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‘Without the Holy Spirit We May as Well Burn our Bibles’

Category Articles
Date November 24, 2009

Every true minister of the gospel is committed to preaching the Word, the whole Word, and nothing but the Word. We are committed to doing this in season and out of season, when times are good and when times are bad. We do so because we believe that the Scriptures make us wise for salvation through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:15) and because we believe that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:16-17). All of this is good and right, but is it enough?

John Owen the great Puritan divine, wrote these provocative words: ‘Without the Holy Spirit we may as well burn our Bibles’. What is your instinctive reaction to Owen’s words? Do you think he was right? Owen was simply stating a biblical truism. Paul put it memorably in 1 Thessalonians l:5, where he tells the Thessalonians, ‘we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words (not in words only), but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.’ The truth is that without this conviction we can only too easily drift into either a complacent biblicism or a Roman Catholic sacramentalism. What do I mean? Romanism teaches that the sacraments convey grace ‘ex opere operate‘ (a technical phrase used by theologians since the 13th century to signify that the sacraments produce grace of themselves). Administer the sacraments ‘rightly’, say all the right words, and hey presto!, grace is administered. Protestants, however, can be guilty of treating God’s preached Word as if all we needed to do was say the right words, say them faithfully, and God will bless our labours. The question I want now to raise is this: What about the Holy Spirit?

Edmund Campion was in the forefront of the counter-Reformation in England. He believed that the ‘fundamental difference’ between Romanism and Protestantism was the Protestant doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Romanism had encased the Holy Spirit in its numerous and necessary sacraments. So long as the priest uttered the right words, the Spirit in the sacraments would do his work. But the Protestant Reformation had witnessed the recovery of the biblical doctrine of the Spirit. He is the sovereign Lord who alone gives life. He cannot be contained, he blows where he wills. We may plant and we may water, but it is the Lord who makes things grow (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-7).

It is only too possible for preachers and hearers to lapse into an unconscious formalism. We are Reformed men; we are Reformed hearers; we preach the truth and will only listen to the truth. But is it not more than possible that we can content ourselves with the gospel coming ‘in word only’, in outward, albeit orthodox, form, and be strangers to the pulse-quickening, mind-expanding, heart-affecting, ministry of the Spirit as HE wields the sacred Word?

Why have I made this my theme? At least for the following reasons:

First, because if you are anything like me, you need to hear this basic biblical truth regularly: ‘Without me you can do nothing.’

Second, because some things are so basic that we can simply lose the ‘sense’ of their vital importance.

Third, because we (that is, we pastors and teachers) can become seduced by our own doctrinally orthodox preaching and forget Paul’s words, ‘What after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe . . . I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.’

Pray for your ministers! Pray that we will be absolutely persuaded of this truth. Pray that we will never content ourselves with orthodox preaching. Pray that God will day by day impress on us that ‘it is not by might and not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.’ Pray that the Holy Spirit will take our feeble endeavours and bless them beyond all our asking. Pray that the gospel will come not ‘simply with words (not in words only), but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.’


Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

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