Recognizing the Holy Spirit’s Work Today
FROM O. Palmer Robertson Jun 12, 2017 ; TABLETALK
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
This little poem for children by Christina G. Rossetti captures at once something of the wonder of the wind, as well as the concreteness of its work. The wind is never seen but is clearly known by its work.
Jesus Himself compared the will of the wind to the work of God’s Spirit (John 3:8). Those who have seen His work know His reality. And yet, very little of the Spirit’s work is properly recognized by God’s people today. As a consequence, too much concentration focuses on the subjective experience of the Spirit rather than the broader dimensions of His reality. So the present article focuses first on the objective work of the Spirit, and then on His subjective work.
The Wondrous Work of the Holy Spirit Outside the Believer
First, the Holy Spirit created and sustains all life. Equally with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is the source of this universe and all that is in it. The creation narrative of Genesis informs us that “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.” Just as an eagle “broods” over its nest to bring forth life, so the Spirit of God served as the life-infusing agent at creation (Gen. 1:2; Deut. 32:11). When the psalmist speaks of the earth as being “full of creatures” and the sea “teeming with creatures beyond number,” he declares: “When you send your Spirit they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:30; see also 24–25). The molecules, the atoms that constitute everything in this earth, and the gravitational forces that bind the world together all derive their functioning power from the sovereign creating and sustaining Spirit.
Not only in creation, but also in the accomplishment of redemption, the Spirit of God plays a primary role. For apart from His marvellous, mysterious work, there would have been no incarnation of the Son of God. The Spirit was the one who caused the conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin. Dr. Luke reports the results of his careful investigations. The Holy Spirit came upon the virgin Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Luke 1:35). So apart from the Spirit there would have been no incarnate Savior.
So the objective working of the Holy Spirit in creation and redemption deserves careful attention. This great God the Spirit, this all-powerful person of the Godhead, must be appreciated for all that He is and does. He is not a milque toast will-o’-the-wisp who only comes as a divine after-thought in the progress of redemption. From creation to consummation He is the Great One who continually performs wonders.
The Wondrous Work of the Holy Spirit Within the Believer
In similar fashion, the scope of the Spirit’s work within the life of the redeemed must be appreciated in all its fullness. Note well seven works of the Spirit among the elect, the favored of the Lord:
First, the Spirit regenerates. How often have the clear words of Jesus been misunderstood! People universally re-write “You must be born again” so that the phrase reads instead, “You must born yourself again!” Not only does this mis-interpretation make no sense grammatically (an intransitive verb has no object); it makes nonsense of a profound spiritual truth. Just as you did nothing to cause yourself to be born into this fallen world, so you can do absolutely nothing to bring yourself into the divinely renewed world of redemption. You must be born “of the Spirit” (John 3:5, 8). You cannot even coerce the Spirit of God to effect your regeneration. The wind blows where it will — and it is the Spirit’s will, not yours, that causes a person to be born from above (John 3:3). Indeed, if your will is renewed by the regeneration of the Spirit, you will choose to cry out to God for salvation, just as the newborn baby cries out once born. But give the divine Spirit the glory He deserves! Your cry for salvation comes as a consequence of your new birth, and never could be the cause of regeneration. The Spirit Himself sovereignly does this great work of total renewal.
Second, the Spirit assures. You keep on sinning even after you have been born again, don’t you? So how can you be so sure that you are a child of God?
You can be so bold because the Spirit within you attests directly to your spirit that you are a son of God. In this most wondrous of works, “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:16). Nothing less than the Spirit’s constant working could keep the sinner certain of his salvation. But who would dare contradict the solemn witness of God’s own Spirit? Because of His personal testimony within your own spirit, you can be at peace. Be assured. If His witness is there, you are a son of God.
Third, the Spirit seals. The gummed seals we use today on an ordinary letter are not so impressive. They can be easily ignored and violated. But in the days of old, dripped wax with an official stamp of the king made it a perilous thing to break the royal seal.
So the Regal Spirit seals every believer in the possession of all the blessings of redemption. In this case, it is the seal of the King of kings that cannot be broken. Beyond making you certain at the present moment that you have been redeemed, the Holy Spirit seals you in the permanent possession of your salvation. For “having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” until the day of Christ’s return (Eph. 1:13b, 14a). It is a settled fact. His sealing work cannot be undone — all “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14b).
Fourth, the Spirit sanctifies. The apostle Paul uses a strange comparison and contrast to describe this work of the Spirit. “Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit,” he admonishes (Eph. 5:18). So what happens when a person gets drunk? Well, the alcohol of the “spirits” gets into his bloodstream and permeates every part of his person. He walks differently and talks differently, and he sees, hears, and acts differently.
So is the experience of everyone who is “filled” with the Spirit. God’s holiness, the holiness of the Holy Spirit, permeates every part of his person. He goes happily to places of worship, praise, and prayer — places he would not otherwise go. He talks boldly about Jesus the Christ. To abuse, he responds with love.
This experience of being filled with the Spirit is not something that happens once and then is done. The phrase literally reads, “Be being filled with the Spirit.” Constantly, continually, more and more extensively, be permeated in all you think, say, and do by the abiding influence of the divine Spirit. It’s the greatest possible experience of life.
Fifth, the Spirit brings forth fruit in the life of every believer. And what a fruit it brings forth! No less than nine specific products of the Spirit are listed (Gal. 5:22, 23). But even for the first three of these fruits the world would give its all: “LOVE, JOY, PEACE.” But little do they know that it is only the indwelling Holy Spirit of God that is capable of producing true love, joy, and peace within the sinner’s heart. He can and will do it when no one and nothing else can.
Sixth, the Spirit distributes gifts. Never has every believer received all the gifts, but every believer in every age has received some gift for ministering to others (1 Cor. 12:7–11). Sometimes it is asserted that unless a person has manifested the gift of “speaking in tongues,” he cannot have been baptized by the Spirit. But Paul makes it very plain. Not all believers have received the gift of speaking in tongues, but all have been baptized into the one body of Christ by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13, 29–30). Once in the age of the apostles, God gave the gifts necessary for providing a solid foundation of revealed truth to establish an infallible guide for the life of the church throughout the ages (Eph. 2:19–20). These gifts were essential for the grounding of the church on solid, unshakable revealed truth. But since this foundation has no need of being laid again in every new generation, these specific gifts related to new revelation have not been manifest since the days of the apostles.
Yet, to every single member of the body of Christ the Spirit gives spiritual capacities for ministering to others. For some, it is the gift to preach or to teach God’s Word (Eph. 4:11). For others, it is the gift of encouragement (Rom. 12:8a). For still others, it may be the gift of administration (Rom. 12:8b). No greater sense of fulfilment in life can be found than when you are using your spiritual gifts to the fullest. If you are a blessing to others, you know you are most fully blessed. And this most satisfying of experiences will come only through the outworking of God’s gifts, given to you by His Spirit.
Seventh, the Spirit empowers for worldwide witness. The resurrected Christ promised it: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you shall be my witnesses” to the world (Acts 1:8). The Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, and His power for witnessing to the world has been present ever since. For two thousand years, the Christian Gospel has continued to spread to every continent and nation.
By the coming of the Spirit of God into your life, you are empowered to give a worldwide witness, as well as a local witness, by your praying, your testifying, your giving, and your going. How great a privilege it is to be the instrument of witness to the whole world by the power of Christ’s Spirit.
So the Spirit does a great work, both without and within. A proper appreciation of His mighty deeds should stir up a spirit of submission and praise. For He accomplishes far more than inspiring spontaneous utterances within the occasional assemblies of believers. Creation, redemption, and consummation are all a part of the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit.