The Work of the Holy Spirit and the Ministry of the Word

Hywel R. Jones
Tuesday, May 1st 2018
May/Jun 2018

In recent decades, the ministry of preaching has thankfully been regaining its proper place in churches. After a long period of marginalization (and, in some cases, forfeiture) by the combined forces of liberal theology and secular communication theory, there is a resurgence in the primacy and power of the preached word during the divine service.1 As part of this recovery of preaching, much has been written about the importance of a hermeneutic that is appropriate to the character of Holy Scripture and a homiletic adapted to the preacher’s audience.2 This distinction between hermeneutics and homiletics is often not appreciated by (would-be) preachers, which results in preaching that is overly didactic and un-prophetic. But correct interpretation and contemporary proclamation are two essential components of authentic preaching. They correspond to John Stott’s description of preaching as a bridge that connects the two banks of a river—the worlds of Scripture and of contemporary hearers.3

Fueling this renewal has been the recovery of a true biblical theology that looks at a text in its time-space slot in redemptive history and revelation. This is not the biblical theology movement of the mid-twentieth century associated with G. E. Wright or John Bright, who saw revelation as an event but not a word, in keeping with the theology of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. Instead, it harks back to the work of Geerhardus Vos at the turn of the nineteenth century, and it extends to include the whole of the canonical text, not only the parts that record a divine encounter. The late Ed Clowney had a profound influence in this very area. As a result, preaching classes have been given more prominence in the curriculum of seminaries and workshops in conferences have become popular. There is a new eagerness to “preach the [whole] word” by the time-honored method of lectio continua and a greater confidence in the possibility of doing so in a way that does not amount to Spurgeon’s mischievous witticism: “ten thousand, thousand are their texts but all their sermons one.”

But in all this there has been what we will call a striking oversight—namely, that in all such literature not much explicit and concentrated attention has been given to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and certainly not to his power. Numerous biographical studies of individual preachers have been published in connection with “seasons of refreshing,” but one suspects that these do not carry as much weight as they should with those who are driven by the importance of exegetical accuracy and contemporary relevance.

The question can therefore be raised as to whether, in the campaign to restore the whole Bible as the “word” for preaching, there has been a tendency to take the ministry of the Holy Spirit for granted. If that is so, then how should that assumption be regarded? Can anything be said for it? Certainly—something can and should be said, and it will be in a moment. But something else should also be said, and the concern that this latter point might be forgotten instead of being restored to prominence in all appropriate ways and places is what animates this essay. There is not much of an emphasis at all on praying for the Holy Spirit’s power to descend on the ministry of the word and on the preacher and hearer alike. This is a telltale sign. Is that prayer superfluous now that we have the whole Bible and the skills to interpret any passage in it? Or is it doctrinally unacceptable? These are uncomfortable but necessary questions for those who uphold written Scripture as the word of God: Is the Holy Spirit “forgotten” or “unknown”?4 Is his presence and activity taken for granted and therefore minimized?

Light from the Past

There are five points of reference for our subject we ought to bear in mind. The first two are wholly positive; the next two are of indirect benefit in that they provoke at least strong reservations. The last is a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg. It is therefore arguable whether our age is the best or the worst of times for considering our subject, but that is a theoretical matter compared with “the need of the times.” In favor of its being “the best of times” are the following two facts.

  1. The Corpus of Holy Scripture Has Been Determined

In the latter half of the fourth century, the sixty-six books of the Bible were firmly recognized as the written word of God in the Christian church. The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament were endorsed at the Council of Jamnia after AD 70, and the rabbis excluded the apocryphal books from that list. In a similar way (that is, by the testimony of the Spirit validating certain books in the consciousness of churches), the twenty-seven books of our New Testament were endorsed as the word of God at the Council of Carthage in AD 397. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Lutheran and Anglican churches recognized apocryphal books as being acceptable for “example of life and instruction of manners,” but Genevan churches did not. No Reformed tradition, therefore, recognized them as part of the church’s rule of faith. Extra-canonical books may be of interest and use to biblical scholars, but they should not be regarded as part of “the word” to be preached from, and certainly not be given any decisive weight in relation to any Christian doctrine or the relationship between Scripture and the Spirit.

  1. The Divine Personhood of the Holy Spirit Has Been Confessed

The personhood of the Holy Spirit, along with that of the Father and of the Son in the Godhead, was expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in AD 381. The relevant words are “the Lord and Giver of Life who, together with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified.” The full “membership” of the Spirit in the Holy Trinity therefore does not need to be established as a point of doctrine today, but it does need to be understood (insofar as is possible) and strongly maintained in both worship and preaching.5

God is a tri-unity of persons. Each person of the Godhead acts in coherence with the other two (circumincessio), or the unity of the Godhead would be destroyed. There cannot be any competitiveness between them. God is a God of shalom. No person in the Trinity therefore acts (or could act) in an idiosyncratic way, but each acts freely and sovereignly: that is, when, where, and how he wills. This freedom also entails acting with varying degrees of power to effect a purpose that is also shared equally by the others. Although a specific task is predicated of each person in creation and redemption, the other two are neither uninterested nor inactive in those same acts.

