Many Reformed churches today are suffering a serious spiritual drought. Compared with fifty years ago, there are few conversions to Christ, little evidence of personal piety and a decided lack of enthusiasm for mission and evangelism. Commitment to Christ and his church is at a low ebb.
We considered this briefly in July’s ‘Comment’ column, indicating that the ‘Charismatic solution’ provides no answer. True biblical revival would, of course, ‘pour floods upon the dry ground’ but this lies in the sovereign gift of God and we cannot make it happen.
We can indeed prepare the soil by prayer and dogged faithfulness to Christ. But since the symptoms of spiritual drought include prayerlessness and lassitude, we are trapped in a vicious circle.
Perhaps I overpaint the picture. There are bright exceptions and places where the kingdom of God is advancing in astonishing ways — though these revival fires suffer in the estimation of many because they are happening now rather than in the eighteenth century!
But such events are the exception rather than the rule. What can we do?
Neglecting the Spirit
There is something I believe we can and should do. We should seek a greater experimental awareness of the Holy Spirit and a deeper understanding of the Bible’s teaching concerning his person and work.
Reformed churches generally are neglecting these aspects of the gospel and the Christian life — no doubt because we fear the slippery slopes of Charismatic excess. But a gospel that has no room for the Spirit of God is no gospel at all. Nor are we truly ‘sons of God’ unless we are ‘led by the Spirit’ (Romans 8:14).
We really do neglect the Holy Spirit. We seldom preach about his person or his work. He finds no mention in our evangelism — by distinct contrast with New Testament practice (as we shall see). Among the vast outpouring of Reformed Christian literature today there are few books about the Holy Spirit and even fewer that address our personal relationship with the third person of the triune God.
The opposite is true of the Charismatic movement. The shelves of Christian bookshops groan under the weight of such books! But for the most part they are unhelpful because they direct attention away from Christ himself and pander to fleshly desires for mysticism, thrills and ‘power’.
Avoiding the dangers
Some nervousness is understandable. A local Charismatic pastor described his calling as ‘preaching the gospel of the Holy Spirit’. But, of course, the New Testament knows no such ‘gospel’ — only the gospel of Christ — for the work of the Spirit is to glorify Christ. As Jesus said, ‘He shall glorify me, for he will take of what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:14).
It was Charles Spurgeon, I believe, who said, ‘I looked at Jesus Christ and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove and it flew away again’. We dare not take our eyes off Christ, either in seeking salvation or in running the race that God has set before us (Hebrews 12:2).
But we must not swing to the other extreme and ignore the Holy Spirit, for that will mean turning our backs on the New Testament. Many believers today are almost in an Acts 19 condition: ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit’ (Acts 19:2)!
This response was triggered, you will remember, when Paul asked some ‘disciples’ at Ephesus, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ How many Reformed evangelists would dare to ask that question today? Yet it is as relevant as ever.
Let us see, then, what the New Testament has to say about the Holy Spirit, first in evangelism (our subject this month) and later (next month) in the life of the believer and the church.
Needing the Spirit
In considering the Spirit in evangelism, I have three questions: (1) Do we need the Holy Spirit in evangelism? (2) Should we refer to the Holy Spirit in evangelism? (3) What are the operations of the Holy Spirit in evangelism?
The keynote reply to the first of these questions is found at the very beginning of the gospel era. John the Baptist declares, ‘He who sent me to baptise with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and remaining on him, this is he who baptises with the Holy Spirit”’ (John 1:33; see also Luke 3:16).
There are two distinct points here. Firstly, even Christ was empowered by the Spirit in his proclamation of the gospel. How did Jesus himself describe his public ministry? By quoting Isaiah 61:1-2: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor…’
Bestowing the promise
In turn, the disciples were forbidden to preach until they had received the Spirit’s anointing (Acts 1:4-5). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that ‘our gospel did not come to you in word only but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance’ (1:5). Peter sums the matter up when he refers to ‘those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven’ (1 Peter 1:12; emphasis added). In New Testament thinking this is the only way the gospel can be truly preached.
The second point is that John the Baptist defines Christ’s ministry as the bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon his people. John’s words are not simply a prediction of Pentecost, but constitute a powerful statement of Christ’s mission — ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law … that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’ (Galatians 3:13-14; emphasis added).
We cannot evangelise without the full involvement of the Holy Spirit at every stage.
Declaring the Spirit
Our second question is a specially interesting one. Should we refer to the Spirit in evangelism?
Granted that the Holy Spirit is at the heart of all authentic evangelism, should this fact be referred to when we address the unsaved? Do they need to hear about the Holy Spirit as an integral part of the preached gospel?
The New Testament answers ‘yes’. When Jesus engaged in practical evangelism he did not hesitate to speak explicitly about the Holy Spirit. He told Nicodemus that he must be ‘born of the Spirit’ — and offered the ‘living water’ of the Holy Spirit to the woman at the well and even to the crowds gathered at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 3:5-7; 4:10; 7:37-39).
Equally explicit is Peter’s reference to the Spirit on the day of Pentecost: ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38; emphasis added). Nor was this a ‘limited offer’ to mark the start of the New Covenant, for Peter continues, ‘the promise [of the Spirit] is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, to as many as the Lord our God will call’.
Decades later, as we have seen, Paul was concerned that the disciples at Ephesus should understand that a conscious possession of the Holy Spirit is necessary for assurance of salvation (Acts 19:1-6).
Thus the New Testament presents the Holy Spirit both as the empowering means by which the gospel must be preached and the substance of the gospel gift itself. We usually acknowledge the first of these truths but seldom appreciate the second.
Expecting his work
Our final question is: ‘What are the operations of the Spirit in evangelism?’ Our answer is important because it will profoundly affect our expectations as we preach the gospel of Christ.
The operations of the Spirit in evangelism are threefold. The first, as we have seen, is to empower the proclamation of the gospel. Paul could testify ‘my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of man’s wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2:4).
The second operation is to ‘convict’ those who are dead in trespasses and sins — convincing them that they are answerable to God for their sin. Jesus promised, ‘when [the Spirit] has come, he will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father and you see me no more; of judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged’ (John 16:8-11).
Without getting into the detail of this statement, it is clear that minds blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4) are not going to be opened by human reason or persuasion. A spiritual work of ‘conviction’ is needed, an opening of the heart to the gospel — and only God the Holy Spirit can perform such a work.
Raising the dead
The third operation of the Spirit is, of course, to bring the dead to life! No one can see or enter the kingdom of God unless they are ‘born from above’ or ‘born of the Spirit’ (John 3:1-8). Paul rejoices in this regenerating work of the Spirit: ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…’ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
The immediate purpose of the gospel is not to reform people or influence society for good. Nor is it to fill church auditoria. Its purpose is to impart spiritual life to sinners dead in trespasses and sins. This is something only the Holy Spirit can achieve and he does so in a sovereign manner.
Perhaps, on a human level, we see so little of the operation of God’s Spirit because we neither ask for it nor expect to see it. If God’s Spirit remains among us, we can be sure he will not shirk the task he came to do. But if we grieve him by our low levels of expectation he may withhold his bounty for a season.