Last month I argued that there can be no real evangelism without the Holy Spirit. Now I want to show that without the Holy Spirit there can be no true church.
The concern that underlies these articles is that many Reformed churches are neglecting the Holy Spirit. We have right views on his person and work but too often they gather dust on our doctrinal shelves. The ministry and vitality of the third person of the Godhead is absent from our midst.
There is a reason, of course. The excesses of the Charismatic Movement over the last 50 years have made us fearful of any explicit emphasis on the Spirit of God. But the pendulum has swung too far.
>From start to finish, the New Testament presents the Christian faith as essentially Spiritual in nature (see Matthew 1:18 and Revelation 22:17). I deliberately use a capital ‘S’ to stress that New Testament spirituality is not some amorphous quality displayed or experienced by Christians but something that involves the actual person and vivifying work of the Holy Spirit.
In this article we consider the Holy Spirit in the church – with emphasis on the practical realities of the local church. We shall consider first the unity of the body and then the worship of the body.
The unity of the body
What does the New Testament mean by the word ‘church’? It certainly does not mean a human society or organisation set up for the mutual benefit of its members. Nor does it just mean a group of people united by common aims, beliefs or practices.
According to Scripture the church is a spiritual entity resembling a living organism. Christ is the Head and believers are the component parts of a single spiritual body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 1:22-23).
Although the Ephesian reference applies universally (to the church worldwide and in all ages), the Corinthian reference clearly relates to a specific local church. However viewed, therefore, the church is an organic unity – just like the human body.
But how does this unity come about? Paul tells us. The local ‘body of Christ’ owes its existence and continued growth to the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body … and have all been made to drink into one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; emphasis added).
Whatever else ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ may or may not mean, one thing is clear. Born-again believers – as an intrinsic part of their regeneration – are incorporated into the body of Christ by a spiritual baptism.
This baptism is wrought by the third person of the Holy Trinity and applies equally to our membership of the ‘universal’ church and in the practical context of the local church.
The unity of the Spirit
Whether universal or local, therefore, the church is a construction of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus Christ said, ‘I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:18) he meant he would do so through the agency of the Spirit. That is why the disciples had to wait for the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost before they were allowed to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ.
But there are further implications. The unity of the local church is, Paul tells us, ‘the unity of the Spirit’. He writes, ‘Endeavouring [being diligent] to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace [for] there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling’ (Ephesians 4:1-6).
This is far more than a plea for Christians to ‘get along with one another’. It is the restatement of a profound truth – that believers are joined together in the local church by spiritual bonds. These bonds cannot be severed without grieving the Spirit who created them and inflicting grievous injury on both the individual and the body.
Few Christians today seem to understand this. They seem unaware of the Spirit-generated ‘connective tissue’ that joins them invisibly to their fellow believers. Many have no sense of responsibility towards others – no family ties of brotherhood or sisterhood.
Others become disaffectioned and leave their church for less-than-worthy reasons, not recognising that this is like sawing through a tendon or amputating a limb.
We are, says Paul, to strive to maintain the bonds that the Spirit has put in place. Otherwise, do we not do despite to the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:29).
The worship of the body
A primary purpose of the church is to render worship to God. And the only worship God accepts is ‘worship in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23). Just as the Holy Spirit lies at the heart of our church relationships, so is he also essential to the church’s worship.
While the translators do not capitalise ‘spirit’ in the verse quoted, other Scriptures make it plain that our worship is to be led by the Holy Spirit: ‘We are the circumcision who worship God in the Spirit’ (Philippians 3:3); ‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ (Revelation 1:10); and so on.
In what way, then, is the Holy Spirit involved in public worship? Clearly, we are not here concerned with forms of worship or liturgies, which vary from one church to another. These forms are important since they ensure the inclusion of essential ingredients such as the reading of Scripture, prayer, praise and preaching.
However, outward form cannot guarantee spiritual attitudes in the hearts and minds of worshippers. We can only worship spiritually as we are found ‘in the Spirit’ – that is, by the enabling power of the Spirit of God. But what does this entail?
Our inability to worship
Romans 8:26 provides us with our first clue. The context here is wider than corporate worship but the principles apply. Paul writes, ‘Likewise, the Spirit helps in our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered’.
Prayer is a key feature of the church’s corporate worship. Yet such is our spiritual infirmity that we need the Spirit’s help even to pray in a manner acceptable to God! This infirmity must extend to every act of worship, for if we cannot pray aright without the Holy Spirit’s aid, we surely cannot rightly praise or preach either.
But we have a helper who intercedes on our behalf. Explaining this passage, Matthew Poole writes, ‘How does the Spirit make intercession for us? Answer: by making intercession in us or by helping us to pray’.
To bring acceptable worship to a holy God we must disown all reliance on human wisdom, contrivance or zeal and be directed, supported and enabled by the Holy Spirit.
As we come to worship, therefore, we must humbly and consciously seek the Spirit’s help and leading. Only by the Spirit can Jesus fulfil his promise to be present ‘where two or three are gathered together in [his] name’ (Matthew 18:20).
Defining the true church
This brings us to Paul’s great statement of principle in Philippians 3:3: ‘We are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh’. The true people of God (‘the circumcision’, see Colossians 2:11) are defined and identified by the way they worship!
As Pastor Bob Dickie pointed out in August’s Comment Column, spiritual worship focuses on the person of God. It sets out to glorify God, not to gratify man. And it is the Spirit’s work to focus our attention on the transcendent being from whom all blessing flows. Without the Spirit’s help our thoughts at best will be upon the blessings themselves rather than on the glorious person who bestows them by his grace.
But here lies a problem. How can earth-bound mortals focus their worship on a God ‘who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see’? (1Timothy 6:16).
The answer is that the Spirit again helps our infirmities – by leading us to ‘rejoice in Christ Jesus’. His prime work is to glorify Christ – by taking the things that pertain to Christ and revealing them to us.
Only thus can we ‘see’ and worship the ineffable God. For ‘no one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him’ (John 1:18).
We can worship God in truth only because he ‘who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). This is the Spirit’s work in the worship of the church, and without it our service is an empty shell.