In the creed just mentioned, the Spirit is also designated as the one “who spoke by the prophets.” This early formal connection between the Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Spirit via the prophets pointed to the coming of the Messiah in the New Testament era. This was perhaps due to the church’s wish to reject a Marcionite excision from the New Testament of anything to do with the Old, a fear of sects—for example Montanism—or more probably to its desire to veto Arian or Semi-Arian exegesis of the Old Testament. The Spirit and the word are therefore not to be equated. The former is God; the latter is not, seeing as it is the product of the Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This means that the Spirit is as free and sovereign in his activity as is both the Father and the Son, and that the word that is his product is but his chief instrument. He remains the agent.6

In favor of its being “the worst of times” is the unavoidable fact that the elements of the heritage just referred to have been progressively and largely squandered in the past three hundred years or so. Although they were never without a challenge of some sort (for example, the recognition of extrabiblical tradition in the Eastern and Roman Catholic churches, whether written or oral, and the growing detachment of Spirit from word in Quakerism and Romanticism), revisionist movements have arisen with regard to them in churches that owe their existence to the sixteenth-century Reformation. These movements—the Scriptures, the Spirit, and the relationship between the two—have had considerable influence, and so the Protestant world has been considerably altered in its belief, character, and internal alignments.

The Holy Scriptures

In the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment built on Kant’s denial of any one-to-one connection between the meaning of Scripture’s texts and the supernatural realm. The books of the Bible became human (rather than divine-human) products, and so their trustworthiness was made subject to human verification and their value dependent on human approval. The well-known result is that the sola scriptura principle became threatened and was progressively abandoned. Attempts that were made to stem the tide in the nineteenth century (that is, on the European continent) by Hengstenberg, Krummacher, Keil and Delitzsch, and Oehler were met with little success, whereas Warfield, Machen, and others were more successful in the United States.

In the decades after the Second World War, a neo-evangelical movement arose, centered on the endeavors of Fuller Theological Seminary, that restricted the infallibility of the Bible to matters of faith and conduct. By way of reaction to this, an International Council of Biblical Inerrancy was founded in 1978 in which the term “inerrancy” was used so that the full scope of the term “infallibility” might be maintained. In arguing this case, great emphasis (understandably) was placed on the Holy Spirit’s work in verbal inspiration that resulted in the inner harmony of the contents of Scripture, and addresses given at the council’s congresses were published during the ten years or so of its existence. It was terminated in 1986 because of the realization that the debate was not only over the text, but also over interpretative methods. The Chicago Statement marked the conclusion of this necessary enterprise.

The Holy Spirit

Two twentieth-century movements need to be brought into the picture here—namely, the ecumenical movement and the charismatic movement. The former had a nineteenth-century precursor in the World Student Christian Federation, and the latter was an outgrowth of older Pentecostal denominations. Both gained significance in the years following the Second World War.

The ecumenical movement may be said to have begun in 1910, with a concern about the great hindrance posed to the church’s mission by her dividedness. In the years before 1939, it added a social dimension to its missionary vision, but each of these retained its distinctiveness until 1970. Since then, a larger multi-religious and socioeconomic preoccupation has replaced the pursuit of a worldwide ecclesiastical union between the churches based on the settlement of doctrinal differences. In this movement, the Spirit’s ministry has been effectively disconnected from the production of Holy Scripture and from bearing unique testimony to the sole mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Instead, the Spirit is linked with a zeitgeist composed of an all-embracing ecclesiastical tradition, a pursuit of social justice, and the religious awareness of non-Christian religions.7

The charismatic movement originated in the mid-1960s. Although it was distinct from the Pentecostal denominations, it had elements in common with them—for example, a two-stage understanding of the work of the Spirit being necessary for every Christian, evidenced by glossolalia. From a psychological and sociological perspective, this movement may be considered as a result of the breakup of the structures of family, community, and ecclesiastical life due to the Second World War. Elevating the importance of the individual, it caught on and soon swamped those earlier forms of Pentecostalism and the Christian Brethren. It even infiltrated the ecumenical movement, producing renewal movements in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. It has now morphed into a kaleidoscope of opinion and activity that has profoundly challenged the theologies and worship practices of many church traditions, but its main feature is its emphasis on the experience(s) of the individual Christian.

