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Jesus Only . . . our source of power

Without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we can accomplish nothing. 1 Cor. 2:4–5

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When the grown-ups around her fell to the ground, it scared the little girl. When they writhed and groaned, it almost made her panic. Only her father’s stern warning locked her in place—on a hard pew in what she called an “old-time, holy-roller” church.

My mom’s stories of church members getting “slain in the Spirit” made my eyes bug out as a child. They also formed my earliest—and eeriest—impressions of the Holy Spirit.

It didn’t help when Sunday school teachers during my formative years warned me that my two worst enemies were “communists and charismatics.” The real Holy Spirit, they explained, resembled an elementary teacher’s dream child: He speaks when spoken to and does all things “decently and in order.” Any other view would land me on the slippery slope to snake handling.

The Holy Spirit and I had issues.

Fast-forward to my first faltering steps as a church-planting pastor. Scripture was clear that my church’s success would come, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). I longed to see God’s power at work in my church. But I didn’t know how to get it.

Nor did I know what to say to Christians eager to live for God. When asked how to “walk in the Spirit,” I mumbled something about Jesus and promised to get back to them. But I couldn’t deflect them forever.

Snake-handlers on my left, ardent cessationists on my right; what’s a young pastor to do?

Little did I know that the Spirit of Grace had crafted a gentle plan to unravel my hopelessly tangled pneumatology. I’ve made peace with the Holy Spirit, and I know that without Him I can do nothing. To get me to this place, the Spirit orchestrated three mental and spiritual shifts in my life.

From Legalism to Grace

“Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3, NASB). Yes, I was that foolish. I was perfectly willing to acknowledge the Spirit’s role in my salvation, but I figured I could take it from there. My post-salvation spiritual life became a sweaty exercise in pedaling hard in the wrong direction: Strive. Sacrifice. Give. Love. Pray. Read. Serve. Witness. Be holy. Aarrrggh! My spiritual “to do list” assaulted my tender conscience with an ever-expanding roster of unfulfilled imperatives. I always fell short.

I had read Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps and strived to be a WWJD kind of guy. But I was confused. I suffered a common delusion: salvation by faith but Christianity by works. I followed Jesus, but in my own strength. Perhaps without His Spirit, I reasoned, I could do something.

So I did lots of stuff for Jesus. B ut it never brought me joy, and I suspected it wouldn’t stand the test of time.

Then God dragged me from legalism to grace—as He’s done many times—only this time it was about His Spirit. I was preaching through Galatians when God whispered that to reject His Spirit was to reject His grace. “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Gal. 3:2, NASB).

The lights came on. The antithesis of life in the Spirit is legalism—life under the law. Performance-based Christianity. My kind of Christianity. I hated legalism, yet, by neglecting God’s Spirit, I’d become one of those Pharisees that Jesus shouted “woes” at. Even worse, I burdened my church with endless duties, without revealing the all-sufficient power to achieve them.

It was time to trade in my worn out legalism for the limitless power of God. It was time to let the Holy Spirit shoulder my mammoth to do list. But how? This is where my second mental shift came in handy.

From Agonizing to Asking

When a friend handed me a pamphlet called “Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit Filled Life?,” my eyes lit up. No, I haven’t, I thought. But I want to. I suspected I had to do weird stuff: hurdle some pews, grovel or agonize in the closet.

Bill Bright’s little pamphlet explained, “We are filled by the Holy Spirit by faith; then we can experience the abundant and fruitful life which Christ promised to each Christian.” By faith. Those words jumped out at me.

Suddenly Jesus’ promise made sense. “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13, NASB). The Spirit was eager to exchange His omnipotence for my weakness; I just needed to ask. Bright also explained that my asking should include confession of sin and yieldedness to God’s will. But with that, I could be filled with the Spirit just for the asking.

