Short-changing the Holy Spirit

Today is Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates the fact that after the first pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem fifty days after the Resurrection, each and every year Peter led the Jerusalem church in prayer, so they were all filled with the Holy Spirit again, and again spoke miraculously to the gathered diaspora pilgrims in their own languages, after which Peter preached his annual sermon, and thousands were always saved. That’s why Charismatic Jewish Christians repeat the miracle in Jerusalem even now for foreign tourists, at Pentecost…

What? Charismatics don’t do that annual miracle? And you say that even Peter and the Jerusalem church didn’t, so that in Acts 11 the baptism of the Gentiles in the Spirit was compared to “the beginning” rather than to an ongoing pattern of experience? You mean that the Pentecost phenomenon was a one-off event for a special purpose? How come Alpha never told me that??

No, around the country, and no doubt the world, Pentecost sermons today are treating that first event as paradigmatic of Christian experience – or rather, they are urging existing Christians to seek that experience because it isnt paradigmatic. Such sermons invariably mix Evangelical theology with an incompatible Pentecostal theology, leading to a confused picture of what the giving of the Spirit was and is about. I’ve mentioned before that John Owen managed to write a 650 page treatise on the Holy Spirit without even mentioning tongues or a supernatural experience, yet none of that doctrine gets a mention at Pentecost. The confusion is justified with murmurings like “godly disorder,” “the Spirit blowing as it will,” “Don’t put God in a box” and so on, when the real problem is incoherent ideas and abuse of Scripture.

I have heard dozens of such sermons over my Christian life, and have come to the conclusion that they are the inadvertent seedbed in which excesses like the New Apostolic Reformation germinate and thrive. That’s not least because they take some of their very vocabulary from such extreme movements. For example, “God only immerses us in his Spirit in response to our passion, which reflects God’s own passion.” Well, see my piece on the biblical treatment of “passion” here. But that aside, my Bible teaches me that the baptism (aka “immersion”) in the Spirit is the birthright of every Christian, and not just the especially passionate – in fact, it is what brings us into Christ:

By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, and we have all been given one Spirit to drink.

1 Corinthians 12:13

Though it’s sometimes described as a “second experience,” I’m not at all clear that it’s even described biblically as a first experience, though it is an event marked by evidence (Galatians 3:2). So that raises the question of why churches full of mature believers are nevertheless urged to seek the immersion in the Spirit (I think a euphemism to obscure the fact that it means “baptism”), often in a special ministry time when openness, willingness, thirst (“What, never thirst again? Yes, always thirst again!”) etc are stressed. It is especially odd two generations into Charismatic theology becoming mainstream in Evangelicalism – where have we all been for the last fifty years if we’re not already fully up to speed with the Holy Spirit, not to mention up to the brim?

I guess my main beef is how teaching on Pentecost is invariably skewed towards supernatural experience, and power for its own sake, rather than to what the Spirit was promised for even in the limited context of the beginning of Acts (1:8): power to witness. The giving of the Spirit itself is nowadays often described, in approving terms, as “chaotic,” contradicting Paul’s teaching that God is a God of order, not disorder. But it wasn’t actually chaotic at all, in the text – the disciples heard the sound of a wind filling the house, but stuff didn’t, in fact, blow about. And the fire that appeared was not only focused on the believers, but it appeared as tongues, representing symbolically that the church was being given the power, very precisely, of speech.

Then (the sermons say) the disciples were ecstatic and mistaken for drunks, whereas the text says only a few cynics drew that conclusion from what, for the majority of hearers, was the declaration of the wonders of God in their own languages. The believers must first have filed in an orderly fashion into the public space to speak – not one was “slain in the Spirit,” slurring their speech or staggering whilst shouting “More, Lord!”. If this is the case, then the theological explanation that this was a reversal of Babel, and/or of the scattering of Israel, is sufficient explanation of the phenomena, and ecstasy in the Spirit is not intended at all. Non-linguistic glossolalia it was not.

