Spiritless spirituality

Who is God to you? And more specifically, what role does the Holy Spirit have in your faith?

We can agree, of course, that talk about the Spirit can be confusing. While the titles of Father and Son are familial and familiar terms, the Spirit seems more nebulous. He’s presented as one who hovers over the creation, lives in believers, and pours out love in human hearts. But he’s never portrayed in tangible terms apart from his coming on Jesus “like a dove.”

But for many Christians there’s a deeper reason for Spirit-shyness—fear.

Especially when people claim to have the Spirit but then they behave badly. Historical examples include the ancient Montanists; and, later, the Zwickau Prophets, the Spiritists of Münster, and the Familists of England. Each of these groups claimed to speak with the Spirit’s authority. And some—as in Münster—promoted ungodly practices. So qualms about the Spirit’s place in the church were common over the centuries. And some of that is still present today.

So let’s adjust our focus. On the other side of fear is the even larger fault of ignoring the Spirit. Real faith calls for us to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). As an analogy no one throws away real money just because counterfeit notes exist. Instead we set up tests to separate the real from the false. And the same response is called for with the Spirit.

Key historical figures like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and my favorite Puritan Richard Sibbes, were far more open to the Spirit’s ministry than are many Christians today. The same is true of the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards whose “Treatise on Grace” is an extended exposition on the ministry of the Spirit. Yet the spiritual offspring of such men—our modern pastors and teachers—are often Spirit-lite if not Spirit-barren.

Let’s consider just one Spirit-reality: his impact or “fruit” in our hearts. We have a list in Galatians five. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control….” These are qualities of Christ’s life that now extend to us and through us by his Spirit. It’s his work of forming new desires and responses as we grow in Christ.

As for the true and the false, Jesus called on his followers to distinguish the differences. In Matthew chapter seven, for instance, Jesus pressed this point. There is a “gate [that] is wide and the way easy that leads to destruction” over against a “narrow” gate that offers life. So it is crucial to avoid “false prophets” who, like useless trees, will only bear “bad fruit.”

Jesus also used the imagery of fruit-bearing spirituality in John chapters fourteen and fifteen. And in this gospel Jesus promises, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive … dwells with you and will be in you.” Furthermore the Son’s love is preeminent in this union: “love one another even as I have loved you.” And at the end of this chapter, in 15:26, we read that the Spirit is not self-focused but Christ-centered: “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

Counterfeit faith, by contrast, lacks the progression of a love for the Son that extends itself in a love for others. To know Christ and to have his Spirit in us is to love other Christians—always! John’s gospel reached this crescendo in the Son’s prayer of 17:26—“I made known to them [his followers] your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Paul applied this truth in his letter to the Romans. As Christ-followers we always face serious pressures. But we aren’t crushed “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5). He later explains how all this comes with the reassuring confidence of being “united with him”—with Christ.

Paul also explained that the Spirit is crucial: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (8:11). And with Christ’s life comes Christ’s love so that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).

So the great measure of true faith—in contrast to counterfeit faith—is applied love. Jesus said as much in John 13:35—“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So when Christians claim to know Christ but don’t display his character we have a problem. Some, for instance, refuse to talk to other Christians; or fail to extend Christ’s compassion to the needy; or degrade rather than build up other believers. If it’s a pattern we may have a counterfeit faith in play. Call it a Spiritless-spirituality. But with the Spirit’s love at work relationships are restored, truth emerges, and the spreading goodness of God’s love in Christ is shared.

So does the Spirit have full freedom in you? One way to find out is to ask, “Ok, Lord, I’m wholly yours—please search me, cleanse me, fill me, and lead me.” I’m sure this level of openness, if you’re sincere, will produce a joy beyond anything you can ask or think!

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2 Comments

  1. Eric Wilgus

    Who can know the total mind of our God but the Spirit and his Son, Jesus? My go to verse when contemplating the Spirit is “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27 NASB. I also love the notion of “hover” in Genesis 1:2.

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks much Eric for bringing this in. Theologians have long wrestled with how to talk about the Trinity. About maintaining his integrity as the singular Father-Son-and Spirit God while still speaking of his eternal distinctions. So Paul’s description in Romans 8 of the Spirit’s role as the divine communicator is huge. If we tie Romans 8 together with what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2 we get the picture of the Spirit’s aim to offer us intimate access to God’s heart. Wonderful!

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