Four Ways God’s Spirit Speaks to Our Spirit (Part One)

This is the 3rd of a four-part series about the Holy Spirit. You can see part 1 and part 2 here.

These are working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

When I was a junior in high school, I once took an “unauthorized” road trip on a Saturday evening to a ski resort several hours away. My friends and I raced home early Sunday morning to try in an attempt to get to church on time so no one would be the wiser about our absence. One friend drove, and the rest of us slept in the car. Then that other friend decided to join us. The car, set on cruise control at 62 miles per hour, barreled off the side of the road into a 20-foot ravine, landing upside down. How any of us survived is miraculous. The crash mangled the car, crushing it in places. Every one of us walked out of the wreck without a scratch.

Just moments before the wreck, I had woken up and shifted from the left back seat to the right. Where my head had previously been, just a few minutes before the crash, was completely crushed; the roof over my new seat remained untouched. And here’s the strangest detail of the story: as we drifted off the road toward the ravine, we hit a discarded mattress lying on the roadside that threw us into a tailspin, which slowed our speed dramatically before we toppled into the ravine. Without that mattress, we would have rocketed into the ravine at more than 60 miles per hour, which surely would have killed us all. I have no idea why a mattress lay on the side the road. What are the odds?

Of course, after we got home I had to tell my parents what happened. As I related the details, my mom asked me what time this had all gone down. I told her, “5:21”, because when I had been jolted awake by the car landing upside down, the digits on the clock were the first thing I saw, though they looked like “12:5” being upside down! She told me that she had awakened at 5:00 that morning with an inexplicable urge to pray for me. She prayed for me for about 30 minutes—for God to work in my life, to get my attention, to protect me, and to perfect his will in my life. At 5:30 she went back to sleep. Boy, did God answer that prayer.

I tell you that story for two reasons:

A. To demonstrate how God often moves our spirits to pray for others.

B. To request that if God ever wakes you up at 5 am with a strong desire to pray for me that you do so.

Christ, the church’s “head,” does his work through his body, the church, by placing into our hearts words of warning and encouragement, burdens and holy ambitions that he has for his people. Our bodies may provide the agency for his work, but he is the head. As members of his body, he accomplishes his purposes through us.

But It Makes Me Nervous

I admit that discussing how we can “hear from God” makes me nervous. How do you know the difference between a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit in your heart and, say… indigestion? (And I’m not trying to be funny.) Between a special burden and excess emotion that comes from too little sleep?

Let me make clear that what I’m going to share with you in these pages is not “the final word” on these matters. I’ve tried for several years to glean everything I can on this from Scripture, to reflect honestly on my own experiences, and to listen cautiously to other Spirit-filled believers recount how God has moved in their lives. As we discussed earlier, being led by the Spirit is not an exact science. We shouldn’t think of this process like a formula, and we should always approach this subject with an extreme amount of humility—as befits a living relationship. And we should remain very cautious about declaring with absolute certainty that God has put something on our hearts unless it has a chapter and verse attached to it. I believe it is clear that God does move and speak in our spirits, but we must hold our certainty about his leadership with a little tenuousness, open to godly counsel, always subject to Scripture.

For example, let me tell you a story about a time I (evidently) got it wrong. After my wife and I had three kids, we sought God about whether to have more. At three kids, I felt like my quiver was full. At no point in the week did I feel like I needed more to do or another mouth to feed. But we also knew that rearing godly children is among the greatest ministries you can have (Ps. 127:1–4), so we thought, “Well, why not have one more—for Jesus?” God had also touched our hearts for regarding adoption, and so we prayed about whether we should do that, too. We set aside a day—April 28, 2009—for a time of prayer and fasting.

At the end of that day, we both felt that God was leading us to pursue an international adoption. But when Veronica woke up the next morning, however, she felt sick… and yep, you guessed it: she was pregnant. I don’t think I’ve ever had a prayer answered that quickly, that definitively. While we were seeking God about what to do next, the answer had been (unbeknownst to us) growing inside of Veronica for nearly six weeks.

But what about the “sense” that our next kid was to come through international adoption? Maybe that’s something we are supposed to pursue later, but it was not what God had for us at the moment. After that experience, we contributed personally to several other families in our church pursuing adoption. The “sense” that we were to do it in 2009 was overruled, however, by, well, God’s definitive answer in our circumstances.

