By the Power of the Spirit

(Ezekiel 36:23-28Acts 2:1-4, Galatians 5:16-26)

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a conversation we had around our table at the presbytery’s leadership training event. Rick and Sue and I were sitting that morning with, among other people, one of the co-executives of our synod, who made a most interesting comment. We were talking about the difference between the experience of the people of God in the Old Testament and ours today, that we have the Spirit of God where they did not, and this chap noted that we often don’t want to talk about that, or even think about that. I think, as I said before, that our reluctance is driven in large part by fear—our fear of letting go, giving up our sense of control over our lives and letting the Spirit lead us—and that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because it keeps us from experiencing the full reality of our redemption and our new life in Christ, part of which is being set free from fear; we wind up living as if we had no more power than anyone else in this world, but a higher standard to live up to. That makes trying to be Christian a painful slog, rather than the easy yoke and the life of joy and peace that Christ promises us.

Unfortunately, this is an area in which our tradition isn’t a great help to us; as a pastor I knew in college put it one time, Presbyterians believe in doing things “decently and in order,” and forget that when Paul uses those words, he’s talking about the proper place of prophecy and tongues in worship. The idea is that there needs to be a balance, so that the church doesn’t descend into emotionalism and chaos, on the one hand, but there’s room for the Spirit to move, on the other. I think a lot of times people who aren’t Pentecostal or charismatic look at those churches and just see emotionalism and chaos—and sometimes they’re right, to be sure; I’ve endured services like that—and overreact in the other direction, shutting off the Spirit. We don’t have a very good feel for the middle ground, because we don’t have a very clear idea of why we need the Holy Spirit; we have this vague idea that the Spirit is supposed to make people jump up and down, fall over, and say things we don’t understand, and maybe that frightens us, and we really don’t understand the Spirit’s work beyond that. Those sorts of manifestations are particular signs of the Spirit’s presence and activity, but in most cases they aren’t the point of the Spirit’s presence and activity; in focusing on them, we miss the forest for the trees.

In truth, the work of the Holy Spirit in and among us is far broader and deeper and more important than just the flashy stuff. There’s a reason that God’s final solution to his people’s unbelieving disobedience is, “I will put my Spirit in you”; there’s a reason that the conclusion of Christ’s work and the birth of the church as the new Israel is the fulfillment of that promise, as the Spirit is poured out on all of Jesus’ disciples. Everything that we say is true about life in Christ is true in us and for us because of the Holy Spirit; it’s the Spirit who unites us with Christ and holds us in the presence of God. It’s the Spirit of God who makes all things possible. Take out your Bibles, or pull out the Bible there under the pew in front of you, and let’s look at some of this reality.

First off, look at what Jesus says in John 14:26: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Wait a minute—didn’t Jesus teach them all sorts of things? Yes, but remember, they never really understood—they didn’t get it; they couldn’t. It was only when the Spirit came to remind them of everything Jesus had said and to teach them what it all meant that it actually made sense to them. That’s why Paul talks in Ephesians 3 about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”

Reformed types like to talk about “the perspicuity of Scripture”—the idea that anyone can read it and understand it, you don’t need a priest to tell you what the Bible means—which is good, sort of. Certainly, you don’t need a priest, but that’s not because Scripture is all so easy that a child could understand it, or that any unbeliever who picks up the Bible is immediately going to see Jesus. No, Scripture is clear because the Holy Spirit speaks through it and makes it clear to us; it is by the Spirit’s light that we understand, and that we see that this word contains the living Word, Jesus Christ.

Next, take a look at John 3:5-6: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’” Jesus says this as he’s explaining to Nicodemus why he said, “You must be born again”; it’s the Spirit who accomplishes this by uniting us to Christ in his death and resurrection, as Paul says in Romans 6:3-7: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that the death of Christ on the cross becomes for us and that the new life of his resurrection becomes ours, so that we become sharers in his kingdom; it is the Spirit who unites us to Christ as members of his body.

