by Rev. Jefferson Vann
His Ministry of Guidance
Jesus described the Holy Spirit’s ministry in some detail. He said “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” That description of the Holy Spirit’s ministry suggests a number of principles that help believers understand whether a word or thought is from him:
- He is the Spirit of truth. No teaching or action or policy that involves deception or false implications is of the Holy Spirit. By contrast, any teaching or action or policy that champions and celebrates truth might possibly be from the Holy Spirit. One has to be careful, because the Adversary is quite capable of using many truths to hide his lies. However, truthfulness and honesty in ministry is a telling sign of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
- His purpose is to guide the church into all the truth. He is not simply one to champion or reveal a part of the truth, and let believers go on living with lies and half-truths in other areas of their lives. His veracity is comprehensive. His goal is to help believers understand and communicate the whole counsel of God.
- The Holy Spirit acts as an emissary. He is an agent of Jesus Christ, delivering Christ’s counsel, and forwarding Christ’s commands. He is not a free agent – which means that he is not given authority to rescind or reinterpret what Jesus said as recorded in the Gospels. Instead, he is responsible to those words. Just as Jesus submitted to the Father in all things, so the Holy Spirit has submitted to Christ’s will and words in what he has done. That is his function. He continues the task of making disciples of all nations with all the same rules and policies intact.
- His ultimate goal is to glorify Christ, just as Christ’s ultimate goal is to glorify the Father. To glorify someone is to enhance his reputation. For example, I glorify my wife by praising her for what a good wife she is to me. I also glorify her by living a good life and being a good husband and father myself. My actions reflect upon her because we have a relationship. When the Holy Spirit does great things it reflects upon the greatness of Christ.
The Holy Spirit accomplishes all these things (at least partly) by working with and within the church. He guides believers upon the Christ-track. He keeps them from getting off the Christ-track. He exerts influence – the same kind of influence that Christ did as he walked the desert roads of Galilee and Judea.
His Ministry of Discipling
Discipling requires acting in such a way that the way to live is communicated in both words and deeds. Jesus could do that because he could show his disciples how to live, and he could explain to them the principles of God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit can do the same thing – through us. He uses our tongues to speak, and our hands to heal. As a disciple, he continues what Jesus started by using disciples to make new disciples. He reveals God to the unbeliever; explains God to the ignorant, and shows God’s love and power to the needy. Just as Jesus was the world’s guide to God’s new covenant life, so the Holy Spirit takes up that responsibility – through the church.
Being a disciple takes more than some extra strength from a supernatural power. It involves a lifetime of decisions based on principles that sometimes seem to contradict each other. In those cases, what is needed is not a force that leans the disciple in the right direction. What is needed is a Counselor who can work with the believer to get her to see God’s will against a background of several good or bad possibilities.
The NIV translation of the Bible uses the word Counselor to translate the title Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit. A friend of mine objected to the term because it made him think of a staff member of a camp, complete with shorts and a whistle. He argued that the Holy Spirit is more than that. That is true. The Holy Spirit is more than that. Yet, the term is helpful to understand the special role that God’s Holy Spirit has is helping disciples be disciples. He is a person who resides in us, and helps us be the kind of people who reflect Christ’s glory by doing what Christ wants us to do.
One final question must be introduced at this point. If disciples of Christ are being counseled by the Holy Spirit, why is it that they often say or do the wrong thing? Christians make mistakes, and sometimes intentionally sin. The simplest answer is that Christians have the freedom to reject the Holy Spirit’s influence just as those who sat under Christ’s discipling ministry did. The guidance of the Holy Spirit is not overwhelming. We are still free to choose our own path even when the Guide is showing us the correct one. If the Holy Spirit were simply an influence from God, it stands to reason that the influence would be effective. But since the Holy Spirit is a person, everyone who hears his voice has the option to heed it or reject it. When Christians fail their heavenly Father it is because they choose to ignore the counsel of the Counselor. We always live to regret those choices.
His Ministry of Empowerment
Jesus told his disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” On the one hand, he gave us an impossible task: keeping his commandments. It is harder to do that than to keep the Old Testament commandments, and no one was able to accomplish that task.
