“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord … but I wonder about the Holy Spirit!” Some Christians would nod their heads at that playful paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed. The moral work of the Spirit is less understood. So, in this season after Pentecost (and in honor of the birth of John Calvin, “The Theologian of the Holy Spirit,” this month in 1509), let’s explore an example of the Spirit’s moral work in us.
In Romans 8:9 Paul writes, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” Scholars debate what he means by “in the Spirit.” How’s it possible to be “in” the Spirit? Thanks to developments in metaphor theory, we can say that “in the Spirit” is a metaphor based on our everyday experience and knowledge of containers. For instance, we experience our bodies as containers as we enter and exit rooms and buildings. We use cups, bowls and other containers.
We use these and other basic experiences and knowledge of containers to talk about more abstract ideas such as emotional states. For example, we say things like: “I’m in a bad mood,” “We’re in love,” and “He’s in trouble.” None of these expressions is literal. They aren’t actual places. Instead, we use our experience and knowledge of containers and of being in actual places (which are like containers, e.g., “in a pool”) to talk about abstract “locations” such as emotional states.
Similarly, when Paul says we’re “in the Spirit,” he’s talking about our relationship with the Spirit (a more abstract thing) in terms of a container (a more concrete thing). Paul, of course, knows that the Spirit isn’t an actual container such as a bowl or a building. However, his everyday experience and knowledge of containers enables him to describe our relationship with the Spirit in those terms, in terms that we can better understand.
But what does it mean? Based on our knowledge of containers, it means several things. I’ll name just one. Containers provide protection. For example, buildings provide protection from the sun, wind and rain. Cars provide better protection than motorcycles because we’re contained within them. Our bodies protect our internal organs. So, when Paul says we’re “in the Spirit,” one implication is that the Spirit provides us protection. Protection from what? The “flesh.” For Paul, the “flesh” (in Romans) is basically anything sinful, anything that separates us from living as God would have us live.
So, when we hear, “You are in the Spirit,” we should think of being in a container with the Holy Spirit, or better yet, in a sphere of the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean we won’t or don’t sin, but it does mean we don’t have to sin. Because we’re in the Spirit, not in the flesh! Instead of seeing sin as something we’re bound to do, we can see it as something we don’t have to do. Why? Because we’re in the Spirit’s sphere, protected by the Spirit. With the Spirit’s help and through practices like prayer, we can deny sin.
As Paul says elsewhere, “God will not tempt us beyond what we are able but will make a way to escape, so that we may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). That “way to escape” is the Spirit, who’s able to protect us from sin, if we see ourselves as being in the Spirit’s sphere and pray for the Spirit’s protection. In my wallet, I keep a small circle cutout that reads: “You are in the Spirit!” It’s a daily reminder of this essential moral work of the Spirit in our lives as Christians.