view, Acts 2 is the story of how the saved disciples were entirely sanctified. Peter testified that their hearts were purified by faith (Acts 15:9).
Thus Pentecost was the beginning of yet another role for the Holy Spirit.
“THE HOLY SPIRIT WAS NOT YET GIVEN” (JOHN 7:37-39)
John 7:37-39 is not a denial of the Holy Spirit’s role as regenerator and indweller. The context makes it clear that the Holy Spirit was not yet given in the sense that He would be given after Jesus’ resurrection.
After the resurrection, the Holy Spirit was given (assumed the role) in the sense of representing and authenticating the power and presence of the risen and glorified Christ. The Holy Spirit could not do this until after the resurrection. He did, however, operate as the agent of regeneration and indweller.
Old Testament believers were both regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Old Testament saints, before they became saints, were spiritually dead and needed the Holy Spirit’s impartation of spiritual life in order to become spiritually alive.
The continuance of the Holy Spirit’s presence to sustain that new life is nothing else than indwelling.
- New Living Translation.
- If regeneration was not possible for Nicodemus prior to Pentecost, as some argue, then Jesus must have been either mocking Nicodemus or speaking prophetically of a future possibility. There is nothing in the text of John 3 to support either view.
- The term “Old Testament dispensation” refers to everything taught in the Old Testament plus the Gospels. The New Testament dispensation was inaugurated at Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.
- H. Lockyer, “All the Doctrines of the Bible,” p.68; other proponents of this view are L. Chafer, J.O. Sanders, J. Walvoord, W.B. Pope, J.D. Pentecost, to name a few.
- See for example Othniel (Jud. 3:10), Gideon (Jud. 6:34), Jephthah (Jud. 11:29), Samson (Jud. 13:25; 14:6; 14:19; 15:14) for empowerment for leadership and physical exploits. Other examples would be Bazaleel (Exo. 31:3; 35:31), Aholiab (Exo. 31:6), and Hiram (1 King 7:13, 14) who were “gifted” with special abilities in craftsmanship.
- Robert J. Dunzweiler, “Regeneration and Indwelling in the Old Testament Period.” IBRI Research Report #25.