On the other hand, we have help that the Old Testament saints did not have. Jesus personally asked the Father to send someone to help us live the life Jesus commanded us to live, and that someone is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues the discipling work that Christ began. He was sent specifically from heaven to carry on Christ’s work. The best way to understand this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to see how Jesus Christ discipled.
Jesus empowered his disciples to do what he called them to do. When he commissioned the Twelve for itinerant ministry, he “called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.” He did not ask them to do what he had not demonstrated for them, and given them the means to do so. When he had trained and commissioned another group – the seventy – he likewise assured them that they had the power to do what he asked. He told them “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” With the task came the empowerment.
Some teach that Jesus has somehow short-changed us during this age. They seem to feel that now discipling can be carried out without supernatural power to heal and deliver from demonic bondage. There is no indication of such a paradigm shift in the New Testament. Just before ascending to heaven, Jesus told the believers present with him that “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was tied to two things: The physical absence of Jesus Christ in bodily form, and the need to disciple all nations before his return. Neither of these two factors have changed in the past two thousand years.
His Ministry of Reflection
If the Holy Spirit were a mere influence, it would not matter so much what our inner character was, as long as we succumbed to that influence. But the Holy Spirit is a person, sent not only to move us a certain direction, but walk alongside us as we tread that path. He is a friend who goes with us as we go about our daily lives. Just as any other friend would be, he is affected by what we do and say. He reflects our relationship with the Father. When we were unbelievers – without hope and without God in this world – his connection to us reflected that lack of relationship.
The unbeliever is born into this world with a natural disposition to resist the Holy Spirit’s influence. Although God continues to show evidence of his existence by what he has made, the unbeliever fails to see it. Stephen criticized his fellow Jews who were bombarded with evidence of God’s work in their lives, but “always resist the Holy Spirit.”
To the saved, a tree is a marvel of complex design, enabling the production of oxygen, the provision for a habitat for people and animals, the cleaning of pollution from the air, the raw material for numerous products that enhance the quality of life, and a beautiful, majestic thing to look at. All these things and more are gifts from God, who created trees for our enjoyment and benefit.
To the unsaved, it is usually just a tree. That may be a simplification, but it demonstrates how differently the saved and unsaved react to the world around them. The difference is partly the fact that although all humanity was created with an appreciation for the world around us, believers have special access to God’s Holy Spirit. We are able to tap into that capacity for appreciation that otherwise might lie dormant. Our ears are open so that when God talks, we listen. Our eyes are adjusting to the brightness of his presence. It is as if we have muscles to use that unbelievers do not have.
Having these muscles is no guarantee that we will always use them. Christians are under divine obligation to resist the devil and to consciously surrender to the Holy Spirit, but we sometimes do the reverse. Often we find ourselves giving in to Satan’s temptations, but failing to listen and respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. We always have the capacity to use our spiritual muscles and walk away from sin, but we often take the easy way and give in to sin instead.
But the Holy Spirit does not simply prompt us to avoid sin. There is a whole world of holiness and creativity and things that bring glory to the Father. He wants us to experience all the treasures of that world, and is ready to take us by the hand and give us a guided tour. But we resist the Holy Spirit here, too. There are many reasons that we resist his promptings toward miraculous living. Among them:
- We are creatures of habit. Having lived our lives on a certain level, following a certain path, we are not inclined to stray from that path.
- We fear the unknown. The unknown is just where the Holy Spirit wants to take us.
- We identify mostly with others who are not likely to surrender to the truly adventurous life the Holy Spirit can offer. We fear the loss of their approval if we take up the challenge of the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
- We too easily swallow the Enemy’s lies about ourselves. Satan tells us that we are so tied to the sins and failures and lusts of this life that God cannot make us different than we are.
There is no foundation for this lack of faith. Not one believer – no matter what his history – is tied to a life of mediocrity. We all have the potential to be much more than we allow ourselves to be. The call to break the habit of resisting the Holy Spirit is a challenge to us all.
Most of us have seen or have otherwise experienced some special miracle where the Holy Spirit has manifested. Perhaps while hearing a sermon, or some teaching of the Bible, at some point a special message from the Spirit himself touches the heart. At that point one realizes that God is speaking directly to him through the human speaker. Or, perhaps that special message comes through the words of a song or a prayer. Sometimes the Spirit touches the heart through an act of kindness, or ministry that meets a need nobody was supposed to know about.
