The God We Hardly Know
David Mains caught me off guard with his question. “If you had to grade your congregation on their knowledge of the Holy Spirit, what grade would you give them?”
Up until that moment, the interview had gone well. David and his daughter Melissa had thrown me fast pitches right over the center of the plate and I had proceeded to knock them out of the park.
Suddenly, I was at a loss for words. But the one thing you can’t do on TV is say nothing. The camera hates dead air time. So I blurted out my answer: I would give my congregation a C+ on the knowledge of the Holy Spirit. It seemed safe to me, not too high, not too low. Evidently I sounded like the proverbial hard-nosed teacher because David looked at me with a frown.
Now I was really in trouble. It sounded like I was downing my own church. So I quickly said something like this: “Look, if you graded my congregation on their knowledge of God the Father, I would give them an A, and on Jesus Christ, I would give them an A+. But I don’t think we know as much about the Holy Spirit as we do about the Father and the Son.”
David Mains smiled and said, “That’s fair,” so I knew I was off the hook. Sort of.
Always the First Question
Whenever I am interviewed on this subject, the first question is almost always the same: “Why don’t we know more about the Holy Spirit?”
God the Father—We know about him.
God the Son—We know him even better.
But the Holy Spirit? That’s another story. He’s the God we hardly know.
Acts 19 records the story of Paul’s first visit to Ephesus where he met some disciples of John the Baptist. When Paul asked if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, they replied with total honesty, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (verse 2). Many contemporary Christians could say virtually the same thing. Oh, we know about the Trinity even if we can’t explain it. But most of us would be hard pressed to pass a mid-term exam on the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. So what grade would you give yourself in terms of your personal knowledge of the Holy Spirit?
I’d like to give you a short course on the biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Now it’s impossible for me to cover the entire range of truth about the Holy Spirit in just one sermon, but I think I can help you come to a basic grasp of who he is, what he does, and how you can receive his blessings in your life.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
Any investigation of the Holy Spirit must begin with this fundamental question. Who is the Holy Spirit? A great deal of our confusion stems from the fact that we don’t know the right answer.
There are two fundamental facts about the Spirit that you need to know.
The Holy Spirit is a Person
This may seem obvious to you, but it is not obvious to everyone. Some people speak of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal power or influence. They speak of the Holy Spirit as an “it.” If you saw the Star Wars movies, you’ll remember the phrase, “May the force be with you.” That’s how many people think of the Spirit—as a mysterious force from heaven that somehow helps us on the earth.
But the Bible clearly refers to the Holy Spirit in terms that can only apply to a person. For instance, the Holy Spirit possesses a mind (Romans 8:27), he speaks (Acts 13:2), he commands (Acts 8:29), he has a will (I Corinthians 12:11). Ephesians 4:30 says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” But you can’t grieve a force or a power. You can only grieve another person.
In John 16:13 Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, that “he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” That passage is important because Jesus clearly calls the Holy Spirit a “he.”
All the attributes of personality are given to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Therefore, we may say that the Holy Spirit is a person, not a mere force or an impersonal power.
The Holy Spirit is God
The second truth is that the Holy Spirit is not only a person, he is a Divine Person. That is to say, he is God. In the famous story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, Peter says in verse 3 that they had sinned against the Holy Spirit, but in verse 4 he says they sinned against God. Which is correct? Both, because the Holy Spirit is God. That’s why when Jesus gave the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), he commanded the disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” One name, three persons. That’s the doctrine of the Trinity clearly stated. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God.
Most of us have trouble understanding this doctrine and we have even more difficulty explaining it to a friend. I heard Tony Evans say, “Give ‘em a pretzel.” A pretzel is one piece of dough twisted and baked so that it contains three holes. Each hole is part of the pretzel, but the holes are different from each other. One pretzel, three parts. Not bad!
