Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Understanding the work of the Holy Spirit

In a few weeks the church will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, a feast that follows 50 days on the heels of Easter and a feast that commemorates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus.

Pentecost is a wonderful day. In fact, when most Christians talk about the Holy Spirit the first thing that comes to mind is Pentecost. For example, modern day Christians who believe that they have a special helping of the Holy Spirit are called “Pentecostals”. They believe that the Holy Spirit measures himself out in greater portions to some Christians who are more deserving and that you can see radical evidence of the Holy Spirit when He has come.

Most Lutherans know we do not look for the Holy Spirit in such radical means such as speaking in tongues or in faith healing, but still we might be tempted to follow the same line of thinking. Often Lutheran Christians are tempted to think that the Holy Spirit gives himself in greater measure through our feelings or through the things that we say or do. For example: have you ever taken a “spiritual gift inventory”; a personality test that is supposed to tell you how the Holy Spirit wants you to serve in the congregation? Or perhaps have you ever heard someone say, “I felt the Holy Spirit leading me to do such and such”? Or maybe your have heard someone refer to a person, maybe even a congregation as “Spirit filled”. While we don’t confess a Holy Spirit who causes us to say or do things we can’t understand, we still are tempted to give Him in greater measure to some than to other. Do not be deceived! The Holy Spirit is not to be cut apart like pieces of a pie.

I believe this happens because sometimes Christians confuse the First Article of the Apostles' Creed (the work of the Father) with the Third Article (the work of the Holy Spirit). In the First Article we learn that God creates each and every one of us with the gifts of our bodies and the accompanying talents and abilities. Some are good artists. This does not mean their art is inspired by the Spirit. Likewise some are good writers. This does not mean their writing is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Still others are skilled musicians and composers. This does not mean their music is inspired by the Holy Spirit. God gives all talents. He gives talents to paint and sculpt and draw. He gives talents to write. He gives musical talents. He also gives talents to farmers so that they can farm. He gives talents to mechanics so that they can repair engines. He gives talents to doctors so that they can help people to heal. All of these talents are gifts from God, but they are gifts He gives both to Christians and to unbelievers. Any one of these gifts can be used for God’s glory and in service to our neighbor or they can be used for sinful and selfish gain. Likewise, when a farmer’s crops grow or when your mechanic gets your car running again we don’t assume this was the work of the Holy Spirit. At times we feel compelled to give preference to some of God’s gifts as being of greater spiritual merit than to others. Paul reminds us that all are members of the body of Christ and the whole body is built up through all of the gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

Also, at times Christians believe that they have received a special nudge from the Holy Spirit to go to a certain place and do a certain thing. Be careful of these nudges. (1 John 4:1-3) Sometimes God, who is concerned to provide for you a job, food to eat, good health, and the like will provide opportunities for you. This is because He is good and because He loves you. But be careful that you do not assume that these are His specific will for you, that you should do this and no other. When we have done this we have confused God's good work of caring for his creation with His gracious work of providing for our salvation.

The Work of the Holy Spirit has to do with your salvation. Remember the Apostles' Creed. We confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” These are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are God's gifts that He gives to Christians for forgiveness and salvation.

Recall Jesus' words in John 14. “These things I have spoken while I am still with you. But the Helper (or intercessor or advocate), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The work of the Holy Spirit is to point us to Jesus. He is the one who calls us to faith through the Word of God. He is the one who keeps us in that faith through the Word and the Sacraments.

So where do we look for the Holy Spirit? In the Bible. In preaching. In the words of absolution spoken on Sunday (John 20:22-23). In the Lord's Supper. You can be sure that the Holy Spirit is working in these place for you. He doesn't divide himself up. He doesn't give more of himself to one and less to another. The “weak” Christian and the “strong” Christian get the same amount of forgiveness: the whole thing, every time. Enough to last a life time.

This Pentecost, rejoice that the Holy Spirit has been given to you, and is alive in your heart through the Holy Word of God (Hebrews 4:12)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. I think Issues, Etc. should have you back to discuss this one! Thanks for helping us sort out the work of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit.