Distinctives (3): the work of the Holy Spirit
(1 Corinthians 12-14)
Today we’re in the third week of our series on our theological distinctives: those points of doctrine which are secondary in nature, but which have an impact on the life of our church.
The first week we looked at the sovereignty of God; last week we looked at complementary roles of men and women. Today, we’ll be looking at our need of the Holy Spirit for all of life and ministry.
Now this may not seem like a subject which would be questioned by any Christian: all Christians believe the Holy Spirit is at work, and that we need him.
But Christians don’t all agree about what he does.
And our answer to that question can vary wildly, depending on the context in which you grew up.
Our church is in a slightly strange situation in this regard, because people here come from a wide variety of backgrounds. And those backgrounds are often distinguished by their position on what the Bible calls the gifts of the Spirit.
The Bible says that after Jesus ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to live in his apostles. And the Spirit gave those first Christians certain gifts—some seemed ordinary (like gifts of administration and hospitality) and others were more extraordinary (like being able to speak in languages you’ve never learned).
And in our church we have people who grew up in churches which deal with those gifts very differently.
At one extreme we have those who grew up in what are called “cessationist” churches: those churches which believe that the supernatural gifts of the Spirit that we see in the New Testament ceased after the time of the apostles. In other words, they believe that what we see in the Bible about the spiritual gifts is not prescriptive, but descriptive—the New Testament doesn’t tell us how the spiritual gifts should always work, but how they worked at that point in time.
At the other extreme we have those who grew up in so-called “continuationist” (or “charismatic”) churches. These churches believe that what we see in the book of Acts is what we should be seeing today: that the gifts of the Spirit are alive and well. And most of them would agree that the primary evidence of the Spirit’s presence in a Christian’s life (of “baptism in the Spirit”) is the gift of speaking in tongues.
Then you have all those churches which live in between those two extremes, and people who didn’t grow up in church at all, for whom most of this may be totally new.
I’m going to put all my cards on the table here. I land somewhere between the two positions—I agree with the cessationists on some things, and the continuationists on others. I personally believe that the gifts of the Spirit continue today; but I don’t believe that what we see in the New Testament with prophecy and tongues looked like what we see in many charismatic churches today.
I say all that because if you’ve grown up in church (as many of you have), and if you have an opinion on this subject, then chances are good that if you look around you this morning, you’ll see people who disagree with you.
And that difference of conviction, which has always existed in our church, has created some points of tension for us.
Here’s one really easy example: we’ll be singing a song in church, and we’ll get to a line like, “I lift up my hands in the name of the Lord/I dance for joy in the name of the Lord...”
When that happens, there’s a really awkward moment. Half the church sings that second line really quietly, because no way they’re going to start dancing. And the other half wants to move around, wants to clap their hands, wants to actually show the joy they feel…but they don’t dare, because they don’t know if they’re “allowed” to do that here.
Now of course that has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit; but it does have a lot to do with the kind of theological education we’ve received, and the cultural baggage that comes along with that education (and that education often is strongly influenced by a conviction about the doctrine of the Spirit).
So we, as a church, have to know what to do with our differences on this subject. And that is the goal of this sermon.
My goal today isn’t to talk about the gifts of the Spirit. (Sorry to disappoint some of you, but we won’t be looking at the lists of spiritual gifts we find in the Bible; I’m teaching a whole class on this topic on Saturday for Transmettre, so you can come to that class if you want to know more.)
My goal today is to see what the Spirit does and why, beyond the various convictions we can have about the gifts of the Spirit.
How do we live as a body, in unity with one another?
How do we create a church culture in Eglise Connexion that actually reflects the fullness of what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit’s work?
That’s our goal, so to get there, we need to try to get a larger view from the Bible of what the Holy Spirit does, and then look at how this can play out in the life of our church despite the differences we may have here. (And it may be surprising that one of the best places in the Bible to see that is 1 Corinthians 12-14. We’ll get there in a few minutes.)
The first thing we need to see is who the Holy Spirit is.
