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“Skeptical of the Spirit: Surplus – or Essential?”

Pentecost Sunday, June 9 2019 - Rom.8:1-16(et passim)


It’s Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter, when Acts 2 describes how the Holy Spirit came upon the early believers in Christ, Peter preached a riveting sermon, and over 3000 people became followers of Jesus. So it’s a fitting day to focus on the Holy Spirit, an oft-undersung member of the Trinity.

               Evangelical churches are known for being more Bible-oriented than charismatic: we tend to leave emphasis on the Holy Spirit to our Pentecostal cousins. In fact talking about the Holy Spirit often tends to make us a little bit nervous. Are we afraid of going off the deep end? Have we been put off by those who emphasize “signs and wonders”, miracles and healings? We were watching American Gospel in small group this past week and saw, thanks to slow motion camera work, how one supposed faith healer used sleight of hand to make it appear as if someone’s short leg grew longer.

               Few people would have been more skeptical of the miraculous than my late older brother. Dennis was a hard-nosed cash crop farmer from Perth County, who volunteered on the pastoral care team at a Mennonite church in Stratford. One time he went to Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship to check it out back when there were reports of supernatural phenomena. He was as surprised as anybody when he himself found himself lying down on the floor with a strange warm sensation happening inside his torso; looking back, he understood it as God performing some emotional healing.

               So as we come to this topic, we daresn’t limit God in terms of the possibilities of what He can do. As AW Tozer has put it, "Anything God has ever done, he can do now. Anything God has ever done anywhere, he can do here. Anything God has ever done for anyone, he can do for you."

               Yet we still get nervous about the Holy Spirit and the supernatural. Pentecostals might argue speaking in tongues is one of the signs a person is truly saved (although the Apostle Paul in 1Cor 12:30 makes it obvious he doesn’t expect everyone to speak in tongues). Could it be we get edgy because some gifts require us to yield complete control to the Lord, even the ability to control what we say? Does our pride get in the way? Pride LOVES to be in control.

               For the Holy Spirit to be operative in our life, we need to be willing to give Jesus control. 1Cor 12:3 “Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.” When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we are saying in effect, “Jesus, I want you to be in total control of me, directing my life: I belong to you, I want to do whatever YOU want.” It’s hard to say that when you’re proud.

               How can we get our pneumatology, our doctrine of the Holy Spirit, on a firm footing? Lately I’ve been practising to get my motorcycle license. The road in front of my house was recently torn up and re-gravelled. I’m fine making turns with my bike as long as I stay towards the centre of the road. But the gravel is soft at the edges, and if I don’t turn tight enough – down I go! I have no traction where the gravel is shifting.

             Let’s take a couple of minutes and review some things our denomination has set forth about the Holy Spirit in a position paper from a few years back called Christ at the Centre.

•           The same Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, is the Helper sent by Jesus, whose essential work is to mediate the personal presence and ministry of Jesus.He does so in order that our Lord may be known, loved, trusted, honoured, and praised (John 14:16; Rom 1:4; 8:11).

•           The Spirit of Christ, also called the Spirit of God (Rev 2:1,7,8, etc.), in the words of Jesus, "will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you" (John 16:14).This is His fundamental and unchanging task.

•           The Spirit is more than a power who gives coping ability for living, or enables performance in service, or moves people to speak, or brings about emotional response, or endows with knowledge or insight.Rather He is the third Person of the Trinity and very God (Gen 1:26; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor13:14).

•           Jesus is our example of 'life in the Spirit' (Matt 3:17; 4:1). His life characterized by love for God and love for others was well pleasing to His Father and commended as our example (Phil 2:5; 1Pet 1:2; 2:21).

•           The same Spirit is the deposit guaranteeing our complete redemption (2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:13).

•           The Holy Spirit empowers us to love like Jesus in victory over the world, the sinful nature (flesh), and the devil, and causes us to be partakers of God's nature through union with Christ and to be His witnesses, sharing our faith with others (1 John 2:15-17; 4:12-13; 5:1-5; 2 Pet 1:4; Acts 1:8).

•           The fruit of the Spirit is demonstrated in Christlike character in a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-25).

How’s that strike you? Not too scary? Sound pretty orthodox? Hopefully that makes you a little less nervous and puts a firm Biblical footing under anything else we say.

             To read more, look up the EMCC’s position paper called The Gifts of the Holy Spirit. It has a good commentary on the range of spiritual gifts mentioned in Rom 12:6ff, 1Cor 12:4ff, and Eph 4:11. It also presents a scriptural approach to the issue of tongues-speaking: fine for personal edification as a private prayer language, “an aid to personal prayer and praise”, but only to be used in public worship if it edifies others by means of interpretation into everyday language. It notes with 1Cor 13 that, no matter what gift a believer possesses, without love (agape) it is worthless. “Let us pray that the EMCC will be Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. Above all, however, let us pray that the love of Christ will characterize us as a denomination. If we are God’s people filled with His agape, the Spirit of God will see that we are also people who manifest genuine charismata.”


