.
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.

The (Forgotten) Story of the Holy Spirit

The (Forgotten) Story of the Holy Spirit

As a church family we just wrapped up our summer teaching series Forgotten Family highlighting some lesser known characters in the biblical story. We studied men and women like Uzziah and Deborah, Lydia and Philemon. 

There is another character in the biblical story that is often overlooked. Someone who is mentioned on the very first page and the very last page of the Bible who is often overlooked or misunderstood. It is the Holy Spirit! There is even a book about the Holy Spirit titled The Forgotten God

One of the most central, defining truths of Christianity is the belief in a Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God. Three Persons. But Christians often functionally binitarian — speaking, teaching, and living primarily as if God were only Father and Son. Or we operate with a different Trinity; the Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures.  

In our teaching series The Story of the Holy Spirit we want to get to know the Spirit better. We want to follow His story through the pages of Scripture. We want to discover His work in creation, in giving new life, in giving gifts and empowering us for works for service and love on Sunday and Monday.  

The only Christian life is a life that has been made new by the Holy Spirit, baptized by the Holy Spirit, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and filled by the Holy Spirit. If you have placed your faith and hope in Jesus, all of these things are true of you! 

It is a bit like doing genealogical research and discovering that you are descended from royalty. That was always true of you even before you knew it or understood it. But now that you know it, it can change everything about how you view yourself and your story. 

Together we want to know the Spirit more deeply and learn to live more fully in the life the Spirit gives. The Spirit’s story bookends the biblical story. But where is He in our story? Join us as we follow the Spirit’s story through the Bible and into our lives. 

Global Partner – Eleventh Hour Network

Global Partner – Eleventh Hour Network

One of our great privileges as a church is that we can partner with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are also doing the work of multiplying churches, disciples, and leaders. Together we are advancing this mission to multiply across Kansas City and around the world.

Our partner Eleventh Hour Network, focuses on evangelism and church planting among Muslims in northeastern Kenya. Here is just one recent example of how God is powerfully at work.

Dear families, 

I recently witnessed a testimony that moved my heart so deeply, I had to share it with you. 

Two nights ago at the Evangelical Outreach, a possessed young man entered the church where we camped around midnight. He had escaped from his parent’s home, running through thorny bushes in the dark until he collapsed inside our compound. We ran to see what was going on, yet were rightly afraid that the conflict zone surrounding us had erupted. 

After the excitement quieted, one of the evangelists recognized the young man as a student from the nearby university who had dropped out a few years ago due to mental illness. The young man’s Muslim parents searched for healing among the well-known witchdoctors, healers, and by attending sacrifices, yet his situation worsened. 

Finally, the Holy Spirit got a hold of him to break the chain his parents used to keep him from wandering away from home. It’s then that the Lord led him to run to the church where we were gathering.  

We felt the Lord brought him to us at such a time as this for healing. We agreed to pray for him the whole night. 

God, very rich in His mercy, set him free from the demonic spirit. For the past two days, this young man has helped set up Jesus film equipment and joined in morning prayer, fasting and sharing his testimony during fellowship. 

Yesterday, his parents came to see him in the church. To their amazement, he told them he did not want to go back home. He wanted to stay in the church with Christian families. Remember, he is a Muslim. 

Shortly after that, I lead this young man to accept Christ, and the Lord restored his health and state of mind. This afternoon, he went out with the outreach team as a translator. 

Indeed, there is nothing too hard for the Lord!

Kindly continue to pray for safety as we travel, and more stories of the transformative power of God. 

Every blessing!

Thank you for your generosity that allows our church family to partner with the work that God is doing around the world. May we learn from these partners in ministry who are faithfully bearing witness to the good news that Jesus is alive, and that death has been defeated!

Spiritual Gifts: Part 2

Spiritual Gifts: Part 2

[This is part two of a series. READ PART ONE >]

“Well, sure, but how do I figure out which ones I have?”

In almost every conversation I’ve ever had about spiritual gifts, some form of this question has been asked. And I completely understand why. The Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 4:10, assures us that ALL Christians have at least one spiritual gift: “As each has received a gift…”

So then it is only natural for a curiosity to develop regarding WHICH spiritual gift (or gifts!) the Lord has given to us. But in my view, there is a problem with this approach. If not careful, it makes our spiritual gifts mostly about US, which is not why we have them. Just take a look at how Peter finishes the sentence I began quoting above: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Yes, Peter says, All Christians have received (at least one) gift, but that gift is not about you! It’s about others! It’s about serving! It’s about giving yourself away!

