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01 January 2009

The Basics: God the Holy Spirit

The Basics: God the Holy Spirit

In our 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Susannah Clark discusses...

  1. The ministry of God the Holy Sprit who leads us to repentance, unites us with Christ through new birth, empowers our discipleship and enables our witness.

It is a staple of evangelical conviction that mission is impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit. This is immediately clear in Jesus' own life. In Luke 3.22, at the start of His public ministry, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at His baptism. Jesus then returns from the temptations in the desert in Luke 4 full of the Holy Spirit and goes on to declare in His paradigmatic statement in the synagogue in Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4.18).

Such is the importance of this empowerment that Jesus tells His disciples not to embark on their mission until they have received this power: "I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24.49). This is precisely the example that Jesus Himself followed.

New Testament scholar Max Turner describes it like this: "In Luke 3-4 the Spirit then comes as Jesus' messianic empowering for the redemptive mission, while Pentecost brings a parallel endowment for the Church's mission, over which the Spirit remains the initiator, the driving power, the guide in significant decisions and the legitimator of the whole endeavour, especially at its most delicate points."

In Acts 1.8, the power of the Holy Spirit is promised again to the disciples as giving them power to "be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth". Jesus indicates that we should expect to receive this power, and of course the disciples did receive it at Pentecost in Acts 2.

The problem, though, is that too often we either think of the Spirit as a mediator of a good spiritual feeling or ecstatic experience or we avoid reflection on the Spirit's role at all.

An unusual experience

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, those present certainly did have an unusual experience. Yet the purpose of that experience was to empower them to be witnesses for Christ. When the disciples spoke in many tongues by the power of the Spirit, it caused those present to be "amazed and perplexed" and to ask what it meant. This then gave Peter the opportunity to address the crowd, to explain and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Similarly, when Acts 5.12 reports the many signs and wonders being carried out by the apostles, it is followed by the statement, "Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number."

Too often we think of the Spirit as a mediator of a good spiritual feeling or ecstatic experience

So the New Testament pattern, especially in Luke and Acts, is that those who are filled with the Spirit are empowered for mission (see Acts 4.31, for example). Indeed, it is precisely for this reason that Jesus was so clear that we are to wait for the Spirit before embarking on our mission (Luke 24.49).

We must not forget, however, that long before we even begin to speak we require the Spirit to be at work in others. No matter how impressive our preaching, how creative our PowerPoint presentation, how powerful our testimony, how good our worship band, if the Spirit of God is not at work in people's hearts, we cannot expect them to accept the message.

Acts 11.15 records that as Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit came on the gentiles present, allowing them to hear the message that God had granted them repentance and given them life. It even says that they "had no further objections".

The Spirit thus both enables our witness and causes people to hear the message, the importance of which Max Turner stresses: "Only through the Spirit can the ongoing messianic/transformative reign of Jesus continue to be experienced by His people."

Further evidence of this is given in 1 Corinthians 12.3, which says, "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus be cursed', and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord', except by the Holy Spirit."

We can expect no one to accept Jesus Christ as Lord without the Holy Spirit working in them.

It would seem that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is in a sense circular, a continual spiral through history: The Spirit has to work first in us to hear and accept the message of good news, to repent, to unite us with Christ through new birth. Having been united with Christ, we are empowered in our discipleship by the Spirit and can witness to others. The Spirit works, then, in both us and them to lead them to repentance and unity with Christ, and in turn to witness. In this way, the work of the Spirit continues through history, calling each generation afresh to repentance, new birth, discipleship and witness.

Susannah Clark is the Alliance's public theology research assistant.

This series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to spreading the Good News.

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