J.I. Packer addressed this charismatic phenomenon in his book Keep in Step with the Spirit. The aim of his book was to bring an orthodox pneumatology to bear on charismatic pneumatology by way of biblical exegesis and theological evaluation. There is an immense amount of the soundest sense in these pages, but not that much on the role of the Spirit in preaching. His views on that are, of course, well known and are found elsewhere.

Gerald Bray points out that a focus on the Spirit’s work to the neglect of that of the Father and the Son in certain forms of the charismatic movement makes it

. . . difficult to tell what connection these [experiences] have with the gospel message of sin, righteousness and judgment. If nothing outside the self really matters, if it is what I feel and experience that gives me the assurance that I am on the right track, then no objective criteria will be allowed to interfere with my judgment. This attitude is common in certain charismatic circles, and it is the result of ignoring the Trinitarian context of the Spirit’s promises and work. Its inadequacy can be seen in its fundamental self-centeredness and its tendency to reduce the knowledge of God to a series of unusual human experiences that have no obvious purpose beyond themselves.8

Something of relevance to our subject ought to be learned from these movements, because they have forfeited the uniqueness of Holy Scripture and of the Holy Spirit, as well as the proper relationship between them. How many times does one hear, “The Bible is a book like any other book”? How often has the Spirit been connected with the stirrings of the human spirit and neither with the text of the Bible nor with its central focus, the Christ of God? A morass of intellectualism and mysticism, sacramentalism and sacerdotalism and, of late, environmentalism has broken the connection between the Spirit of truth and the text of Scripture and the Spirit of Christ and that of Man.

Mercifully, Holy Scripture exists and the Holy Spirit is still active. The former is definable in the sense that it consists of specific texts, but—alarmingly—the work of the Holy Spirit is not as easily discernible to many Christians. The question of how to differentiate between the Spirit and the “spirits” would not occur to many people, let alone the answer to it—and that in spite of the New Testament’s description of the Spirit as being “true” and “holy”!

Preaching lost its supreme place in the church because the church lost the Bible. Consequently, the church forfeited the power of the Spirit and lost her influence in the world. The pulpit, the pew, and the pavement are never as far apart spiritually as they may be spatially. The Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, will never marginalize the Bible and exalt the church, nor will he minimize the Lord Jesus Christ by drawing attention to himself. Nor will he deny the universal fallenness of human beings.

The Holy Spirit in Relation to Holy Scripture

There is one other matter from the past that must not be overlooked. It is the position established as a result of the sixteenth-century Reformation, which correlated word and Spirit in such a decisive and definitive way that B. B. Warfield called Calvin “the theologian of the Holy Spirit”9 and the late John Murray wrote that “the Word and the Spirit was the keynote of the Reformation. This was the legacy of Protestantism.”10 The written word was the product of the living Spirit who still spoke by means of it. The Scriptures were therefore the Spirit’s voice, as is demonstrated in the Epistle to the Hebrews by the use of the present tense “says” instead of the usual past tense of the verb “written.” The Bible was (is) alive. From all that has been advanced so far, there are two points that must be emphasized.

  1. The Word Is Conjoined to the Holy Spirit and Must Never Be Disconnected

The Holy Scriptures are God’s inerrant and sufficient word, and wherever and whenever any part of them is properly explained, God speaks by it. This means that the Scriptures do not become the word of God—that is what they already are and what they will never cease to be, whatever other books written about them may say and however many copies of them may be sold! The Bible may one day cease to be the world’s best-seller (perhaps it has already), but that does not change the essential nature of its being or its power.

Any and every text from it may be truly prefaced with the words “Thus saith [says] the Lord.” When we say “the power of the Holy Spirit,” we’re not talking about something that brings God’s silence or absence to an end; he is near whenever the book is opened, and he speaks and acts. Nor may his power be sought as if he were not present in and with the word. The powerful voice of God in the word of God has some self-evidencing quality in every conscience—whether men will believe or not. And there is also a “word” (sensus divinitatis) that testifies to God’s existence, wisdom, power, and justice in the moral constitution of every human being (Rom. 1:18–2:16).

  1. The Holy Spirit Is “Greater” Than the Word and Must Not Be Imprisoned in It

As a Divine Person, the Holy Spirit is an agent and the Holy Scriptures are his chief instrument. His are the arms and hands that make the sword of the word “two-edged, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow,” and his are the eyes that “discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). He uses the Scriptures as sovereign but in accord with the purpose of the Father and of the Son. He therefore works where he wills and as he wills, but in differing degrees of might as it pleases him. This is nothing but the principle that underlies the modus operandi in relation to the distribution of the charismata referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:4–11. And it is also present and active in degrees of grace given to believers and held out to them as part of growth in holiness. The Spirit has been given, but he has more—much more—of the fullness of Christ to give.