Our public worship services are times when such Holy Spirit manifestations should be common. Unfortunately, we sometimes sit through entire services that seem as dry as a desert. Collectively, the body is suppressing the activity of the Spirit. It is like a spiritual coma.
Paul warned the Thessalonians not to “quench the Spirit.” The imagery is that of a fire, which, if allowed to grow, will do what fire does – burn. To quench the Holy Spirit is to put his fire out. That implies that there are times when the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish something, yet his revealed intention is stopped by the indifference or opposition of believers. Paul does not specify what type of ministry it is that can be potentially hindered. The implication is that many different types of ministry can be quenched.
Perhaps 1 Thessalonians 5:20, where Paul tells the same church not to “despise prophecies,” is a particular example of the general rule against quenching the Spirit. There are some times when the Holy Spirit would want to share a prophetic word from God in a gathering, but some believers present are not willing to accept that ministry.
To quench the Spirit is a dangerous thing. It takes resisting to a whole new level. The Holy Spirit is a gentleman. If he encounters those who are not willing to accept his manifestations, he will often withhold them. Sometimes all it takes to encourage an entire body of believers to quench the Spirit is the fear of being labeled charismatic.
Paul told the Ephesians that they had the opportunity to put off their old selves and put on the new selves “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” He was talking about the Spirit’s role as a sanctifier, one who changes us into who we were meant to be. Yet, he warned the Ephesians that they can resist that transformation. He charged them not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
Living an unholy life when we were called to holiness breaks the Holy Spirit’s heart. It prevents the transformation. Our lives are like containers. They can hold holy things or unholy things, but we were not designed to hold both at the same time. We are temples, designed to house the celebration of God’s holiness. If those temples become defiled – the worship ceases. The celebration stops. The Holy Spirit mourns the quiet.
Defilement does not always manifest publically. A secret sin can shut down the celebration just as quickly as a public spectacle. What is taking place is a personal tragedy for the Holy Spirit himself. Paul implies that a church could remain doctrinally sound but still cause grief to the Holy Spirit who taught them their orthodox beliefs. All it takes is living like there is no God. If a church chooses to turn its back on the transformation the Holy Spirit offers, heaven turns quiet for them. That is the sound of the Holy Spirit grieving.
There is only one sin against the Holy Spirit that Jesus deems irreversible and unpardonable. That is the sin of blaspheming him. To do this is to set oneself against what God is doing and wants to do. It is to declare oneself in opposition to God’s will. It is more than simply resisting his call, and more than merely grieving or quenching his fire. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is purposely seeking to malign God’s name and oppose what he wants.
The Christian who consciously seeks to please God and seeks forgiveness for those aspects of her life that are not pleasing to him will never be in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Christian believers are much more likely to grieve the Holy Spirit by unconfessed sin, or to quench him when he wants to manifest.
It is unbelievers who consciously resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit – who are in danger of carrying that resistance to the point of blasphemy.
His Ministry of Giving
The Holy Spirit is the primary equipper for the body of Christ. He gives gifts to each member of the body so that we can utilize those gifts to minister to the world, and to each other in the name of Christ. Pentecost initiated that process. The apostle Peter explained how the gifting first experienced at Pentecost is still present in the lives of the church.
“The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
each has received a gift
He describes believers as not only recipients of God’s grace, but also as stewards of it. The Holy Spirit so distributes his gifting that no one person in a given fellowship has a monopoly. Each has a purpose because each has been gifted. Each fits into the plan of God because each contributes toward fulfilling that plan.
use it to serve one another
One of the most significant reasons that we have been gifted is that God the Holy Spirit wants to love us through each other. Peter tells the church that he is writing so that they are to “keep loving one another earnestly.” By exercising our spiritual gifts, we have the opportunity to show love to one another. The spiritual gifts were not gifts that we are intended to use up on ourselves. Rather, we are intended to use those gifts as a service to one another.
Peter simplifies the whole matter of spiritual gifts by dividing all the possible gifts into two categories. He first mentions the category of speaking gifts because he is well known for his sermons. Peter had the spiritual gift of apostleship, among others. Apostleship is a speaking gift where the Holy Spirit uses the believer to proclaim his word in a new and different environment. Apostles cross cultural barriers to proclaim the gospel.
