You Asked: Before Pentecost, Where Did OT Israelites’ Faith Originate?

We’re continuing our new feature, “You Asked,” where readers send us theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions that we pass along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share in this space. If you’d like to ask a question, send it to along with your full name, city, and state.

We posed today’s question to Jim Hamilton, associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church, and blogger at For His Renown. His first book, God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, deals with the topic raised by this question. Hamilton has also written God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology, (Crossway 2010) and the volume on Revelation for the Preaching the Word series (forthcoming 2012).

Jeremy L. from Columbus, Ohio, writes,

Because of our effectual calling through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, due to God’s sovereign election, we are regenerated by the Spirit, believe the gospel, and are sealed by the Spirit.

My question is, if the Holy Spirit was not poured out onto God’s elect until Pentecost, even though he worked through people in the Old Testament, where did sinful Israelites’ faith originate from if not their regeneration? And how, if they were not sealed by the Spirit, did they have a promise of eternity with God?

Any help you can give to this question would be helpful. Thank you.

Hamilton answers:

I think it’s important to distinguish between regeneration and indwelling when we think about the Holy Spirit and the old covenant remnant.

As an old Baptist Catechism has it, “Regeneration is a work of the Holy Spirit, by which the heart is renewed, so that it turns from the love of sin to the love of holiness, and from enmity and disobedience to the love and service of God” (Tom Nettles, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts, 24). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, by contrast, has to do with God’s covenant presence with his people to sustain and bless them. Regeneration has to do with the new birth, the giving of a new heart, which enables people to see, hear, and believe. Indwelling has to do with the abiding presence of God by his Spirit.

The Old Testament gets at the concept of regeneration by referring to the circumcision of the heart or ears. There is oblique evidence in the Old Testament for the idea that members of the faithful remnant had circumcised hearts. Consider Jeremiah 9:24, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised’” (NAS). This verse promises punishment to those who have been physically circumcised but whose behavior demonstrates that their hearts have not been circumcised. This reference to the “circumcised and yet uncircumcised” implies that those who hear and heed the Word of God are both physically and spiritually circumcised.

Jeremiah also sheds light on what this spiritual circumcision does for people when he writes, “To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it” (Jer. 6:10, ESV). These people hear the Word of God physically, and they scorn it and take no pleasure in it. They do not delight in it, and even though they hear it well enough to scorn and reject it, Jeremiah says here that they “cannot listen”—literally, “they are not able to hear”—because “their ears are uncircumcised.” From this it appears that if their ears were circumcised, they would be able to hear God’s Word and delight in it.

The New Testament speaks of the new birth in similar terms, as enabling people to see and enter the kingdom (cf. John 3:3–8, esp. 3:3, 5). Paul indicates that the true Jews are those whose hearts have been circumcised (Rom. 2:28–29), and the “circumcision made without hands” in Colossians 2:11–13 is not baptism but regeneration.

In light of this evidence, I contend that old and new covenant believers experienced the awakening renewal that the Old Testament calls circumcision of the heart or ears and that the New Testament calls being born again (John 3:3–8; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23), being made alive (Eph. 2:5; Col 2:13), and regeneration (Tit. 3:5).

I do not have space to defend the claim here, but in God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments I have shown that there is no text in the Old or New Testament that claims that every individual member of the old covenant remnant was continually indwelt by the Holy Spirit. In fact, when the Old Testament notes that someone has the Spirit in or on them, that person is always thereby enabled to do what no one else can.

When we ask how the Old Testament describes God’s covenant presence with his people to sustain and bless them, we find God telling Israel he will make his dwelling among them in the tabernacle (Lev. 26:11–12), Solomon praying that God would indwell the temple and thereby incline the hearts of his people to himself (1 Kgs. 8:57–58), and the sons of Korah singing that a day in Yahweh’s courts, at his house, are better than a thousand elsewhere (Ps. 84:10) because under the old covenant God by his Spirit took up residence in the tabernacle and later the temple.

For old covenant Israel, the temple was the place of God’s presence and the place where sin could be dealt with by means of the prescribed sacrifices. Jesus came and replaced the temple as the place of God’s presence, and his death on the cross is the sacrifice whereby sin can be forgiven. Jesus gave the Spirit to his disciples, with the result that Paul can call them the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16), and Jesus also gave his disciples authority to forgive sin (John 20:22–23). The Spirit dwells in the members of the church, individually and corporately, and members of a local church in good standing (i.e., not under discipline) can be assured that by faith their sins are forgiven.