Now if you put these two truths together, what do you get? Since the Holy Spirit is a person, you can have a personal relationship with him. And since he is God, his power is God’s power. Therefore, in relating to the Holy Spirit, you are coming into personal contact with the God of the universe.
It is through the Holy Spirit that God enters the human heart and changes it for the better. What a tremendous truth this is. And how unfortunate that few Christians understand how the Holy Spirit can change their lives.
What Does He Do?
Theologians often divide the work of the Trinity this way:
God the Father is the Source of all things.
God the Son is the Channel of all things.
God the Spirit is the Agent of all things.
As the Source, all things flow from the Father’s will. As the Channel, all of God’s blessing flow to us through Jesus Christ the Son. But it is the Holy Spirit who acts as the Agent of the Almighty, who actually carries out the directives of the Father.
I’ve been amazed to discover that the Holy Spirit is everywhere in the Bible. The first mention is in Genesis 1:2 and the last mention of the Spirit is in Revelation 22:17. He’s present at the moment of creation and he’s there at the very end of the Bible. In the Old Testament you see the Holy Spirit coming with great power upon kings, priests, judges and military leaders. He is also the one who inspired the poets to sing and gave the prophets a message to proclaim. He is the cloud by day and the fiery pillar by night that led Israel through the wilderness. He was the spirit that lifted Ezekiel when the people were in captivity. He was also the one who enabled Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple. (See my Names of the Holy Spirit for a discussion of 104 specific names and titles given to the Holy Spirit in the Bible.)
When you come to the New Testament, you see him at work especially in the life of Christ. Our Lord was conceived by the Holy Spirit, who came upon him at his baptism, who led him into the wilderness, who filled him with power to work miracles, who bore witness that he was the Son of God, who was with him in the crucifixion and who raised him from the dead. All that Jesus did, he did in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was there at Pentecost when the church was born. He was there when Peter and Paul preached across the Roman Empire. It was the Holy Spirit who gave the apostles boldness to preach in the face of persecution and indifference. It was the Holy Spirit who brought unity to the early church and caused it to grow in spite of fierce opposition.
Everywhere you turn in the Bible, you see the Holy Spirit at work. He is the Unseen Hand of God moving through human history to accomplish God’s purposes on the earth.
In the World Today
But what is the Holy Spirit doing in the world today? We can answer that from the words of Jesus in John 16:8, “When he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” The word “convict” comes from the drama of a courtroom trial. It refers to what the prosecuting attorney does when he argues his case. He puts the defendant on the witness stand and begins to pile up the evidence. Fact upon fact, witness upon witness, truth upon truth, slowly, inexorably, irresistibly building his case until finally the enormity of the evidence is so overwhelming that the judge is forced to say to the defendant, “I find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Not only that, this word means to present the evidence in such an overwhelming fashion that even the defendant is compelled at the end of the trial to step up and say, “I admit it. I confess. I am guilty.”
These words of Jesus are literally true today. The Holy Spirit works through us so that as we share the gospel with men and women, they are convicted of their true moral guilt before God. As we share the gospel they come to the conclusion, “Yes, I am guilty. Yes, I need a savior.”
In My Life
What does the Holy Spirit do for believers? Here are some of the things he does:
He baptizes believers into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13).
He seals every believer, thus assuring their salvation (Ephesians 1:13).
He indwells every believer with his personal presence (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
He gives spiritual gifts to every believer (1 Corinthians 12:11).
He produces the fruit of a godly life in us (Galatians 5:22-23).
He enables us to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13).
He prays for us when we can’t pray for ourselves (Romans 8:26-27).
He sheds the love of God in our hearts (Romans 5:5).
He enables us to triumph in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 4:19).
He empowers us to boldly witness for Christ (Acts 1:8).
He makes the things of God real to us (1 Corinthians 2:10-14).
He fills us so that we can please God every day (Ephesians 5:18).
He creates unity between believers (Ephesians 4:3).
He guarantees our final salvation in heaven (Ephesians 1:14).
