Demystifying the Holy Spirit

Demystifying the Holy Spirit

In a Bible study discussing our sermon series on the Holy Spirit, the facilitator asked the group if anyone had ever experienced the Spirit. After a long silence, a few people confessed that they never had any “crazy” encounters with the Spirit. This was met with murmurs of agreement from the rest of the group. This struck me because many of these people faithfully follow Jesus and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As a result, they are experiencing Him daily, whether they can identify it or not.

I don’t blame them for having nothing to say, because so often in Christian culture we assume encountering the Spirit must look a certain way. We intuitively think it must be dramatic and extreme, like tongues of fire, miraculous healings, or the audible voice of God.

Many followers of Jesus, myself included, know that the Holy Spirit lives within us and yet struggle to concretely identify what that looks like and miss out on the formation that occurs when we cooperate with Him. There is a need for Christians to demystify the Holy Spirit.

You may recoil at that statement. Shouldn’t we recognize God as mysterious and admit we will never fully understand him? Yes, of course. And yet, ironically, the impulse to view the Spirit’s work as ethereal and mysterious leads us to put His work in a box, missing out on what He is doing in our lives on a regular basis. We become like Elijah on Mount Horeb, expecting God’s presence to be something sensational, like a great wind, earthquake, or fire, when it is really a gentle voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). This is what I appreciated about our sermon series. It is important to expand our categories for what the Spirit does in our lives, and give concrete examples of them, so we can recognize what He is doing in us.

Whenever I find myself stuck in an implicit view of God, I find it helpful to listen to believers from a different time and place to see what my cultural blinders are concealing from me. The great reformer Martin Luther, though best known for expounding justification by grace alone, had a robust theology of the Spirit with applications that are surprisingly concrete for contemporary Christians.

Two helpful contributions Luther makes are designating the Spirit a special role in sanctification (the process of becoming holy) and illuminating how this primarily happens through Christian community.

First, Luther’s shorthand for explaining the Holy Spirit is “the spirit who makes us holy.” The Spirit takes the objective work of salvation that Christ accomplished for us on the cross in dying for our sins, and makes it a subjectively real experience for us. He does this by killing the flesh over time, that is, our corrupt human nature, and instilling a proper love for God in us. Luther says the flesh wants what benefits itself and avoids what is harmful. It enjoys and uses other people, things, and even God for its own benefit and the Spirit wants God for His own sake, which is the proper response. Luther adds that the Spirit works to reassure us we belong to God because of His grace, not our performance, so that we are not striving toward holiness out of fear. Any desire you have to do what is right, live the way God designed you to live, work for the best of another person without thinking about what you will get in return, is evidence of the Spirit working inside you, since these are not natural responses of human nature.

Second, for Luther this sanctification of the Spirit occurs in a caring community; the local church. So often contemporary Christians instinctually view their sanctification as a primarily personal journey. However, God does not make us holy in isolation but rather uses other Spirit-filled believers to produce Christlikeness in us. As someone who grew up in church, I have often heard Christian leaders quip, “it’s the Spirit’s job to convict, not mine,” while referencing John 16:8. However, Luther sees this verse referring not only to an internal guilt conscience, but also to Christians who, by the power of the Spirit, help other believers recognize where they might be going astray. Of course this must be done in a posture of grace and gentleness, with love and tact.

The internal holiness and the virtues the Spirit produces in us have a multiplying effect on other believers. For Luther, the fruits of the Spirit are not only vertical, but also horizontal by spurring other believers to do the same. Just like fruit contains seeds to produce other fruit-bearing trees, Luther views the Spirit’s work of renewing one believer as a tool used to develop holiness in another. Encountering Spirit-inspired gentleness in another person can lead us to grow similarly.

Luther picks up on how, in the structure of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the doctrines of the Church directly follow the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, meaning they are closely related. For Luther, the Church is the place and means of a believer’s sanctification because of the activity of the Spirit. He bemoans the enthusiasts of his day who became fanatical about the Spirit but left the church. They cut themselves off from the “bridge, the path, the way, the ladder” and all the other normal means He uses to affect the inner renewal of a believer. In looking for the spectacular and transcendent, many ignore the routine activities of the Spirit. Over time, these seemingly mundane practices of worship, preaching, prayers, communion, and Christian fellowship become supernatural catalysts for growth in holiness through the Spirit’s working.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have this Spirit living inside you. Each day, whether you explicitly identify it or not, you are experiencing His work of making you holy. Each time you desire to act out of genuine love for another, this is God’s Spirit working inside you. Every time a still, small voice reminds you of God’s love for you when you might feel like a failure, you are hearing the Spirit’s voice. Whenever another believer encourages you to display Jesus better, you are experiencing the Spirit indwelling them. Every Sunday when you are comforted and challenged by God’s Word preached, it is the Spirit enabling that to occur for you. Even as we leave this sermon series behind, let us look for the concrete ways the Spirit shows up in our lives and cooperate with how He is working.