What, then, is “the power” of the Holy Spirit? This question has to be asked because we have been acknowledging that the word is never without the Spirit and yet have been arguing that there is a greater degree of the Spirit’s power. What does this greater degree look like? Simply that when we talk about the powerful activity of the Spirit, what we mean is that he pursues his standard, regular work as the Spirit of truth and holiness with far more intensity and extensiveness than at other times. This matter relates to “boldness,” “plainness of speech,” or “a door of utterance” (Acts 4:13, 29, 31; 1 Cor. 16:8–9; 2 Cor. 2:12; 3:12; Eph. 6:19–20; Col. 4:3). They are synonymous expressions and are the concomitants of the new covenant. They do not merely refer to the opportunity to speak (much less to the existence of human need), but to the kind of speech that is in keeping with the character of the gospel of the glory of Christ. That was something that had to be prayed for—even by apostles. Paul knew the content of the gospel and what was to be said, but he also knew that he was dependent on the aid of the Spirit to say it as it should be said, so that people might receive it as it ought to be received (see 1 Cor. 2:1–4). He prayed for that, and he asked the churches to do so as well. This—and its effects—is the divinely given extra.

This work is promised and described by the Lord Jesus Christ toward the conclusion of his Upper Room Discourse. In John 16:8–15, Jesus speaks of the coming of the Spirit and his ministry in the world (vv. 8–11) and in the church (vv. 12–15). While his words have a special sense for the eleven disciples who are to become apostles, they do not refer exclusively to them.11 Jesus is speaking of his disciples who are to be his witnesses, but also of all who believe on him. The Spirit will endorse their testimony to unbelievers, convincing them of their unbelief, of their inadequate righteousness, and of their liability to judgment. He will also disclose the Savior to them as being God’s exclusive and replete Mediator.12

The book of Acts describes such preaching and believing, both by those who preach and those who come to believe. A comparison between the Gospels and the book of Acts on both those counts almost reveals a different world. There is no more failing to understand, forsaking, and fleeing on the part of the disciples, and there is fearing on the part of the unbelieving Jewish and Gentile world. People turn to God from idols to serve him and wait for his Son from heaven. Others spread the message, and it travels faster than human instruments can take it. In such a setting, the Spirit is active beyond the regular witnessing ministry of the church; for example, Rahab had “heard” but not from the Israelites, just as Macedonians had heard but not from Paul or the Thessalonians. He may even stir minds and consciences directly (by dreams!) and bring them to the truth or bring the truth to them (see Job 33:14–30). But this activity, which is apart from Scripture, is never in contradiction of the truth of the word of God but in harmony with it. Such a change is evidence of the “greater things” Jesus predicted the Holy Spirit would do as a result of his glorification (John 7:38). Time and again something like Pentecost happened, and knowledge, joy, peace, and power flooded the churches and flowed over their environment. The Puritan John Owen desired these things and described them as follows:

When God shall be pleased to give unto the people who are called by his name, in a more abundant manner, “pastors after his own heart, to feed them with knowledge and understanding”, when he shall revive and increase a holy, humble, zealous, self-denying, powerful ministry, by a more plentiful effusion of his Spirit from above: then, and not until then, may we hope to see the pristine glory and beauty of our church restored unto its primitive state and condition.13

Since those words were written in 1676, something of that order has happened at many places and in many times. The like needs to—and can!—happen again.

Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

  1. Carl F. H. Henry documented this in God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco: Word Books, 1976). David Wells did the same in No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), as did the French sociologist Jacques Ellul in The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985). Ellul wrote, “Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the Word” (quoted in Wells, 187).
  2. See the writings of Sidney Greidanus, Haddon Robinson, and Bryan Chappell.
  3. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 137ff. Klaas Runia also uses this image in his Moore College Lectures of 1980, The Sermon under Attack (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1983).
  4. Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP Academic, 1997).
  5. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004).
  6. Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007).
  7. For further information and evaluation, see the author’s Gospel and Church (Bridgend: Bryntirion Press, 1979); also, Only One Way (Nottingham: Day One, 1996).
  8. Gerald Bray, “Evangelicals Losing Their Way: The Doctrine of the Trinity,” in The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).
  9. B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 21.
  10. John Murray, review of The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience by G. F. Nuttall, in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 325.
  11. See Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Missions of Jesus and His Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), esp. 142–53.
  12. See D. A. Carson, “The Function of the Paraclete in John 16:7–11,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979): 547–66.
  13. John Owen, “Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 7 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1966), 195.
Tuesday, May 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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