I said last week, briefly, that it’s only by the Holy Spirit that we see Jesus. The eyes of the world don’t see him, because we do not see everything obviously subject to him—we see a lot in this world that doesn’t look anything at all like Jesus, and a lot of people thumbing their noses at him; most of the time, he doesn’t make himself all that obvious. Most of the time, it takes the eyes of faith, seeing with the vision of the Spirit of God, to see Jesus present and at work in this world. That’s one reason why we understand that our salvation comes to us wholly by God’s work as his free gift, that even our faith is a gift from God through Jesus Christ, because it takes the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives to make that faith possible.
The Spirit’s work doesn’t stop there, however; nor is it just about miracles and speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit isn’t just for Pentecostals and charismatics; we reserved, decently-and-in-order Presbyterians live by the Spirit, and need to live by the Spirit, just as much as our chandelier-swinging brethren, whether we speak in tongues or not. I will admit, I think a few words of prophecy and the like would do most Presbyterian churches a world of good, but that’s not really the point here; the point is that living by the Spirit is the fundamental reality of our life as Christians. That’s why we’re going to spend the next several weeks talking about the Holy Spirit and his work, because it’s only by the Spirit of God that we are able to follow Christ at all. Without him, we’re nothing more than a pile of dry white bones in a dead brown land.
You see, while we tend to think of being Christian as a matter of living up to certain standards of behavior, doing good things and not sinning, that isn’t the heart of the matter. Indeed, matters of the heart are the heart of the matter—God cares about our behavior, but he cares more about the heart attitudes and thoughts that drive our behavior. We do not have a faith that can be defined on a checklist of “do this” and “don’t do that”; that’s religion, but it’s not the gospel—and it’s not enough for God, because that sort of religion leaves the heart untouched, and the sins hidden there to fester.
What God offers us, then, is not a set of rules or principles to follow, but a person to follow—Jesus Christ; and rather than leaving us to follow in our own strength, he gives us his strength. Indeed, he goes farther than that: he gives us his life. We have been united with Christ in his death, and in his resurrection—in his crucifixion, the people we used to be were crucified; in his resurrection, we were raised again to new life, in the life of Christ. Christ is in us, and we are in Christ; this is how we live, this is why we live. This is our salvation, and it’s how our salvation becomes real in our everyday lives, as we are transformed from the inside out. This is, incidentally, why we affirm that salvation is not a thing that we can lose; yes, we can resist this ongoing work of divine transformation in our lives, but it’s beyond our power to undo.
Now, obviously, to say that Christ is in you is not to say that if we were to cut you open, there would be a little Jesus in there somewhere. A number of folks in this congregation have had open-heart surgery since I got here, and the doctors haven’t found Jesus in any of them. Similarly, to say that we are in Christ is not to make a physical statement, since he’s in heaven and we’re here. This is a spiritual reality, the Holy Spirit’s work in us. It doesn’t mean that our individuality vanishes, that who we are disappears into Jesus like a drop of water into the ocean; but it means that our identity changes, and the source of our identity. We don’t define ourselves, and we don’t determine who we are; our identity, our whole being, comes from Jesus through his Spirit, who moves through us like our blood, bringing us life and carrying away the works of sin and death.
When I say that this is our salvation—that this is the Spirit’s saving work in us—I’m not exaggerating; the importance of understanding this cannot be overstated. The Christian counselor and writer Dr. David Powlison put it best, I think, when he wrote,
The Gospel is better than unconditional love. The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curse you deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity is different. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside ourselves.
God accepts us in Christ, he accepts us as Christ is, and his Spirit bonds us to Christ and begins the work of setting us free from our false selves to be who we already are in Christ, and who Christ is in us. He sets us free from the desperate hunger and thirst that sin can never satisfy; in their place, he gives us the living water and the bread of life. He sets us free from our slavery to our desires, from the need to satisfy the demands of pride and wrath and lust that drives us to cling desperately to things and desires that can’t give us life, that only exhaust our energy and hollow out our souls; he gives us the ability to open our hands and stop striving, to stop hanging on and let ourselves fall into his care. We don’t have to make it all happen, we don’t have to make it all good enough, we don’t have to make it all work; he’s done that all for us. We don’t have to earn anything, because we’ve already been given everything.
Does this mean, then, that there’s no work for us to do? No; but it means that the work before us is different than we usually imagine. As emotionally and spiritually exhausting as our striving can be, it’s our default mode, and turning away from it is harder than it sounds. Our egos want to define salvation on our own terms and earn it by our own efforts, because then we can take credit and demand applause from God and others; giving that up is no easy task. As my friend Jared Wilson says,
it takes conscious effort to orient our stubborn selves around the gospel. Our flesh yearns for works, for the merits of self-righteousness, so it’s hard work to make ourselves rest in the finished work of Christ. It is a daily work, the labor of crucifying the flesh, taking up the cross, and faithfully following he who has finished the labor.
Our task is that of accepting and trusting that the life Christ has for us is truly ours by his Holy Spirit in us, and is truly better than anything we can come up with for ourselves, and thus to let go of anything in our lives that interferes with that—remembering that we aren’t the judge of that, he is—and let him clear it away.