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Our Abiding Help… Can we lose the Spirit?

June 17, 2011

Psalm 51 is David’s great penitential psalm.  A record of his words of remorse and repentance following his adultery with Bathsheba, murder of Uriah, and deception of Israel.  In it he pleads to God for mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. (You can read my previous thoughts on his prayer here.)

Many of us have prayed this prayer.  Athanasius, the great church father suggested that it should be prayed by all believers when the lie awake at night.  Martin Luther said of the psalm that, “There is no other Psalm which is oftener sung or prayed in the church.”  For some of us Psalm 51 has become a well worn road of faithful repentance; relied upon frequently to reorient our minds toward our maker and renew our broken and contrite hearts.  But when we come to verse eleven, as Christians post-calvary, post-pentacost, having received the Spirit, how do we pray this prayer? In verse 11 though, he makes a request that is startling to consider; ‘take not your Spirit from me.’  All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for among other things training in righteousness; but concerning this verse, can it be prayed in light of the cross?

The answer is yes, we can pray this prayer, and recite this psalm to God, taking comfort from David’s prose and the God it addresses.  The task is not whether the words can be prayed but, what we mean by the words, and how we pray them.

Below are three treatments of the verse.  One, courtesy of Don Stewart, author and apologist and the other from C. John Collins and the ESV Study Bible both address the Old Testament context of the prayer.  And finally Charles Spurgeon from his Treasury of David, on how we should word this verse, consistent with our understanding to the abiding Holy Spirit and the desired favor of God.  I hope they are helpful.

 Can we Lose the Holy Spirit?[1] -Don Stewart

 Once the Holy Spirit enters a person, can He leave? In Psalm 51, David prayed:

Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11).

 The Bible gives the example of the Holy Spirit leaving Samson:

 And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” So he awoke, from his sleep, and said, “I will go out as before, at other times, and shake myself free!” But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him (Judges 16:20).

 In another instance, the Holy Spirit is said to have left Saul:

 But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him (1 Samuel 16:14).

 These passages seem to teach that one can lose the Holy Spirit. But this is not necessarily the case. There are other possible solutions to this question. Some believe that the situations of David, Samson, and Saul must be understood in their Old Testament context. It appears that during that period, the Holy Spirit did not indwell believers on a permanent basis; but rather His presence in the life of the believer was of a limited duration.

 Special Anointing

 A second view holds that it was not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that left these people, but a particular anointing or empowering of the Spirit that departed. David and Saul were kings and had a special anointing from God to rule the people. Samson also had a special anointing from God to lead Israel. What left Samson and Saul and what David prayed to retain was not the indwelling of the Holy Spirit but rather the Holy Spirit’s anointing to rule. In the same way, the Holy Spirit always indwells a believer, but can anoint that New Testament believer for a specific and temporary purpose.

 Whatever the case may be, the New Testament makes it plain that the Holy Spirit will not leave the believer.

 And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever (John 14:16).

 Having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession (Ephesians 1:13,14).

From C. John Collins and the ESV Study Bible: (Crossway, 2008)

Ps. 51:11 “take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Some have taken this to imply that the Holy Spirit can be taken from someone, at least in the OT; others have suggested that the Holy Spirit is viewed here in his role of empowering David for his kingly duties, and that this is a prayer that God not take the kingship and the divine anointing for kingship from David as he did from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14;1 Sam. 16:13).

To evaluate these views, one should observe that the OT rarely discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in cleansing the inner life (besides here, Ezek. 36:27 is the main OT text on the subject), and certainly does not enter into technical questions of the Spirit’s permanent indwelling. Further, the fact that this is a psalm for the whole congregation argues against the idea that this is David’s personal prayer about his kingship.

The whole tenor of this psalm is that, if strict justice were God’s only consideration, he would have the right to bring dire judgment on those who sin (which includes all of his own people), and that the only possible appeal is to his mercy. The function of the psalm, as a song sung by the entire congregation, is to shape their hearts so that they feel this at the deepest level, lest they ever presume upon God’s grace.

Charles Spurgeon on Verse 11:

“Cast me not away from thy presence. Throw me not away as worthless; banish me not, like Cain, from thy face and favour. Permit me to sit among those who share thy love, though I only be suffered to keep the door. I deserve to be forever denied admission to thy courts; but, O good Lord, permit me still the privilege which is dear as life itself to me. Take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Withdraw not his comforts, counsels, assistances, quickenings, else I am indeed as a dead man. Do not leave me as thou didst Saul, when neither by Urim, nor by prophet, nor by dream, thou wouldst answer him. Thy Spirit is my wisdom, leave me not to my folly; he is my strength, O desert me not to my own weakness. Drive me not away from thee, neither do thou go away from me. Keep up the union between us, which is my only hope of salvation. It will be a great wonder if so pure a spirit deigns to stay in so base a heart as mine; but then, Lord, it is all wonder together, therefore do this, for thy mercy’s sake, I earnestly entreat thee.”

[1] Don Stewart, http://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/stewart.cfm?id=489

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