Over the last couple of months I’ve been preaching through a series on what the Bible says about the present-day ministry of the Holy Spirit; how the Holy Spirit works today. As I’ve been coursing through the teaching of the New Testament on the ongoing works of the Spirit, what has stuck out to me are the repeated connections made in Scripture between the work of the Holy Spirit and what we might regard as the ordinary patterns and practices of the Christian life. When we compare the emphasis of Scripture in regard to the ministry of the Holy Spirit to many (most?) of the ideas that tend to prevail in contemporary Christian teaching on the work of the Spirit however, there is a great deal of dissonance between them.
As I see it, the two most common errors in much contemporary teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit, which discount the Holy Spirit’s work in the ordinary patterns and practices of the Christian life, and which give rise to a good deal of eccentricity among Christians in their understanding of the present-day work of the Spirit, are these:
Error 1: Relegating the Spirit’s work in the Christian life primarily to extraordinary and miraculous experiences. And,
Error 2: Separating the Spirit’s works virtually entirely from the works of the Father and the Son.
Let’s compare these ways of thinking to what Scripture emphasizes when it comes to the present-day work of the Holy Spirit.
Should we relegate the Spirit’s work to extraordinary experiences?
When Christians in contemporary evangelical (using that term very loosely here) settings talk about the work of the Holy Spirit, what kinds of activities or events do they typically identify as evidence of his work? In my experience, it is things like words of fresh revelation, healings, intense emotional experiences, weeping, laughing, visions, and things like these, most of the time.
You see this way of
thinking in the way that many Christians regard the basic patterns and
practices of the Christian life – things like learning to trust God, walking in
an abiding relationship with Jesus, remembering and meditating on the Gospel
daily, reading and engaging with Scripture, obeying God’s Word by living a sanctified
life, seeking God in prayer, living in Christ-centered relationships with other
Christians in the same local church, serving in the church, sharing the Gospel,
etc. – as if these are things that can be done by mere grit and determination. These are the things we are
responsible for. The Spirit, on the
other hand, is the one who does all the extra things we long to see and
experience; the really exciting stuff, that is.
Many Christians treat the basic patterns of the Christian life as if they all can be done and benefitted from by way of sheer discipline and exertion of the will – and so, without the power and help of the Holy Spirit. But this is wrong. They cannot. No one can do these things with the right motives and in a way that leads to spiritual growth and good fruit without the Holy Spirit. It is God who works in us both to will and to work according to his good pleasure, after all (Philippians 2:13).
So then, even the ordinary, basic patterns, habits, rhythms, and practices of the Christian life are the work of the Holy Spirit. I think many Christians could benefit from being reminded of this. The emphasis on Scripture when it comes to the ongoing work of the Spirit, is heavily weighted on the side of “ordinary” Christian patterns and practices. For example,
It is the Spirit who speaks to us (present tense) for and about the Father and the Son through the Bible. (2 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 3:7)
It is the Spirit who convinces us of our sin and our need for Christ. (John 16:7-11)
It is the Spirit who renovates our hearts (makes us born again) in order to enable us to respond to the Gospel with faith in Christ. (John 3:1-10)
It is the Spirit who enables us to grasp and love the revelation he gives us in the Gospel and the text of Scripture. (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)
It is the Spirit who convinces us internally that we are God’s redeemed children by reminding us of and helping us continue to believe the Gospel. (Romans 8:13-17)
It is the Spirit who makes us increasingly holy in our character by giving us power to overcome sin and sight to behold Christ. (1 Peter 1:2; Romans 8:9-13; 2 Corinthians 3:18)
It is the Spirit who guides us (leads us) into holy living. (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18)
It is the Spirit who instructs us through the ministry of the Word about our need for Christ and to abide in him. (1 John 2:26-27)
It is the Spirit who fills us who wishes to control our lives so that he might fill every part of us with the content of truth to encourage others with, joyful hearts to worship the Lord from, gratitude to express to God in all circumstances, and a heart of love and humility toward the other members of the church. (Ephesians 5:18-21).
It is the Spirit who produces moral excellencies and godly character qualities in us that honor God and bless others. (Galatians 5:22-23)
It is the Spirit who gives every Christian a unique mix of abilities (i.e. spiritual gifts) to enable them to serve others with supernatural strength and love. (1 Corinthians 12-14; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11)
So we see, many of the things we tend to regard as ordinary and natural, are anything but ordinary and natural. The whole of the Christian life is supernatural at its root. When a Christian lives like a Christian, the Holy Spirit is doing a powerful work in that person’s life.
