Why Does The Spirit Always Work Through God’s Word?
Name the Holy Spirit is the first step in re-energizing personal and congregational spiritual life. The second is to Share such Spiritual experiences for mutual encouragement. And the third is a commitment to Seek More such experiences through practices that the Spirit can use to draw followers closer to Christ.
“The Mutual Conversation and Encouragement of Brethren”
Martin Luther understood the importance of encouraging by sharing experiences. He had many friends and colleagues in Wittenberg. As the Reformation took off, his Augustinian order disbanded and gave their monastery building to Luther. Soon he headed a growing family. The former monk cells were rented out as a dormitory to university students. All shared the big meal of the day, along with colleagues who would stop by, like his friend Philip Melanchthon. Luther was a natural storyteller, and he would share his personal experiences to enliven whatever topic they were discussing. Students recorded those lively conversations in 31 volumes of Table Talks.
Those fond memories led Martin Luther to include in the Smalcald Articles of 1537, what was never really noted or appreciated in the Lutheran heritage. In the article on Means of Grace, he added a fifth means, the Mutual Conversation and Encouragement of Brethren (Part III, Article IV). The first three Means are the Word, the Lord’s Supper, and Baptism. The fourth one has slipped out of use, the Power of the Keys (Confession and Absolution).
Strictly speaking, mutual encouragement does not belong in this listing. We believe the Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper offer, convey and seal God’s promises in the Gospel of grace. This mutual encouragement does not appear as a means of grace in other confessional writings. What we can confidently conclude, though, is that such encouragement was very important to Martin Luther personally. He wrote the Smalcald Articles himself.
Paul on Encouragement
Mutual encouragement was highly valued by the Apostle Paul, too. He urged the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
After he and Silas were released from prison in Philippi, they met with others at Lydia’s house, where he encouraged them and received their comfort and encouragement in return. We know he was thankful to the Philippians for the care they gave him, and he sent his colleague Tychicus to encourage them.
The writer of the letter to Hebrews (traditionally thought to be Paul) encouraged that we “not give up meeting together but let us encourage one another.”
Paul ends his second letter to the Thessalonians with a string of encouragements. First, they should encourage each other with his teaching about the second coming of the Lord. Encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone, be joyful, pray continually, and give thanks. Then he associates such encouragement with the Spirit’s fire. Do not put it out. We can note that the same Greek word for encouragement is also used for the Holy Spirit—the paraclete who comes by your side to advocate and comfort. Christ’s Spirit is the Great Encourager. Moved by the Spirit, we can be encouragers, too.
Encouraged by the Evidence
Evidence-based practices in health care and education have become a new emphasis in those fields. Key is statistical research on the experience of those who have received certain kinds of treatment or were taught using different approaches. How many patients got better? How much did children learn from one grade to the next? This information is then combined with the practitioner’s clinical experience to determine best practices for bringing better results.
The Apostle Paul took an evidence-based approach to develop a new kind of community with shared experiences. These were all first-generation followers of Christ who had first-hand experience of the Spirit working in their lives. They shared the Spiritual experience of becoming a distinctive fellowship called out to become more like Christ in their life together. They each showed evidence of the Spirit working in and through them. In his encouragement, Paul relied on such evidence of lives changed.
In writing to the troubled Corinthians, Paul reviewed how they came to faith. “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” To the Romans, he declared simply, The Spirit lives in you and makes you sons of God.
Without consciousness of the Holy Spirit’s power, so much Christian preaching winds up relying mostly on wise and persuasive words. So long as the Word of God is presented, the Spirit can do his work. But why not add evidence of the power of the Spirit in lives changed here and now, preferably among those who are gathered? That’s what Paul did.
Certainly, the objective facts of salvation in Christ’s redemptive work need to be kept clearly in focus. But subjective evidence adds persuasiveness. So long as the subjective never replaces or substitutes for the objective, why not lift up and share evidence of the Spirit’s power available today, not just in biblical times? It is those stories that can increase the encouragement shared among those gathered around God’s Word.
Evidence of the Fruit the Spirit Produces
The evidence of the worth of a fruit tree is the fruit it bears. Jesus used that analogy in his teaching on the vine, branches, and much fruit. Paul makes it foundational for his theology of the Christ’s Spirit, as he listed for the Galatians the fruit the Spirit produces: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You don’t have to look far for evidence of the Spirit’s power in individual lives. It’s there in the feelings he generates in individual believers. Has someone experienced unusual joy in their Christian walk? Share it! Has someone experienced an extra degree of patience? Such stories of the Spirit’s fruit are always good to offer as encouragement to others. Especially helpful are stories of gaining self-control in relation to others. We can work those into mutual conversation and encouragement.
The Christian church has a long tradition of interpreting Paul’s fruit as human virtues to be pursued. The roots go back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. But with that mindset, we are left with only wise and persuasive words to make a difference in followers of Christ. Virtue is then something we need to pursue on our own strength.
Paul is the Apostle of grace as God’s gift to us in Christ. He understood grace to extend to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit who changes lives. We are not left on our own to pursue a godly life. God gives those basic qualities as the work of the Spirit. Jesus did not leave us as orphans. He gave us his Spirit. Look for and share evidence of his work. That’s a good way to re-energize Spiritual life.
Have you experienced unusual joy in your Christian walk? Have you experienced an extra degree of patience? Has the Holy Spirit helped you gain self-control in relation to others? What is the impact of the Holy Spirit in your life?