There are other speaking gifts mentioned in the New Testament as well. Among the most obvious are evangelism, prophecy, messages in other tongues with their interpretation, and teaching. Peter’s instruction here is that no matter what you say as a representative of God’s kingdom, assume that you are pronouncing “oracles of God.” Even if you cannot precisely place what you are led to say into the exact ministry of a particular spiritual gift mentioned in Scripture, let the Holy Spirit use you anyway. This is helpful advice because believers often use “I don’t have that gift” as an excuse. Peter would have none of that. He encourages a broader understanding of how the Holy Spirit operates using the gifts.
Peter’s second major category is that of gifts of service, which is so broad it just about covers anything anyone does in service to Christ and his kingdom. It basically includes any spiritual gift that cannot be specifically described as a speaking gift. His instruction is similar to that he gave in reference to the speaking gifts. He says that if you set out to do anything in the name of Christ, assume that the Holy Spirit will give you the strength to do it.
This category obviously includes the more spectacular gifts of service, like healing, and miracle working faith. But it also includes the more mundane, but equally important gifts of service, like generous giving, leadership and cheerful acts of mercy. Wherever we can serve, God’s Holy Spirit can serve us, and can serve others through us.
that in everything God may be glorified
One of the major reasons for this outpouring of spiritual energy and power is that through the spiritual gifts, God can be glorified. His reputation is enhanced among those who witness the gifts in operation. Peter mentions someone speaking the oracles of God, and the natural assumption is that he refers to some kind of worship service where this is happening. There are many reasons to expect manifestations of the spiritual gifts when we gather as congregations for public worship:
- The whole body is present.
- Words are spoken in God’s name.
- Words are sung in God’s name.
- Prayers are offered.
- Guidance is given.
- Ministry is encouraged.
- There is opportunity for giving.
Every element of the formal worship service is an opportunity for God to manifest himself through spiritual gifts. In fact, the first outpouring of spiritual gifts – Pentecost – serves as an example of this fact. About 120 people were all together in one place at the Jerusalem temple courts when all heaven broke loose.
However, the gifts are not to be confined to public worship. Indeed, they cannot be. What took place after Pentecost shows this fact. The speaking could not be confined to the temple courts. Instead, “every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” Signs and wonders were being demonstrated by both the apostles and others so gifted (like Stephen) “among the people.” The result was that evangelism was being given a helping hand, because the spiritual gifts in operation were proving the veracity of the witnesses. God was being glorified by his people.
be self-controlled and sober-minded
Peter is aware that practicing the spiritual gifts can become something much different than what it was at Pentecost. In the same passage where he encourages the use of spiritual gifts, he commands that believers exercise self-control and sober-mindedness. Spiritual gifts are not child’s play. Their exercise is serious business which calls for maturity.
Paul, speaking on the same subject, encourages believers not to “be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” The fruit of the Spirit is self-control. When it is the Holy Spirit speaking, he does not cause confusion and disorder. When it is the Holy Spirit working, he does not scare people, or cause them bodily harm. The Bible encourages the use of the spiritual gifts, but also cautions us against their abuse.
Often people who seek to use their spiritual gifts do so for childish reasons. Childishness says “this is my spiritual gift and I have a right to express it here and now.” Maturity says “will expressing my spiritual gift serve God’s purpose here and now?” Paul had gotten word that the Corinthians were showing a childish over-zealous attitude about the gifts. He encouraged them “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” Childishness says “let’s do this and see what happens,” but maturity says “if we are going to do this, let’s do it properly.” Paul’s advice to the Corinthians was “earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.” Childishness says “let’s stir things up” but maturity says “will confusion honor God?” Paul reminded the Corinthians that “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
keep loving one another earnestly
Coming back to Peter’s instructions on spiritual gifts, we find that mutual love is the atmosphere in which the gifts must be operated. Without the right atmosphere, the mechanics will not work right. For this reason, every major text in the Bible that mentions spiritual gifts also emphasizes love. The reason is that the New Testament authors expected believers to keep trying to use their gifts, and they expected us to get it wrong some time. Mutual love is required “since love covers a multitude of sins.”
