The Outpouring of the Spirit


Acts 2:16, 17:—"This is that which hath been spoken through the prophet Joel. ... I will pour forth of my Spirit."

In any attempt to estimate the significance of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, considered as the inauguration of the New Dispensation, the following two considerations must be made fundamental.

The Spirit was active under the Old Dispensation in all the modes of His activity under the New Dispensation. This is evinced by the records of the activities of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, which run through the whole series of the Spirit's works; and by the ascription by the writers of the New Testament of all the working of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament to their own personal Holy Ghost. Thus, for example, the inspiration of the Old Testament prophets and writers is ascribed to the Holy Ghost (2 Pet. 1:21; 1 Pet. 1:11; Heb. 3:7, 10:15; Matt. 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16, and 28:25). The authorship of the ritual service of the sanctuary is ascribed to Him (Heb. 9:8). The leading of Israel in the wilderness and throughout its history is ascribed to Him (Acts 7:51). It was in Him that Christ preached to the antediluvians (1 Pet. 3:18). He was the author of faith then as now (2 Cor. 4:13).

Nevertheless, the change of dispensation consisted primarily just in this: that in the New Dispensation the Spirit was given (so John 7:39; 16:7; 20:22; Acts 2).

The problem, therefore, is to understand how the New Dispensation can be thus by way of discrimination the Dispensation of the Spirit, characterized by the giving of the Spirit, while yet He was active in the Old Dispensation in all the modes of His activity under the New. For the solving of this problem we shall need to exercise a humble courage in embracing the standpoint of Scripture itself.

In order to do this, we must observe that the operations of the Holy Ghost were forfeited by man through sin. Adam enjoyed the influence of the Holy Spirit and it was through the Spirit's inworking that Adam was enabled to withstand temptation, and by it that he might have been led safely through his probation and afterwards confirmed in holiness. When Adam sinned he lost the gift of original righteousness, indeed, but with it also the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the depravation into which he and his posterity sank—according to the fearful history recorded in the first chapter of Romans—has lying at its foundation the deprivation of the Holy Ghost's influences.

The Lord never, indeed, wholly turns away from any work of His hands; did He do so, it would fall at once on the removal of His upholding hand, like the unhooped barrel, back into nothingness. In His providence, and in what we call His common grace, He continues to work among even His sinful creatures who have lost all claim upon His love. But just because they are sinful, they have forfeited all the operations of His grace and deserve at His hands only wrath. After the sin of Adam, the whole world lies in wickedness; and just because it lies in wickedness it is deprived of the inhabitation of the Spirit of holiness.

But though the race has thus by its sin forfeited the right to the inward work of the Holy Ghost, God may in His infinite grace restore the Spirit to man, as soon as, and in so far as, He can make it just and righteous so to do. In the atoning work of Christ, He has laid the foundation for such a restoration in righteousness. But we are dependent on the Scriptures to inform us how far this restoration extends intensively and extensively. We are not authorized to argue that because of the remedy for sin offered in Christ, God must or may treat sin as if it never had existed, so that all that the race has lost in Adam is restored in Christ, and that for all the sinful race alike. It may be consonant with what we could wish to be true, so to argue. But it is obvious that were this, in fact, the state of the case, the race would have been restored in Christ, from the moment of Adam's fall, and would have been continued in holy development unbrokenly. Adam's sin would, in that case, have been a benefit to the race; it would have curtailed its probation and placed the race at once at the goal of attainment which had been promised to obedience. Obedience and disobedience obviously would, in that case, have been all one; the end obtained would have been precisely the same. Whence it would follow that Adam's probation was a mere farce, if not even that the Divine regard for moral distinctions was a pretence.

