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3 Common Questions About the Holy Spirit
Much to the harm of the Church, the coming of the Spirit is often misconstrued and controversial.
Before and after pictures are fun and can be humorous or dramatic. Ads for a new diet or workout routine show a plump guy in the left frame and then his chiseled version on the right. Same with plastic surgery or teeth whitening.
Church history knows about crucial turning points too—when one reality gives way to another.
Consider the incarnation of Jesus. His coming literally splits human history into before and after. However, there is a powerful, world-changing second arrival in the New Testament which is less well understood: the advent of the Spirit.
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Much to the harm of the Church, the coming of the Spirit is often misconstrued and controversial. Some people wrongly think the Spirit-filled life has to do with denominations— Pentecostal or Charismatic. Others err in thinking that the Spirit is only historical, and now that we have the Bible, an ongoing, conversational relationship with the Third Person of the Trinity is not needed—or is optional at best.
Others are fearful of religious excesses they have experienced in “Spirit-filled” settings. I have genuine empathy for people who stumble over the Pentecost story in Acts 2: What do tongues of fire and a mighty wind have to do with a world of Bluetooth and artificial intelligence? I understand that people don’t know what to make of the lists of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians, Romans and Ephesians.
But, given all the angst about the person and work of the Spirit, we are still left with the Upper Room conversation in John 13-16. The disciples were deeply confused and experienced severe pain upon hearing that Jesus was leaving them. They feared being orphaned. This is the context in which Jesus says something startlingly counter-intuitive:
It is better for you…to your advantage…profitable for you…to your benefit that I go away…John 16:7
If you believe Jesus is smart, if you think he represents reality as it really is, then you must accept that Jesus puts the Spirit at the center of things for the age of the Church. Sadly, the Church too often marginalizes the Spirit. This has caused incalculable harm to the work and witness of the Church.
Pentecostal and charismatic excesses may be sincerely alarming to us, but sit with these two truths for a moment:
The Holy Spirit is a person, and as personality is as easily grieved by being ignored as by excesses.
The answer to wrong use or errant interaction with the Spirit is not no use, no interaction, but right use, proper interaction.
According to Jesus, by God’s plan and purpose, we live and move, have our being, and do ministry in the age of the Holy Spirit. This is a central goal of Christian spirituality: to come to know, rely upon, and have confidence in the person and work of the Spirit in our life and in the life of our churches.
The vision of the New Testament (see John 7) is that Christians would be so filled with the Spirit that out of your life will come gushing torrents of living water for the sake of others. This is why Luke 24:49 is such a huge part of the Divine narrative:
I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
In that command, Jesus precisely connects reception of the Spirit as the animating, energizing directive core of the Church’s being and mission. Jim Packer taught me that Pentecost (Acts 2) is meant to be seen as the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples. Tom Wright alerted me to the important notion that Pentecost signals the mode and means by which God is putting his power and authority into operation in his people, through whom a new world is born!
Here is the real deal that makes the person and work of the Spirit central to Christian spirituality:
The purposes of God in full-functioning discipleship and anointed mission require a power suitable for those purposes.
Following Jesus is meant to have at its core an interactive, conversational relationship with the Holy Spirit as modeled by Jesus’ relationship with the Father. This is part of what Jesus means when he says, Even as the Father sent me, so I send you.
This interactive relationship is not peripheral or elective or only for the super spiritual, but crucial: The Church cannot be the Church or do its tasks without the presence and operation of the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Being filled with the Spirit is not an idea, proposition or bit of doctrine—it is something we are meant to know by experience. You may or may not have clarity on when the Spirit comes (conversion?) or how the Spirit comes (tongues as initial evidence?), but we all should have clarity about this: Is my life inspired by him—as promised by the Father and taught by Jesus?
Here are three of the questions I am asked most often about the Holy Spirit.
1. What does the Holy Spirit do?
At an irreducible minimum, the Spirit moves us to be and do in the manner of Jesus. Think of the quality of life that Jesus knew, the inward experience of love, joy and peace—that is the work the Spirit does in us.
The Spirit equips for ministry.
The Spirit gives the sense of authorization to act as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.
The Spirit gives power, capacity and ability to fulfill the calling of the Church in the world.
The Spirit transforms our character via the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
The Spirit gives gifts (Charismata, little portions of “charis,” which is grace) that enable the Church’s life together and mission in the world.
2. What is the result of regular interaction with the Holy Spirit?
Routine interaction with the manifest presence of the Spirit builds faith and trust; it gives confidence that God is with us. This in turn, aids evangelism and discipleship, mission, justice-seeking, and being an agent of healing in the world.
3. How do we participate with the Holy Spirit?
We receive the Spirit with faith, with confidence, relying on the biblical narrative which centers the person and work of the Spirit. Just before Jesus commissions his first friends (John 20), he took a deep breath and breathed into them and said, Receive the Holy Spirit. Breathed on means something like “he exhaled his life, his spirit.” It infused the disciples with the life of the Spirit.
But this process is not passive. Jesus says receive the Holy Spirit. This means to take, or actively lay hold of, what Jesus is giving, to accept with initiative, with faith. It emphasizes the will of the receiver. Paul alerts us to the same faithful hunger when he prods the Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:1) to eagerly desire the gifts of the Spirit. This is a call to ask for the Spirit; to try to walk with him and work with him; to cooperate with his leading; to believe in him; to make a start; to persevere; to recognize the Holy Spirit’s activity around us.
This is the narrative logic and beautiful vision of the New Testament: to receive Jesus’ very breath flowing through you, nourishing you, empowering you to do the good you envision doing in the world (Ephesians 2:10).
Do you want to know Jesus better?
Do you want to have the ability to be an ambassador of God and his kingdom?
Do you want to have the tools to live the Christian life?
Then you want a richly interactive, conversational relationship with the Holy Spirit. To get it, simply ask with childlike faith, believing Jesus that:
If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! Luke 11:13
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