Does the Spirit work apart from the Father and the Son?
The second common error in much contemporary teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit that I mentioned earlier, is seen whenever Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the more-or-less lone wolf member of the Trinity. Where the Holy Spirit is emphasized and worshipped to the virtual exclusion of the Father and the Son. Where the attention in teaching and discussion about the Spirit almost entirely on the Spirit.
It is not insignificant that when Jesus was teaching his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit to the world after his ascension to the Father, he taught them that the Holy Spirit would “glorify,” not himself, but Christ (John 16:14). It is not insignificant that the Holy Spirit is revealed in Scripture as possessing in himself all the eternal attributes of God as very God himself (Hebrews 9:4; 1 Peter 4:14; Isaiah 40:13; 1 Corinthians 2:10-11; Job 33:4). It is also not insignificant that the Holy Spirit is revealed as the Spirit of God the Father (Matthew 10:20) and the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9-10; Galatians 4:6). The Spirit himself proceeds from the Father and from the Son (John 15:26). The Holy Spirit is the very presence of God the Father and God the Son.
I tend to think that much of the extravagance & strangeness we see in contemporary Christian teaching & discussion about the ministry of the Holy Spirit can be directly traced to an ignorance (or denial) of the Holy Spirit’s oneness with the Father and the Son. Much teaching on the ministry of the Holy Spirit today places an unbiblical emphasis on the distinctiveness of the Spirit, which results in an inappropriate separation between the works of the Spirit and those of the Father and the Son. When this emphasis is held, the Spirit can be said to be at work in almost anything. Whether his work has anything to do with Father and the work of the Son in the life of a Christian, becomes almost entirely irrelevant.
But the Spirit himself is God. He is not the Father nor the Son, but he is truly God, with the Father and the Son. Though there is eternal Threeness in the Godhead, the Three are eternally One. They work with one another and through one another. Always have, always will. “We certainly do not pronounce them simultaneously,” says Augustine, “and yet in themselves they cannot be else than simultaneous” (Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Vol. 7, p. 339). Though the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son, he does eternally proceed from both the Father and the Son and is the true personal presence of the Father and the Son. So, when the Spirit works in the life of a believer, there the Father is present and working right along with the Son. And where the Spirit is doing this work, God the Father and God the Son will (and should) get the glory.
So, when we read about the indwelling ministry of the Spirit in Scripture (John 14:17; Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20), how the Spirit comes to dwell in the hearts of all Christians, we should understand this as God the Father and God the Son coming to dwell with us as well. The Father and the Son dwell with the believer by the Spirit, the Father and the Son empower and sustain the believer by the Spirit, and the Father and the Son sanctify the believer by the Spirit.
Therefore, when we encounter God’s commands in Scripture to walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and to keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), and to be filled by the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18); I believe we should understand these commands as being simultaneously about walking with, keeping in step with, and being filled by the Father and the Son. These are all one in the same, in a very real sense.
The Spirit does not work to separate anyone from the Father & the Son, but to lead all directly to them. He does not belittle the Father nor the Son, rather, he magnifies them in the hearts of the believer. What this means is that the truly Spirit-filled, Spirit-controlled, Spirit-directed life, is one that is growing increasingly full of love for the Father and the Son. Anything short of that is not the work of the Spirit.
Summary & Conclusion
The long and short of all of this is that in the journey of the Christian life, the Holy Spirit is at work at every point along the way. There is no “ordinary” Christian life without the power and help and mercy of the Holy Spirit. The basic patterns, practices, rhythms, and direction of the Christian life are anything but natural and anything but ordinary. Being and living as a Christian are works of God; God the Holy Spirit. In the Christian life, ordinary things are extraordinary. They are supernatural. And so, if you a Christian, and are growing as a Christian, the Holy Spirit is doing a powerful work in your life and you should give him praise for that work.
“If we live by the Spirit,” Paul says, “let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25); step after step, day after day, week after week, month after month; on the good days and the really difficult days; on the exciting days and the (far more common) ordinary days. Why? Because the Spirit is extraordinarily at work in the ordinary things of the Christian life.