It seems simple, but there’s actually a good deal of confusion here. And part of that confusion comes from one simple fact that many people often forget: you cannot talk about one person of God without speaking of the others. In order to understand the Holy Spirit, you have to understand the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity states that there is one true God, and that this one true God exists for all eternity in three distinct persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Our main text today has a lot to say about the spiritual gifts, but even there, the apostle Paul won’t let us get away from the Trinity. Look quickly at 1 Corinthians 12.4-6:
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit [so there’s the Spirit]; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord [there’s the Son, Jesus Christ]; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God [the Father] who empowers them all in everyone.
So even at the beginning of this reference text for spiritual gifts, Paul keeps us focused: we need to be careful when we talk about the Holy Spirit, because we could easily give the impression that the doctrine of the Spirit can somehow be separated from the doctrine of the Father and the Son, as if it were an entirely different subject.
But you can’t talk about the Holy Spirit without talking about the Father and the Son. In theology we talk about the “inseparable operations” of the Trinity—the truth that in everything God does, the three persons of God are always working together.
We see a good example of this in the creation of the world. All three members of the Trinity are present in creation. In Genesis 1, the Father speaks creation into existence—he is the one who says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1.3).
John 1 speaks of the Son, calling him “the Word” (John 1.1), and says that this Word, the Son, created all things (John 1.3).
And in Genesis 1.2 we see the Spirit of God, hovering over the face of the waters—an animating presence in an as-yet lifeless expanse.
What’s interesting is the relationship between the three. The Hebrew word for “Spirit” sounds a little like someone clearing their throat: ruah, which literally means “breath” or “wind.” The Spirit is the life-giving “breath of God” (when we see God giving “the breath of life” to creatures in the Bible, it’s the same word that’s used, cf. Gen. 7.15).
Michael Reeves summarized the Trinity’s relationship brilliantly by saying, “The Father speaks, and on his Breath the Word is heard.”
Everything they do, they do together.
Now that we’ve established that, what specifically does the Holy Spirit do, in partnership with the Father and the Son?
The Spirit’s Work in His People
The Bible is separated into two parts—the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament tells the story of the people of Israel, and the New Testament tells the story of Jesus Christ and the beginning of the church.
Everyone who’s read the Bible knows that the Spirit shows up in both testaments, but people often assume that the Holy Spirit is doing something completely different in the Old Testament than in the New—that his job description somehow changed once Jesus had come.
But that is simply not true.
We have to remember that the Bible is telling a story. It’s a true story, but it is a story; and as you would expect from a good story, God doesn’t drop spoilers. He reveals himself to his people little by little, telling them more and more about himself as human history progresses.
The work of the Spirit in the Bible is the same—he works in the Old Testament, and as the story of the Bible progresses we begin to see little by little, better and better, what he’s up to.
In the Old Testament, the most common thing we see the Spirit doing is filling his people, in order to give them strength and skill to accomplish a specific task.
We can see this in Joseph, who is filled with the Spirit and is made effective in his work and increases in power, in order to bring Abraham’s descendants to Egypt (cf. Genesis 41.38).
We see it in the artists in the tabernacle (Exodus 31.8), whom the Spirit fills to be skilled and creative to build the house of God.
We see it in the seventy elders appointed to help Moses judge the people of Israel (Numbers 11.17): the Spirit fills them to judge the people fairly.
And we keep on seeing this pattern all throughout the Old Testament: the Spirit fills people in order to give them what they need to accomplish a specific task.
Now here’s the thing: that’s exactly what he does in the New Testament as well.
In Acts 2, after the Spirit comes down and fills the apostles at Pentecost, Peter gets on the roof and preaches to the crowd. His sermon was probably the least “seeker-sensitive” sermon of all time (he flat-out tells the crowds, “YOU killed the Son of God!”); and yet, after that sermon three thousand people came to know Christ.
The Spirit filled the first Christians, not so that they might draw attention to themselves, but that they might effectively fulfill the mission Christ had given them to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28.19).
You see, the Old Testament gives us categories to understand how the Spirit works, and in the New Testament we see him doing that work more fully. We do see a difference in the Spirit’s work in the Old and New Testaments, but it’s a difference in scope, not in type or quality.
He keeps doing the same thing he always had, but in the New Testament we see him doing it more fully, because the context is very different: now, Christ has come.