That’s one of the reasons I say you should always hold what you think God is “saying” to you loosely. God simply did not outline for us in Scripture a definitive way to know (with absolutely certainty) that he is moving in our spirits about something. I’ve searched every passage in the Bible related to that topic, looking for the definitive answer. There is none. So when it comes to areas of life not spelled out by Scripture, while we can strongly suspect something to be God’s will, and act boldly in pursuit of it, we should always stop short of the absolute certainty we give to Scripture.

With that understood, let me give you four ways I have experienced God speaking in my spirit which I see consistent with Scripture:

1. Particular Burdens As I Pray

The prophet Habakkuk said,

“I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me.” (Habakkuk 2:1)

Prayer is supposed to be a two-way conversation. Prayer is not just informing God of things going on in which we could use his help (he already knows about them anyway). In prayer, we also hear from God about what he wants to do about these things and by faith lay hold of his provision for those things. I’ve heard it said that prayer works like a laser beam. You create a laser by stacking light waves on top of one another, channeling all the photons in the same direction. A handful of photons going in different directions yield only a soft, incandescent glow, but when you stack and concentrate the light waves, they release a power that can cut through steel.

In prayer, you stack the “wave” of your faith to the “wave” of the Spirit’s prompting, releasing the laser beam of God’s power. If our prayer request first comes from heaven, it will certainly obtain heaven’s help. Prayers that start in heaven get heard by heaven.

Paul promised the Spirit would help us as we prayed, and often talked himself about praying “in the Spirit.” What exactly does prayer “in the Spirit” mean? John Piper says,

It seems clear to me that speaking “in the Spirit” means speaking under the guidance of the Spirit, or energized and helped by the Spirit. That’s why no one can say “Jesus be accursed” when speaking “in the Spirit.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” (and mean it) unless he is speaking “in the Spirit.” So I take it that praying “in the Spirit” means praying under the guidance and with the help and energy of the Spirit. The Spirit is shaping our prayers and helping us pray.[1]

What does this experience “feel” like? Quite often the Spirit does it in the background, acquainting us with situations he wants to pray about. We may not have a special “feeling” that we need to pray, but God’s sovereignty has arranged our circumstances so that we pray about the things he wants us to prayer about. But sometimes as I pray God seems to press in on my heart a particular burden, or verse of Scripture, about the person or situation for which I am praying. I don’t automatically assume that whatever pops into my mind as I pray is the voice of God, but I will often jot down the verse or thought, and ask the Spirit to confirm whether he’s put that in my heart by bringing it up to me again. Sometimes I will share that verse or burden with the person, and on numerous occasions they have told me it was as if the Holy Spirit was speaking directly to them through the verse or promise that I shared.

I have encouraged our church to develop the habit of “listening prayer.” Ask God to bring to your mind verses and special burdens as you pray and listen for how he might do so. Prayer ought to be less a presentation of a catalogue of needs and more an experience of communion with a living Father.

I have a written out prayer list for each of my four kids. I try to remain very sensitive to verses of Scripture the Spirit drops into my heart for each of them when I pray. Not long ago God had given me a specific verse to pray over my oldest daughter about the fear of God and the praise of men. One afternoon I told her what God had given me for her. While she will often listen to my counsel, these words seem to resonate in her in an unusual way. God used the words of this verse, which he had given to me for her, to speak directly into an area of her life.

The more Scripture you know, the more illumination the Holy Spirit can give to you regarding his heart for various people. God has never brought to my mind a Scripture I did not already know. I know some who claim he has done that for them, but I think the normal way he works is to bring to mind the Scriptures we have hidden in our hearts. Memorizing Scripture is like stocking myself with ammunition for the Spirit to fire as I pray—promises I can claim, warnings I can heed. The Bible contains over 3000 promises. I want to know all of them. God did not give us the Bible simply to read through, but to pray through.

As we’ve learned over and over throughout this book, being led by the Spirit of God in prayer will be proportionate on your knowledge of the Word of God. Remember, the word is his primary weapon. Paul called the Word of God “the sword of the Spirit!” (Eph 6:17)

Charles Spurgeon described his experience praying in the Spirit this way:

He [the Spirit] guides us in prayer; thus, he helps our infirmities. But the blessed Spirit does more than this; he will often direct the mind to the special subject of prayer. He dwells within us as our Counselor and points out to us what it is we should seek at the hands of God. We do not know why it is so, but we sometimes find our minds carried as by a strong undercurrent into a particular line of prayer for some definite purpose. It is not merely that our judgment leads us in that direction, though usually the Spirit of God acts upon us by enlightening our judgment, but we often feel an unaccountable and irresistible desire rising within our hearts.