Some time later, I read of F. B. Meyer’s liberating experience after a prayer meeting. His group had prayed for the Spirit’s power. They agonized all night long, yet nothing happened. Meyer gave up and trudged home. He prayed, Meyer later wrote, “‘O Lord, if there was ever a man who needs the power of the Holy Spirit, it is I. But I do not know how to receive him; I am too tired, too worn, too nervously run down to agonize.’ Then a voice said to me, ‘As you took forgiveness from the hand of the dying Christ, take the Holy Spirit from the hand of the living Christ.’” Meyer adds, “I took for the first time and have kept on taking ever since.”

That’s too easy, I thought. Too costless. Then it hit me: Isn’t that every legalist’s objection to God’s good news? Didn’t Jesus compare the provision of the Spirit to a father’s provision of food for his children? Would a loving father make his hungry child agonize—or labor, beg, strive, work or pay—for dinner?

My groveling days were over. I was ready to embrace the Spirit by faith. But I feared what the Spirit would do once He got hold of me.

From Feeling to Believing

So I prayed, “Father, fill me with your Spirit. I can’t do anything without you.” Then I waited. Nothing happened. No fireworks. No energy surge. No tingles. No wooziness. When I asked God’s Spirit to fill me, nothing happened. Did I do something wrong?

Many people I respect and love can feel the Holy Spirit. For them, the Spirit announces Himself with thunder and lighting. For me, however, it’s the still, small voice. Apparently, God loves variety.

Now, whenever I preach, prepare, minister or just do the stuff of daily life, I ask God’s Spirit to fill me, and then I step out in faith, believing that He has, no matter how I feel. There is no official “feeling of the Holy Spirit.”

I have been filled with the Spirit and felt both great power and great weakness. I have felt happy and sad, brave and scared, peaceful and mad. Jesus is our model. Is there any emotion He didn’t feel? Yet He was filled with the Spirit without interruption. The Spirit, I’ve discovered, works through the whole range of emotions; He is not limited by the rise and fall of our feelings, thank God.

That’s because He is the Sovereign Spirit. He equips us and deploys us as He wills. Like an archer drawing a bow, the Spirit aims at His target, not mine. And whether He sovereignly bestows precious moments of closeness to Him, humbling encounters of conviction and exceptional manifestations of power or all my senses say He has abandoned me for more worthy clients, God’s Spirit still works in me. I know so because He said so. He will never leave me or forsake me.

And if I ever hope to accomplish any good that lasts forever, I must never leave Him or forsake Him. Without God’s Spirit, I can accomplish nothing. Without His Spirit, the Church only play acts the WWJD lifestyle. Without the Spirit, we fall prey to legalism, seeking to do naturally what can only be done supernaturally. And without God’s Spirit, the onlooking world will continue to scoff at our message, continuing their blind search for the self-authenticating reality that is painfully missing among so many of God’s people.

I’ve made peace with the Holy Spirit, though He still mystifies me. I still struggle with the variety of His manifestations. I wonder at His silences. I am awed by His miracles. Yet I trust Him. He is the Sovereign Spirit, the Spirit of Grace and the Spirit of Christ. Come, Holy Spirit. Revive your Church. Heal our land.

“ A spiritual man is not so much a man possessing a strong spiritual character as a man filled with the Holy Spirit. . . . The glory of the new creation, then, is not only that it recreates the human spirit, but also that it fits it for the abode of God Himself, and makes it dependent upon Him for its life, just as the flower is dependent upon the sun, and the child upon the mother. The highest spirituality, therefore, is the most utter helplessness, the most entire dependence, and the most complete possession by the Holy Spirit.” A. B. Simpson. The Holy Spirit, or Power from On High. (Harrisburg, Pa.: Christian Publications, n.d.), p. 33.

“ The Church is not for insiders. It is for the whole world. It is far too good news to keep quiet about. . . . [T]he Holy Spirit is given us for service and for mission, for love and for worship. He cannot be muzzled or contained.” Michael Green. I Believe in the Holy Spirit. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p. 342.

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