Some Problems with the Spirit-Word Approach

by Trevor Brierly


(This was written as part of a thread in an online group, now defunct).


Hello all,


                I have been giving a great deal of thought to this issue of the Spirit-Word concept in our [Christadelphian] culture.  As you might know I've been active in trying to increase the understanding of the Holy Spirit in our Christadelphian culture.    I've been doing this through distributing Edgar's book, through the Holy Spirit Topics document I've been assembling, articles, various posts to E-E and E-D, conversations with folks, etc.  At first my policy was to essentially ignore the topic of the Spirit-Word, and "focus on the positive", that is, focus on the large number of Scripture passages, etc. which speak of the "indwelling" Spirit in the believer.  I've always been very careful to point out that the Spirit does not supplant Scripture, that the two are complementary.  In fact, in a paper I wrote (which some of you have seen) called "How God Works In Us"  (available from my website  I note that there are multiple ways that God works in and with us to transform us into what he wants us to be:


1. The Spirit

2. Scripture

3. Our brothers and sisters

4. Events that happen in our lives

5.  and lately I've begun thinking about another way He works with us, through lessons learned from nature


                However, I haven't really done a very good job of explaining or defining "complementary", in large part because this is an area I'm still exploring myself.  But I do know that the Spirit and Scripture work together. 


Through the Spirit, the Word has come alive for me.  I've stopped fearing the Word as much, I used to find it very difficult to read (and still do sometimes when I'm not very balanced).  Without the message of Grace and indwelling Spirit, the Word was to me an adder of burdens I could not bear, a reminder of sin that I could not be victorious over.  In short, without the understanding that with the help of the indwelling Spirit I could be victorious over the multiple besetting sins I suffer from, the Word was nothing more than an agent of despair. 


Our Christadelphian culture was no help to me here, in fact it exacerbated this problem.  I have this against the Christadelphians:  I discovered Grace and the Spirit on my own, with no help from them, after much suffering and despair.  I discovered them in large part through reading some books which pointed out to me some Scripture passages, and some Scriptural ideas which the Christadelphian culture has largely ignored (here again we get into the issues of intracanonicity and filtering.....) and rarely discussed.


                I know this is rather harsh and I'm sure I've startled a few of you, for which I apologize. 


                But anyways, lately I have come to realise that the Spirit-Word concept needs to be dealt with head-on.  For my own sake, but also because I think we need to be able to answer this aspect of our culture directly.  It is such an ingrained and deeply foundational concept within our culture that only by dealing with it directly do we have any chance of rooting it out and removing it.  I'm not sure it is doing much good to merely try to replace it with a "focus on the positive", the roots go too deep.


                When I say "deal with directly", I don't mean getting nasty, or rude or strident or anything like that.  That approach is counter-productive, as thousands of years of human history has shown.  But I do think that we do need to have a gentle but firm answer to this issue when it arises, in the same way that we are prepared to share our doctrinal distinctives with those who believe differently.


                What has been developing in my thinking is an understanding that we are talking about two very different approaches to discipleship, to spiritual transformation or sanctification.  One has been called "Spirit-Word" by many, and so I will retain that name.  The other approach I will call "Spirit and Word".


                A rough definition of the "Spirit-Word" approach is the belief that spiritual transformation is primarily effected through the mental or intellectual processing of external information and events, assisted by willpower.   This is a a bit broad, because it can include some of the other items I listed above (our brothers and sisters who influence us, life events - "providence", lessons of nature) which most "Spirit-Wordists" accept as being  opportunities for spiritual transformation in addition to Scripture, though always subordinate to Scripture.  I realise that this definition is crude and simplistic.  I think that many Spirit-Wordists would modify this in various ways, to allow for more direct activity on God's part in different ways, through "grace" or "providence" or perhaps even "His power" in some vague sort of way.   


But in essence, the "Spirit-Word" approach believes that we have the power to transform ourselves through ingestion and mental processing of the Word and willpower.   The Word has power to change and affect us, but only if we process it and use it to self-program ourselves into greater holiness and apply our willpower towards obeying.  "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind" is the great byword of the Spirit-Wordists. The other  four verses mentioned by "Doc" are among the primary source-texts for the Spirit-Word approach (Heb 4:12, Rom 1:16, 1 Cor 1:18, 2 Tim 3:16).


                It would be foolish, unnecessary and wrong to argue the Word has no power or is unnecessary.  The problem with the Spirit-Word approach has never been that it is wrong, but rather that it is deficient and incomplete, dangerously incomplete similar to the way that a vitamin or mineral deficiency can cause all sorts of dangerous problems and eventually physical death in extreme circumstances.  God's Word *is* powerful.  It can be a transforming agent.   It is very useful for " teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness " (2 Tim 3:16), but God uses other ways and means as well for these aims.  Spirit-Wordists acknowledge some of these, but somehow cannot acknowledge one method which Scripture speaks of abundantly, and that is God working directly in us through His Spirit.  The Spirit-Wordists deal with these verses by, in essence, swapping in the word "Word" when they read "Spirit".  The "Spirit", which was understood to mean one thing in the 1st century, has come to mean another thing to the Spirit-Wordists. 