You may begin to see the problem if we become obsessed with what MY gift is. How has God gifted ME? Me, me, me. But no. Your spiritual gift is FAR more about other people in your life than it is about you.

Our definition from part one of this series matches this emphasis:

A spiritual gift is a Holy Spirit empowered ability, freely given to the believer for the purpose of serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.

Now granted, to accomplish the purpose statement in our definition, one does have to know what gifts they possess. So the question of spiritual giftedness is an important one, it’s just not where the conversation should originate.

When you’re ready for it, here’s a helpful approach, first recommended to me by pastor and author Tim Keller: Three places to “look” to discover your spiritual gifts.

Look OUT

The first place people typically look to discover their gifts is IN. Which is important, we’ll get to that. But again, starting by looking IN begins the conversation from a self-centered position. Instead, we ought to look OUT and ask, “What are the needs of the community around me? What openings could I fill? How could I serve?” And it’s interesting, because by jumping in where you are needed, you may be surprised to find out that you are gifted in an area you didn’t think you were! And what a gift that would be! (See what I did there?)

The other way you can “look out” to discover your gifts is to ask questions like these: What needs am I drawn to or stir my emotions? What is broken in the world that I am deeply compelled to fix? By considering problems that draw you in rather than push you away, you may be stumbling into an area where God has gifted you.

Look IN

See, I told you this was important! And, of course, it is. God built and created YOU in a special and unique way. No one else is like you. Which means that no one else can contribute to God’s mission in this world (to make all things new again through Jesus) like you can. Hear this: You (and your gifts) ARE needed. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

So ask, “How has God made me? What am I good at? What comes easily to me? What brings me joy while I am doing it? What do I seem particularly fitted for?”

And yes, you can take an assessment! Just like personality assessments fall short at capturing the whole of who we are (and even the best ones do fall short—I’m looking at you, Enneagram), so will a spiritual gifts assessment fall short in and of itself. But it is a helpful tool on the journey. The best one I’ve found is by Pastor Jeff Carver at spiritualgiftstest.com. You can take the assessment online (you will have to create a free account on the website to do so).

Look AROUND

Here’s the last step. It’s important, and a ton of people forget it. You see, no one in this world is better at tricking me than myself. I convince myself of stuff that isn’t true ALL THE TIME. So after you look IN to discover your spiritual gifts, you HAVE to look AROUND. Which means, you have to ask people in your life to affirm or deny your giftedness.

Ask, with true humility and an open ear: Do you see this gift in my life? Do you agree with what I think I’ve discovered?

Those are terrifying questions, are they not? But we have to ask them, and we have to be open to hearing hard things in response. Because if we aren’t, what’s the point? We’ll miss our true giftedness, and fail to maximize our fruitfulness to God’s mission.

So talk to your spouse. Your small group. Your mentors. Your friends that love Jesus. Your pastors. Ensure them that you want full honesty. And then, listen. Don’t wait to talk. Don’t formulate your rebuttal while they are still sharing. Truly listen. And if what they have to say is hard, ask them to walk with you as you discover your true gifts.

Conclusion

So there it is, three places to “look” to discover your spiritual gifts. They are not a list to check off, mind you, but are a framework to point us in the right direction. May we never forget who gives us the gifts in the first place. God, yes, but more specifically even, the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, we close this series with adapted prayers from the The Valley of Vision, “God the Spirit” and “The Spirit of Jesus”:

Oh Lord God, I pray not so much for spiritual gifts as for the Spirit himself, because I feel his absence, and act by my own spirit in everything. Give me not weak desires but the power of his presence, for this is the surest way to receive all his benefits, and when I have the seal I have the impression also; He can heal, help, quicken, humble suddenly and easily, can work grace and life effectually, and being eternal, can give grace eternally.

Save me from great hindrances, from being content with a little measure of the Spirit, from thinking you will not give me more. When I feel my lack of him, light up life and faith, for when I lose thee I am either in the dark and cannot see you, or Satan and my natural abilities content me with a little light, so that I seek no further for the Spirit of Life.