And in that context, we finally find out the goal behind his work—the goal hinted at in the Old Testament, and finally made clear in the New.
[Jesus says:] 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.
[Jesus says:] But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.
The Spirit’s goal in all that he does—in every gift, every word, every work of illumination and regeneration—is to point us to the work and words of the Son.
When the Spirit saves us and causes us to be born again, he “bears witness” to our hearts that Christ is who he says he is (Romans 8.16).
He takes what Jesus said and teaches it to us, helps us remember (John 14.26).
When he fills the apostles at Pentecost and causes them to speak in other tongues, he does it so that the apostles might proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people around them, in their native languages, so that they might understand and believe (Acts 2.6, 37-41).
When he inspired the biblical authors, he made sure that there was one unified story the Bible was telling from beginning to end: the story of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3.16, Luke 24.27).
When he gives us faith and opens our eyes to the truth of the Word of God, he allows us to see Christ in the Word he inspired, and opens our hearts to trust in him (Ephesians 1.13-14, 2.4-7).
When he sanctifies us, he does it by conforming us to the image of the Son (Romans 8.29).
When he brings us in to the church, he gives us all we need to fulfill the mission Jesus has given us, to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28.19).
And when he unites us to one another in the church as brothers and sisters, he does it in order that the church may function as, and truly be, the body of Christ.
Which is exactly what we see in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
The Spirit in the Church (1 Corinthians 12, 14)
Like I said, we don’t have time to read all three chapters; we’re going to read just a small portion. But I want to be clear on why we’re coming here. Contrary to popular opinion, this text is not the key text to understand the Holy Spirit. It’s not a user’s manual for the gifts of the Spirit. This text speaks first and foremost of unity in the body of Christ.
Here, Paul is addressing a very specific problem in a specific church: the church in Corinth.
The church in Corinth had a lot of problems which Paul addresses in this letter. And one of those problems was the inflated value they attached to the gift of speaking in tongues.
The word for “tongues” simply means “languages”—we’ve already seen how in the book of Acts the Spirit gives Christians the ability to speak in languages they didn’t previously know, to communicate the gospel to those who don’t speak their language, and to validate the continuing work of Christ. (There’s a little more to it than that, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll stick with this definition.)
But the Corinthians had apparently begun seeing certain gifts as more significant than others. They were using legitimate gifts of the Spirit in illegitimate ways, in order to set themselves apart as “next-level” Christians.
Which is, sadly, exactly what we see in many charismatic churches today. They’ll say, “I’m so glad you met Jesus… But are you baptized in the Spirit? Do you speak in tongues?”
Now, I don’t believe most of these Christians are intentionally trying to create a schism between Christians (their intentions are good), but in reality, that is what happens. You have the “born-again Christians” over here, and the “Spirit-filled Christians” over here.
And Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to see that that is not how it should work in the church. 1 Corinthians 12.4-7, 12-13:
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
So EVERYONE receives gifts from the Spirit, and EACH gift is given not to separate believers from one another, but to build up the church in unity.
In these chapters, Paul is not saying, “You’ve got the spiritual gifts—so have fun! Be free!”
He’s giving a corrective to a misunderstanding and misuse of spiritual gifts. He’s saying that rather than using the spiritual gifts for their own individual experience, they should use them (or refrain from using them) for the common good, to build up the brothers and sisters to whom we are united in Christ.
For example: a big point Paul is making in these chapters is that just because the gift exists doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use wisdom in when you use it.
He says in 14.9-12:
9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
So if you’re going to speak in tongues, he says, you'd better make sure the people around you can understand them—either because it’s in their native language, or because someone interprets.
And if you’re not positive that’s going to happen, then don’t speak in tongues. 14.28:
28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
This is mind-blowing to many Christians—“What, Paul tells me not to use a spiritual gift I’ve been given?” That’s exactly what he’s saying; if it’s not going to serve in building up the church by communicating the Word of God in comprehensible terms, then don’t do it.
If no one understands what’s being said, it’s of no use to anyone but you—it’s not building up the church, just you.
So rather than simply celebrating the gifts, Paul puts the Corinthians on guard. Anything that serves to distract from the church’s mission should be avoided when the church comes together.