In fact, 1 Corinthians 13 (the love chapter) comes sandwiched between two chapters on spiritual gifts. The reason Paul spoke about love is that he needed to explain something important about spiritual gifts. He needed to explain that – without mutual love, the speaking gifts are just noise, and the serving gifts are nothing. Love provides the atmosphere of forgiveness that enables imperfect people to minister to imperfect people, covering over the multitude of mistakes that will be made.
show hospitality to one another
God intends to minister to us through the lives of others – but only if we love them enough to let them get close enough. Love creates an atmosphere of hospitality that encourages the sharing of ourselves and our gifts. One of the reasons the New Testament encourages believers to regularly gather together is for mutual encouragement, and spiritual gifts can help us accomplish this. Or, our worship services can be stiff, formal, and with so little actual personal contact that we might as well stay apart and watch a sermon on television or the internet. The choice is ours.
The apostle Paul gives some systematic instruction on the issue of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.
you were led astray
He begins by reminding the Corinthians that before they came to Christ they were in the habit of being deceived into believing the wrong things and doing the wrong things. This is an important truth for believers to remember when it comes to the exercise of spiritual gifts. Most of us were at one time gullible fools. We tended to believe what we wanted to believe, and often would not recognize the truth if it slapped us in the face. Then it did. Now – hopefully — we are a bit wiser, and a good deal more cautious.
led astray to mute idols
The Corinthian Christians had been animistic idol worshippers. They had been fooled into following images that could say nothing. They gave no revelation. They were just there. There was no instruction in the right way to go, or warning against the wrong way to go. The Holy Spirit is not like that. The Holy Spirit is going to provide all kinds of instruction and warnings and revelations. He is going to speak through the other believers. In his role as discipler, the Holy Spirit will continue Christ’s preaching and teaching ministry, and guide the church into all the truth.
speaking in the Spirit of God
Just in case these Corinthians get a little too cautious because they had been burned once by deception, Paul gives them some ways to tell if what they hear is really God speaking through an actual spiritual gift. The Spirit is not going to contradict himself. He has declared that Jesus is Lord, so he will never lead anyone to say that Jesus is accursed. He has breathed out inspired words in the Bible, so he is never going to inspire a believer to deny, take away from, or add to that Scripture.
the same Spirit
When the Corinthians were pagans, they got used to the concept of relativism. One person’s god demanded that he eat no meat; another person’s god demanded that she be a glutton. You never could tell what the right thing to do was, because it varied all the time. When they came to Christ, they realized that the God of the Bible is not like that. His ways are altogether righteous, and with him there is no changing like shifting shadows. He can be counted on to always stand for the truth, and that truth never changes. There was something refreshing about that fact that drew the Corinthians to Christ.
True spiritual gifts will manifest that same rock-solid continuity. Paul emphasizes this by using the word same so many times. The gifts are the work of the same Spirit, the same Lord,and the same God. His gifts are not going to direct us away from his paths. He is going to continue to be consistent with himself. When we are being used by him for his purposes, we are not going to be at cross purposes with him or with each other.
varieties of gifts
There is diversity in the kinds of spiritual gifts, although their function is unified. Their function is unified because behind them all is the same Holy Spirit, doing the same will of the Father, fulfilling the work of the body of Christ. There are varieties of gifts because the work of the body is more than just one work. His work is not confined to only the sermon preached or the worship music or the children’s class. He is doing it all through the various gifts he has distributed throughout the body.
varieties of service (ministries)
Peter had divided the gifts into two categories: speaking and serving gifts. Paul uses another kind of classification. He talks about varieties of service, and varieties of activities. Perhaps a better translation of the Greek for service here would be ministry. What Paul describes here are all the gifts that the Holy Spirit imparts to believers, which they regularly and consistently manifest as part of their ministry. These are the gifts associated with the Holy Spirit’s call to a certain ministry. It is not uncommon for an individual with a ministry gift to keep exercising that gift for a lifetime.
Some Speaking Gifts that are often considered Ministries
- Apostles – gifts enabling people to do cross-cultural ministry.
- Prophets – gifts enabling people to speak for God.
- Teachers – gifts enabling people to systematically train others in doctrine and ministry skills.
- Tongues and interpretation – gifts enabling people to effectively communicate in languages other than their heart language.