Additional Reading:

Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians : Based on Lectures Delivered at the University of Wittenberg, in the Year 1531. Translated by Philip Watson. Westwood, NJ: F.H. Revell, 1953.

Lectures on Romans. Translated by Wilhelm Pauck. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961.

“On the Councils and the Church.” In The Annotated Luther: Church and Sacrament, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, translated by Paul W. Robinson, Vol. 3. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2015.

“The Larger Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther.” In The Annotated Luther: Word and Faith, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, Vol. 2. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2015.

Malcolm, Lois. “The Holy Spirit.” In Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, edited by Derek R. Nelson and Paul R. Hinlicky, Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.


Good News! You Are Ordinary

Good News! You Are Ordinary

“You’re totally ordinary and you know it.”

These are the harsh words uttered by Ricky Fitts to Angela Hayes in the movie American Beauty. While the word ordinary isn’t going to be bleeped out on the radio or censored on public television, it can still leave a mark on us as much, if not more, than a curse word. Think about it. How would you feel if someone said you were totally ordinary? Even hypothetically thinking about that now makes me want to call my mom and hear her tell me how wonderful I am.

But why do we have such an adverse reaction to the idea of being ordinary or doing ordinary things? Maybe it’s because we have such high expectations placed upon us by our parents, neighbors, coaches, bosses, and even pastors.

I am by no means advocating a lifestyle of mediocrity and laziness. However, I wonder if in all of our talk of being extraordinary and accomplishing extraordinary things we have lost sight of the fact that God does indeed love the ordinary. I think there is something God sees as beautiful and good in the seemingly ordinary parts of our lives. After all, Jesus lived out the majority of His life in the obscurity of ordinary life.

Obviously, we know a lot about the three years of Jesus’ ministry of miracles, healings, and teachings that culminated in His death and resurrection. But do we ever stop and think about the fact that Jesus worked as a humble and faithful carpenter for 18 years? As our lead senior pastor Tom Nelson has said, we move from the cradle to the cross very quickly, but we miss the carpenter’s shop. Jesus’ work as a carpenter wasn’t about waiting around until the “real work” of His ministry began. It wasn’t about killing time until God was ready to use Him for His “true purposes.”

I believe that the seemingly insignificant and shockingly normal years of Jesus’ carpentry work in obscurity teach us something. Namely, that God values, appreciates, and is involved in the ordinary things of our lives. This is good news, because so much of our life is, in fact, overwhelmingly ordinary.

In her outstanding book Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Warren reminds us of this important truth.

“The new life into which we are baptized is lived out in days, hours, and minutes. God is forming us into a new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of today.”

We all long to live meaningful lives and desire to do things that truly matter. We want our lives to count for something and have something to show for our time on this earth. But that is not mutually exclusive from doing ordinary work, being formed in ordinary ways, and maintaining faithfulness in ordinary things. We all want to live extraordinary lives. But that cannot happen without embracing and even rejoicing in the ordinary things of life. If we fail to see the importance of being faithful and intentional in what we view as ordinary, then we may miss out on what is truly extraordinary about life.

In his book Ordinary, Michael Horton pens these poignant words. He writes, “Our big ideas to ‘change the world’ can become ways of actually avoiding the opportunities we have every day, right where God has placed us, to glorify and enjoy Him and to enrich the lives of others…Sometimes, the best way to change the world is to live extraordinarily in what looks like an ordinary existence—to radically love and serve those around us every day, no matter where we are.”

Yes, we want to live lives of deep devotion and radical faith in Christ. But perhaps we need to start by reminding ourselves to be faithful and intentional in the very ordinary things that God has placed in our lives. I think Jesus was on to something when He said in Luke 16:10, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.”

We may have grandiose expectations for our lives and for what we want to accomplish. But is it possible that in fixing our eyes only on extraordinary things we may miss out on the great fruitfulness of being faithful in the countless ordinary things in our Monday life? Is it possible that we have failed to see that the very path toward an extraordinary life is paved with so many beautifully ordinary bricks?

How is God calling you to be faithful and how is He forming you through the ordinary parts of your Monday life?

