“Do you want to be possessed by a Spirit that is like Jesus -— a Spirit that is pure, gentle, sane, wise and loving?” That’s a quote from A.W. Tozer. And if you want to take him up on his offer, keep listening.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Counselor: Straight Talk about the Holy Spirit” by A.W. Tozer. 192 pages, published by Moody Publishers in May 2015. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD7.99 or you can get it for USD1.99 in Faithlife.
Every month Faithlife gives away a free book, and for November the free book is “Choosing Gratitude: Your Journey to Joy” by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth. Along with a free book, they give a list of generously discounted books. And in that list, for this month, we have “The Counselor” by A.W. Tozer for USD1.99. And I thought it would be nice to review Tozer, one of the most quoted authors in the Christian world. He is so quotable, I have two books, “The Quotable Tozer I” and it’s sequel “The Quotable Tozer II”.
Aiden Wilson Tozer was born in 1897 and died in 1963. He did not graduate from any seminary, university, not even a high school. He only had a sixth grade education. He was self-taught and he read widely. Tozer served as a pastor for more than 40 years. He published 12 books while alive. Another 40 books, minimum, were published after he died.
Today’s book, “The Counselor: Straight Talk About The Holy Spirit” is one of them. He has books on holy living, discipleship, worship and many others but in all those books, he is a straight talker.
I hope you have a band aid ready because Tozer’s words might just cut you to the heart.
So let’s open the book.
The book has ten chapters. I’ll read the titles for the first five chapters, so that you get a sense of what the book is about and it’s tone.
- Chapter 1: “Whenever Jesus Christ is Glorified, the Holy Spirit comes”
- Chapter 2: “The Holy Spirit is Not Known through the Intellect”
- Chapter 3: “The Presence and Ministry of the Holy Spirit: All That Jesus Would Be”
- Chapter 4: “Pentecost: Perpetuation, Not Repetition”
- Chapter 5: “The Promised Filling of the Holy Spirit: Instantly, Not Gradually”
Through these ten chapters, Tozer tells reader who is the Holy Spirit, our need for him and how we can be filled by him. He does this by unpacking Scripture, rebuking wrong ideas — he is not afraid of calling them out — and he does all this with fiery passion, like an Old Testament prophet.
The book doesn’t have a preface or introduction, but from what I understand after Tozer’s death, publishers have collected from Tozer’s sermons and writings and published them in book form. This explains why the chapters in this book are self-contained. They don’t deliberately move the argument from one chapter to the next.
I commend the editors though. First for the organisation. The first chapter is a good chapter to begin a book on the Holy Spirit and the rest flows quite well, considering Tozer did not preach a series.
Secondly, the editors did a good job of selecting a broad range of materials. Tozer’s words are rapier-sharp, they are like weapons of war, wielded by many Christians from all denominations. Even from opposite sides of the topic. By reading this book, you will get a clearer sense of what Tozer meant by those quotes. Those favourites quotes of yours might not mean what you think they mean.
Straight Talk It Is
When we study the words of a biblical prophet, like Ezekiel, Amos or Jonah, it is necessary to study the time and place so that we know why they said what they said. Why such strong words? Why the intensity?
Similarly, when we read Tozer on the Holy Spirit, it helps to remember that Tozer lived in the early 20th century. It was at this time that the Pentecostal or Charismatic Movement kicked off. Every church was forced to consider (or reconsider) what they believed of the Holy Spirit. In those turbulent times, Tozer offered sorely needed guidance.
He was unquestionably zealous for the Holy Spirit. Every Christian must have the Holy Spirit. Tozer rebuked the churches at large, “You don’t even know that the Holy Spirit is absent!” A fiery prophet calling God’s people back to God.
He called out the craziness, and instructed Christians to not let the craziness impede their pursuit of God. Let me read a long quote here:
This is a crude illustration, but let me tell you what we did after planting a field of corn when I was a young fellow in Pennsylvania. To save the field of corn from the crows, we would shoot an old crow and hang him by his heels in the middle of the field. This was supposed to scare off all of the crows for miles around. The crows would hold a conference and say, “Look, there is a field of corn but don’t go near it. I saw a dead crow over there!”
That’s the kind of conference that Satan calls, and that is exactly what he has done. He has taken some fanatical, weird, wild-eyed Christians who do things that they shouldn’t, and he has stationed them in the middle of God’s cornfield, and warns, “Now, don’t you go near that doctrine about the Holy Spirit because if you do, you will act just like these wild-eyed fanatics.”
Because there has been a lot of this weird stuff, God’s children are frightened, and as soon as you start to talk about it, they run for cover. They say, “Oh, no, none of that for me! I have seen dead crows out there in the middle of the field.”
Well, my brother, I will not be frightened out of my rightful heritage. I will not be scared out of my birthright because some others didn’t know what to do with the birthright or have found something else that has nothing to do with the birthright. I want all that God has for me!