Some Serving Gifts that are often considered Ministries
- Miracles – gifts enabling people to perform extraordinary acts.
- Healings – gifts enabling people to restore the health of those who are ill or injured.
- Helps – gifts enabling people to render faithful service to others.
- Administrations – gifts enabling people to manage the affairs of the Church with efficiency.
These appear to be what Paul referred to as the “higher gifts.” He encouraged the Corinthians to earnestly desire these gifts because through them the believers would consistently serve each other and their community. Without love, even these ministries could be abused, but when the ministries are performed in a loving way, they accomplish what the Holy Spirit wants.
varieties of activities (manifestations)
Paul’s second category is activities. This word probably refers to the times when the Holy Spirit works among us in ways that we do not expect. Since he is sovereign over the spiritual gifts, he is free to zap me with a gift I have never experienced before, and might not ever experience again. He may use me to heal someone, but that does not mean I should quit my writing and set up a healing ministry. This kind of gift is a manifestation. It is something the Holy Spirit does among us, and through us, but it is less permanent because it is not associated with a lifetime call.
Any of the ministry gifts may also appear as a one-time manifestation. Believers should be careful not to assume a calling simply because God used them once in a particular way. The beauty of the manifestation gifts is that believers cannot rule out the Holy Spirit using them in a speaking gift, when their ministries are usually serving gifts, and vice-versa.
the body of Christ
The predominate metaphor that Paul used to explain spiritual gifts is that of a body – the body of Christ, with each believer being a member (a limb or organ) in that body. The metaphor emphasizes the concepts of the Holy Spirit’s unity amidst the church’s diversity. It also implies another teaching that Paul stressed: we need each other. Paul asked “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” It takes all of the limbs and organs for the body to function properly. For that reason, people in prominent ministries should not act as if they were the whole church.
What, then, is the role of those the Holy Spirit calls into lifelong ministry? Paul deals with that question when he writes about spiritual gifts to the Ephesians (4:11-16). Here, Paul stresses some of the same principles that he had taught the Corinthians about the spiritual gifts. To emphasize unity, instead of speaking of the one Spirit, he focuses on the one head. Since Christ is the head, our goal in ministry should be to get all the members to grow up into him. That stresses maturity as well as unity. Paul also mentions a variety of ministry gifts, not just one. We need each other. The Holy Spirit uses many to minister to all the saints, and the work of ministry belongs to all the saints.
Spiritual gifts used properly produce spiritual growth. The body functions properly as it continues to grow. The measure of that growth is not how I compare with the other limbs and organs of the body. The measure is Christ. Healthy living and proper use of spiritual gifts means that the church will “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
His Ministry of Sanctification
One of the reasons the third person of the trinity is called the Holy Spirit is that he is the one who works within the lives of true believers to produce Christian character. He challenges their assumptions about what righteousness is. He forces them to come to grips with their need for godliness, and walks them through the slow process that eventually produces that godliness.
The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians because the churches of Galatia had missed this. They had been deceived into believing that they could handle their own sanctification. Paul saw this not as simple stubbornness or self-reliance, but as desertion. He told them that he was “astonished that (they) are so quickly deserting him who called (them) in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”
The gospel is the good news of what God has done and can do for believers. God the Father loved them while they were yet sinners, and sent his Son to die in their place, giving them the chance to become members of his family. The Holy Spirit regenerates their hearts so that they want to serve God again, and transforms their minds so that they can accomplish what they want to do. He is the Spirit of holiness, the sanctifying Spirit.
The troublers came to the Galatian region teaching that people do not need the grace of God working supernaturally in them to do what God requires – they only need to follow the commands of the law. Paul aggressively attacks that heresy in his letter. He calls it a different gospel, and he places God’s curse upon its proponents. The idea that one can simply make his mind up to be good and follow the ways of God without the prime moving being done by God himself is dangerous. It does not work that way. This is the message Paul gets across in Galatians.
how it works
Sanctification is an act of the Holy Spirit, who takes the believer’s willingness to submit to him and his grace, and turns it into manifestations of God’s character. The metaphor that Paul uses in Galatians to describe this process is that of growing fruit. The metaphor suggests some important facts every Christian should know about sanctification:
- Fruit growing is a long process.