Is the teaching about the Holy Spirit an obscure side doctrine, a quaint add-on to the Christian life: or is the Holy Spirit something more central in the view of the authors of Scripture? We tend to talk a lot about Jesus and God the Father, but not very much about the Holy Spirit. Do we give Him ‘fair billing’?

               There is a tendency if we’re not careful to fall into the trap of what we might call a “religious” view of Christianity. Many religions in the world are performance-based: you do the right actions in order to, if possible, earn the approval of the spirit-world: present the right offerings, say the right prayers, give alms to the poor in order to qualify as a righteous person. Religion says “do”; Christianity says “done!” - it is grace-based not works-based. Eph 2:8f “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

               Conservative Protestant churches, following the Reformers and Anselm, tend to adopt a penal substitionary view of the atonement: Christ died for our sins and thus satisfied divine justice. Liberal churches may emphasize God’s love more and follow a “moral example” view of the atonement – Jesus' death offers us a perfect example of self-sacrifical dedication to God. Abelard (1079-1142) held that "Jesus died as the demonstration of God's love," a demonstration which can change the hearts and minds of the sinners, turning back to God. He was eventually condemned by a church council and excommunicated as a heretic. But without a proper understanding of the Holy Spirit, our emphasis may become imitating Jesus rather than letting Jesus live out His obedience through us: God remains “out there” as someone we’re trying to please, rather than our Heavenly Father who has already given us new birth to be His children through faith in Jesus. Do you see the difference?

               The Bible is clear that the Holy Spirit is an indispensable part of the Christian life, not some optional add-on. As we’ve seen in 1Cor 12:3, it’s only by the Holy Spirit that we can acknowledge, “Jesus is Lord.” Rom 8:9b “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”

               When Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council, came to check out Jesus privately one night, Jesus was point-blank with him: Jn 3:3 “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus objected at this idea, but Jesus insisted, Jn 3:5f “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” We can see that for Jesus, being ‘born of the Spirit’ is a non-negotiable.

               The apostle John in his first letter to the church likewise insists that Jesus-followers have what he calls an ‘anointing’: 1Jn 2:20,27 “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth...As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit— just as it has taught you, remain in him.” What John means by this ‘anointing’ becomes clearer in 3:24; 4:13,15 “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them.And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us...We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit...If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.”

             The Apostle Paul castigated the church in Galatia for slipping back into works of the law when Judaizers came through. Gal 3:3 “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” For Paul, having the Holy Spirit in one’s life is essential, wrapped up with becoming a child of God through faith. Gal 4:6 “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father."”


In fact, the Holy Spirit is not just central in a Christian’s life: He (the third Person of the Trinity) is crucial to understanding the whole thrust of salvation history, from Old Testament to New Testament. When God delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, He gave a code, the law of Moses, at Mount Sinai before they entered the Promised Land. But over the next thousand years or so it became clear their stubbornness had them stuck in disobedience. It just wasn’t working. So God revealed the next phase to His prophets. Jeremiah revealed in 31:31-33, “"The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

             The Holy Spirit would be the means by which God writes His law on our minds and hearts. Ezekiel prophesied in 36:26f, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” The prophet Joel foretold a time when God would “pour out [His] Spirit on all people” (Joel 2:28) – the very prophecy Peter picks up on the Day of Pentecost to explain the strange phenomena of believers being able to speak in many different languages (Acts 2:16ff).

             It goes back even further than the giving of the law at Mt Sinai. Paul sees God’s interaction with Abraham as pointing toward the Christian experience of having the Holy Spirit in our lives. Gal 3:8,14 “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you...[HOW DOES PAUL INTERPRET ‘BLESSING’? LISTEN CAREFULLY] He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Receive WHAT? “The promise of the Spirit.” So salvation history from Abraham through to the early church, in Paul’s perception, is moving towards believers having the indwelling Holy Spirit. It’s the Kingdom project God is working towards, restoring the communion that was lost back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve sinned.


Probably the most complete and detailed description of the Christian life can be found in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It was not written in response to a particular crisis or issue, as with many of his other pastoral letters. He had time to sit down and present a carefully thought-out treatise on HOW we’re saved and what we’re saved FOR. Put on our Pentecost spectacles and we can see that the Holy Spirit figures very prominently in Paul’s understanding of how the normal Christian life is supposed to ‘work’.

