Did Old Testament believers possess the Holy Spirit the same way as the New Testament believers?

Michael Horton & 2 others
3 Min Read

HORTON: I just wrote a book on the Holy Spirit, and it really enriched my own experience of the Spirit as well as thoughts about questions like this; and it made me more uncertain of the answers that I had for it. Dr. Ferguson has written on this really well in his book on the Holy Spirit.

There’s a danger on one hand to so defend the unity of the one covenant of grace that we don’t recognize the peaks and the valleys, the differences from old covenant to new covenant. The other danger is the opposite danger of not recognizing the unity of that one covenant.

In that unity of the one covenant, if David is confessing his sin, he’s prompted by the Holy Spirit, he’s repentant, he’s trusting in Christ, he’s born again. He is a justified, converted believer.

And yet you have to recognize that when John tells us that the Spirit had not yet been poured out (John 7:39)—and even when you get to John 20, and you have a sort of mini-Pentecost there with the disciples—it’s clear that that’s not the big thing that happens in Acts 2. That’s why they are to go and wait for the Holy Spirit to be poured out.

This the prophets anticipated. None of it had been fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry, and I think that’s why Jesus says, “Greater things shall you do when the Holy Spirit comes, when I am ascended and the Holy Spirit comes” (John 14:12). Because it’s not just that the speaker has to be God, but the one opening our hearts to embrace the speech has to be God.

The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was a decisive event in the history of redemption that had never happened before. Ever since we have been living in a completely different era, and yet it is one in which we share with our Old Testament brothers and sisters faith, repentance, and renewal.

Now what exactly does that mean? And to what extent was the Holy Spirit upon them but maybe not indwelling them? All sorts of questions arise. But it seems to me that the New Testament makes it pretty clear that the Holy Spirit came in such a way upon the people of God that it fulfilled the request of Moses, which was that all of the people would be filled with the Spirit of God (Num. 11:29). That had never been done in the history of redemption, but finally at Pentecost that gift of the Spirit came upon the church.

NICHOLS: I think that’s helpful. I think we also need to look at John 3 and Nicodemus. This is always very fascinating. You’ve got John 6, where John gives that editorial, “the Spirit has not yet been given.” But then you have John 3, where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You should have known this. You should know that you need to be born of the Spirit.”

So there is this newness to Pentecost, but also this continuity, this unity. And looking at those two texts, which are just three chapters apart, is helpful for us to put that in a good perspective.

THOMAS: The answer is yes and no.

I think if you’re asking the question, “How is a person under the old covenant saved?” then the answer has to be, “In precisely the same way as a person in the new covenant is saved: by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, producing faith and repentance in a promised Christ that was seen in type and shadow.”

But there is Psalm 51:11: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”

So, yes, Pentecost is epochal. It’s a redemptively significant moment, a unique moment in redemptive history. So there’s something about the fullness of the Spirit and perhaps the experience of that fullness under the new covenant that is different from the old covenant.

But if the question is, “Were Old Testament saints indwelt by the Spirit?” I think I would have to say yes.

Lightly edited for readability, this is a transcript of Michael Horton’s, Stephen Nichols’, and Derek Thomas’ answers given at our 2017 National Conference. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.