While linking the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the gospel is not really controversial, binding the Holy Spirit to the word is. When considering how the Holy Spirit operates in the lives of Christians, there seems to be a tendency to gravitate to either end of the spectrum—some will insist that the Spirit operates everywhere in every way, from exciting the impulse to sell all worldly goods and devote oneself to missions abroad, to inspiring the laughter of a child on the playground. Others say that the Spirit operates only in one place (the church), at one time (the divine service), and that any attempts to credit anything extraordinary to his will or action is heterodox at best and blasphemous at worst. Reformational Christians are often accused of the latter—we are told that we are putting God in a box by denying that the Holy Spirit operates apart from the word. A comparison will show that our view gives more credit to the power of God than is popularly thought.
The test case most often presented to refute the Reformation viewpoint is that of the tribal Afghan who never meets a missionary. If we say that only those who actually hear the gospel can be saved, are we saying that God cannot reach that person? Is God really so dependent on our missionary efforts in saving the souls of the lost? Before answering this case, I want to present another test case to show the underlying motive in the tribesman.
One class of persons whom the Reformation classifies as eminently suited to receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit are infants. Since we do not believe in free will, we believe it is always a supernatural event when an individual comes to faith in Christ. The decisive factor is not the intellect of the individual but the power of God. As demonstrated by the case of John the Baptist, even infants can be filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15) and are capable of faith. Scripture says that “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Are we to believe that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit but did not have faith? Does not his leaping for joy at the coming of his Messiah provide evidence of faith?
If we are willing to say that God can overcome any impediments that may be brought about by an individual’s lack of ability to reason, then we are certainly not making God dependent on human ability. In the case of the unevangelized tribesman, I suspect that many who do not consider the possibility of infant faith will believe in the ability of the native to come to faith. This is not so much because they believe in the power of God to convey the gospel apart from Scripture, but because they believe that the Afghan tribesman has the spiritual ability to discover the gospel himself. It is not God’s ability to speak, but man’s ability to hear that is being extolled.
Trying to read motives is a tricky thing. I do it here only because I have heard the idea of infant faith ridiculed by the very people who would accuse me of putting God in a box. These people believe that God can bring someone who has never heard the gospel to spiritual life where it is absent, but that he cannot enliven an infant where the gospel is present. The power of God’s gospel is made out to be unnecessary, while the reasoning ability of the individual is made decisive.
To choose a grosser example, I have heard of well-known pastors claiming that “the living word” is greater than the “written word.” At first it sounds as if what is being claimed is that God is greater than the Bible. No one disagrees with that, but the necessary consequent is that these pastors claim for themselves the ability to discern what the living word is saying without the aid of the Holy Spirit. When they claim that their message comes from “the living word,” they now place themselves in authority over the Bible, since they have a more authoritative word. What at first appears to be a defense of the greatness of God is really only an attempt to place man over Scripture.
Captivity to the Word is Openness to the Spirit
At the Diet of Worms, where Martin Luther made his famous stand before church and empire, Luther declared himself captive to the word of God. His warnings against seeking the Spirit apart from Scripture were especially stern:
Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil. For even to Moses God wished to appear first through the burning bush and the spoken word (Ex. 3:2, 4), and no prophet, whether Elijah or Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments. John the Baptist was not conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb until Mary spoke (Lk. 1:13–42). (Smalkald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 11)
Many Christians are afraid that embracing the Reformation will bring about a captivity of another sort. Do we worship a God who cannot speak personally to us? It is feared that binding the Holy Spirit to the word will silence God.
If we wish to have God advise us personally about our money worries, comfort us when we feel arthritic, or affirm the inner child within, then we are likely to be disappointed. God does speak of many things in his word, many things that may be pertinent in the above instances. The Holy Spirit can illuminate Scripture, making it understandable when it has not been before. His timing in illumination will often be remarkably providential.
For the Christian experiencing anguish of conscience, however, real comfort can be taken in knowing that the Holy Spirit is to be sought in the word. For this individual, being directed to a voice outside of Scripture is exactly the thing that might drive him or her to despair.
I hate long waits. Even worse than a long wait is waiting for what may never arrive. I have read literature where the enquirer is left knocking at heaven’s gate but warned that the sovereign Spirit might pass one by. In such a position, the enquirer might feel that knocking will decrease the likelihood of salvation. Maybe the Spirit will demonstrate his sovereignty by choosing the person who did not knock, passing by the seeker with bleeding stubs of knuckles. Not only does waiting for illumination burden Christians by making them wait for God, but it asks them to look for grace in the wrong place. Born-again Christianity focuses on the new birth—something that happens to the Christian. While it does not deny the new birth, Reformation Christianity focuses on the gospel instead.
This outward orientation is not destructive of true inner experience. In Scripture, we see the two wedded. King David speaks of the forgiveness of God in very personal terms: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). This is true even though forgiveness for his most notorious sin was not found through a sense of “inner forgiveness” but announced through the mouth of another: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan replied, ‘The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die’” (2 Sam. 12:13).
Thank heaven Scripture points weary sinners to the gospel and not to their own inner strivings. No dark corners for us and no long waits. Illumination is not something that takes place inside one’s head but from the outside. It is hearing the news that changes us. This might happen when reading Scripture, listening to a sermon, or hearing a small child tell of how Jesus took our sins away. It is not the power of the messenger that accomplishes this, but the power of the message. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). Paul says this right after describing the difference between the ministry of the Spirit and the ministry of condemnation, so he is certainly talking about freedom from the effects of sin. Being chained to the word is not bondage but liberty.
Along with the whole church, the Reformation confesses that the Holy Spirit is a source of power. To have a living church, the Holy Spirit is necessary. We understand this in biblical terms, however, and not primarily by means of nineteenth-century analogies to electricity, wherein the indwelling of the Spirit resembles a kind of spiritual electrocution that jolts the believer into a state of religious fervor. We know of a different kind of power, one that may not give us the spark of energy we would expect but effects a genuine regeneration that enables us to truly love our enemies and our neighbors, and to seek the good of our cities and communities.
The Bible tells us that the ministry of the Spirit is the ministry of the gospel, which is the power to salvation. If the gospel is being proclaimed, then the church is living, not dead. It may be stodgy, tacky, and awkward. It will have its faults and its sins, and the earnest Christian will not dissemble or cloak them in pompous protestations of virtue. But it will possess the promised true power of the church and will one day be presented to her bridegroom in splendor—holy and unblemished without spot or wrinkle.
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy.com.
This article was originally published as “The Word and the Spirit” in the September-October 1992 issue of Modern Reformation magazine.