Nothing can be more obvious according to either Scripture or the experience of the race than that this course was not taken. The Lord did not, at once, treat sin as if it had never occurred. He did, indeed, at once institute a remedial scheme by which the effect of sin might be obliterated to the extent and in the manner which was pleasing to His glorious judgment; but clearly it was not pleasing to Him, on the basis of the atonement, to set aside the fact of sin altogether. How far, on this basis, He was pleased to set aside the fact of sin and restore to men the Spirit of holiness of whom they had been deprived on account of sin, we are wholly dependent upon His Word to tell us.

On the basis of the Scriptural declarations, it is perfectly evident that it was not the plan of God to restore the lost Spirit to man universally. The dreadful fact stares us full in the face that God has thought well to leave some men eternally without the Spirit of holiness. It is obvious that in the execution of His plan of discrimination among men, it was not His plan to distribute the saving operations of His Spirit equally through either space or time. His sovereignty shows itself not only in passing by one individual and granting His grace to another; but also in passing by one nation, or one age, and granting His grace to another. And in His inscrutable wisdom it has obviously been His plan to confine the operations of His grace through many ages to one people of His choice, passing by the nations of the world at large, and leaving them to their sin. This is the meaning of the choice of Israel and the divine guidance of that chosen people.

We cannot fathom all the purpose of God in this disposition of His grace. We may see directly, however, that thus a twofold end was secured. Sin was allowed to work itself out on the stage of a world-wide life, with the result that it exhibited all its horror and all its helplessness. And grace continuously had its trophies on the stage of Israelitish life. Israel thus served as a foil to exhibit the corruption of the nations; and at the same time preserved the continuity of God's people through time and supplied the starting point for the universal extension of His Kingdom when at length the set time for its inauguration should come. At all events, it is a fact that the Scriptures, on which we are dependent for all knowledge of the work of God's Spirit, confine all their declarations of the work of the Spirit through these gathering years to the theocratic people. Only within and for the benefit of the theocracy does the Spirit of God work from Adam to Christ—from the first man through whom came death to the Second Man through whom came redemption.

And now we are, perhaps, in a position to understand the contrast between the first and second dispensations, when the second is called the Dispensation of the Spirit, inaugurated by the visible outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, although the Spirit had been the guide of Israel, and the sanctifier of the people of God from the beginning. The new dispensation is the Dispensation of the Spirit, whether we consider the extent of the Spirit's operations, the object of His operations, the mode of the Divine administration of His Kingdom, or the intensity of the Spirit's action.

The new dispensation is the dispensation of the Spirit because in it the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh. This element in the change is made emphatic in the predictions which prepared the way for it—as in the prophecy of Joel which Peter quotes in his Pentecostal sermon; and it is symbolized in the miraculous attestation by which it is inaugurated—in the tongues that distributed themselves on the heads of the agents of the new proclamation—"as if of fire"—and in the "gift of tongues" by which the universality of their mission was intimated. Here is the central idea of the new dispensation. It is world-wide in its scope; the period of preparation being over, the world-wide Kingdom of God was now to be inaugurated, and the Spirit was now to be poured upon all flesh. No longer was one people to be its sole recipients, but the remedy was to be applied to all peoples alike.

The new dispensation is the dispensation of the Spirit, again, because now the object of the Spirit's work is, for the first time, to recover the world from its sin. Of course, this was its ultimate object from the beginning; but during the period of preparation it was only its ultimate, not its proximate object. Its proximate object then was preparation, now it was performance. Then it was to preserve a seed, sound and pure for the planting; now it was the reaping of the harvest. It required the Spirit's power to keep the seed safe during the cold and dark winter; it requires it now to plant the seed and water it and cause it to grow into the great tree, in the branches of which all the fowls of the air may rest. The Spirit is the leaven which leavens the world; in Israel it is that leaven laid away in the closet until the day of leavening comes; when that day comes and it is drawn out of its dark corner and placed in the heap of meal—then, indeed, the day of the leaven has come. Or to use a figure of Isaiah's, during all those dark ages the Kingdom of God, confined to Israel, was like a pent-in stream. The Spirit of God was its life, its principle, during all the ages; it was He that kept it pent in. Now the Kingdom of God is like that pent-in stream with the barriers broken down, and the Spirit of God driving it.