This means that we have fellowship with God—which is to say, he has made us his friends and invited us into his presence—as John says in 1 John 1:3; this is why, a little later on in that letter, in 3:1, John writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God—and that is what we are.” And then again in verse 24, John says, “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.” It is the Spirit who brings us into this fellowship with God, and who is the sign of that fellowship—who is the proof that God lives in us, and that we are alive in him. It’s through the Spirit that we have access to God in prayer, and through him (as Paul says in Romans 5:5) that God has poured out his love in our hearts.

Something else Paul says is that the Spirit is our assurance that God will be faithful to give us all that he has promised—he describes the Spirit as the deposit that guarantees our inheritance. In 2 Corinthians 5, he writes, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling . . . so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” Then again in Ephesians 1:13-14, he says, “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” Last week, of course, I focused on that last phrase, but here, take a look at how the Spirit is described: he is the seal of our salvation, the one who signifies that we are in Christ, and the guarantee that we will receive the inheritance God has promised. He is our assurance that we are saved, and that our salvation is sure.

I could go on like this—the Spirit is the one who gives us the abilities and talents we have, so that we may use them for his glory and the work of his kingdom on earth, something Paul talks about in several places; the Spirit prays in and for us, Paul says in Romans 8:26-27, according to the will of God, “with groanings too deep for words”; the Spirit inspires us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to others, something we see a great deal in the book of Acts. I had originally thought to use these last few weeks to do a sermon series on the Holy Spirit, but there just weren’t enough Sundays to do a full series justice, if we started looking into these various things in detail. Maybe next year we’ll come back to that. 

For the moment, I hope you’re beginning to see how the Spirit is involved in every part of our lives as Christians, and how everything that we affirm is true by the Spirit’s work; and in particular, if you’ll look at Galatians 5, that the end goal of the Spirit’s work in us is transformation. The Spirit prods us to grow, and that growth produces fruit, and that fruit is the seed of further growth in our lives by the power of the Spirit, and so over time we are changed; and the more we change, the more we become like Christ, and the more our hearts are prepared for that day when we will stand in his presence and see him face to face.

And note two things about that: first, this is the Spirit’s work, not ours. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control—these are the things that ought to characterize us as Christians, but we can’t live a life filled with these qualities in our own strength. Some of them we can teach ourselves if we try really hard—self-control, for instance—but only at the expense of other things, and some of them are beyond our ability to do by force of will. Peace might be the best example of that. Trying to work on all eight of them at once would simply be too much for us, even for those with the strongest wills, and it would inevitably fail, in one way or another. To live this kind of life, we must live by the Spirit, and let the Spirit produce these qualities and virtues in us by his power.

Second, part of this is not gratifying the desires of the flesh. This means that yes, there is a moral component to living by the Spirit—there are those in the church who insist that God can’t possibly want us to live up to any standards of behavior that we don’t like, particularly when it comes to sexual morality, but that simply isn’t true—but it goes beyond what we think of as morality, because again, this isn’t just a matter of outward behavior. As Paul makes clear, this is about a complete change of perspective and orientation, giving up the orientation that we’ve learned from the world and accepting a whole new orientation that points us toward God. It’s about not merely resisting the desires of the flesh, but surrendering them to God and allowing his Spirit to give us new desires; it’s about letting God teach us by his Spirit to want what he wants for our lives.

So then, if this is God’s work in us, and nothing we can do in our own strength, what’s our part in it? Are we called to do nothing? No; our part is to cooperate with what God is doing in our lives. The most important thing we can do is simply to make this a priority, to put time with God first on our to-do list. The Spirit is always at work in us, whatever we may be doing, but some of the things we do are more congenial to that than others—and of course, when we choose to sin, we’re deliberately working against his work in us. It’s important, if we want to grow in our faith, to make time to pray, and read Scripture, and think—to spend time intentionally focused on God, intentionally opening our minds and our hearts to hear his voice and listen to what he has to say.

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