               The climax of the book, towards which the initial chapters build, is Romans 8, sometimes called “The Great Eight”. Paul has set forth a picture of our depravity in chapters 1-2, how Jesus died as a substitute for our sins as a perfect sacrifice in chapter 3, and righteousness becomes possible through faith as for Abraham in chapter 4. In chapter 5 there’s a passing hint of his coming theme: 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” But it’s not until chapter 8 that he starts to expound more fully on how the Christian life actually WORKS, integrated with the help of the Holy Spirit.

               Rom 8:2 “...through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Note - “the LAW of the Spirit of life” - Paul uses the word ‘law’ in multiple ways: a controlling power; God’s law; the Pentateuch, first 5 books of the Bible; the Old Testament as a whole; and, a principle. Here the sense is “a controlling power”: Robertson’s Word Pictures - “the principle or authority exercised by the Holy Spirit which bestows life and which rests in Christ Jesus.” Other synonyms might be the rule, or governance, or domain of the Holy Spirit.

               Do we allow the Holy Spirit to have influence in our lives? To have sway, control? Psalm 32:9 “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.” VV8-10 in the Message paraphrase - “Let me give you some good advice; I’m looking you in the eye and giving it to you straight: Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule that needs bit and bridle to stay on track.God-defiers are always in trouble; God-affirmers find themselves loved every time they turn around.” Are we more like a God-defier, having to be dragged kicking and screaming, or are we a God-affirmer?

               My fiancee has a pasture out behind her barn to which she takes her “pets” each day. She puts a bridle on her horse to lead her with; but the 2 goats, 1 sheep, and 1 pig require no harness or bridle – they just tag along quite happily because they trust their mistress and are eager to get to the pasture. They are free – but they stick with the program just as if they had a harness on. (Well, for the most part, anyway – the pig sometimes gets sidetracked by wild raspberries!)

               As you read through the rest of the chapter, what Paul means by “the law of the Spirit of life” becomes clearer. Vv4-5 talk about living “according to the Spirit” instead of “according to” the flesh (sinful nature in NIV). V5 to live in accordance with the Spirit means they “have their MINDS SET ON what the Spirit desires”. To put your mind, your concentration, your attention on what the Spirit wants. A conscious continual re-focusing.

             I’ve been learning to ride a motorcycle. During the training course it was emphasized you need to be checking your rear-view mirror constantly, every 5-7 seconds; because (contrary to the first rule of Italian driving) what’s coming up behind you is, in fact, important. So a Christian is always checking in with the Holy Spirit rather than merely going by our natural senses. We’re asking prayerfully, “Lord, what would YOU have me do?” (A bit more direct than WWJD.)

             Vv6-8 in the NIV bring in the language of CONTROL: “The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace...Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” The original language doesn’t actually have ‘control’ but speaks of being “IN the flesh” / “IN the Spirit”.

             Vv13-14 “For if you LIVE ACCORDING TO the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you PUT TO DEATH THE MISDEEDS OF THE BODY, you will live, because those who ARE LED BY the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Which nature are we living ‘according to’? Are we ‘in accord with’ the leading of God’s Spirit? Are we being LED BY the Spirit, or doing our own thing? Are we so under the influence of the Holy Spirit that we are actually mortifying, putting to death, the ‘misdeeds’ our fallen natural appetites would tempt us into? To use a colloquialism – “Who’s driving your bus?”


Paul’s not just talking about this as theory: for him, it’s a lived experience, an organic union walking in step with the Holy Spirit in everyday life. Vv15-16 get at this more explicitly: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” There’s a heartfelt cry, a constant communication, an appealing to our Heavenly Papa for direction each day, each moment. Along with this comes assurance that He is in fact living in us: the Spirit testifies with our spirit we are His, we belong to Him, His very Spirit is living in us. Back to 1John 4:13,15 “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit...If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.” Marvelous! Incredible – but true!


Paul in Ephesians 5:18 emphasizes this being led by the Spirit moment by moment is not something that happens automatically: it’s a conscious choice. 5:18 “...be filled with the Spirit.” The verb tense used here (present tense) could be rendered, ‘keep on being filled with the Spirit.’

             Leighton Ford told of a visit his brother-in-law, Billy Graham, made to a very large and influential church. His guide told him of an unfortunate experience. One of the officers in that church had repeatedly gotten drunk, and so they had to discipline him and put him out of the church fellowship. Mr.Graham asked, "How long has it been since you put somebody out of the church for not being filled with the Spirit?" His guide looked startled. So Mr.Graham continued, "The Bible says, ‘Don't get drunk with wine,’ but the very same verse says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit.’” So you see, the positive command to be filled with the Spirit is just as binding on us as a negative command not to be drunk with wine. Let’s pray.