He will guide you both negatively and positively. Negatively, he will forbid you to pray for certain things, just as Paul tried “to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered [him] not” (Acts 16:7). On the other hand, he will cause you to hear a cry within your soul that will guide your petitions, even as he made Paul to hear the cry from Macedonia, saying, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (v. 9).[2]

2. Special Insights Into People and Situations

Recently I was praying for a couple in my small group when I sensed God impressing upon me that he had something really special for their son, who was at the time 10 years old. They are a newly saved couple, and (unbeknownst to me) worry about the bad habits they may have sown into him for the first 10 years of his life. But as I prayed, I felt a certainty that God’s hand was upon him, that God was working in his life, and that God wanted me to communicate that to them—that they should follow him closely and trust him (1 Chronicles 28:9–10). I told them that I believed God was telling them that he had brought them to salvation just when he wanted to, and that he had already provided for their children. I told them that the future of their family was in his merciful hands. The relief on their face told me everything.

I don’t sense things like this every time I pray, but I sensed it this time, and so I told them what was in my spirit. I am anxious to see what God does with it. Here’s why.

When I was four years old, a pastor told my parents something very similar about me. He said simply, “God has something special for this one.” At four years old, I was not demonstrating any qualities that would make you think God had set me apart for anything. In fact, for many years after that I walked away from God—and hard. Yet this pastor perceived the Spirit’s purpose and called it out. My parents prayed this word back to God during the time I wandered, and rejoiced in it later when he brought me back to himself and called me into his service.

Praying with the help of the Spirit means asking God how to pray more specifically about certain situations and to instruct us in what he wants us to say or do. Throughout history Christian believers have reported God moving in their hearts this way:

Once, during a sermon, Charles Spurgeon pointed to a young man in the balcony he did not know and said, “Young man, the gloves in your pocket are not paid for.”[3]

R. C. Sproul said that early on in his ministry he had this sudden thought: “Go throughout the world and preach the Gospel to every living creature…. Take Vesta [his future wife] with you.”[4]

Cotton Mather, an early American Puritan theologian with heavy influence on Jonathan Edwards, said that God sometimes gives a “special” faith to believers during prayer that assures them of what he’s going to do: In addition to ‘general’ faith in Christ, there is a particular faith that is granted to believers now and then, under the energy of some superior cause, a strong Impression made upon his mind, which dissolves him in a flood of tears, and assures him, “You shall have the petition which you desire of God.” The impression is born upon his mind, with as clear a light, and as full a force, as if it were from heaven angelically… these are instances of the prophetic spirit upon believers.[5]

Sometimes God gives us foreknowledge about situations he wants us to get prepared for. The Holy Spirit told the Apostle Paul, for example, that danger awaited the ship he sailed on, which helped prepare Paul to minister to the passengers when it happened and convinced those on the ship to listen to him. The prophet Agabus warned that a famine would affect the whole Roman world (Acts 11:28). Very similar things happened to Martin Luther and Presbyterian theologian John Flavel.[6]

These are instances of the Holy Spirit moving in the spirits of his children, and time and experience confirmed that the “impression” really was from God. (And, by the way, in case you wonder why I am using a lot of older theologians you may not have heard of as my examples, I am trying to show you that the experience of God speaking in the spirit is not something invented by modern day TV evangelists, but has been the experience of believers of all traditions throughout church history.)

Jesus told his disciples that if they had faith they could move mountains. Does that mean that I can go up to any old mountain any time I want and say, “Hmm… I don’t feel like going over you. Get out of my way!” No. The Spirit fills us at certain times with faith for certain mountains. Adding the wave of your faith to the wave of his will releases the laser of his power.

 


[1] John Piper, “Praying in the Closet and in the Spirit,” Message on Matthew 6:1–5, http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/praying-in-the-closet-and-in-the-spirit

[2] Spurgeon on the Holy Spirit (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2000), 102–3

[3] Ernest W. Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968) 156.

[4] Ligonier Ministries, “Striking a Chord in the Heart of the Believer,” Table Talk 14 no. 11 (Nov., 1990) 13.