I believe that this approach has more to do with fear, than with a sober and honest Scriptural interpretation.  Some of this fear is understandable, though still not legitimate.    We are an academic, intellectual culture that strives to define and rationally comprehend everything before we can accept it.    We are comfortable with what we can quantify.  Bible study, Bible knowledge, adherence to rules, attendance at functions, correct speech and behaviour, these can all be observed and quantified.  But claims to "have" the Holy Spirit (or, as I prefer to put it, that the Holy Spirit "has" us) are not so quantifiable.  How do we know if the Spirit is in us, or in others?


However, even the scientific or rationalistic mind can have knowledge of something it cannot directly observe.  The sciences of chemistry and nuclear physics focus on the doings of objects too small to observe directly.  No one has ever seen an electron, yet we know that electrons exist by their effects.   Physicists study subatomic particles by observing how they affect other things.  Similarly, we know when the Spirit has been at work in us when we see its fruit.  The fruit is the purpose and aim of the tree, the result of its labour.   Similarly the Spirit can labour in us, to bring forth fruit.  (Gal 5:16-26)  (Plants do an amazing alchemical task, transforming a toxic gas (CO2) and water (H2O) into sugar (and other organic molecules) and oxygen.)   We know we have the Spirit, that the Spirit has been at work, when we see its fruit.   When we see lives changed, where no change was thought possible.    When we see the radical kind of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that are beyond what we can develop on our own, even guided by the perfect word of God.  So I give thanks to God that His Word is not the only agent that can be at work in me.


  The great flaw in the Spirit-Wordist approach is its refusal, by and large, to acknowledge the work of any other actor in our transformation other than ourselves, processing God's word, inspired by the examples of Biblical "heroes", of trying to be made "wise unto salvation" by our own Bible study.    God's Word is perfect (Psa 19:7), but we are imperfect. 


The Spirit-Word approach steadfastly ignores dozens of passages which speak of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the believer (1 Cor 3:16, Eph 2:22, Gal 4:17), working in the believer (Phil 2:12-13, Eph 3:14-21), sanctifying the believer.  We read of the Holy Spirit being given to us as a deposit (2 Cor 1:20-22, 2 Cor 5:1-5).  There are places which speak of the Holy Spirit leading us, of us being able to live by it, helping us to develop self-control, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, patience, peace, joy, love (Gal 5:16-26).  It is one of the ways that God pours out his love into our hearts (Rom 5:1-8), it can cause us to overflow with hope (Rom 15:13).  It is an alternative way to "human effort" (Gal 3:1-5).  Through the Holy Spirit, God strengthens us (Eph 3:14-21), renews and rebirths us (Titus 3:3-8), even controls us (Rom 8:1-39).  By the Spirit we can put to death the misdeeds of the body (Rom 8:1-39).  It is God's gift to His children (Luke 11:9-13);


                In addition there are a few more problems with the Spirit-Word approach:


1.  It relies on a broken tool.


                The Spirit-Word approach assumes that the mind that is doing the processing is in working order, and that there is sufficient willpower or that willpower can be developed internally (through application of willpower?).  It also often assumes that the mind is an intelligent, even academic, one capable of processing the information in the Scriptures.  But what about the mentally ill, whose brains truly are "broken" and not working correctly?  Can minds out of balance truly process and act on the the word correctly?  What about the mentally retarded?  What about the weak?  What about those with addictions and obsessions where willpower is insufficient?  What about those who struggle to understand what they read in Scripture because of reading difficulties or lower intellect?    All of these can get some benefit from Scripture, and praise be to God, His Word can be understood on many levels.   The Word is a foundation on which even these folks can build.  But again, I thank God that we have been given much more, or else folks like this, like myself, are in deep trouble.


                If we are honest, all of us have a "broken" mind.  The biggest factor which "breaks" our mind is our own sinful nature.  All of us "want to do good", but find that "evil is right there with [us]".  How much success can a mind at war with itself have in spiritual transformation?  Limited at best, left to its own resources, even with a perfect Word to guide it.


2.  It is insufficient to effect the total transformation which God wants from us.


                Some folks have managed to do well enough, at a certain level, with the Spirit-Word approach.  This explains in part why the Spirit-Word approach has continued to have a strong presence in our culture.   If you define holiness in the Pharisaic manner as the simple adherence to a set of well understood rules, the Spirit-Word approach may be sufficient if you are one of the few who is blessed with greater than average willpower. 

                But many have become aware that the transformation which God desires is so total and so complete, that it can only be effected by God working in us.  (Matt 5:48,  Rom 6:19,  1 Pet 1:15-16,  2 Cor 7:1, Eph 4:23-24, multiple other passages that speak of holiness and sanctification, but see also 1 Cor 1:30, 1 Cor 6:11, 2 Thes 2:13 for the role of the Spirit in our sanctification.   Other passages speak of the role of knowledge also:  2 Cor 4:6, Col 3:10, )


3. It tempts us to give the glory to ourselves, instead of God.


                When we are the primary agent of our own transformation, even when guided by God's Word, the temptation exists to glorify ourselves, and to accept the glory of those who look up to us as "super-brothers" or "wonder-sisters".  When we know that it is God working in us, after we have admitted we cannot do it on our own, and need His help, then how can we be anything but humble, how can we do anything but glorify God?


