Question: I’ve heard that the Holy Spirit, being our Paraclete, can never leave us. Can you explain what happens when we sin or backslide?
Answer: Thank you for this question. It is well taken. We earth-bound Christians, although holy as a matter of position, are sinners as a matter of practice, and we will continue to sin until we die or until Christ returns. Does this put God in a bind? I ask because, on one hand God desires fellowship with children, but on the other hand God cannot be in the presence of sin. Yet, the Holy Spirit who indwells us is God himself! So, where does the he go and what does he do when we sin? As in all things, we should look to Jesus for the answer.
Just as Jesus bore our sins on the cross, and did so completely by not fleeing sin, so the Holy Spirit bears with us continually—even while we sin. This means that he too does not flee. The cross was painful for Jesus, who was no less a holy God than is the Father. In like manner, every believer’s ongoing sin is also painful. But just as Jesus stuck with us on the cross, so the Holy Spirit sticks with us while we sin, and all of these actions are necessary because of where we are on the redemptive timeline. It is true that Jesus’ blood conquered sin, that the atonement is complete, and that we Christians are rightly called the Redeemed…but redemption continues. The creation itself is still being redeemed, and this must continue until Christ returns (Rom. 8:22). It is an occupational hazard of being a clean people who live in a foul world that we will be soiled. We look to a future where our garments will be spotless (Rev. 7:9). In the meantime, Jesus intercedes for us with the Father. God loves us, dirt and all, and he causes the Spirit to bear with us. Let us look at the church in Corinth for a biblical example.
The Bible tells us that the early church in Corinth was immature, and that its members were prone to overt sins. That is why the apostle Paul wrote a troubleshooting letter. He needed to admonish and correct them. As he considered one of their primary sins, that there were divisions among them, Paul reminded them (to their shame rather than to their encouragement) that the Holy Spirit dwelt within them. He was not cautioning them that the Holy Spirit would leave if they didn’t straighten out. He was admonishing them that they should behave better knowing that God was in their house—and if the Corinthian believers could not evict the Holy Spirit by their sins, I am sure that the rest of us are similarly secure.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV)
At this point I have not precisely answered your question “what happens,” but have answered the question “what does not happen.” The Holy Spirit does not leave. So, what does he do when we sin? He grieves…not leaves.
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
(Ephesians 4:30, ESV)
In the original Greek, this usage of the word grief indicates that the Holy Spirit is not so much sad as he is offended. In this we can see where God maintains his holiness. God is always offended by sin, but in both the persons of Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, sin, for our sake, is first borne…and then borne with. Neither flees his responsibility to either the sin or the sinner. This is how the Father maintains his separation from sin without leaving humans in the lurch, and both the saved and the unsaved benefit from this holy strategy.
Note also in Ephesians 4:30 the sealing action of the Holy Spirit. This in itself tells us that the Holy Spirit is a permanent resident within us until Jesus comes again. We are sealed as if inserted into a Holy-Spirit-envelope that is addressed to Jesus. When he comes again to finish the work of redemption, we will no longer need this sealing. Why not? Because we will have Jesus himself…again. Remember what Jesus said in the gospel of John concerning the Holy Spirit whom here he called the Helper? (The Helper is also translated as Advocate or Paraclete as per your question.)
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7, ESV)
God would never leave us without a helper or an advocate. While Jesus was here, he fulfilled those roles. But when he ascended to the Father, the Holy Spirit picked up that work. We also know from Scripture that Jesus is currently sitting with the Father and making intercession for us (Rom. 8:34), and in this he remains vitally connected to us through the Spirit. But when he returns, we will need neither intercessor nor advocate. Why not? Because sin will no longer merely be covered. It will be removed totally from our presence. Thereafter we will live with Christ as it was purposed for us in the beginning—well before humanity fell into sin. As you can see, God’s design is for a Christian always to have a divine presence. It is either Jesus or it is the Holy Spirit. But it is never neither.
As good as it is to have all our theology in place, when it comes to sin, we cannot dismiss our emotions altogether. Every Christian has the occasional moment where he asks, “Is the Holy Spirit really dwelling within me? Because it surely does not feel that way right now!” That is one of the problems of sin. It makes us feel alienated from God—and we often are in terms of fellowship. But we never are in terms of familial relationship. We cannot sin without stepping away from God emotionally and spiritually, but we can never step away from our essential relationship. We are God’s children. Always and forever.
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”” (Romans 8:15, ESV)
Sinning, and even in-your-face backsliding, offend God—a condition we should never take lightly. But since this offense results in the displeasure of a father towards a son, and in no way supports anti-scriptural notions like a child being un-born or dis-adopted, the Holy Spirit has no grounds for departure. As in earthly families, God’s familial relationship remains even under the estrangement of its members. For instance, a son who has walked away from his family has never—not even for one second—ceased being his father’s son (Luke 15:11-32). This son will have lost his family’s intimacy and will have certainly offended his father, but it is a familial offense, answerable under familial jurisprudence, and not under the judgment of the wicked. As such, the son’s name will always be recorded in the annals of his family. Interestingly, God too has such books. One is called the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27)…which I’m sure would make surprising reading if we were to read it today.
One issue remains. Is a person who walks away from God really saved? Because if that were true, then the Holy Spirit was never within him to leave. Truth be told, we cannot really tell who is saved and who is not—not in absolute terms. We are not God, and we do not know the heart of another person truly. All we can do is look at the indicators. The problem is that these will yield false positives as well as false negatives. This is why all judgment is given to Jesus (John 5:22). He cannot be fooled! Nor can he be dissuaded to send the Spirit.
What can we Christians do to help those who seem to walk in and out of holiness? Stay the course. People who oscillate emotionally and spiritually need a steady reference—and that’s us! Therefore, we should continue with our ministries and perform the Great Commission. If we pray, study, keep a good testimony, make disciples, preach, teach and baptize, then we will have done our job for Christ and for the world, no matter what the condition of our fellows.