[5] Cotton Mather, Parentator: Memoirs of Remarkables in the Life and the Death of the Ever-Memorable Dr. Increase Mather (Boston: B. Green, 1724) 189-91. Cited by Poythress. I paraphrased Mather’s words slightly because they are written in very old English, but I have preserved accurately his meaning. To note, Mather also issues several cautions and warns of counterfeits on pp. 191–96.

[6] Vern Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 39/1 (1996): fn. 25.

The First Assignment in the Great Commission: “Do Nothing”

This is the 2nd of a four-part series about the Holy Spirit. You can see part 1 here.

These are working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

I’ve always thought that Jesus gave a very odd “first step” to completing the Great Commission: “Do nothing until the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” With millions of people waiting to hear the gospel, he told the only ones who knew anything about it to sit and wait until he had sent them something mysterious from above. That meant they were not to write books. They were not go out and try to make converts. They were to do nothing.

Why? They were to do nothing until the Spirit came because they truly could do nothing effectively until he did. Jesus had promised that he would build his church, and he could accomplish more in one moment through his Spirit than they could accomplish in 10,000 lifetimes through all their expertise.

Do you live with that sense of dependence on the Holy Spirit? Do you really believe that you can do nothing without him? As a parent, as a spouse, as a friend, as a witness?

The book of Acts tells the mind-blowing, earth-upturning story of what a group of people filled with the Holy Spirit can do. We’re still reeling today from that first Christian century. New Testament scholars have pointed out that the book of Acts has really been given the wrong title. Rather than “The Acts of the Apostles,” many say it should probably be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” (Note that the original book had no title. It was assigned later, so suggesting a change is not like suggesting we edit Scripture!) They say that because even a quick read of Acts reveals that the Spirit of God is the primary actor. He guides, speaks, and moves. The disciples are simply trying to keep up. At their best, they are merely conduits of this mighty rushing wind. At their worst, they are obstructions.

Now, it is true that some unique, once-in-history things happen in Acts, and that means we need to approach certain stories with some caution (more on that later). I don’t walk down the beach trying to heal people by letting my shadow fall on them, and I’ve never struck anyone dead in an offering (Acts 5:4–5, 15). But I also know that Acts is also the only example God gave us of how Christians follow Jesus and walk with him in this present age. And the idea that the only example God would give us of how to walk with him in this age would have nothing in common with our experience doesn’t make much sense to me.

The Apostle John told the first Christians:

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3).

The Apostle John claimed we should have the same kind of relationship to God that he and the other apostles had. A relationship of fellowship, in which we commune with, not just obey, God. And that happens through the gospel, in the person of the Holy Spirit (1 John 1:6–9; 2:26–27; 4:13). John Newton, the writer of the song Amazing Grace, said in a letter to a friend,

Many… who would not flatly contradict the apostle’s testimony in 1 John 1:3 (i.e. that we should have fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit) attempt to evade its force by restraining it to the primitive times… but who can believe that the very nature and design of Christianity should alter in the course of time? And that communion with God, which was essential to it in the apostle’s days, should now be unnecessary?[1]

We are as dependent on the Holy Spirit as they were, and the Holy Spirit wants to fellowship with us as much he did those first believers. And when I read the book of Acts, I don’t have any problem seeing how the apostles would have considered the Spirit’s presence in them to be better than Jesus beside them. They turn out to be much more effective witnesses after Jesus leaves. The Peter denied Christ three times in one night before the Spirit came boldly tells a crowd of 3000, “You crucified Christ by wicked hands.” And while the Holy Spirit was working through Peter in Jerusalem in Acts 15, he was simultaneously speaking through Paul in Philippi in Acts 16. Jesus (in the incarnation) couldn’t have done that. Now that the Holy Spirit had come, God’s healing power was not localized in one person in one place. He was in every believer with the faith to access his power.

Maybe you’re still skeptical—and you cannot understand how it possibly could be better to have an invisible presence inside of you than a bodily Jesus beside you—but be encouraged by this: what Jesus said has to mean something, right?

And that “something” is what God has waiting for you.

The Word and Spirit Dynamic

Throughout the remainder of this book I want to show you that God’s Word and God’s Spirit operate together in one powerful dynamic. Pursuing one without the other leads to spiritual ruin, but pursuing one in the other leads to power and life. We see this interdependent relationship of Word and Spirit over and over throughout Scripture.

In the beginning, God established the world by his Word, but the Spirit hovered over the expanse and brought order and beauty to the firmament God had spoken into being. That’s a good example of how the two relate: the Word issues the command and establishes the foundations; the Spirit quickens and makes alive.