Anything that keeps people from seeing Christ clearly should be avoided when the church comes together.
And anything that gives the impression that some Christians are more important than others should be avoided when the church comes together.
That is why Paul constructs his letter the way he does—chapter 12 speaks about the importance of unity in the body, and chapter 14 gives details on how the Corinthians should use the gifts in the church and how they shouldn’t use them. In those chapters he gives us the WHAT—what to do and what not to do when the church gathers.
And in the middle—in chapter 13—Paul gives us the WHY.
The foundation: Love in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 13.1-7)
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Now I know that when you read this passage, some of you may be thinking of seeing it printed on posters and bookmarks (often with a cute kitten hanging from a string, for some reason). Love is a word that’s so flippantly used that we have a hard time seeing that this isn’t cute-kitten-on-a-poster love.
This is sacrificial love. It’s patient under hardship. It rejoices in the blessings of others (it doesn’t envy). It bears all things—ALL THINGS. It believes all things—believes the best of those about whom we want to believe the worst. It hopes all things—it looks to promises and not just to present realities. It endures all things—even rejection and hatred from those we’re trying to love.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that love is the gauge Paul gives us to keep our unhelpful impulses with the spiritual gifts in check.
The Spirit, as we’ve seen, is the third person of the Trinity, and has from all eternity enjoyed perfect love for the Father and the Son, and received love from them both. That’s why God created the world in the first place, and everything he does is motivated by his love. It’s the essence of who he is (1 John 4.8).
So if love is not the motivation behind even the right things we do, then the Spirit is not in them, because the Spirit IS love.
The Spirit fills his people to give them strength and skill to accomplish our mission to make disciples of all nations as a body. And the motor for every act in the church, behind every gift we use, every word we speak, every act of generosity, everything we learn, is love: the love of God manifested in Christ Jesus and given to us by the Spirit; and our love for one another, which is the simple and natural overflow of the love we’ve received from him.
No matter what you believe about the so-called “sign gifts”—tongues, prophecy, miraculous healing, etc.—Paul is abundantly clear that visible manifestations of supernatural power are NOT what should characterize the church; and neither should even subtle disdain for theological positions we disagree with.
The church should above all be characterized by love—a love for God, founded on what he has told us about himself in his Word, and a love for others, overflowing of the love we have received from him.
And if we love one another, we will not be motivated by a personal desire for a supernatural or an emotional experience. We will not seek to validate our own identity by exercising spiritual gifts (like the Corinthians). And we won’t try to beat down our continuationist brothers and sisters to win an argument.
If we love God and love one another, our goal in everything we do together will be to build one another up (and not ourselves).
Love in the Body of Christ
Now I understand that there are a lot of questions left unanswered here. We just breezed through three chapters, and left a lot of things unsaid.
But as I said in the beginning, my goal here was not to give a detailed doctrine of the gifts of the Spirit. My goal was to show why we need the Spirit, and to try and see how to live as the body of Christ in an environment where opinions vary on this topic.
So how do we do that?
Paul’s answer is simple—so simple it will be disappointing to some of us: we build up the church in love.
If you are a continuationist, and you believe the supernatural gifts of the Spirit are still active today, then use them rightly, to serve your brothers and sisters, because you love them.
Because of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14, and given the wide variety of convictions represented in our church, we have decided to ask our members who believe the sign gifts continue today to enjoy them in private or when in the company of people who understand them, rather than in our public gatherings.
I understand if some of you are put off by that idea; I know how much churches like the ones I grew up in prize “freedom in worship.”
But the weekly service is not the only place (or even the best place) to use the spiritual gifts, and there are many ways to use your gifts without freaking out your brothers and sisters or stirring up controversy.
You can ask a question. You can share a timely word of wisdom. You can ask someone if you can pray with them. You can share a passage of Scripture. There are so many ways to use your gifts without having to resort to saying ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ Who cares if no one knows you’re using a spiritual gift? Your goal is love, for the common good.
And on the other hand, please never feel like Paul’s command for order in the church means you can’t express yourself and bring your culture to the table.
Some of your brothers and sisters need some encouragement here.
