Getting the Theology of the Holy Spirit Right

Why Does The Spirit Always Work Through God’s Word?

1054 A.D. was a significant milestone in the history of the Christian church. That’s when the split occurred between the Latin-speaking Western church and the Greek-speaking Eastern church. At issue was the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. Does this Third Person proceed from the First-Person Father alone or also from the Second-Person Son Jesus Christ? That “also from the Son” in the Latin phrase is “filioque.” This is known as the filioque controversy.

Far from being an obscure theological debate, the issue is very relevant to our understanding how the Spirit works in our lives today. The Greek term for the Holy Spirit is Paraclete, one who comes alongside. An alternate translation is Advocate, like a lawyer who advocates the case of his client. The Spirit advocates for the will of the Father and the Son in our personal lives.

Thus, the Spirit is not off on his own somewhere intervening in people’s lives about whatever interests them. The Spirit is confined to advocating the will of the Father and the Son. He manifests himself in people’s lives through working out the love of the Father and applying the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

In shorthand, he works through God’s Word. He will not advocate what is contrary to God’s Word. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s Spirit, as Paul explicitly identifies him. Christ’s Spirit and the Holy Spirit are interchangeable. They are like a two-sided coin. Jesus Christ did his redemptive work 2,000 years ago. Ascended, he is now present with us through his Spirit.

Jesus’ Teaching

Let Jesus himself clarify this theology as he explained the basics to Nicodemus in John 3. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to the human spirit.”

The Greek for born again really means born from on high. Being a born-again Christians is a favorite phrase among Evangelicals. We can and should celebrate the Spirit’s movement in the heart and minds of many believers. Jesus clarifies that no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. We traditional Protestants believe that happens in infant baptism, which is entry into the family of God. Our liturgical phrase is that the Father has given the “new birth of water and of the Spirit.”

The second part of Jesus’ teaching is that “Spirit gives birth to spirit.” That phrase is hard to translate in this context. A second dictionary definition would render the Spirit influences human spirit, like a teacher influences his students. Human spirit is one of the words the Bible uses for “soul” or “heart” or “inner being.” A modern equivalent is “motivation.” The Spirit can and will change the motivations of those who are open to him.

Jesus also taught Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” What are we to make out of the Spirit who blows where he will? That’s the puzzle and challenge of ministry in traditional churches that once had spiritually robust church life and now are but a shadow of what they were. What happened to the Spirit?

The Miraculous in the Spirit’s Work

What’s revolutionary is to recognize that the supernatural can intervene in the natural. How this happens touches on the miraculous, an extraordinary event for which there is no natural explanation. Traditional Protestants were taught this does not happen anymore after New Testament times. The result is an anemic view of the Spirit today. Better theology that includes God’s miraculous acts today points to a much more robust understanding of the Spirit at work in our midst now.

The logic is simple. Christ ascended and left his Spirit behind to do his work while he is with his Father in authority. We believers are challenged to become sanctified, to become more like Christ in our daily living. Christ’s Spirit empowers us to do that. Christ’s Spirit changes our motivations so that we behave in new Christ-like ways. Jesus came that we may have the abundant life now. The Holy Spirit produces fruit like love, joy, and peace that make up the abundant life here in this world. This is the ministry message.

Pentecost was a peak time when God’s empowering presence made itself felt and the Gospel was proclaimed in truly dynamic ways. Does the Spirit usually work this way? No, most of the time this Spiritual engine is idling in the lives of Christ’s followers. But then in certain places at certain times, this engine revs up. It happens in special personal Awakenings and Spiritual encounters. At a church level, I think this is what’s happening among certain Bible-focused community churches that become recognized as “happening” places?

Peter’s message on Pentecost started with Joel’s prophecy that God “will pour out my Spirit on all people.” Couple that image of “pouring out” with a jar being filled with water. Sometimes the jar is full to overflowing. But we all have a hole in our personal jar. It’s called sin. Our sinful nature opposes things of God and robs us of the Spirit’s power to transform our lives. How can our jar get filled again? It has to begin with a fresh encounter with God’s Word and recognizing evidence of the Spirit currently at work in us personally and among fellow believers. That’s the value of learning to name the Spirit touching lives in and around us today.

Focus On The Spirit Alive Today

Theologian John Shea describes Christians as people of Memory and the Spirit. He notes that this living relationship produces many outward forms for expressing and sustaining that relationship. These include many rituals, elaborated beliefs, theologies, espoused values and behavior. But as generation succeeds generation, these trigger words and rituals lose their impact and recede into shared memory. Some congregations do indeed seem to exist mostly as a museum without much evidence of a current living relationship with God. John Shea explains that these rituals and formulations are in constant need of refreshment and reform in order to be faithful to the living God they want to reflect.

Do the people of a withering congregation still have a living relationship with God today? Or are they trying to carry forward memories of what used to be? How do you recognize when a “living relationship with God” is mostly gone?

The Spirit is never really gone from churches of believers where God’s Word is at work. But his impact may be limited when he is expected to work only through old forms and formulations that don’t communicate well to new generations. Almost certainly a living relationship has weakened when believers no longer express excitement about future opportunities to share God’s love and when they no longer find the energy to do so.

In John Shea’s words, “When we retain the message of the King but lose the feel for his presence, the passion of religious mission turns to dull obligation.”

A proper understanding of the Holy Spirit is needed in order to understand His role in our lives. How can we make room for manifestations of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and our churches?

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