In the last post we talked about the restorationist impulse that arises from a theological belief that the description of the first Christian’s experience of the Spirit in the NT is, by and large, a ‘norm’ that believers in all ages should long to see in their own lives and churches.
I say ‘by and large’ because some experiences are historically unique – Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit by the risen Christ and the missionary advance of the gospel in Acts for example.
That ‘norm’ includes the following:
- being united to Christ by the Spirit
- being given ‘life’ by the life-giver himself (regeneration)
- a new status as a child of God (adoption by the Spirit by which we can call God abba Father)
- empowering to live a life pleasing to God.
- For Paul that ‘norm’ for Paul means living kata pneuma (according to the Spirit) rather than kata sarxa (according to the old age of the flesh that is passing away – see Romans 8:5
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
- It means ‘walking’ or ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit and life rather than the powerless realm of the flesh and death (Gal 5).
In other words, the NT norm is thoroughly eschatological.
I’d go as far as to say that Christianity cannot be understood unless as an eschatological faith. The new age of the Spirit has dawned with the coming, death and resurrection of the Messiah, King of Israel and Lord of all. A Christian is someone who belongs, by God’s generous grace through faith in Christ, to the new age of the Spirit. He or she is a citizen of the kingdom of God here in the nitty gritty world of family, work, friendships and whatever else makes up your life.
That new life takes concrete shape in a person bearing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We may say, in other words, that a Christian is to be shaped by the Spirit into a person of virtue. Their character is, through the work of the Spirit, to reflect that of their Lord.
While many Christians stop at this individual ethical transformation through the Spirit, there is no hint in the NT that the presence of the Spirit is not also associated with charismata – spiritual gifts.
The term ‘spiritual gifts’ is actually quite unhelpful. It implies that there are ‘higher’ more ‘spiritual’ gifts (perhaps healing, prophecy, tongues etc) and then other more ‘ordinary’ and less ‘spiritual’ gifts (administration, hospitality, leadership). Yet all ‘charismata‘ means is ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – they are all ‘spiritual’. They are NOT just natural abilities, they are visible and tangible evidence of the empowering presence of God who gives good gifts to the people of God so that they may serve others within the body of Christ.
So, to come back to the question in the title of this post – what is our ‘role’ in experiencing more of God’s Spirit?
Well, at one level, the answer is none at all. A gift is a gift. The recipient does not ‘earn’ a gift, it is only received by faith. This is true of the initial reception of the Spirit – it is God’s gracious gift of life, inseparable from repentance and faith in Christ. All believers are given the Spirit to ‘drink’, all are baptised in the Spirit – it is a generous gift of God.
For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).
This is ALSO true of the gifts of the Spirit – the Spirit gives to whomsoever he wills. Again, a gift is a gift, it can only be received in faith with thanks and used well.
But, at another level, there IS a role for the Christian to grow and develop in his or her experience of the Spirit. Paul’s numerous ethical commands only make sense of the believer has real moral agency. We are not to quench the Spirit or treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thes 5:19-20). We are actively to walk and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5) – which implies that we can choose not to walk where the Spirit leads – to go our own way and act in ways opposed to the Spirit.
To walk on the path of the Spirit requires profoundly Christian way of looking at the self. By that I mean an awareness of the self’s desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.
What would you put top of the list?
For me, one word comes to mind:
For it is only from a place of realistic humility and that there can develop a subsequent desire for God’s Spirit to renew, cleanse and empower.
That desire will lead to a prayer like that of David – acutely aware of the depths of his own sin
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
And a similar theme is taken up by Peter in the NT:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
As Peter says, the opposite of humility is pride.
It’s always been the case in every culture, but I think it is here that the Christian faith becomes profoundly, and perhaps increasingly, paradoxical in an age of technological know how, qualifications and expertise. A world where money, power, status, connections, networking, business plans, personality tests and the necessity of an impressive CV dominate the job market.
A culture increasingly shaped by the narcissistic world of social media.
Now, I am not against social media – this blog is a form of it. I’ve learnt lots from other blogs and enjoy processing thoughts in writing – it helps me think for one.
But it also inevitably presents opportunity to present a certain ‘face’ to the world. There is also a certain arrogance, is there not, about anyone writing for an audience? There is an assumption that ‘I’ have something to say that I think is worth listening to.
But we live in an age, unheralded in human history, where the individual has the ability to project him or herself, in an unmediated fashion, to much of the rest of the world. The subject matter on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is overwhelmingly ME.
In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and dies alone since he could not obtain the object of his love (so much for sologamy!). The Nymph Echo, looking on here, is heartbroken as his rejection.
Narcissism has been defined as
Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.
And in psychological terms as
Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.
Where admiration of the self and a craving for the admiration of others dominates, the call of the gospel to decenter the self, follow Jesus as Lord, honestly ‘own’ (repent of) the self’s failings and deep brokenness, and walk a life of humility in the Spirit will seem to be utter ‘foolishness to the world.
If you accept the broad outline of what I am describing, what are the implications for evangelism, for discipleship and for teaching about spiritual growth and transformation in the church?
Comments, as ever, welcome.