The new dispensation is, once more, the dispensation of the Spirit, because now the mode of the administration of God's Kingdom has become spiritual. This is in accordance with its new extent and its new object, and is intended to secure and to advance its universality and its rapid progress. In the old dispensation, the Kingdom of God was in a sense of this world; it had its relation to and its place among earthly states; it was administered by outward ordinances and enactments and hierarchies. In the new dispensation the Kingdom of God is not of this world; it has no relation to or place among earthly states; it is not administered by external ordinances. The Kingdom of God now is within you; its law is written on the heart; it is administered by an inward force. Where the Jewish ordinances extended, there of old was the Kingdom of God; where men were circumcised on the eighth day, where they turned their faces to the Temple at the hours of sacrifice, and whence they went up to Jerusalem to the annual feasts. A centralized worship we say; for the Temple at Jerusalem was the place where God might be acceptably worshipped and they were of the Kingdom who owned its sway. Now, "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the Church"— as Tertullian and Irenaeus and Ignatius tell us; wherever the Spirit works—and He works when and where and how He will—there is the Church of God. We are freed from the outward ordinances, Touch not, taste not, handle not; and are under the sway of the indwelling Spirit alone. An inward power takes the place of an outward commandment; love shed abroad in our hearts supplants fear as our motive; a Divine strength replaces our human weakness.

Finally, we may say that the new dispensation is the dispensation of the Spirit, because now the Spirit works in the hearts of God's people with a more prevailing and a more pervading force. We cannot doubt that He regenerated and sanctified the souls of God's saints in the old dispensation; we cannot doubt that He was operating creatively in them in renewing their hearts, and that He was powerfully present in them, leading them in right paths. "Create within me a new heart and renew a right spirit within me" is an Old Testament prayer; and it must represent an Old Testament experience. And yet we seem to be not merely authorized but compelled to look upon the mode of the Spirit's work as more powerful and prevailing in the new dispensation than in the old. For in these new times, God seems to promise not only that He will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh, but that He will pour Him out in an especial manner on His people. In what sense would the fact that He will pour out the Spirit on the seed of Israel be characteristic of the new dispensation, if there were not some advance here on the old? Such a passage as Ezekiel 36:26 or Zech. 12:10 would seem to mean as much as this: that the Holy Spirit will work so powerfully in the hearts of God's people in the new time, that the sanctification which had lagged behind in the«old should be completed now. That is to say, there is here the promise of a holy Church. This too, no doubt, is of progressive realization. After a number of Christian centuries we have cause still to weep over the backslidings of the people of God as truly as Israel had. But Christ is perfecting His Church even as He perfects the individual, and after a while He will present it to Himself a holy Church, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.

Surely it must mean much to us that we live in the dispensation of the Spirit, a dispensation in which the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh with the end of extending the bounds of God's Kingdom until it covers the earth; and that He is poured out in the hearts of His people so that He reigns in their hearts and powerfully determines them to do holiness and righteousness all the days of their lives. Because we live under this dispensation, we are free from the outward pressure of law and have love shed abroad in our hearts, and, being led by the Spirit of God, are His Sons, yielding a willing obedience and by instinct doing what is conformable to His will. Because this is the dispensation of the Spirit we are in the hands of the loving Spirit of God whose work in us cannot fail; and the world is in His powerful guidance and shall roll on in a steady development until it knows the Lord and His will is done on earth as in heaven. It is because this is the dispensation of the Spirit that it is a missionary age; and it is because it is the dispensation of the Spirit that missions shall make their triumphant progress until earth passes at last into heaven. It is because this is the dispensation of the Spirit that it is an age of ever-increasing righteousness and it is because it is the dispensation of the Spirit that this righteousness shall wax and wax until it is perfect. Blessed be God that He has given it to our eyes to see this His glory in the process of its coming.