The Spirit takes God’s timeless truths and makes them come alive in us. He helps us understand them, shows us how to implement them, and empowers us to accomplish them. He shows us what part of his mission belongs to us specifically, and our unique role is in his kingdom. He turns task lists into a relationship.

The Word is eternal and unchanging. The Spirit’s direction is temporal and varied.

The Word gives us promises. The Spirit compels us to risk.

The Word outlines the mission. The Spirit inspires the vision.

The Word sets the standards. The Spirit guides the operations.

The Word shows us the end game. The Spirit, where we should begin.

The Word sets our expectations. The Spirit inspires our hope.

The Word describes the character of God. The Spirit draws us into his emotions.

The Word recounts God’s acts of salvation. The Spirit sheds abroad his love in our hearts.

The Word gives us the revelation. The Spirit, the explanation.

The Word provides the content. The Spirit, the conviction.

The Word helps us to know. The Spirit enables us to learn.

The Word commands us to hear. The Spirit empowers us to listen.

The Word commands us to obey. The Spirit beckons us to follow.

Has God’s word become personal to you? Have the doctrines and assignments turned into relationship? Has the Great Commission been translated into some specific vision for your life—do you know you are walking with, and following, Jesus in the Holy Spirit?

Has the Spirit of God generated in you holy desires that function something like the arrow of a compass, pointing you to God’s “true north” for you? Do you know your specific role in his kingdom?

Have some biblical visions become God-ordained passions? Have a bunch of good ideas in your life been replaced by a few God ideas?

In my experience, it’s better to discover one “God idea” for your life than have 1000 good ideas. Because that’s when Christianity explodes.

Christianity Ignited

I have seen this happen in the church I pastor. Not only in the lives of guys like Brennan, but in our church as a whole as we have sought to follow the Spirit of God.

Back in 1962, a man named Sam James planted our church. He worked with a core team for eight months, but on the Sunday the church officially launched, he left to be a missionary to Vietnam. That day, he preached the only sermon he would ever preach at that church. Using Isaiah 54:2–3, William Carey’s famous missionary text, he explained that just as God commanded Israel to “expand her borders” and “lengthen the cords of her stakes,” God had called this new church to expand her vision so that they could bring the nations into her tent of blessing. He sensed that this was part of what was in God’s mind when he had moved that core team to plant the church.

He left for Vietnam, and didn’t return for forty years.

Sadly, the church did not follow the vision Dr. James had laid out. Like many churches, it turned its focus inward.

I came to be the pastor in 2002. During the interview process I sensed that God was doing something in this church regarding missions. I had never heard of Sam James, and didn’t know anything about the church’s history. But it was clear that God’s Spirit had placed a call on this church for the nations.

It surprised me to see how quickly the vision took root in our church when I began to preach about it. After the first year, we were recognized by the International Mission Board as the highest missions giving church, per capita, of the 45,000 churches in our denomination. I’d love to say that was due to some unusual preaching or leading ability on my part, but it would not be true. I have tried to lead in many things (even in our church) that were not nearly that successful.

It was as if, in this area, we were propelled by an unseen hand.

College students “discovered” our church in 2003. College students, if you don’t know, travel in herds. So our attendance tripled in three weeks while our average weekly giving went up about $13.48. While we were not destined to be a rich church, we would have a lot of workers to mobilize for the nations.

Today, more than 175 of our members live overseas on one of our church planting teams. In the last 10 years, we have sent out close to 500 on domestic and international church planting teams. Earlier this month, we commissioned another 100 college seniors who have given their first two years after graduation to serve on one of these teams.

I’m not being falsely humble when I tell you that I’m not quite sure exactly how all this has happened. I really can’t figure it out—our success in this area has come too fast and too strong to explain it merely as the result of good leadership techniques.

Another reason explains it.

This is what God’s Spirit had called us to. He beckoned our church to follow him, and then waited. When we finally put up the sail, the mighty rushing wind exploded our efforts.

A couple of years ago I discovered Sam James was still alive (he is now in his late 80s) and I brought him back to Durham for our church’s 50th anniversary. I heard, for the first time, his story. As he told it, a lot of our past ten years began to make sense. For the last ten years that I’ve been pastor, we’ve simply been following his lead. We’re not doing something for God so much as we’re doing something with him. He is working through us. It sometimes feels like we’re just along for the ride.