Marvelous in Our Eyes

Marvelous in Our Eyes

When Liz and I arrived in Kansas City to begin Christ Community, we had never served in a pastoral role before, and we had few resources. We felt God had called us to a bold-faith mission, but transparently, there were times failure seem to stare us in the face and everything felt fragile.

From the very start, we believed God was birthing Christ Community to be a quiet catalyst for spiritual awakening. We were to be a church anchored not in pastoral personality or some human vision, but rather in a disciple-making mission. That compelling mission, to be a caring family of multiplying disciples influencing our community and world for Jesus Christ, has remained at the heart of who we are continually becoming and all that we are doing in advancing Christ’s kingdom in the world. Undergirding our mission is an unwavering belief that the local church, as God designed it, is the hope of the world.

As I reflect on the past 30 years, my heart is filled with gratitude to God and to all who have made Christ Community their church home and have invested time, talent, and treasure so generously. God’s miraculous provision, extraordinary favor, and watchful presence have been a constant reality on our journey of faith.

God’s Miraculous Provision

God’s miraculous provision has been evident in so many tangible ways. Christ Community began with no congregation, no financial resources, no land or buildings. In thirty years, God has brought to Christ Community a gifted host of congregants and pastoral staff. We have experienced steady growth in attendance and a growing yearly budget. We have repeatedly seen God’s miraculous provision of land and buildings for our now five campuses.

Allowing us to have a growing impact, God has provided city partners like Christian Fellowship Baptist, Advice and Aid, The Culture House, and many more who are seeking the shalom of our city and furthering the common good. Expanding our global reach, God has also provided church partnerships in Iran, China, Germany, Rwanda and Kenya.

God has provided the financial and leadership resources to launch Made to Flourish, which as an organization is focused on bringing greater whole-life discipleship to pastors and churches across our nation. Made to Flourish is now impacting over 2,500 pastors in 24 cities.

In the last 15 years, Christ Community has become a “teaching hospital” for training young pastors through our pastoral residency program. Our 30th resident just started in January. We have also been equipping post-college students for their various vocational callings through our KC Fellows program.

When we pause to remember God’s good hand of provision, we declare with the Psalmist of old, this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.    

God’s Extraordinary Favor

God’s extraordinary favor has also been evident these past 30 years. It is stunning to think that our obscure, yet vibrant, faith community, located in what many view as a flyover city, has been so blessed.

Many Christian thought leaders have come to Kansas City and invested in our church family. Though I cannot list all the people who have helped equip us for our catalytic mission, let me highlight some of them who have been especially influential in shaping our church culture and refining our disciple-making mission: Dallas Willard, Os Guinness, Ravi Zacharias, Don Carson, Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, Tim Keller, James Hunter, John Lennox, Michael Ramsden, David Miller, Steven Garber, Michael Emerson, Andy Crouch, Brian Fikkert, Elaine Storkey, Dana Harris, John Kilner, Josh Jipp, Constantine Campbell, Thomas McCall, Barbara Haggerty, and Mike Metzger.

Whether it was spiritual formation, theology, apologetics, cultural insight, bioethics, evangelism, vocation, economics, or racial reconciliation, Christ Community has been entrusted with a remarkable stewardship.

This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.    

God’s Watchful Protection

We not only remember God’s miraculous provision and extraordinary favor, we also pause to give our Good Shepherd praise for His tender care and watchful protection over us as a growing church family. As apprentices of Jesus, we have followed His instruction to pray faithfully and fervently that our Father in heaven would “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  

While we have felt Satan’s hellish fury against the Bride of Christ, Christ Community has experienced divine protection from moral or financial scandal, divisive conflict, mission drift, and doctrinal erosion.  

This too is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Embracing the Future

Looking back, we remember and give thanks for the Lord’s gracious faithfulness to us. Now as a multisite congregation spread throughout our city, let us embrace the fruitful future our Lord has for us with humility of heart, unity of purpose, fervent prayer, and bold faith.

Throughout 2019, we’ll be hosting events that look back on God’s faithfulness to us. I look forward to sharing these times of celebration, and I am most grateful for the wonderful privilege of sharing this journey with you.

Happy Birthday, Christ Community!

The Fruitfulness of Faithfulness

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Excerpt from Economics of Neighborly Love

Napa, California, is one of my favorite places to visit. I love feeling the temperate warmth of its Mediterranean-style climate, taking in its lush valleys and deep blue skies, and enjoying the laid back lifestyle. Napa is not only a beautiful place to visit; it is also a great place to grow things—especially grapes. Some of the finest wines in the world come from the Napa Valley region. Every wine tasting I’ve experienced there only solidifies that conclusion. The farmers who grow the many varieties of grapes in Napa Valley inevitably talk in detail about the importance of each microclimate’s unique soil composition. Different soils produce different grapes, and different grapes make different wines. Though I have never grown grapes, I know if you are going to get really good wine, it is imperative to have really good soil. Good soil produces good fruit.

