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I’m returning to the ministry of the Spirit in this post—a favored topic of recent months. The immediate stir this time was a recent invitation to speak on the Trinity. The preparation took me back into Jonathan Edwards’ “Treatise on Grace” which is really a discussion of the Spirit.
But let me start with the Spirit and the Bible before commenting on Edwards’ project. In the Christian faith the Bible is viewed as the Spirit’s resource to us. The Spirit is the constant and consummate communicator of God’s heart. His main work has been in producing and then in applying the Scriptures. He’s the creative presence who first moved the original writers to write; and he’s also the companion who lives in believers, inviting us to respond to what we read.
Paul certainly had this in mind when he prayed for the readers of his epistle to Asia Minor—“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:17-18).
Paul’s imagery of vision-improvement is helpful. I wear eyeglasses, but I don’t pay much attention to them. Especially if I’m reading a good book; or watching a movie that rivets my attention. The glasses support what I’m doing but they don’t draw attention in the process.
The Spirit, then, is God’s focal presence in our hearts: our spiritual lens. So as I read the Bible I don’t think of the pages before me as the Spirit’s handiwork—but they are. He moved the hearts of the Bible writers to compose their narratives, oracles, letters, and poems as an expression of God’s heart. And then, as these Bible compositions form our thoughts and responses, we’re not aware of the Spirit’s ministry in stirring our responses to the words we read.
His subjective work in believers is crucial. He both elicits faith and sustains it. And this faith is the basis of our union and communion with God. Jesus offered this lesson to Nicodemus in John 3:8 as the basis for a living faith. The Spirit is like a breeze that stirs a forest. He awakens dormant souls.
In the next chapter, John 4, Jesus made the same offer to the Samaritan woman but he switched to the analogy of living water. His punch line came in verse 24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Jesus reiterated the Spirit’s primary work in John 6:63—“It is the Spirit who gives life”—and again in John 7:37-39, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive…”
But the Spirit does all this quietly as an unobtrusive presence. We don’t “feel” his work in us. Nor does he “take over” a soul in the normal course of life. So while there may be moments when he displays this ability—as with the disobedient King Saul being transformed into a bare-naked prophesying fool (1 Samuel 19:24)—the Spirit’s main work is to whisper to us through the Scriptures. He takes the word of God to shape us more and more into children of God.
I’m not drawing attention to the more dramatic gifts the Spirit may offer to some—the so-called “sign gifts” of healing, tongues, and the like. These gifts have been given lots of attention through the years while the Spirit’s primary ministry goes unnoticed. His main role is to draw us to Jesus who, in turn, draws us to the Father: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).
That means that every true experience of faith will begin with the Spirit calling a soul to consider Jesus. Even when the person wasn’t ready to consider the prospect. I’ve seen it among refugees from Iran who arrived in Europe—in a church where a number of believers testify of coming to faith when dreams or words called them to seek Jesus.
The Spirit employs any number of pathways to draw individuals to faith but they all share one focus in common: a growing interest in Jesus. In what he represents.
Now back to Jonathan Edwards. He explained this attraction as the Spirit bringing God’s love to others. He invites people to respond to the love that God—the Triune God—pours out from within his own communion: “He is the Deity wholly breathed forth in infinite, substantial, intelligent love: from the Father and Son first towards each other, and secondarily freely flowing out to the creature, and so standing forth a distinct personal subsistence” [Works, “Treatise on Grace,” 186 (Yale)].
My own analogy for the Spirit is that his ministry is God’s magnetic presence in the world. Some respond to him—just as ferrous metals fly to a magnet—while anything else is impervious. So my personal ambition is simply to point people to consider Jesus: to offer the Bible portrayals of his life. I expect most people to yawn and look annoyed. But some are captivated.
In the same way there’s a clear difference between those who profess to be Christians and those who are captivated by Christ. The former may even teach theology, preach great sermons, and lead churches but if they don’t actually delight in Christ we’re left to wonder if they have the Spirit’s presence in them. His qualities—the list in Galatians 5 of “Love, joy, peace, patience” and more—are the sure signals of a true bond to Christ.
A final reflection, then, is “so what?” Is there a takeaway here? Just this. Pick up a Bible, pray—“Okay, Lord, help me understand what I’m reading”—and read. Then see what happens.
May I ask a clarifying question? I wholeheartedly confirm the reality of the Spirit’s transforming work through rich times of Bible reading, as He has drawn my heart to love Christ, and others, more and has turned upside down my priorities, motivations, etc. And I’ve experienced over and over again how when I’ve prayed what you’ve suggested, “Lord, help me understand what I’m reading,” He brings clarity and understanding to things I may have read many times over my life and felt confused about. My question, though, is related to those who live in remote places and don’t even know that there’s such a thing as a Bible, or know of it but don’t have it in their language. How do those who are drawn to Christ through the Spirit, but don’t have access to a Bible, grow in knowledge and love for Christ?
Sure, Gretchen, it’s a question we all wish we had a neat Bible text or two to offer as an answer. This much we can say: God is just and he doesn’t wish that any will perish (as famously stated in 2 Peter 3:9). And, with that, we need to be reminded that all of us started together with Adam … so the knowledge of God was once intimate and immediate in humanity. But humanity as a whole walked away from God over time (as affirmed so clearly in Ro. 3 – God is not to be blamed).
And God’s direct missional activity by the Spirit is something we can take by faith – that he has his ways of drawing the most unlikely people to Christ. I’ve had my own glimpses of this as I’ve met Iranians who have had dreams calling them to Jesus. Our concern – that we need to be reassured that every person has access to the gospel, even in the most extreme corners of the world and throughout every generation – may be overlooking the reality of generational sin and community solidarity. For instance the “sin of the Amorites” (in Genesis 15:16) wasn’t “complete” until “the fourth generation” – that is, after another 400 years – and then they were, it seems, all beyond the reach of salvation.
So we’re left to speculate but we still trust God to resolve any tensions in a way that reflects his love, mercy, and justice. But we’ll only get his final answer once we’re with him.
Thank you for expressing your thoughts on the Holy Spirit. I especially like your analogy to glasses supporting what you are doing but not drawing attention in the process of your focus. And then relating the Holy Spirits’ work in our Bible reading stirring our response to the Word we read. This is such a good reminder of His interaction as I read my Bible and sense my mind unraveling the message that God is revealing. And then building my faith in His Word as I process it throughout the day.
I am so thankful for the unimaginable power and tenderness of the Holy Spirit as He shows me the heart of Jesus. Thank You for your thoughts.
Thank you for responding, Judy. You’ve offered us a rich testimony here. Psalm 34:8 at work!