Recently, I’ve sensed the Spirit of God pressing this vision deeper into my heart. God’s invitation in Psalm 2:8 feels on fire to me: “Ask of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance.” That verse belongs to all Christians, of course, but the Spirit of God has beckoned our church, in a special way, to believe and take it for ourselves. So we have asked God to let us plant 1000 churches by 2050, to send out over 5000 members on church planting teams, and to let us be a part of seeing a major gospel awakening in at least three other countries.

I can’t guarantee the future of our church, of course; I cannot even guarantee I’ll wake up tomorrow! But I know that I have heard the Spirit’s voice beckoning, “Follow me.” And I feel more confident than ever. I am not merely obeying assignments laid out in the Scriptures; I am following the initiatives of the Spirit.

How about you? Has the mission of God translated into a specific vision for your life? The full mission is the responsibility of every believer, but through his Spirit, God invites you to specific aspects of it. The Great Commission becomes a focused burden; kingdom work becomes a personal calling; good ideas get replaced with God ideas.

Led by the Spirit, Taught by the Word

I once heard a Christian leader say, “Better to spend one hour on your knees pursuing the Holy Spirit than ten hours studying the Bible.” Tweetable, maybe, but very wrong. You cannot separate what God has inseparably joined and expect to get good results. Better to spend one hour on your knees pursuing the Holy Spirit through the Bible. Scripture invites you into a relationship that involves both Word and Spirit. Both are indispensable.

Every word of Scripture is a revealed Word of God, but God desires more than for us to learn the doctrines and obey the precepts. He desires relationship. Jesus did not just give us a book of things to believe and a list of tasks to execute. He called us to follow. To walk with him, interact with him, and live in his power. Anything short of this is not true Christian discipleship.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, British pastor of a previous generation, said,

Those who have received the Holy Spirit are aware of a power dealing with them and working in them. A disturbance, something, someone interfering in our lives. We are going along, and suddenly we are arrested and pulled up, and we find ourselves different. That is the beginning; that is what always happens when the Holy Ghost begins to work in a human being. There is a disturbance, an interruption to the normal ordinary tenor of life. There is something different, an awareness of being dealt with—I cannot put it better; that is the essence of the Holy Spirit dealing with us.[2]

“But wait a minute,” you say. “What does that kind of communion feel like? How do I know when the Spirit is moving in me? Should I hear a voice? Get goose bumps? If not, am I not walking with God?”

Excellent questions. Now, let’s see if we can find some answers.

 


 

[1] The Letters of John Newton, “Letter IV: Communion with God.” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 29.

[2] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002).

In Light of a “Strange Fire” – Some Holy Spirit Thoughts

In light of the recent controversy that John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, et al. have been stirring up about evangelical church and the Holy Spirit (See Mark Driscoll’s provoking response to John MacArthur, and these articles by Trevin Wax and Kevin DeYoung reflecting on the conference), I wanted to post some working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan, scheduled to come out some time next year. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

If you’re looking for a positive side to this controversy, this is a discussion long overdue in the evangelical church. The discussion about the Holy Spirit is one we need to have every 20–30 years, due to how quickly we forget his ministry, how badly we need it, and how quickly we twist it, and we haven’t had it in a while.

I have a friend—I’ll call him Brennan—who served for several years as a leader in our church. A bright young college senior, Brennan was well-spoken, well-regarded and a leader both on campus and in our church. But Brennan had a dark secret he had shared with no one. He had a same-sex attraction that led him first into pornography, then into online chat rooms, and finally to a string of hook-ups with random guys.

When Brennan finally confessed to his campus leader and me, he was a broken young man. He had tried everything—behind the scenes—to fix himself. He had memorized Scripture, made vows, and even gotten rid of his internet connection. So together, we plotted out a course of recovery that involved professional counseling, more Scripture, and high accountability. Brennan progressed a little, and for brief seasons would look like he had overcome his problem, only to fall back down into the same low valleys. Eventually he checked himself into an intensive ministry that helps believers learn to cope with the lusts of their flesh.

After being there for several months, Brennan told me he was surprised to hear how frequently the counselors at this ministry—who had all come through their own struggles and sexual addictions—referred to the Holy Spirit. For them, he was not a theological concept, but a person with whom they interacted and on whom they depended.

