Knowing The Holy Spirit Is In Our Midst
The pastor of a large evangelical church once remarked: My church is so well organized and efficiently run that the Holy Spirit could depart today and ten years would pass before anyone missed Him. The pastor declared this not as a boast, but as a lamentation. There is something quite wrong with a people who profess their dependence upon the Lord-without whom we can do nothing-being able to get along for years without Him. That is why my pastor friend lamented the seeming self-sufficiency and super-efficiency of his church.
How can a congregation of the Lord’s people reach a point where they can carry on without the daily help of the Holy Spirit? Why would a people come to such a place? The first question deals with methods, the second question deals with motives.
Believers who can run for years without the guiding and enabling Spirit of God have come, very likely gradually and with initially good intentions, to rely on something other than the Spirit of the living God for their life and ministry. Since the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ, and leads believers into all the truth, those not depending upon Him have come practically to depend on something other than Christ and His Word, whatever they may assert to the contrary. That substitute dependence may be upon a large membership, well run and popular programs, and financial solvency. That, however, is a rather crass and obvious misdirected reliance. The more subtle substitute-and more deadly because it is more subtle- is the exalting of service for the Lord above devotion to Him. Hence, a church may begin being rightly committed to missionary and evangelistic outreach. Yet by endeavors to achieve increasing efficiency in such ministries, the tools of corporate capitalism, therapeutic psychology, and sheer entertainment are tried and found to be quite effective in achieving rapid and visible results. These tools and methods quickly become standardized and codified so that the teaching ministries in a church become curricula-driven, rather than character-driven. After all, the characters of teachers can vary so greatly, and why would an efficiently-minded organization want to depend on such living, changing entities when a standardized curriculum can achieve standard and reliable results?
There are several problems, however, with such methods and the reasoning that leads one to embrace them. For one thing, the God of the Bible is not One to exalt standardized production. He delights to use such diverse instruments as a rashly acting Peter and a retiring and contemplative John. Furthermore, our Lord has little interest in quick results. It is the crop that springs up quickly in the parable of the soils (Mt. 13: 5,6) that fails to develop roots and soon dies. Most significantly, the Lord Himself is not consistent in His dealings with people. To one He gives ten talents, to another, one, according to His wise and holy will. His plans and purposes are inscrutable to us, and we do well to suspect any ministry that churns out professing Christians like they are cookies formed by the same cutter.
Therefore, we see how people come to substitute the safe and dependable methods of men for their dependence upon the living, sovereign God, whose wise and wonderful ways can confound as well as comfort. Jesus notes and admonishes such a mentality in His words to the Church at Ephesus (Rev. 2: 1ff). They were believers who carried on serving the Lord being blissfully but dangerously unaware that they had left their first love. But this, too, reveals to us something of why people come to prefer ministerial systems and methods over devotion to and dependence upon the Lord. For love is so profound and makes one so vulnerable, and can seem so impractical that many are afraid to experience or exercise it.
For more than a quarter of a century, the elders in our church have studiously sought not to exalt ministerial methods above the mystery and wonder of love for and dependence upon Christ. When people come into our church, they encounter a serious ministry of the Word and of prayer, the administration of the sacraments, and a warm and deeply loving fellowship of believers (Acts 2:42). With these facets representing the heart of our ministry, there are no fig leaves of human invention to hide us, should we ever drive away the Holy Spirit by our disregarding Him. Indeed, so spiritually mature and sensitive have most of our members become over the years, that they would recognize immediately should a force so precious and vital as God’s Holy Spirit ever leave our assembly.
Jesus says that without Him, we can do nothing. By that, He does not mean that we cannot erect structures to stabilize the seemingly tenuous necessity for weekly, daily, even moment-by-moment dependence upon God’s Holy Spirit. Alas, we can do that too easily. But so far, by God’s grace, we at Immanuel have not sought to substitute the false stability of idols for the seeming insecurity of our dependence upon the invisible divine Spirit for our comfort, and power, and feeding upon the Christ whom we love and never want to forsake-even for more seemingly successful ministry. May our Lord keep us constantly dependent upon His Spirit and His ordinances.
Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church Norfolk, Virginia
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Amen — ‘A Sound Like Thunder’ 4 February 2020
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