Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
-Galatians 3:1-3 (NIV)
Over the last two weeks, I have tried to show how the fellowship of churches known as Churches of Christ, of which I am a part, have historically not demonstrated a strong view of the Holy Spirit as powerful and active in our lives. Our heritage in Rationalism, a philosophy which says that we understand the world around us through thinking about what we experience through our senses, has led us to value the Bible. But our rationalist perspective has taught us that living as Christians is all about reading, studying, and interpret the Scriptures rightly. I suggested that downplaying of the Holy Spirit’s role in empowering us to live for Christ has affected us in at least three ways: our corporate worship and ministry, private devotional life, and understanding of unity. I’ve tried to show that our attempts at unity have failed because we have tried to create it ourselves through the uniform interpretation of Scripture instead of focusing on the Spirit’s work of creating unity, and our responsibility to maintain it. I’ve also tried to show that our failure to give proper place to the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship has created in us the idea that worship is more an act of the will than an expression of gratitude and adoration, that it is has placed the focus in worship squarely upon what we do, as opposed to what God does, and that it has exalted preaching as the central event of worship, while minimizing the importance of other acts, including communion.
This week, I hope to show how our failure to recognize the importance of the Spirit’s continuing work has hampered our private devotional lives. In short, there has historically been no theological vocabulary given to us that allowed us to expect that God would act directly in our lives or communicate with us in prayer, meditation, and worship. We have felt the need for just that. We have seen it in other Christian traditions. But we have not had a frame of reference that allowed for it in our own experience.
We have, for instance, taught the importance of prayer, but largely because we understand that the Bible commands prayer. But we have not been able to say with any confidence what praying for healing, or forgiveness, or strength might accomplish. After all, if the Holy Spirit only works through the words of Scripture, upon what basis should we expect God to act in response to our prayers? The Bible might reassure us in our struggles, give us hope, show us a new perspective, reaffirm our faith, strengthen our resolve — but we have not imagined that the Spirit might act in our lives. And so we have again placed our hope in our own ability to understand, and not God’s promises to be with us, strengthen us, and ultimately save us.
Spiritual growth among us has been about the memorization of and obedience to the words of Scripture. While I would share in the belief that familiarity with the Bible is indispensable for spiritual formation, the rationalist tendencies with which we have read it have placed the power for sanctification in our own intellects. We have learned, implicitly and explicitly, that we will grow in Christ to the degree to which we learn Scripture. Of course, there are multiplied examples of those who know Scripture and who have never learned faith or virtue.
It is the Holy Spirit who makes the words of the Bible a reality in our lives. There does not have to be a dichotomy between the Bible and the Spirit, nor should there be. The Spirit and the Word work together in the process of spiritual formation. The word is to be seen as a powerful means to the creation of new life — but only when energized through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will not teach any doctrine or lead in any way outside of the guidelines of Scripture. But it is the Holy Spirit that makes the Word effective in the life of a believer. It is due to the Spirit that the words penetrate past the intellect to the heart, reorder the priorities, and stoke the spiritual fires.
Our private devotional lives will be better when we recapture the truth that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers (Romans 8:26) and bears fruit in our lives, and that we are to keep in step with the work he is already accomplishing in us (Galatians 5:22-25). It will be better when we are encouraged to pray for healing, for ourselves and each other, with renewed conviction of God’s power to heal sickness and overcome sin. It will make us courageous with the reassurance that it is “by the Spirit [that we] put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and that it is the Spirit we have received, and not our own worthiness that makes us God’s children (Romans 8:15-16).
Thankfully, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit needs correct theology to work in our lives. Every believer through the ages, in some way or another, has failed to understand correctly God’s work in the world, in his church, and in his life. And yet his Spirit has still worked, sometimes mistaken for something else, sometimes ignored entirely, and here and there noticed and praised with joy and hope. Where there is love and unity between brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is there. Where there is worship bubbling over from grateful hearts, the Holy Spirit is there. And where there is spiritual growth, transformation, and genuine prayer, the Holy Spirit is there.
The Holy Spirit is among us, whether we understand that or recognize him. He is among us because of Jesus, who in his death, resurrection, and glorification has shared his Spirit with us. But we will be more like Jesus when we believe that his Spirit lives among us, and is working in us, and attend to his presence. What we might be, in fact, is beyond our imaginings. Because it is the work of God in us.
So may we be attentive to the presence of the Spirit. May we read Scripture and pray and worship together believing that he is here among us, and expecting that he will do something powerful when his presence and our devotion come together.
And may we then be what the world needs most: the presence of Jesus, alive and working.