4.  It encourages a distant, almost deist view of God


                If we think that the only thing that is required of God for our transformation is His Scripture, then it becomes easier to "put him on a shelf", to remain independent instead of dependent upon him.    We fail to seem Him as someone who desires to, and can be, intimately involved with us, but rather as little more than a "law-giver" and "demander of perfection".    These are aspects of who God is, but God is much more than that.  He desires not just our obedience, but our love, our love for Him and for our neighbour.  He wants to see us victorious over sin, and He would love to help us become victorious, if only we would let Him.


5.  It only works when we want to do the right thing


                For many of us, our desire to do evil, to sin, is very strong.  We struggle against various "besetting sins", deeply embedded patterns of wrong behaviour, and we fail again and again.  We struggle because our desires are torn.  We want to do right, and yet we want to do wrong.    Sometimes at different times, sometimes at the same time, but we never want to do right with purity of heart and motive.  At a higher level we desire this purity, we want to be righteous.  One of the blessings of our culture is that we continually encourage this desire.   Honest Bible study leads us to no other place than to realise that righteousness is our goal.


 However, many us, perhaps all of us, if we are truly honest with ourselves, will realise that we are too weak to do this on our own.   If you disagree, if you still believe you can do this on your own, then by all means continue your efforts.  But don't interfere with others who have come to this understanding that our sanctification, as well as our justification, comes from God.   We are (trying to be) ready for the Spirit to dwell in us.   Don't tell us at our weakest point that there is no other way than self-effort, that we must do it on our own, that we can expect no help from God except through his words.  (Mark 9:42)


We smile at Paul's convoluted sentences in the latter part of Romans 7, but there is a reason for his complicated statements.  Our minds are a complicated place.  For most of us, our minds are like a committee with members with different agendas, different levels of wisdom, different views on right or wrong.   These committee members have different levels of power, depending upon our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual states.


                All of this complicated mess can be too much for us.  Praise be to God that He can come into us, and begin His work of sanctification.  He can help transform us, help give us purity of motive and heart, give  the better committee members more wisdom and the strength to resist the nastier ones (and maybe reduce these members to powerless wraiths).  He can change our minds so that we *want* to do right, so that we desire righteousness.


                God creates plants, animals, mountains, oceans, planets, stars, galaxies, universes through His Spirit (Gen 1:2, Psa 104)  Do we doubt that His power can modify our minds, that His Spirit can hover over the darkness within our minds, and create light?   Can the Lord who made billions and billions of stars not reroute the pathways of a few billion neurons in a willing mind?  Why do we doubt God's power?


grace and peace,



PS.  One area that I haven't explored much here, is to discuss our role in the Spirit and Word approach.   One of the fears of the Spirit-Wordists, is that an emphasis on the work of the Spirit, will lead us to de-emphasise our own role, to a sort of passivity or quietism where we expect God to "do all the work".    Obviously such a view is just as unbalanced in the opposite direction as the view that it is primarily up to us to do it all, with no more help than our Bibles.  My understanding of this entire subject is a work in progress, and I'm still trying to understand for myself exactly the nature of the "working relationship" between the believer and the Spirit in the work of sanctification and transformation.  One thing I think I do know, is that much of our work has to do with becoming willing to have the Spirit in us, and working in us.  Which means being willing to give up our sins, truly wanting to be rid of them.  This is a hard and difficult struggle in and of itself for us, but once we have made progress here, I've seen God give me the strength to make that decision stick.  God respects our free-will and doesn't force Himself on us, but when we ask Him to, I believe He can give us strength through His Spirit to carry out our new desires which are in line with His will for us.












Spirit-Word Passages


 Psalm 19:7

    The law of the Lord is perfect,

        reviving the soul.

    The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,

        making wise the simple.



James 1:25

    But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.



2 Tim. 3:16

    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,



Perfect sanctification is not attainable in this life (1 Kings 8:46; Proverbs 20:9; Eccles. 7:20; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). See Paul's account of himself in Romans 7:14-25; Phil. 3:12-14; and 1 Tim. 1:15; also the confessions of David (Psalm 19:12-13; Psalm 51), of Moses (Psalm 90:8), of Job (Job 42:5-6), and of Daniel (Daniel 9:3-20). “The more holy a man is, the more humble, self-renouncing, self-abhorring, and the more sensitive to every sin he becomes, and the more closely he clings to Christ. The moral imperfections which cling to him he feels to be sins, which he laments and strives to overcome. Believers find that their life is a constant warfare, and they need to take the kingdom of heaven by storm, and watch while they pray. They are always subject to the constant chastisement of their Father's loving hand, which can only be designed to correct their imperfections and to confirm their graces. And it has been notoriously the fact that the best Christians have been those who have been the least prone to claim the attainment of perfection for themselves.”, Hodge's Outlines.