Brennan, who had grown up in Baptist and Reformed circles, knew all about the Holy Spirit. He knew the Holy Spirit came into his heart when he trusted Christ and that he was in there helping out somehow in the sanctification process. But never, he said, had he sought after the Holy Spirit like these believers did. They sought his presence like their lives depended on him. Brennan began to understand that he needed more than right belief to bring the lusts of his flesh into captivity. He needed power. Resurrection power. And a constant companion who would always be there to help.

And this discovery,” he said, “marked a turning point in the struggle with my sin. These temptations are still with me,” he said, “and I suppose always will be. But I have found in the Spirit of God a potency greater than the lusts of my flesh. Being filled with God the Holy Spirit has done more for me than all the seminars I sat through or coping techniques I have mastered.”

Do you know the Holy Spirit this way? Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans. will come to you.” Jesus did not become an absentee God at the ascension. He simply came to his disciples in a different form. And, remarkably, he told his disciples that his presence in them would be even better than his presence beside them.

This Spirit, he said, would bring to their minds all that he had said and taught. He would take the Word of God and make it come alive in their hearts. They would walk with the Spirit by means of the Word, and they would gain the ability to obey that Word by the power of the Spirit.

An Eternal Partnership

In Scripture, the word of the gospel and the power of the Spirit always go together. The Word is God’s revelation to us, profitable for rebuke, for correction, for training and instruction in righteousness, capable of making us complete, capable of any and all good works (2 Timothy 3:16–17). But only through the Spirit, Jesus said, could we ever understand or obey that Word:

When the Counselor comes—he will testify about me… he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

But the Helper, 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.

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.

Apart from me, you can do nothing.[1]

The Spirit makes the word come alive in us. He brings it to remembrance at the right times. He explains it to us. He convicts us where we are not living it. He applies to specific situations in our lives. He gives us spiritual eyes to see the beauty of God. He empowers our obedience.

Paul understood this. After explaining the gospel in great detail in the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul stops explaining and starts praying that the Spirit would enable the Ephesian believers “to know how high, wide, deep, and long is the love of God that surpasses all knowledge.” Did you catch the play on words? He prays they would know something that is beyond all knowledge. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Not at all. Certain kinds of “knowledge” do not come through the accumulation of cognitive facts. Some things you know only by experience. Paul wants us to have a knowledge of the love of God that we feel deep within our soul. It is like the “knowledge” of color that comes into blind eyes opened for the first time, or the “knowledge” of sweetness that comes with a tongue’s first taste of honey. It is the knowledge of the lover who cannot only tell you about their beloved, but knows the joy of their presence and the warmth of their embrace.

When we know God’s love this way, Paul says, we are “filled with all the fullness of God.”[2] The Spirit of God takes the revelation of the love of God and consumes us with it.

Two Extremes

Christians tend to gravitate toward one of two extremes regarding the third person of the Trinity. Some pursue experience in the Spirit apart from the Word. They listen for voices in their hearts or seek “signs” from God in the heavens. You might know some of these people. They are always talking about what God said to them through a stirring in their spirit or in a strange confluence of circumstances.

Others, however, seek to know and obey the Word without any interaction with, or real dependence on, the Spirit. These Christians might know who the Holy Spirit is and that he floats around in their hearts somewhere. They might even know that he produces “spiritual fruits” in their lives because of a song they learned in Sunday School. But they relate to him in ways similar to how I relate to my gall bladder: I know it’s in there somewhere, and that it’s necessary for the digestive process, but I have no real “interaction” with it. Its work remains invisible and undetected—even if necessary.

Once, as Paul taught on the Christian life to a group of new disciples at Ephesus, he mentioned the importance of the Holy Spirit and they interrupted him: “Wait… who? We have not heard that there is a Holy Spirit!”[3] Many Christians might well still be, functionally speaking, in the same place. Though they have heard of him in the doctrinal sense, they have no real interaction with him. Functionally, they are still “unaware that there is a Holy Spirit.”

But the Spirit and Word work inseparably. One without the other leads to an incomplete, and dysfunctional, Christianity.

We Cannot Experience the Spirit Apart from the Word

We cannot know the Spirit apart from the revealed Word, a Word, Jesus said, which was all about him (John 5:39). The Spirit, Jesus said, would point to his (Jesus’) words and works, not his own (John 16:14). There is a certain irony in how the Spirit operates—whenever he is present, you think about Jesus, not him.

