The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 8: The work of the Spirit
One thing that may be puzzling you is talk about who or what is the Holy Spirit. In fact he is a person so that should be ‘who’. There has been a huge increase in interest in how He works, What He does, and indeed What He is and means in the last 100 years. Not everything that has been said and written about Him is true to the Bible so we ought to look hard at what it says and thus sort out what is right and what is wrong.
First we need to look at what Jesus said, particularly in His great teaching address to the disciples on the night before He was crucified, about Him and His work. He began by telling them that He, the Holy Spirit, would be with them – and us, for ever. In John 14:16,17 He says, “the Father will give you another advocate to Help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth.”
Jesus was the first advocate, a legal term for someone speaking on one’s behalf in a court of law. The Greek word here is tricky so it has been translated in many different ways; the main ones in English being: Comforter, Counselor, Helper or Friend. If you put them all together you will get something of the force of what Jesus was saying. He goes on to say in John 15:26, “When the Advocate comes, Whom I will send to you from the Father —the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—He will testify about me”. And in John 16:7–14, “I will send him to you. When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; He will speak only what He Hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that He will receive what He will make known to you.” The first part of that is quite difficult to understand but the second part is clear – the work of the Holy Spirit in the first part is to tell the world, everybody, the truth about spiritual matters and the second part is to inform us very particularly about Jesus. Above all the Spirit is a teacher.
Secondly, Paul talks about the Spirit as the motivating and driving force behind all that the Christian does. So He says in Romans 8:2–6, “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us – that is you and me – who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on What the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” and he goes on to say in verse 9, “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ”. In 1 Corinthians 2:10 he says “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” The summary of all he means by these things is found in Galatians 5: 25 where He instructs us “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”.
To summarize all that: as I said at the beginning the Spirit is the motivating and driving force behind all that the Christian does of a spiritual nature. He is also the informing source of all spiritual knowledge. It explains why it is a common experience that someone will hear many a sermon and talk about the faith and it makes no sort of sense until one day they become a Christian and it all suddenly makes perfect sense. That is the work of the Spirit flooding into the thinking, and the life, of the new convert.
The third work of the Spirit is to divide out amongst the believers in any fellowship, however small that fellowship may be, the different gifts that they need to carry out the work of “making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. Paul says in Romans 12:6–8, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” These are wonderful gifts both for the community of believers and for the wider community in which they live.
The fourth work of the Holy Spirit is in evangelism. John’s record of the life of Jesus says that in his first meeting with all the disciples after his resurrection Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”. That is both a tremendous privilege and a tremendous responsibility. This charge was given originally to the small group of disciples but it is valid for us too, as all John’s statements were designed for his own local church fellowship and thus for the wider church. It is our responsibility to asses the relationship of those outside faith to their sins and to the only one who can forgive sins and thus to call them into the Kingdom, or not.
The fifth work of the Spirit is in leading the Lord’s people in worship. Paul lists gifts that make this possible in 1 Corinthians 12:7–11 as follows: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He distributes them to each one, just as He determines”.
Those were the gifts of Paul’s day but we can add more for our day. For instance some now have the gift of leading worship with a guitar or a keyboard or other musical instrument. That is not a matter of simply being able to play the tune. Sometimes technically highly competent musicians lack the gift of leading a congregation well while someone, technically less proficient, can lead the worship in a wonderfully God honouring way. That is a Spirit given gift.
Paul tells us to, “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” But goes on to say, “I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” as a warning about being too concerned with such things. And that warning is very necessary these days.
There has been a great upsurge in interest in the more startling gifts of the Spirit in recent years. This is particularly true of speaking in tongues and the interpretation of them. Churches vary enormously in their attitudes to speaking in tongues. Some do not expect them to be used at all; others sometimes go so far as demanding them of every convert as the sign of true conversion even although Paul has made it plain that they are a gift for some – not for all.
I come from the former background so I am very wary of them – excuse my bias. This I would say: be careful. If you are in an environment where there is great excitement about tongues ask yourself ‘am I excited because I am in a big crowd of people who are all very excited, or am I excited because I am in the near presence of the Lord himself’. There is a difference!
As a Christian the Spirit is the Lord’s gift to you at the time of your conversion. Expect to have him teach you about Jesus, to be a strong active presence in your life, to grant you a gift, or some gifts, for the building up of the fellowship you are in and to grant you some gifts for the enrichment of your own spiritual life. As you develop these things in your life you will find that you can be truly said to be walking in step with the very Spirit of God himself. Enjoy!