Even if you did not live in those confusing and fearful times — those events were a long time ago — if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you know battles were fought. Questions on the Holy Spirit still come up, as they should with every new generation of believers, but thankfully we have sort of settled many of those questions today. Where ever you fall on the question, churches have main settled on their beliefs. Many were helped by Tozer and his writings.
When it comes to Tozer, the danger is people read a few pointed quotes and believe they know everything they need to know about Tozer. They pick his teachings up like a loaded pistol, not realising that they are holding the wrong side of the gun.
Intellect, Creed or Not
Consider, for example, the second chapter titled “The Holy Spirit Is Not Known through the intellect”.
In the second paragraph of the chapter, Tozer says:
It is quite plain in the scriptural revelation that spiritual things are hidden by a veil, and by nature a human does not have the ability to comprehend and get hold of them. He comes up against a blank wall. He takes doctrine and texts and proofs and creeds and theology, and lays them up like a wall—but he cannot find the gate! He stands in the darkness and all about him is intellectual knowledge of God—but not the true knowledge of God, for there is a difference between the intellectual knowledge of God and the Spirit-revealed knowledge.
Someone hears this and says, “Yeah man! Preach it brother. What a hilarious image. Lay up the creeds and theology and the guy can’t find the gate. They are so blind!”
On the need for spiritual illumination, Tozer writes:
… Bible study does not, of itself, lift the veil or penetrate it. The Word does not say, ‘No one knows the things of God except the man who studies his Bible.’ It does say that no man knows the things of God except by the Holy Spirit.”
“Exactly. We are wasting time with Bible study!” They clap their hands vigorously, celebrating the comeuppance of those Bible study nerds with their highlighters, then we can imagine Tozer turning around to say, “Why are you clapping? I don’t agree with you!”
If you only read a quote, you might not know that Tozer also says in that same chapter:
We ought to read everything we can read about Him [Jesus], for reading about Him is legitimate and good — a part of Christianity.
And if you think Tozer ditches the creeds, you are in for a surprise.
To explain who is the Holy Spirit, Tozer quotes the Athanasian Creed. After he quotes it at length, Tozer concludes:
These old saints of God were learned scholars who knew the truth, and they came there and wrote these things and gave it to us for the world and for the ages. On my knees I thank God for them!
When someone says, “Tozer says we need more Holy Spirit, not more Bible studies!”
And another says, “No! Tozer says we need more Bible study, how else will we know who is the Holy Spirit.”
They might just be reading their favourite Instagram or Twitter quotes. If you read this book, you can come in like a boss and settle the argument. Quote Tozer right back at them:
He [The Holy Spirit] is Light to the inner heart, and He will show us more of God in a moment than we can learn in a lifetime without Him. When He does come, all that we have learned and all that we do learn will have its proper place in our total personality and total creed and total thinking. We won’t lose anything by what we have learned. He won’t throw out what we have learned if it is truth — He will set it on fire, that’s all. He will add fire to the altar.
Tozer doesn’t dismiss Bible study, he dismisses the notion that you can read and understand the Bible without the Holy Spirit.
Instant, Not Gradual
Overall, I find this book helpful and I find myself applauding his straight talk. Oh! He cuts to the heart!
However, I advise discernment because there are parts where his rhetoric exceeds what he can prove.
I give you one example. In the whole book, I have minor points of disagreements with him here and there but this issue, the one I’m going to talk about, is not peripheral to Tozer. He dedicates a whole chapter to it. This is a contentious one, it affects how we look at the Holy Spirit in our lives. And he doesn’t mince words. He believes that anyone who takes a different position to him is on the side of carnality.
The chapter is Chapter 5: “The Promised Filling of the Holy Spirit: Instantly, Not Gradually”.
Early in the chapter we read:
… none of the persons in the Bible and none that I can find in Church history or biography was ever filled with the Holy Spirit who didn’t know when he was filled. I cannot find that anyone was ever filled gradually.
And he continues:
Now, as I said, Satan opposes the doctrine of the Spirit-filled life about as bitterly as any doctrine there is. He has confused it, opposed it, surrounded it with false notions and fears. The devil knows that if we will just say that we want to be filled gradually, he will have no more worries from us—because that process is so slow.
You might encourage yourself: “Well, I am a little fuller today than I was yesterday,” or at least, “I am a little fuller this year than I was last year.”
This is a place for carnal creatures to hide. It is a place for carnal church members to hide. In the Scriptures, it was never a gradual filling. It says that He fell upon them, He came upon them, He filled them — it was an instantaneous act.
When I read something I disagree with, I highlight it in red. This was bright red. So I looked forward to see how Tozer would substantiate his claims.
The next big question he answers is, “Are you sure you can be filled?”
Next, “Do you really want to be filled?”
Next, “Do you really need to be filled?”
Then, the rest of the chapter is answering the question, “How do I be filled?”