- There are no real substitutes, but there are plenty of imitations.
- Fruit growing is not easy.
The gospel of godliness is also a gospel of grace. It shows to the world that every soul that can respond to God’s touch can become a godly soul. It is the Holy Spirit who has the green thumb of sanctification. To suggest that my life is not capable of learning and manifesting godliness is ultimately to criticize him. It is to suggest that there is a work that even he cannot do. One cannot imply such a thing and remain orthodox in one’s theology because it denies the omnipotence of God.
The believer’s life is the soil in which God’s Holy Spirit plants his revelation of himself. Every social contact, every event one experiences, every decision one makes comprises that soil. Some soils are predispositioned to accept the Holy Spirit, and others are not.
Jesus’ parable of the sower/soils relates to this issue because Jesus was talking about how people respond to the gospel of God’s kingdom in their lives. In his parable, he described some soils as:
- The Path – beaten down for walking on. Seeds fall but they cannot permeate into the soil. The birds eat them. The result is no crop.
- Rocky Ground – enough soil for immediate growth, but not enough to protect against the scorching sun. The result is no lasting crop.
- Thorny Ground – plenty of soil for immediate growth but too many weeds competing for the same nutrients and space. The result is no lasting crop.
- Good Soil – prepared so that it can take in the seed, enabling the seed to germinate, and protecting it from competition and harm while it grows. The result is a fruitful crop.
Jesus had been talking about a grain crop, and Paul was using a fruit orchard for his analogy, but they both were essentially describing the same process: the process by which the Holy Spirit works in our lives to produce God’s kingdom of holiness. Jesus’ explanation of his parable of the sower/soils helps us to understand what the chief hindrances are to growth. In other words, he explains what elements of a person’s life make it hard for that person to experience growth toward sanctification.
- Lack of Understanding. Jesus explained that “when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.” Human minds create all kinds of barriers that can keep them from grasping the impulse that the Holy Spirit is revealing. Often what God wants to reveal is obstructed by their lack of awareness of its significance.
One of the tasks of evangelists is to learn ways of saying
the gospel message so that their listeners are not immediately closed to hearing it. People who come to Christ often respond to the gospel message after hearing it presented a number of times, in various ways. When the time is right, they hear and understand. The Holy Spirit’s revelation of himself for the purpose of sanctification works the same way. All too often, believers hear of a change that must be made, but just nod their heads and continue as they were. Then, something happens, and they finally understand not only what change must be made, but also why. Until this happens, believers may accept the fact that change is needed, but still fail to commit to that change.
- Lack of Depth. Jesus explained that some people hear the word and receive it with joy, but fall away at the first sign of tribulation or persecution. Theirs is a fair weather faith. They have understanding enough to know that the gospel is the answer to their problem of estrangement from God. What they lack is the depth and endurance to hang on to that truth when others start betraying and rejecting them for being faithful to that word.
The same kind of thing can happen in the area of personal
sanctification as well. When the Holy Spirit reveals himself to believers, there are always things that the believers must change in order to live up to their newly recognized image of Christ. Their unbelieving friends will not appreciate their new commitments because they are not privy to the revelation.
Even other believers may be offended and seek to hinder them from taking that step. All people resist change, and usually do not appreciate it when our friends change. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit causes interpersonal problems. Some people that the believers thought they could count on to support them in their quest for godliness will desert them.
Growth is change. Spiritual growth puts down roots and enables believers to stay fixed to their faith while all those changes take place. As time progresses, believers become more mature and stable, while still being as faithful and faith-filled as ever. That is depth.
- Presence of Distractions. If the enemy cannot hinder
spiritual growth by keeping believers ignorant or by keeping their faith shallow, he will seek to hinder it by keeping them distracted. Jesus summarized the means of the distraction: the “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.” The tempter uses either their anxiety about problems of the present or their lusts for the possessions of the present. Either way, the enemy seeks to get them to forfeit their eternal rewards by making them concentrate on the now.
Although the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives now, his focus is always on preparing them for a glorified eternity. People come to God just as they are and he accepts them by his mercy. He accepts them just as they are because it is only he who can transform them by his grace. They see their lives as empty fields and wonder how they can ever glorify God with those lives. He sees beyond the empty fields and is already celebrating the abundant harvest. With joy the Holy Spirit superintends the process because he can see beyond the things that distract. They see thorns, he sees thrones.