May his comforts cheer me in my sorrows, his strength sustain me in my trials, his blessings revive me in my weariness, his presence render me a fruitful tree of holiness, his might establish me in peace and joy, his incitements make me ceaseless in prayer, his animation kindle in my undying devotion. Teach me to find and know the fullness of the Spirit only in Jesus.

Spiritual Gifts – PART ONE

Spiritual Gifts – PART ONE

When you hear the word “gift,” what thought jumps to your mind? Perhaps Christmas, with lots of neatly wrapped presents under the tree. Or the birthday of a child, who is plopped in front of a cake and surrounded by a mountain of presents.

Spoiler alert: Christmas and birthday presents aren’t what the Bible has in mind when it comes to the topic of spiritual gifts! No, something quite different is in view. It will help to begin with a definition:

A spiritual gift is a Holy Spirit empowered ability, freely given to the believer for the purpose of serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.

This definition is meaty, so let’s break it down just a bit.

First, spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, the Apostle Paul emphasizes repeatedly that all spiritual gifts originate from the Holy Spirit. Over and over again, he presses the point: There are a variety of gifts, but they come from the SAME source, the Holy Spirit. This ought to be a humble reminder—we should never grow prideful about our spiritual gifts, because they didn’t originate with us. God gets the glory!

Second, spiritual gifts are not talents. The word “ability” in our definition might evoke the image of a particularly talented person putting that skill to use (i.e., LeBron James dunking a basketball), so it is important to remember that while both natural talents and supernatural spiritual gifts come from God, they are not the same.

“A talent is a natural ability or aptitude given by God to a person at birth. A spiritual gift is a supernatural ability given by God at rebirth. A talent can be anything from athletic ability to musical aptitude to artistic genius. … [Don’t forget that] all talents and spiritual gifts come from God. He can use talents and spiritual gifts to fulfill His purposes and bring Himself glory. The main difference between the two is that only Christians receive spiritual gifts because only Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. As a believer in Christ, you are called to use your talents and your spiritual gifts for the glory of God.”   

– Pastor Jeff Carver[1]

Third, the spiritual gifts themselves.

There are five different places in the New Testament where we find lists of the spiritual gifts:

  • 1 Corinthians 12:8-11
  • 1 Corinthians 12:28
  • Romans 12:6-8
  • Ephesians 4:11
  • 1 Peter 4:11

There are a few different ways to divide up the lists, so you’ll see different totals attached to the question of how many spiritual gifts are listed in the Bible, usually 19, 20, or 21 gifts.

None of the lists, by themselves OR put together, are meant to be exhaustive. In other words, in all likelihood, we do not have a complete list of all the spiritual gifts in the Bible. If we stop and think about it, this makes sense. Our God is the author of ALL creativity and innovation. Are we really to restrict Him to 19 or 21 ways of gifting His children?

“We do not want to limit God’s ability to give more gifts, He most certainly has, but we must be cautious when calling an ability a spiritual gift if it is not found in Scripture. [I] operate within the framework that there are likely many other spiritual gifts that have been given, but they should all connect categorically to those that are found in Scripture. For instance, a ‘gift of songwriting’ could connect with the categories of exhortation, or evangelism, or a ‘gift of cooking’ could be a form of the gift of serving and ministering.” 

– Pastor Jeff Carver[2]

While we do not have an exhaustive list, it’s not wrong to study the explicit gifts that are named.

A great resource to begin with is this list from Jeff Carver’s book on the spiritual gifts, Gifted by Grace.

Fourth and finally, your spiritual gifts are not about you! It might be tempting to make your spiritual gift all about you. After all, it’s your gift, isn’t it? That’s why the purpose statement in our definition above is so clear. What are your spiritual gifts for? They are for serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.

In another passage on spiritual gifts, Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul makes this purpose clear: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Edification of others is the end goal—your gifts are not about you!

Furthermore, they’re not just about the church, either. What a shame it would be if the church turned inward with her gifts, forgetting about God’s heart for all people! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul includes this reminder: “To each [i.e., Christians] is given the manifestation of the Spirit [i.e., spiritual gifts] for the common good.”

This means that it’s just as important to consider ways to utilize your spiritual gifts OUTSIDE the walls of the church as it is inside. How might you be able to employ your spiritual gifts at home? At work? With your neighbors?