Those questions don’t address the topic: Gradual vs. Instant filling of the Holy Spirit. “Can you? Do you want to? Do you need to?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Tozer does share his experience.
It is probably quite generally true that any Christian who has not been filled with the Spirit since his conversion does not have genuine Christian joy. I know this was my experience. I had a lot of joyful feeling when I was first converted. I was a happy Christian. But if this is the kind of happiness that is half carnality and animal spirits, God will want to deliver you from it.
Brother, sister. Have you experienced genuine Christian joy? Because that is the experience of the Spirit-filled Christian. You might be happy before you were Spirit-filled, but whatever happiness you had before pales in comparison with what comes after.
Tozer later write:
Not everyone who listens to me is going to be filled with the Spirit. Some are going to be filled, for every once in awhile someone comes with a shining face and says, “Well, it happened! God has done it!” From that time on, that life is transformed. Spirit-filled Christians are changed people.
Maybe I’m one of those Christians who are not Spirit-filled. Tozer will not deny that I am a Christian. He would just deny that I am Spirit-filled because a person who is Spirit-filled knows it.
Let me briefly respond to his claim.
Tozer says that, “Nobody in the Bible has a gradual filling of the Holy Spirit. Everyone’s experience was instant.”
We tend to report the spectacular, the dramatic. The New Testament doesn’t have a longitudinal study. It doesn’t track the people from spiritual birth to physical death, reporting on their spiritual state and breakthroughs.
But Paul did write in Romans 7, my paraphrase: “I do what I should not do, I don’t do what I should do.” I believe Paul is writing as a Christian, as a Spirit-filled Christian.
Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
Peter writes, “… you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…” (1 Peter 1:8)
When the apostles speak of joy, they point believers to the gospel and not on a singular, one-off, spiritual experience.
In the Parable of the Sower, does Jesus say of the seed that fell in good soil, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:15)
Can we bear fruit without the Holy Spirit? We are to bear fruit with patience.
Jesus commands us to take up our cross daily. Can we take up our cross without the Holy Spirit? We are to take up our cross daily.
Bearing fruit and taking up our cross is a command and experience of all Christians whether they experienced an instant filling of the Holy Spirit or, as I argue, a gradual filling.
The problem with Tozer’s claim is that it can be true for some. Tozer and many others can truthfully, claim that they experienced such an amazing filling of the Holy Spirit that transformed them forever more. But just because Paul was struck blind on the way to Damascus doesn’t mean that you and I should be struck blind on our way to the mall. Just because Tozer had his experience doesn’t mean we all have to.
If you read this chapter, you will see that Tozer’s emphasises an instant filling of the Holy Spirit because he sees believers are complacent. They say, “It’s okay to sin because I am gradually growing in holiness.” This should not be! Christians, by the very definition of the word, must make a full and immediate commitment to Christ. There should be no lingering with sin. Or acceptance of it as simply a part of life.
However, Tozer’s good intentions here, intentions that are wholesome and righteous, has pushed him to an unsustainable position.
Thus, in Chapter 5, Tozer does not make a strong case for an instant filling of the Holy Spirit. He makes a strong case for a full and immediate commitment to Christ. That I welcome.
In your Christian journey, you will meet Tozer. You might welcome him, you might push back against him, but before you do either, you should read a bit more broadly on him. Go beyond the quick quotes.
I hope from this review, you hear how sharp his words can be. Sometimes sharp words are needed for correction and healing. But sometimes, they can inflict unintentional wounds. Which is why I spend so much time on that one chapter, I don’t want you to miss out on Tozer, but because Tozer is such a forceful writer, if you are not careful you might be carried away by his candour and passion.
He cuts. And when you are bleeding from a heart wound, sometimes the head gets a bit woozy and can’t think straight.
Tozer’s teachings on the Holy Spirit were very much needed in his time. And I believe the peace the church enjoys today regarding the Holy Spirit is partly due to his teachings then. If I can make an over-exaggeration, when it comes to Tozer’s influence, the churches took the parts they liked, claim Tozer as a friend, and no longer neglected the Holy Spirit. So they accepted Tozer’s cutting criticism and have learnt to passionately teach about the Holy Spirit and to embrace him as the Third Person of the Trinity.
Let me close this review with a Tozer quote:
The only Christian you want to listen to is the one who gives you more of a hunger for God.
And the reason why Tozer is so widely read today is because he gives us more of a hunger for God.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Counselor: Straight Talk about the Holy Spirit” from A.W. Tozer. 192 pages, published by Moody Publishers in May 2015. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD7.99 or you can get it for USD1.99 in Faithlife for the month of November.
I hope you have enjoyed this podcast, but more than that, I hope that by listening to the Christian book reviews, you have more of a hunger for God. One book can change the trajectory of a man or woman, boy or girl, Christian or non-Christian.
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Happy reading. Thanks for listening.