What is the difference between God's omnipresence and the Holy Spirit's manifest presence?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: What is the difference between Omnipresence and the Manifest Presence of the Holy Spirit? 

Answer: God’s omnipresence has to do with the nature of his existence. God is omnipresent whether or not we experience his presence. But God’s manifest presence has to do with our experience of God’s existence. He is often manifestly (overtly) “with us” — and this phenomenon can occur whether or not we understand his nature. These are not opposites — but they are different types of things. Where God’s omniscience tends to be a useful fact that lives comfortably in a theological dictionary, God’s manifest presence is an action that occurs in the believer’s life. But is this limited by the Holy Spirit? Yes and no.

God’s “omnipresence” applies to all persons in the Trinity. But his “manifest presence” applies specifically to the Holy Spirit — just as the “incarnate presence” applies only to Jesus. That being said, although these differing modes of presence are revealed as distinct in agency, application and description — that separation only goes so far. The entire Godhead (being entirely infinite) must participate as co-agents on some level, and the entire Godhead receives the glory. Nevertheless, we will speak about each person as being distinct when needed.

Omnipresence is one of God’s many attributes. It is a technical term, though — the kind that theologians and philosophers invent after studying the Bible, pondering creation and applying logic. They consider what attributes a “Supreme Being” must have in order to fit that billing. It turns out that such a being would have to be present in every place, at every time and in every thought — at the same time and to an infinite degree. Furthermore, he would have to do this in such a way that one instance of his presence was not nearer or farther, nor more intense or less intense, in relation to his presence at any other reference point. Therefore, God must be present everywhere and completely — all at the same time.

Now, this is a useful piece of information… but it doesn’t exactly “lift the soul.” God’s manifest presence, however, does lift the soul — and this, by definition.

The term manifest means that something is clear or obvious to the eye or mind… and God’s omnipresence is simply not that. But his manifest presence is. When the Holy Spirit of God interacts with you in such a clear and obvious way as to make the hair on your arm stand up, you are experiencing God’s manifest presence — he is at your spiritual elbow (so to speak).

Now, God’s omnipresence also puts him at your elbow. But unless God chose to manifest his presence there, you would have to ponder his omnipresence — and especially as it related to your elbow — to gain any benefit from it. This might only yield the type of comfort that comes from mental assent. But when you interface with the Holy Spirit in a visceral way, what you “know” academically does not matter. God is with you — period! So, here is how God’s omnipresence and his manifest presence relate.

We will never lose the reality of God’s presence (omnipresence means that God will be with us at every moment), but we might well lose the sense of his presence — because God is not manifestly with us (in a way that is clear or obvious to the eye or mind) at every moment. So, God’s omnipresence exists with or without us; it is continual and eternal. Whereas God’s manifest presence exists for us; it is occasional and wonderful. Why only occasional? We fallen humans could not stand to be thrilled in every moment! Besides, the Spirit’s manifest presence on this earth reminds us that he is our helper only until Jesus returns. Then Jesus will be with us — manifestly and forever — as we join him in the kingdom’s consummation.

Let us look at some scriptures that illustrate the different types of God’s presence.

When David wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7, NIV), he was referring to God’s omnipresence. But when he wrote, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11, NIV), he was talking about God’s manifest presence. David knew two things: he knew his theology… but he also knew his life as God’s chosen — and we should do the same. Every believer should strive to know God well (2 Timothy 2:15). Then, we should plead for — and cherish — his presence.

I believe that the paragraphs above have answered your question, but there are a few related issues that we should discuss, like the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
(1 Corinthians 6:19–20, NIV)

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he assigned us some tasks (Matthew 28:18-20), and he left a helper for us, too (John 14:16). This is why each believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling within. Yet this indwelling presence is different from God’s omnipresence — or even his manifest presence. The indwelling Spirit enables us to do the work of Jesus Christ. As members of his Body (called the Church), we are Jesus’ hands and feet until he returns. So, the Holy Spirit is a necessary helper for spiritual tasks like illuminating the Scripture, managing spiritual gifts, etc. But — even though we have the Holy Spirit living within us 24/7, we do not have God’s manifest presence 24/7. That is still a special visitation. So, what does this mean?

Every believer in Jesus Christ has as much of the Holy Spirit indwelling him as he will ever have. So, when that same indwelling Spirit, who is also omnipresent, visits a believer in a special manifest way that is extra to the indwelling, nothing internally changes. The believer does not suddenly have “more” of the Spirit during those moments. Indeed, one cannot have “more” or “less” of the infinite. This is just another instance of the special manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence; it just happens to be coming upon a person who has the same Spirit dwelling within. This is neither redundant (an extra effect should be welcomed by a finite person) nor impossible (via God’s omnipresence and infinitude).

As a final note, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit is an issue that divides churches. Evangelical churches tend to downplay it, while the Charismatic churches tend to emphasize it. The result is that Evangelicals accuse the Charismatics of ignoring the Scripture in their worship services, while the Charismatics accuse the Evangelicals of being “theological Christians” — knowledgeable people who give Bible lectures on Sunday instead of worshiping. I find truth in both statements.

But I am going to give the last word to a Charismatic, Dr. Michael Brown, who wrote a well-balanced article for the CharismaNews blog. Brown advocates for God’s manifest presence — and he should. But he does not just beat that drum. He first qualifies the Spirit’s activities in terms that would make the crustiest Evangelical weep. (c.f. paragraphs 2, 3 in italics below). With that, he has gained my ear… and my respect.

(Having just cited instances of the Spirit’s manifest presence, Brown continues…)

That is the power of the gospel! That is the power of the Spirit! And that is why it is so important that we welcome God’s Spirit in our midst, however He wants to move and whenever He wants to move.

Yes, it is absolutely true that we are called to be disciples and make disciples, and that requires day-to-day obedience in big things and little things. It requires ongoing submission to the Word of God and the continual conforming of our character to the image of Jesus by the grace and help of God. It calls for careful and prayerful study of the Word, solid relationships with other believers and a consistent outreach to a dying world.

Without these important foundations, we will not bear lasting fruit for the glory of God.

But this is not the whole picture, and throughout Scripture, we see God coming suddenly and bringing radical, dramatic change, most famously in Acts 2, when the Spirit was poured out on the 120, Peter preached his powerful message, and 3,000 Jews were added to the body in a moment of time. Nothing like that had ever happened before.


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