Don’t worry about what other people are doing; if you want to raise your hands when you sing, then raise your hands! If you want to clap your hands, then clap your hands! (There’s a reason the Bible tells us to make a joyful NOISE to the Lord!, cf. Psalms 95.1-2; 98.4, 6; 100.1.) One of the things I love most about our church is the way you all sing when you are together; a little movement and rhythm can only make things even better.
If you lean more to the cessationist side, I’d encourage you to do the same thing: love your brothers and sisters, by being gracious and humble towards them.
Cessationists, you are “Bible people”—you believe that today, the Holy Spirit speaks through his Word. And you are absolutely right. The primary way God speaks to us is through his Word. (As Martin Luther said, “If you want to hear God speak, read the Bible. If you want to hear God speak audibly, read the Bible out loud.” He’s not wrong.) And the Holy Spirit illuminating our hearts to be changed by his Word is every bit as miraculous as prophecy.
But believing that can unintentionally cause us to be immediately suspicious of anything that is not a direct quote from Scripture; it can cause us to react unlovingly in some contexts.
So if someone comes to you saying, “I think God’s told me something,” even if it’s clear that they’re wrong (because what they’re saying clearly isn’t in line with Scripture), don’t dismantle them. Be gracious with them. Humbly sit down with them, and take them to Scripture, and contemplate Christ there together.
And by the same token, if someone comes to you and says, “I think God told me something he wants you to hear,” and then that person points you to Christ in what they say…then you’d better listen. Because whether or not you agree with their theology, they are pointing you to Christ, and everyone agrees that that is the work the Spirit still does today.
We all agree God is sovereign, that he can use whatever he wants, however he wants, to bring us to his Son. Our theological categories are utterly useless if they cause us to ignore what God is using to get our eyes on him. Be humble, and accept the possibility that if someone says, “God wants you to hear this,” they may be right. God wants you to see his Son, and if your brother or sister is pointing you to Christ the way Scripture does, then God definitely does want you to hear what they have to say.
Love for God and love for one another are the foundation of everything that should happen when the church gathers together.
Can I just be honest with you for a minute? I want to see manifestations of the Spirit here more than anyone. I want the Spirit to be so at work in this church that people’s hair stands on end when they walk in this room.
And Paul tells us exactly what to do if that’s what we want. 14.12:
12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
For all the press that the supernatural gifts of the Spirit get, there is nothing more miraculous than God taking a broken, dead sinner and bringing him back from the dead. There is nothing more miraculous than an enemy of God being adopted by God through faith in Christ. There is nothing more miraculous than Jesus Christ, through his Spirit, bringing men and women of all ages, all nations, all backgrounds, into a body in which there is no longer enmity between them, but sacrificial love. There is nothing more miraculous than God using churches filled with imperfect people to glorify his name.
If we want to see the Spirit at work in our midst, if we are eager for manifestations of the Spirit’s presence, we know what we have to do: strive to excel in building up the church. Use the gifts the Spirit has given you, no matter how unremarkable they may seem, to build up the church.
Be hospitable. Be generous. Speak wisely. Encourage one another.
Don’t believe there are any gifts of the Spirit which aren’t miraculous, even if no one else ever sees them.
Use your gifts to build up the church, and do it in the particular way the Spirit has given you to do it.
We are called to witness the miracle of the church being the church. We’re not called to be experts in the spiritual gifts, or even first and foremost experts in correct theology. We are called to be experts in building up the church in love.
And if there’s anyone here who isn’t a Christian, that is the big takeaway this morning.
The Holy Spirit of God works to direct our attention to Jesus Christ. Christ came to be our replacement—to live in our place, suffer in our place, and be raised to unite us to the Father. The Spirit’s job is to help us see that, and believe.
So no matter how confused you may be about any number of things, if you feel yourself wanting to know more about this Jesus, if you feel yourself wanting to know more about the God we’ve been talking about this morning, don’t ignore him.
God uses things we don’t understand right away to help us see him and believe. (And often he convinces us before ever answering our questions!) So if that’s you, then come to him in faith, repent of your rebellion against him, and let him bring you into the family of God, the body of Christ, on whom you can lean to grow in your faith, and who can lean on you as well.