For believers, to cooperate with the Holy Spirit is to catch a glimpse of what he sees. Believers need to look beyond the thorns – because they will be there until the glorification at Christ’s second coming. They need to see the end product, and realize how significant it is.
Believers are often trapped in a life that is possessed by their problems (the cares of this world) or by their desire for possessions (the deceitfulness of riches). It is very difficult to concentrate on God and his ways when pain and want and worry keep presenting themselves and demanding attention. The lure of things and experiences is so strongly felt that believers sometimes forget about their desire for godliness. It becomes like a distant dream.
Sanctification reverses that disposition. Believers are still affected by their problems, and still want things. But the lust for life eternal has gained prominence. They want so much to be what they will be that they are more and more willing to set aside the passions of the present in order to grasp their future – their destiny.
The backwards infusion
If believers today were capable of looking through a lens that enabled them to see what they would look like in a million years or so, they would see the fruit of the Spirit. It would not look strange to them. They would see themselves acting quite naturally, and everything they thought and did would be holy. Their lives would be the lives of normal children of God. They would not think it strange that they felt no impulse to steal, or murder or lie. It would not enter their mind to act that way. Those would not be the normal things for them to desire or accomplish. Those actions would not be them.
The Holy Spirit is there in that time, a million or so years from now. He takes that godliness, granted by the grace of God, and brings it back with him to the now. He is infusing believers now with the godliness they will know fully then. As a result, when they love, it is really them loving. The Holy Spirit is not forcing them to go against their will. He is merely allowing them to see the potential they will have for eternity to love as he loves.
They manifest all of the fruit of the Spirit because the fruit are attributes of their spirits. They do not always feel those attributes, because they are not yet where they will be when their glorification is complete. They will, however, grow deeper and deeper into the godliness that is their destiny. Jesus has chosen them to go and bear abiding fruit. The Holy Spirit is the producer who brings all of God’s resources to bear in order to make that happen.
This article is an abridgement of chapters 37 – 42 of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,” by Advent Christian missionary Jefferson Vann. The e-book is available in Kindle format, and can be purchased online at Amazon.com.
Jeff and his wife, Penny, live in Auckland, New Zealand.
 John 16:13-14.
John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7.
 John 14:15-17.
 Luke 9:1-2.
 Luke 10:19.
 Acts 7:51.
 1 Thessalonians 5:19.
 Ephesians 4:22, 24.
 Ephesians 4:30.
 Matthew 12:31.
 1 Peter 4:7-11.
 Acts 21:8; Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5.
Luke 2:36; Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:10; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; 13:2; 14:29, 32; Ephesians 3:5; 4:11.
1 Corinthians 12:30; 14:13, 27-28.
Acts 2:42; 4:2, 18; 5:28; 13:1; 28:31; Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 12:28-29; 14:6; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 2:7; 3:2; 4:11, 13; 5:17; 6:2; 2 Timothy 1:11; 2:2, 24; Titus 2:1.
Acts 4:9, 14, 22, 30; 5:16; 8:7; 28:8; 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28, 30; James 5:16.
Acts 8:13; 19:11; 1 Corinthians. 12:10, 28-29; Galatians 3:5; Hebrews 2:4.
 Romans 12:8.
 Acts 1:15; 2:1.
 Acts 5:42.
Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8.
 1 Corinthians 14:20.
 Galatians 5:23.
1 Corinthians 14:12.
 1 Corinthians 14:39-40.
 1 Corinthians 14:33.
 1 Peter 4:8.
 1 Corinthians 13:1.
 1 Corinthians 13:2.
 1 Peter 4:9.
 Hebrews 10:25.
 John 14:16; 16:13.
 1 Corinthians 12:4, 8, 9, 11.
 1 Corinthians 12:5.
 1 Corinthians 12:6.
 1 Corinthians 12:19.
 Ephesians 4:15.
 Galatians 1:6.
 Galatians 1:9.
 Matthew 13:4.
 Matthew 13:5-6.
 Matthew 13:7.
 Matthew 13:19.
 Matthew 13:21.
 Matthew 13:22.
 John 15:16.
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