Under the old covenant, members of the remnant had circumcised hearts, and the Spirit indwelt the tabernacle and later the temple. Under the new covenant, members of the remnant have circumcised hearts, having experienced the new birth, and believers in Jesus are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

  • Steve

    This is very helpful. Thank you. If I might ask one clarifying question, how would you explain the promise of new hearts included in the promise of the new covenant in Ezekiel and Jeremiah? Presumably, the promise of new hearts is not a promise of something new that God would do in the lives of his people since God’s people are also regenerated in the NT. Why, then, does Ezekiel specify this characteristic of the new covenant if not to indicate a new work God would do.

    I’m sure you have an answer. Thanks again!

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  • David

    I deeply appreciate Jim Hamilton’s scholarship and passion for the text of Scripture. And I heartily welcome his clear explanation and confirmation of Old Testament salvation by regeneration.

    However, I do question Jim’s assertion that in the Old Testament it was possible for someone to be regenerate and yet not have the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

    I’d be interested to see historical support for this view among other reformed scholars.

    My own somewhat limited study has not found any historic reformed theologian who would agree with this theory that someone can be born again and yet not have the constant personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I can’t see how a regenerate person can remain regenerate without the Spirit’s indwelling. I can’t see how anyone can keep believing and persevering without the constant work of the Spirit. I know I wouldn’t last a second!

    I think R C Sproul puts it well: “The role of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament was not principally different from the role of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. While there are some differences, there’s an essential unity between the two Testaments…So we see that the Spirit was active — regenerating, sanctifying, preserving, interceding for — doing all of those things in the Old Testament that he does in the New Testament.”

    Read the rest of RC’s answer here (pdf):

    Or for more detail, you may want to read George Smeaton’s “The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” (published by Banner of Truth but available on Google Books). Pages 9-42 survey the Old Testament references to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and reach the same conclusion as R C Sproul (Holy Spirit’s presence in His OT people is same in kind, though different in degree).

    Other resources on this topic:
    Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 9, A History of the Work of Redemption (New Haven and London: Yale Univeristy Press, 1989).
    B B Warfield, The Spirit of God in the Old Testament (Shorter Writings, Vol. 2). See also longer article in Biblical & Theological Studies.
    Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP: 1996), chapter 1.

    • Andrei Sava

      Steve, as someone who had the same question as you, I would recommend you to read Jim Hamilton’s book on this topic, “God’s Indwelling Presence”, and you will be amazed of his keen argumentation for his view. I would argue that is one of the best books I’ve heard of and read on this topic. Blessings to you, and thanks to Jim Hamilton for the good post

    • J.E. Rosaroso

      As of today, I think I agree with you David, as also quoting Sproul (though the link could not be found). Nevertheless, it’s a cause for study. :)

  • Jim

    The best book I have read on the subject is Leon J. Wood’s “The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.” I will have to read Dr. Hamilton’s book for a more thorough understanding of his arguments.

    Dr. Hamilton, you mention that in John 20 the disciple’s are given the Spirit. DO you not think that this was a “filling” of the Spirit for a special purposes in the same way that regenerated men were “filled” for a special purpose in the OT? I ask because were they not then “given” (it looks to me like another special filling) the Spirit again at Pentecost?

  • Louis Tullo

    I really appreciate the careful answering of this question a lot. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a mystery. The Bible says that it is so for Christians post-Pentecost, but knowing exactly how it occurs and what specific part of a believer the Holy Spirit occupies is a mystery. I think Hamilton’s use of the lens of circumcision to find a corollary for those under the old covenant is particularly illuminating. It bridges language used throughout Scripture, as he explicates, and points to the focal point of the role of the Holy Spirit alluded to in the question – signaling the presence of God for individual believers. Separating regeneration from this role was particularly astute. This definitely makes me want to take a second look at the passages he references to mediate on the truth to be gleaned regarding this topic. Thanks!

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  • Jonathan Brack

    I would suggest MG Kline’s “Images of the Spirit” … he gets at more basic ordo salutis applied to OT saints. Remember Gal 3, “The gospel was preached TO Abraham.” Christ’s saving benefits are retroactively applied to the OT saints, just as they are proactively applied to us today.

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