Skeptical conversations, part VIII: The gifts of the Spirit

Continuing the conversation . . . Parts I-VII here. Also, I’ve updated the credo Wordle post.

But this is starting to move me into ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—and I’m not done talking about the Spirit yet. If the first element of the Spirit’s work is to reveal the Father and the Son, the second comes at the point of conversion. It is the Son who atoned for our sins on the cross, but it is the Spirit who mediates that to us.

A: What do you mean by that?

R: The work of conversion is the work of the Spirit. It is he who moves us to conviction that we have sinned, and he who calls us to repentance; and it is he who applies the saving work of Christ to us, who sets us free from sin and regenerates us. From that point on, then, the Spirit of God lives within us, which is the third thing which must be said about his work. The Spirit brings us into the fellowship of the Trinity, bearing our prayers to Jesus, interceding for us when we do not know what to pray, and speaking to us in return; and as he began our transformation by bringing us new life, so he works to continue that transformation, nurturing that new life in us and making us more and more like Jesus.

A: And you say this process is going on in every Christian?

R: Yes.

A: I would think, if that were so, that I would see more evidence of that. I can’t say that I see very much.

R: In part, I’d say that there are many who call themselves Christian and aren’t saved; Jesus made it very clear that this would be the case. Certainly there are some remarkable perversions of the gospel out there.

A: Such as that church with their picket signs that say “God Hates Fags”?

R: Ahh, yes, Fred Phelps and his “church.” They do make the rest of us look rather bad, don’t they? But of course, I have to be careful in saying that—I know full well that I make Christians and the church look bad sometimes; and if spiritual pride, which is the sin of the Pharisees, is a subtler sort of betrayal, it’s no less poisonous for all that. Indeed, since it tends to creep in when we do something good, if we don’t watch it pride can corrupt all our victories. That illustrates, I think, the other point that needs to be made, which is that sanctification—the process of becoming holy—is a long, hard fight.

In truth, you might say that it’s two processes side by side. One is the unceasing war on sin, the work of putting sin to death; the other is what you might call the positive element, which is the work of nurturing the good. They are closely interwoven, of course, since our soul is going to grow something, whether it is good or bad; clearing out the weeds is an important part of caring for the good plants, while efforts to kill weeds are rather pointless without trying to grow something valuable in their place. Both, however, are the work of the Spirit in us, and both are also our work; once again, we have that combination. Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

A: Interesting. I’ve heard people talk about the Holy Spirit before, but only Pen­tecostals, and they seemed more interested in justifying some fairly odd behavior.

R: Ahh, yes. Well, through his Spirit God has given his people gifts to contribute to the work of the church. Note that well, because a lot of Christians don’t really realize it: these are gifts of the Spirit to the church, not just to the individual, and so they aren’t necessarily new to the person who uses them. Some of the gifts of the Spirit are natural abilities which he blesses—administration, for example, or leadership.

A: Administration is a gift of the Spirit?

R: Well, it’s included in a list of them in 1 Corinthians 12. After all, running a church isn’t any easier than running a business; I can testify from personal experience that having someone gifted in that respect to take care of administrative tasks is a great blessing. It might not seem “spiritual,” but it’s a real asset to the ministry of the church. Anyway, many of the gifts of the Spirit are what you might call natural gifts—the gift of teaching is another example—but the supernatural gifts, such as prophecy, healing and tongues, tend to be the ones that draw the attention. It’s understandable, as they’re somewhat spectacular and tend to provoke strong reactions one way or the other.

A lot of people hold that the Spirit doesn’t give these gifts anymore, but I don’t think that argument holds water. The arguments from Scripture for this position are questionable at best, and the experience of the church worldwide doesn’t support it. For what it’s worth, my own experience doesn’t either, as I have seen the gifts of prophecy, healing, tongues, and words of knowledge and wisdom used to build up and strengthen the church; so for all those reasons, I believe that the Spirit still gifts his people in those ways.

That said, it is clear that there is great potential for self-deception and counterfeit gifts, and so it becomes very important to test any apparent supernatural gift. For example, one of my NT professors in college was a Pentecostal (as were all of my NT professors in seminary; rather an odd thing, that), and her rule for dealing with any apparent prophecy was not to trust it unless the Scripture supported it. Indeed, most of the time I have seen someone receive a word for a church or another person, it has been a word of Scripture—which would be a case of the Spirit directing the application of the text he inspired. I wouldn’t want to establish that as a typical means of exegeting Scripture—

A: Sorry, what does that mean?

R: My apologies—force of habit. Exegesis is the process of drawing out the meaning of a biblical text. It goes together with hermeneutics, which is the process of interpreting that meaning for and applying it to the needs and concerns of one’s audience. Rough definitions. Anyway, I’m a believer in careful exegesis supported by careful and detailed study of the Bible, and just because someone quotes Scripture doesn’t necessarily mean what they say is from the Spirit––the Devil knows the Bible, too, after all. The key is whether the statement offered is in line with the whole of Scripture, not just one proof-text; but then, that goes for all our efforts to interpret the Bible, all of which should be illuminated by the Spirit.

In any case, just to summarize: yes, I believe that the Spirit still gives people supernatural gifts, but these must be tested when they manifest themselves to ensure that they are truly from the Spirit of God. It seems to me, though, that to deny that he can or will give such gifts is rooted in our discomfort with them, and that such a denial is in essence an attempt to limit God, to make him more comfortable and predictable—and that is always a dangerous thing to do.

A: You seem to be a firm believer in a dangerous God.

R: I’m not sure “dangerous” is the right word; I would say “perilous,” perhaps because that’s the word Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings to describe those who are good and beautiful beyond the ability of mere mortals to handle. I like the way the writer Annie Dillard put it:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offence, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—and I don’t think “fear” just means “respect.” He loves us, but everything about him is so much greater than we are that even his love for us is perilous—we cannot accept it and remain unchanged. Or as Lewis always has it said in Narnia, he’s not a tame lion. Good beyond imagining, but anything but tame.

A: I’m beginning to think that you’re a Christian for the same reason you’re a Tolkien fan.

R: Good, but backwards: I’m a Tolkien fan for the same reason I’m a Christian. For that matter, so was Tolkien, I think. But the thirst for God is primary, and underlies every other desire for that which is good and true and beautiful, and most especially the longing for something more, because God is the source of all that is good and true and beautiful, and because St. Augustine was right—our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

A: Either that or it’s the evolutionary impulse pushing us forward.

R: You could look at it that way, of course. In any case, I want to go back to my assertion that the gifts of the Spirit are gifts not primarily to the individuals who receive them but to the church. We often don’t think of them that way; we think of them as “my gifts,” even if we realize that we have been given them in order to build up the church. But it’s clear from the contexts in which these gifts are mentioned that they are truly gifts to the church through its individual members; the lists in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, for instance, occur together with Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ, in which all the members fit together and each has a role to fill. But while this doesn’t fit our individualistic culture, it does fit the biblical understanding of the church, which is that God calls individuals not as lone wolves but as members of a larger community. His covenant is not with individuals as such but with a people.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology, Scripture.

Leave a Reply