Have you ever driven into Washington, DC on Interstate 395 late at night? If so, you’ve probably marveled at the brilliance of the Washington Monument illuminated against the night sky. Numerous lights, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, shine directly on the stone pillar memorializing the father of our country. Yet I doubt you have ever noticed, or even thought about, those expensive, brilliant lights. They are there to illuminate, and direct your attention toward, something else.

The same is true of the Spirit of God. His purpose is to illuminate the gospel and the glory of Jesus. J.I Packer says that the ministry of the Spirit is a “floodlight” ministry, quietly turning everyone’s attention on the Savior.[4] Theologian Dale Bruner calls him the “shy member of the Trinity,” because he doesn’t like attention on himself.[5] That means that when someone claims to be filled with the Spirit and yet spends most of their time talking about their own experiences with the Spirit, you can be sure the Spirit is far from their heart. The Holy Spirit only likes to talk about Jesus. When he is speaking in someone, you tend to forget both the Spirit and the person who is speaking.

As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, the fullness of the Spirit comes, Paul says, as we plumb the depths, heights, widths, and lengths of God’s love revealed in the gospel. And the more he comes into us, the more we know his love, and the more of his love we know, the more full he is within us.

So do you want more of the Spirit? Seek greater knowledge of God’s love in the gospel. Do you want to know more of the gospel? Seek the power of the Spirit. Where the gospel is not known, the Spirit will not be experienced. Where the Spirit is not sought, there will be no deep, experiential knowledge of the gospel. The two always go together.

Seeking experiences with the Spirit apart from the Word leads not only to confusion, but absolute disaster. Leviticus records the chilling event of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, offering “strange fire” before the Lord. God had proscribed a certain way to offer sacrifices, but Nadab and Abihu thought they had discovered a better—or at least an alternative—way. Their new fire burned just like the proscribed fire and it seemed to accomplish the same purposes. But God killed them for their “strange fire.” We can commune with God only in the ways he proscribes. If we want to experience the fire of God’s presence, we must seek it in exactly the way God has appointed.

We Cannot Fulfill the Word Apart from the Spirit

Just as there is no experience with the Spirit apart from the Word, there can be no true obedience to the Word apart from the Spirit. “Apart from me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing.” “Nothing” is a big word, but I can’t imagine Jesus didn’t choose it intentionally. Without his divine presence living inside of us, we cannot truly obey the first word of his commands. That means we cannot overcome sin without his presence. We cannot love others. We cannot accomplish the mission. We cannot raise our children. We are like an appliance unplugged from the socket. We can do nothing.

Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit was so essential to their lives and would be such a help to them when he came that if they truly understood him they would be glad he (Jesus) was going back to heaven because then the Holy Spirit could come:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Think for a minute about how absurd that must have sounded to those first disciples. It would be to their advantage for Jesus to go away? Really?

Apparently so.

For if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Jesus claimed that having the Holy Spirit in them would be better than having him beside them.

Wow. Let that sink in for a moment.

I mean it. Go back and read that sentence again.

Now, be honest with yourself: Is your experience with the Holy Spirit like that? Do you feel as though your relationship with the Holy Spirit is better than if you had Jesus for a personal companion? Is the Spirit’s presence inside you really preferable than having Jesus beside you?

I said, “Be honest.”

Or, to raise the stakes on you: Would your experience with the Holy Spirit validate Jesus’ claim?

And if not, doesn’t that mean you are missing somethingand likely, something important?

Jesus believed that the Holy Spirit would be a better teacher than he had been. That may sound hard to believe, but the Spirit, he explained, could apply the word more poignantly than he did, because he could speak it into the deep recesses of our heart at just the right moments. [6] And the Holy Spirit, Jesus believed, would be a better director of mission. He could supply words at just the moment we needed them, whatever circumstance we are in (Luke 12:12). He would not be merely a God beside us, coaching and inspiring us, but God inside of us, working in and through us.



[1] John 15:26; 16:14. John 14:26; 16:8–9; John 15:5.

[2] Romans 5:6–8; Eph 3:18–21.

[3] Acts 19:2

[4] “The Holy Spirit’s distinctive new covenant role, then, is to fulfill what we may call a floodlight ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ… When floodlighting is well done, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them; you are not in fact supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained…. This perfectly illustrates the Spirit’s new covenant role. He is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Savior.” J.I. Packer, Keeping in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), p. 57

[5] F. Dale Bruner & William Hordern, The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1983.

[6] John 14:25–26; 16:5–14; 1 John 2:27–28.

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