The Earnest of the Holy Spirit

By Paul K. Williams

That the Holy Spirit dwells in Christians is without dispute (Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 3:16), just as God dwells in us (1 John 4:12), and the truth dwells in us (2 John 2). Whether the Holy Spirit dwells in us “personally” or “representationally through the word” seems to me to be unimportant. What is important is that we understand what the Spirit does and does not do in the life of the Christian.

Puzzling to me have been the passages which refer to the “earnest” of the Spirit, translated “pledge” in the New American Standard Bible. An “earnest” is a token which is proof of the good intentions of the one giving it. Today a potential house buyer gives “earnest money” to the seller, which money will be forfeited if the buyer backs out of the deal. It is a pledge or guarantee of the good faith of the buyer.

Three times the Holy Spirit is referred to as God’s earnest – the evidence that God’s promise of salvation and eternal life is given in good faith and will be honored. In order for the Holy Spirit to be an “earnest,” He must be given in such a way as to provide evidence of God’s good intentions. He is the proof that God will give heaven to the faithful.

Is It the Indwelling of the Spirit?

Probably most commentators connect these passages with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (cf. James D. Bales, The Holy Spirit and the Christian, 117-119). This is the way I used to understand them.

But this view presents quite a problem. If the indwelling of the Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, that indwelling is the evidence of God’s good intentions. The indwelling itself must produce the evidence to show that we belong to God and that He will give us heaven.

But what evidence does the indwelling give us? The denomination alist is quick to point to his feeling in the chest and to say, “I know I am saved because I feel it here.” Christians have long ridiculed this position, and rightly so, as being without foundation. There is not a statement in the New Testament which says the indwelling of the Holy Spirit produces feelings, other than those of love, joy, peace, etc. which are the natural fruit of the Spirit-the fruit of obeying the words of the Spirit. No “better-felt-than-told” experience is referred to in the Bible, and such things cannot be ascribed to the Holy Spirit.

But if the “earnest” of the Spirit is not a feeling in the chest, what is it? James D. Bales says it is two things (op. cit.): (1) faith that the Holy Spirit dwells in us and (2) the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). But neither of those two things seems to satisfy the definition of an “earnest” or “pledge.” My faith is certainly not evidence that God will fulfill His promises. And the fruit of the Spirit is evidence that I am letting the word of God work in my heart-evidence of the indwelling of the Spirit-but it does not, in my judgment, provide evidence that God’s promises are true.

The Baptism of the Holy Spirit

An article in Truth Magazine by O. C. Birdwell challenged the idea that the earnest of the Spirit is the indwelling of the Spirit, and I am now convinced that Brother Birdwell is right. (See Truth Magazine, Aug. 7, 1975-Editor.) A careful examination of the three passages on the subject will demonstrate this.

2 Cor. 1:21-22-`Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.”

The key to these verses is to find out who the “us” and “you” are. The “you” are obviously the Christians at Corinth, and Paul does not say that the Spirit was given in their hearts as a pledge. The ones who received the Spirit as a pledge are those Paul refers to as “us,” and they are “me and Silvanus and Timothy” (v. 19).

It is easy to see how the Holy Spirit was given to those men as a pledge. They received miraculous powers-powers of revelation and signs. The Holy Spirit given to them was a foretaste and assurance of the fulfillment of all the rest of God’s promises, truly an earnest.

As we shall see in the other two passages, the same explanation of the earnest holds true in them, too. God’s earnest was not some vague feeling. Nor is it our faith or even the fruit of the Spirit. His pledge to us of His faithfulness and ability in carrying out His promises was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon certain early Christians, giving them power which came unmistakably and directly from God. This was a valuable pledge, and one which even today assures us of God’s power and faithfulness.

2 Cor. 5:5-“Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.”

This verse does not say how the Spirit was given as a pledge. The verb is in the past tense, not present, indicating that Paul was looking backward at an event already accomplished. “Us” in this passage appears to be Paul, but he seems to be speaking as if his feelings and experiences are shared by those he was writing to. Thus it is possible to understand the passage as saying that God gave the Spirit to Christians as a pledge.

But note also that Paul does not say that it is the Spirit in our hearts which is a pledge. Everything in this verse is consistent with the idea that the pledge was the pouring out of the Spirit upon the apostles and the house of Cornelius, with the accompanying gifts given to others by the apostles. The verse certainly cannot be used to prove the earnest is the Spirit dwelling in Christians today. It does not indicate that at all, though this verse alone might not rule out the idea. But to establish that the earnest is the Spirit in our hearts today will require other passages. This one does not say that.

Eph. 1:13-14 – “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”

In Ephesians 1, Paul speaks of those “who were the first to hope in Christ” (v. 12). Those were the Jews. Then he speaks of “you also,” obviously the Gentiles. They also were sealed in Christ with the Holy Spirit, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance.

This occurred when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Cornelius and his house, the first Gentiles to be accepted into Christ. We Gentiles have the same assurance that the Jews have-we are acceptable to God on the same basis as they, and we have the same assurance of Heaven.

Peter showed that he understood the outpouring of the Spirit in this way when he said, “If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17). “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). When he said that God “bore witness to them,” he was saying that God had given an earnest, or a pledge, to them by giving them the Holy Spirit.

Thus the baptism of the Holy Spirit, with its accompanying gifts, was the earnest of the Spirit. This miraculous outpouring was tangible assurance of God’s promises. We can be sure there is a heaven for the faithful because of this earnest.

Truth Magazine, XX:19, p. 9-10
May 6, 1976