In short, the Holy Spirit does everything to bring us to Christ, everything we need to walk with Christ in this life, and everything we need to take us safely from earth to heaven. He does it all for us and he does it for all of us. None of us could live even one day as a Christian without the aid of the Holy Spirit.
How Can We Receive His Blessing?
Only one question remains. How can we receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit? Everything up until this point has dealt with theology in the abstract, but our greatest need is to know the Spirit deeply and personally. It’s never enough to possess the truth; the truth must eventually possess us in order to change us.
The Command—Be Continually Filled
Ephesians 5:18 says, “Be filled with the Spirit.” In the Greek that phrase is a present passive imperative. An imperative is a command—Be filled. The passive voice means that we are not commanded to fill ourselves but rather to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The present tense describes something that happens continually. You could legitimately translate this verse “Be continually filled with the Holy Spirit.”
God’s desire—and his command—for you and me is that we should be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. That means that the filling of the Spirit is not a one-time affair that happens in a crisis, but is instead to be the normal experience of every Christian.
The Reason—We Are Leaky Vessels
We need the continual filling of the Spirit because we are leaky vessels. As each day wears on, and the pressures ebb and flow, we may find ourselves depending less on the Holy Spirit and more on our own resources to get us out of trouble. And so we become bossy or petty or unkind or impatient or just plain cranky and hard to live with. We say mean things to people we love, we fly off the handle, or we simply get silent and refuse to speak to others.
That’s why we need to come to the Lord many times during the day, asking for a new and fresh infilling of the Spirit. We leak, and we need new power, new blessing, new strength to face the challenges of the day.
But how do we do that?
Bill Bright’s Suggestion
In one of his books D. James Kennedy shares something that Bill Bright said to his congregation—the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—a few years ago. He told them that unconfessed sin grieves the Holy Spirit and therefore they could never experience his blessing until they dealt with sin in their lives. What I am going to share with you is what Dr. Bright said that day. The first step is to be totally honest with the Lord about your spiritual condition. Begin with the sins of the flesh—anger, bitterness, wrath, malice, unkindness, drunkenness, immorality, impurity, gossip, slander, greed, pride, sloth, gluttony, envy, lust. Take a piece of paper and write down the sins that the Lord brings to mind. Just write them down, listing each one individually. Then sit in silence for a period of time, asking God to show you anything else that displeases him. Whatever the Lord shows you, write it down.
At this point, wait in silence a second time, relying on the prayer of David in Psalm 19:12, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” As you wait, ask God to turn the searchlight of his truth on your soul. It will take courage to do this, but God will always answer the sincere prayer of a penitent child of God. Don’t worry, you’ll get a Special Delivery message from God. Whatever else God shows you, write it down.
Eventually you will come to the place where you are free of offense to both God and man. For the first time in your life, you will be able to pray with a clear conscience. Take the sheet of paper and write over it, “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (I John 1:7). Then take the paper and destroy it.
As I thought about it Bill Bright’s advice gripped my soul. Finally, I got up early on Sunday morning, went to the church determined to follow his advice. As I sat down at my desk, I pulled out a sheet of white paper and began to write down my sins, faults, shortcomings—listing every area of life that I knew to be displeasing to the Lord. In order to help me think about specific sins, I referred to some of the lists in the New Testament that mention either sins or the moral standards God desires from his children. Some of those passages are Romans 1:24-32, Galatians 5:15-23, Philippians 2:1-4, 4:5-8, Ephesians 4:25-5:8, Colossians 3:1-13, I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 2:11-14. One could also look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) in this regard.
I decided to open my heart before the Lord and write down everything he brought to mind. My pen flew across the paper as the Lord showed me many things in my life that displeased him. Some were sins of omission, things I should have done that I neglected to do. Others were wrong attitudes, hasty words, a tendency toward thoughtless chatter, and a streak of unkindness toward those I love the most.