On a good day, in Evangelical circles, the centrality of the word is still stressed by reference to Peter’s sermon and its saving effect on the crowds – but not infrequently the fact that such preaching was the primary reason for the gift of the Spirit (Acts 1:8) is overlooked, preaching being seen, I suppose, as a human activity rather than as a supernatural one. No wonder sound preaching is so often downplayed in revivalist settings.

But apart from this, Jesus’s other teaching on the Spirit, notably the paraclete in John, and the broader prophetic teaching on the Spirit in the New Covenant, is usually ignored. In Isaiah 11, for example, the Spirit of Jesus is described as the Spirit of Yahweh first and foremost (reminding us that we are given the Father and the Son in the self-effacing Spirit), of wisdom, of understanding, counsel, power, knowledge, and fear of the Lord: I make that only 14% about power.

In Ezekiel the first emphasis is on the Spirit resurrecting spiritually dead lives, then on holiness and obedience to God’s laws, not to mention ongoing repentance. The same emphasis on a Spirit of righteousness is implied in Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant.

Our Pentecostally-informed sermons, though, tend to regard holy life either as a condition of receiving the Spirit (carts and horses), or as a briefly-mentioned aspect of his ministry not necessarily connected to the Pentecost experience. I need not remind you that, because the Spirit is a divine Person of the Trinity, you have either all the Spirit’s ministries or none. This separation (sometimes into “gifts” and “fruit”) encourages the kind of godless pretences to supernatural ministries seen not only in super-apostles and false prophets but in tongues-speakers with abusive lifestyles or (to quote an old newspaper headline) “born-again rapists.”

In Jesus’s promises of the Spirit in John, companionship (equivalent to Jesus’s own companionship) is attributed the the Spirit of truth. Truth, as Jesus dealt with it, is often very uncomfortable in a companion, and always founded on God-breathed Scripture. The Spirit, in particular, always points to the truth about Jesus and the truth of his teaching, causing us to love both. Like Jesus, this Spirit teaches, and reminds us of all Jesus’s sayings (note there is no promise that Jesus will say anything new).

This all suggests that we are becoming, through the Spirit, the kind of trained and intelligent disciples that the twelve were, which challenges the false dichotomy our preachers set up between “our ideas” and “the Spirit blowing where it will.” For if indeed we were given the Spirit at conversion, that Spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and counsel will surely, over time, have given us the mind of Christ to an increasing degree (2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Romans 12:2). He does not teach us to recognise white, and then suddenly call it black to demonstrate his caprice. Or rather, the caprice of the Father and the Son, too, for if the Spirit is arbitrary, then so is the whole Godhead. But he is not arbitrary.

Jesus also speaks of this Spirit as convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement – which would appear to include both the addressing of sin in our own lives, and empowering us to speak words of rebuke to evil in the Church, or out in the world (contrast the Bethel policy that prophecy must always be affirming of the other person). The same passage repeats the Spirit’s central role in guiding us into all truth, not into supernatural experiences. He does foretell the future, infallibly, because everything he passes on comes from what Jesus himself possesses, in order to glorify Jesus: and so we err if we ever think of the Spirit without close reference to Jesus, whose Spirit he is.

Yet despite all these vital roles of the Spirit, how many Pentecost sermons end with a ministry time asking the Spirit to well up inside our hearts to convict us of our sin? That probably happened in the East African Revival, but not in the Charismatic world. How many preachers invoke the Spirit to show us Jesus more clearly in his word, or to prove his power by reminding us during the week of Scriptures that will convince those we meet that Christ is Lord? How often do they plead for the Holy Spirit to give us deep Bible knowledge as we labour to study it, or godly wisdom in our personal dealings, or for boldness (noting that it was the disciples’ prayer for boldness that led to another shaken room and Spirit fullness evidenced by boldness just as the Pentecost event was evidenced by gospel witness and intelligible declaration of God’s works)? How many such sermons give any useful teaching on how to mortify besetting sin and grow in true holiness of life, though that was the final outcome of Acts 2?

Not many. But they do a good line in falling fire and speaking in tongues.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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