The Holy Spirit and Transformation

The Holy Spirit and Transformation December 4, 2019

Anyone who reads the apostle Paul’s letters comes away with the clear idea that Paul taught the Holy Spirit was/is a transforming Agent. One example is Romans 8:4: “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (NIV).

Let’s agree to agree: The Holy Spirit works in us to transform us into Christoformity.


That is the question in the work of Volker Rabens’ academic book, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul: Transformation and Empowering for Religious-Ethical Life. This book is now in its 2d edition and published by Fortress.

Rabens distinguishes between two theories, one he calls the “infusion transformation” model and the other he calls his “relational” model.

The first, the infusion transformation model, is standard fare: The Holy Spirit enters us as a separable “substance,” and he shifts in the book from saying “Stoff” (German) to “substance” to “material” to “immaterial.”

The issue here is that those who adhere to this model don’t define such terms as what the Holy Spirit is that indwells us and is infused into us. Furthermore, there is a philosophical implication of the Spirit actually, really inhabiting us in that such a presence of such a substance implies the transformation of our substance (what we are). This inhabitation implies and even necessitates transformation.

Rabens thinks language like this — the infusion transformation model — is metaphorical and has thus been understood. To use my terms, we are not beakers into whom the Spirit is poured (as in chemistry class).

Rabens proposes a relational model that is made of intimacy with God and Christ and the community, and that is how the Spirit works to transform us. Focusing on 2 Corinthians 3:18 he thinks the clearer model is that we gaze at Christ and that intimacy is used by the Spirit to transform us:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

At work for him throughout his relational model, though not as developed as it might be, is the relationship we have with others in the church community, which is used as well by the Spirit to transform us.

If I had to summarize the “how” of this model, and by this I mean the “how” behind the contemplation of Christ and intimacy with God, Christ and the others, I would say he focuses on our being “in the Spirit” more than the Spirit being “in us.”

Though this is an academic book of the highest order, the concerns and conclusions are eminently practical for both spiritual formation and for pastors.

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  • Corey

    There a couple excerpts from this book I read that Rabens released on

    It was really good, but I left each reading wondering where the individual sits. I mean, a lot is said, and should be, about the emphasis on encountering the Spirit through Christ following community in ways that transform them more into Christlikeness. That said, I kept waiting for him to unpack the concept of personal indwelling of the Spirit.