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.
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.