The Napa Valley farmers’ knowledge about making wine and Jesus’ knowledge about human flourishing have striking similarities. Jesus asserted that what is true of the soils beneath us is true of the soul within us. When it comes to living a fruitful life, the condition of the human soul matters. Like good soils, good souls yield fruitful lives.

Throughout His teaching ministry Jesus emphasized the undeniable reality that those who embrace Him, who faithfully obey His teaching and apprentice their lives to Him, will bear much fruit. He spoke often of the goodness of fruitfulness and said His followers’ fruit would distinguish them as true disciples. So often, we are encouraged in our personal journeys of discipleship to lead more faithful lives marked by obedience and trust. And certainly faithfulness is an essential component of true discipleship. Without faith, we cannot know God or please God. Our enduring, trusting, persevering faithfulness matters.

Yet, in our pursuit of faithfulness, I wonder if we might not have unintentionally overlooked the high importance of fruitfulness, missing the comprehensive fullness of what God desires for us. In fact, I’d go so far as to ask, Is it possible to lead a faithful life without leading a fruitful life? Can we be faithful without being fruitful?

For Jesus, evidence of authentic followership manifested itself in authenticating fruitfulness. And our fruitfulness is of such importance to Jesus that He shed his innocent blood so that we might lead fruitful lives. Indeed, the good news of the gospel is that Jesus came not only to save our souls but to redeem His broken creation and to transform all aspects of human existence. The gospel shines the light of grace and truth into every nook and cranny of life. It is the good and powerful news of the gospel that makes human flourishing possible. The gospel empowers us to rightly love God and our neighbor, and makes us into new persons who foster virtuous and vibrant social ecosystems, with moral and innovative economies (2 Cor 5:17). Jesus came not only to save us from our lives of sin but also to save us for lives of flourishing and fruitfulness.[/vc_column_text][vcex_divider color=”#c4c4c4″ margin_top=”20px” margin_bottom=”20px”][vc_column_text]CG2017Tom Nelson will be one of the featured speakers at the Made to Flourish CG2017 Conference on Friday, October 13. The conference will be live streamed to local sites throughout the United States. The theme for this year’s conference is churches for the common good, and features other speakers such as Andy Crouch and Amy Sherman.

To hear more from Tom, and find out about this upcoming conference, visit Made to Floursh.org.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Vacation Bible School 2017 – Olathe Campus

There are so many things that I could say about our Vacation Bible School week. I could praise God for the incredible weather we had. I could express my sincere gratitude for our over 100 volunteers who served in various ways throughout the week. I could share how utterly amazed I was by our outstanding Children’s Ministries team. Or I could say how pleased I was that so many people were wearing purple. Go cats!


But what I wanted to focus in on was how VBS was this beautiful microcosm of the body of Christ displayed in the metaphor of the family. Throughout the week I watched so many volunteers playing, teaching, leading, loving, and serving each and every kid as if they were their own. As I was watching all of this take place I was struck by the power of the local church. I mean really, where else is this kind of unique familial environment possible where dozens of children instantly have multiple aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas? Where else are so many children loved and treated like family regardless of who they are related to? Where else can strangers come together and be family?

Yes, VBS was so well run and was, for all intents and purposes, a huge success. Yes, VBS was a great place for our children and leaders to grow in the beautiful mystery of Christ, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). But for me, the big takeaway was seeing our church embody and emulate the picture that the apostle Paul paints for us in Ephesians 2:19 where he says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Maybe I am just getting sappy as I get (slightly) older. Maybe I am just feeling the significance that, Lord willing, I get to be these kids’ pastor for years to come. Or maybe I just really love VBS. But I think more than all of that, I just love the local church. I love that through the grace of God our Father who sent Jesus the Son to dwell within us through the Holy Spirit, He has made us a family (Eph 3:14-17). I love that the church is a place where anyone can become family and be loved like family. Where the fatherless have fathers. Where the childless have children. Where the lost can be found. Where the dead can be brought to life.

So my prayer is that VBS would bear fruit in the life of our church for years to come and even in the lives of those that we have not yet met. But I also pray that we as a church would continue to faithfully and fruitfully live out our mission of being a caring family of multiplying disciples, influencing our community and world for Jesus Christ.

Thanks for letting me share my heart.

Your adoring pastor,