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)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thanks so much to Todd Wilken, Jeff Schwarz, and Craig Feichtinger for inviting me to be a guest on the Issues, Etc. radio program. They are carrying the standard for Confessional Lutheranism around the world through the work of their radio ministry. It was a real privilege to be a guest on the show.

Listen to the interview here:

Be sure to check out the vast resources they have available at

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Christ, Coffee, and Freshly Baked Cookies... "I'll have a Large Double Mocha Latte, a Blueberry Scone, and a Side of Jesus. Go light on the Jesus."

Church is the new coffee house. It is now the trend. And why wouldn't it be? Coffee houses are all the rage among the young and hip as gathering places to sit for a chat, network, and build relationships. It's a perfect fit for much of modern American Christianity where going to church, faith, and the gospel itself is all about “relationship”.

The evidence is everywhere. If you go to your local Christian bookstore you will be hard pressed to find portraits of a suffering Jesus or a crucifix with a corpus. You will, however, find plenty of portraits to hang on your walls that depict Jesus with his arms open for an embrace, you will find Jesus with his head back and mouth open in a full belly laugh, and you might even find Jesus with children playing soccer and swinging on tire swings.

And what of the books? You will likely find a copy of The Shack, Wm. Paul Young's novel about a man who meets God face to face(s). He gets to spend a weekend with God in the woods baking cookies, fishing, going for walks (even on the water), looking up at the stars, and having deep heart to heart conversations.

You can pick up a copy of Love Dare and its companion movie Fireproof so that you too can “fireproof” your marriage. And if you really want to shore up things with your spouse, head on over to Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas where Pastor Ed Young will tell you that the best way to get closer to God and your spouse is by seven straight days of sex. The Christian faith has become all about "relationship".

Not that relationship is bad. Nor is it unrelated. The Bible has lots to say about Christian relationship - both the relationship of the Christian to God and the relationship of the Christian to the neighbor. The thing is, the picture is not pretty. It's like we say in church. "I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself." That sets the stage for a pretty poor relationship.

The Old Testament people of God had a relationship with God. God lived literally in the middle of the camp. He invited them to come spend time with him every day. However, every time they stopped by God's tent for a visit something had to die. A lamb, a bull, a pigeon if you were poor had to give up its life for your relationship with God to continue. Doesn't really put you in the mood for the taste of a latte or the smell of freshly baked cookies...

The New Testament people of God get in on the relationship too. The New Testament calls it koinonia. We often translate that as "fellowship". Sometimes we think fellowship is what we get when we all get together and enjoy each others' company. It's not. Fellowship, koinonia is not about us. It's not about our interpersonal connections. It is what we get when God joins us to himself, (1Cor. 1:9) to his own mystical body, through His sacrament so that through Christ we are joined to one another (1Cor. 10:16).

Just like our Old Testament counter parts, this doesn't happen without there being a death. We can't go over to God's place without someone loosing His life. Unless there is first a death, a sacrifice, a propitiation (1 John 4: 10) there is no relationship. So that's what there is. And the picture is not pretty. There is a cross and a bloodied figure on that cross who cries out to a God who has forsaken him (one relationship broken) and disciples who have abandoned him (12 more relationships broken) and his own people who have despised him (a whole slew of broken relationships!) But his failure is our victory. The koinonia can begin, first between you and God and then, through Christ, between you and your neighbor.

With all this misplaced talk of relationship, the result is a real tragedy. We are supposed to do things that benefit the relationship. We are supposed to spend time with one another, be "vulnerable" with one another, see the positive in one another, do nice things for one another. While these are (or can be) really good things, these things do not fix the problem.

If the problem is sin and if sin is that we are turned in on ourselves, the solution is not to follow a plan, a prescribed set of behaviors. These might open your eyes to help you see things are not right, but they cannot fix the sin. Sin is fixed through the Gospel. Sin is fixed through a Spirit-directed confession of sin that empties the self of rights and reasons and excuses. Sin is fixed when we confess our sins to each other and when we forgive the sins that have been committed against us. Sin is fixed when we confess our sin to Christ and He absolves us through his called and ordained servant.

The Bible has lots to say about relationship. It is God's to give, ours to ruin, and then God's to restore. He does this. He does it in Jesus.