Are you gifted in teaching? Teach your children! Are you gifted in hospitality? Open up your home for a party, a study, one of our global partners who is visiting KC, or ________.  Are you gifted in administration? Apply for a job where you could use that gift!

Whatever you do, don’t forget that your spiritual gifts are not about you, but are for the purpose of, as our definition says, “serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.”

Check out PART TWO of this blog post, coming later this year, which will dive into the process of discovering your spiritual gifts!


[1] https://spiritualgiftstest.com/faqs/ under “What is the difference between a talent and a spiritual gift?”

[2] https://spiritualgiftstest.com/faqs/ under “How many spiritual gifts are there?”

Resurrection Again…

Resurrection again. (Acts 9:32-43)

Yes, you read that right. If you’re anything like me, resurrection is something that’s associated with Easter or even with a guy named Lazarus who shows up in the book of John. Oh…and there’s also that time that Jesus brought a little girl back to life (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43).

But when you get to Acts 9, suddenly Peter does it too. To be sure, Peter is empowered by the Holy Spirit, but still this is Peter—not Jesus, not a deity, not God—the “Yes, I denied Jesus 3x” Peter! If you were reading the New Testament in large swaths, you’d think that even though the church is undergoing so much persecution, death is on the run.

So what’s going on?

After all the action (read: mass conversions and persecution) that’s been underway in Jerusalem, the church is beginning to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Little gatherings of these people with the “words of Life” (Acts 5:20) are popping up all over the place. And Peter takes it upon Himself to go and visit these burgeoning little faith communities.

One of the first places Peter visits is the town of Lydda. Upon arrival, Peter is introduced to a man named Aeneas who had been paralyzed for over eight years. Peter proclaims over this guy, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed” (Acts 9:34). And “immediately” Aeneas is healed. Linguists will highlight how the wording literally means, “right at this moment Jesus Christ heals you.”

It’s another astounding work of God on the spot. And just like the man born lame in Solomon’s Portico earlier (Acts 3:6), this was a catalyst to more people trusting in the power of the resurrected Jesus!

Well, word gets out, and Peter is summoned by followers of Jesus to another nearby town by the name of Joppa. A woman named Tabitha (in Hebrew) or Dorcas (in Greek), who was a pillar of the faith, has died. She was a woman who went out of her way to devote her life to works of charity for the vulnerable, especially widows. The ones the rest of the world ignored, she served. The ones who were shut up by the powerful cry out powerfully for her, and Peter is invited into this scene of grief.

What’s astounding isn’t just what happens next but how much this feels like déjà vu. If you were to read the situation of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5:21-24, 35-43, the parallels would be striking. In Mark, Jesus asked everyone to leave the room. So does Peter here in Acts 9. Jesus’ command in Mark 5 is Talitha kumi  [“Little girl, get up”], and Peter’s command here in Acts 9 is “Tabitha, get up,” which in its Aramaic form is Tabitha kumi. In both instances, they return to the grieving party, and everyone is surprised.

The similarity is striking. Peter empowered by the Holy Spirit is doing what Jesus did in Jesus’ name. Don’t miss this! God in Christ is working through the apostles and His church to such an extent that even the dead are raised. And people in Joppa and the surrounding country begin to embrace Jesus in droves like they did on that hillside in Galilee. It was an amazing day where even death seemed to lose ground.

Resurrection power today?

But when you sit at your computer, scan through your phone, check your Facebook feed, and go about your day-to-day, it’s so easy to feel distant from God and from His power—this kind of power we read about here—at work in the world.

But just because Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father doesn’t mean He’s disconnected from His world. This passage reminds us of this truth: Jesus is in heaven still working through His people to make His name and reign known this world over, and Jesus is just as zealous to redeem the lost and broken in the 21st century as He was in the 1st century.

To be clear, this should not make us presumptuous that God will work this way every time. More often than not, God doesn’t. He works much more often through the beauty of the weak, the fragile, and even the death of His people to put to shame the powers of this world. But as we face pain and suffering and stare down the dark and lonely road of death, may we remember that God is more powerful than it all, and He will never leave His people abandoned to death.

God is the author and giver of Life. He is the Life. And He has entrusted us with life in Christ (John 14:6) to share with all. Life and life abundant. Peter spoke it. Dorcas felt it. May we embrace it, share it, and have greater confidence today in our King of Life, our resurrected King Jesus who will come again to gather the living and the dead who are His!