Someone may ask if such a moral inventory is healthy. Would this not make a person too introspective? My answer is, it depends. I would not recommend doing such soul-searching every day. But from time to time, it’s good to stop and do some “deep cleaning” of the soul.
Within 30 minutes, I had filled an entire page in two and a half columns. I discovered that I had written down 86 specific areas of my life that needed change. As I studied the list, I found that these were not 86 independent sins, but rather many were “variations on a theme,” most of them related in one way or another to the classic Seven Deadly Sins of pride, greed, sloth, gluttony, envy, anger, and lust.
The Truth About Ray Pritchard
It wasn’t a pretty list, but I didn’t feel depressed when I read it. Instead, I felt liberated and almost exhilarated, as if an enormous load had been lifted from my shoulders.
So this is the truth about Ray Pritchard!
Indeed it is. And I say with the saints of all ages, that in me—that is, in my flesh— dwells not a good thing. Apart from the grace of God at work in my life, I am sinner lost and undone. My life, like Jeremiah’s, is deceitful and wicked. I do not know the half of my sinfulness.
When the list was complete, I wrote across it in big red letters the word FORGIVEN!!! Underneath I wrote I John 1:7. After sharing this story with my congregation, I destroyed the list that afternoon without showing it to anyone else.
But once having done that exercise, I found it very easy to pray with faith for the filling of the Holy Spirit. I also found it easy to believe that God had answered my prayer.
If you have never made such a moral inventory of your life, I encourage you to do so as soon as you finish reading this sermon.
I have greatly enjoyed reading E. A. Johnston’s biography of J. Sidlow Baxter, the much-loved British Bible teacher who had a world-wide ministry and who gave us many books, including the majestic (and massive) Explore the Book. Near the end of the biography, Johnston comments on the “secret” of Baxter’s vibrant, buoyant, effervescent Christian faith. Though he experienced many trials (especially in his later years), and though he occasionally struggled with despondency, he maintained a walk with Christ that grew deeper over his 90+ years. How did he do it? Baxter himself offers this as the guiding principle of his life:
What I give him, he takes.
What he takes, he cleanses.
What he cleanses, he fills.
What he fills, he uses.
In the last few days I have used this simple set of sentences as a guide to my own prayers. It is a powerful thing to give the Lord my dreams, my desires, my emotions, my lips, the words I speak, my thoughts, my plans, my relationships, my loved ones, my agenda, my sight, my hearing, the people I will meet during the day, and all the various parts of my life. What Baxter discovered has been true for me as well. What I give him by faith, he takes as his own. What he takes, he cleanses so that he might fill it with his Spirit. What he cleanses and fills, he uses for his glory. I recommend Baxter’s “secret” because it brings us back to the central truth that we are not our own, we belong wholly to Christ, and what we give to him, we will never regret. It’s the part we keep for ourselves that gets us in trouble.
Christ at Home in Your Heart
Think of your heart as a house with many rooms. All of us have special rooms that we reserve for entertaining our guests. Most of us also have closets, basements and attics that we try to keep out of public view because they are messy or contain items we don’t want others to see. The same is true in the spiritual realm. Many of us have welcomed Christ into a large part of our hearts. But there are areas of life where he is not welcome to enter. It might be the kitchen or the bedroom or the recreation room that we keep locked from public view. Usually there is some hidden sin—anger or bitterness or greed or lust or theft or jealousy or promiscuous behavior—that we would be ashamed for the Lord Jesus to see. Perhaps we don’t want him rearranging that part of our lives. Perhaps we like things as they are. But we will never be happy and Christ will never be fully at home until every door is opened to him.
If you want to know the power of the Spirit, the price is simple but not easy to pay. You must open those hidden doors and allow the Lord Jesus to come in and make all things new. Will it be painful? Perhaps, but the hardest part is opening the doors one by one. If you have the courage to let Christ into every part of your life, he will come in and redecorate your life into something more beautiful than you ever imagined possible.
But you’ll never know until you start opening those doors one by one. Amen.