Breathe on Me, Breath of God:
Meditations on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit
There are a number of reasons why we ought to give renewed attention to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. First, and supremely, we ought to attend with care to His person and work because he is, as the Creed reminds us, “the Lord and giver of life;” the eternal third person of the ever blessed Trinity. He is our God. Upon Him we depend and to Him we owe all honor and devotion. Apart from Him, we would still be ignorant of Christ, still dead in sin, still incapable of deriving any good from the scriptures, and to this day we would remain utterly without hope in the world. As J.I. Packer remarks, “The Christian life in all its aspects- intellectual and ethical, devotional and relational, upsurging in worship and outgoing in witness- is supernatural; only the Spirit can initiate and sustain it. So apart from Him, not only will there be no lively believers and no lively congregations, there will be no believers and no congregations at all.”1Christians and churches exist because the Spirit of God makes and sustains them. It is the calling of every Christian to know God. The only God there is, is Triune. He is not a Father only, but a Father with a Son. He is not simply a Father and a Son, but a Father and a Son who together breathe out the Spirit. We do not know God as we ought if we know the Father and the Son but remain ignorant of the Spirit.
Secondly, it must be said that reformed Christians have become rather afraid of the Holy Spirit. We are Bible people. Other branches of the church of Jesus Christ focus on the Spirit. We focus on the Word. They enjoy experiences and ecstasies. We think… a lot. Their worship is spontaneous and joyous. Ours is cerebral and orderly. We are Word people; they are Spirit people. But what a dreadful caricature of the life of the church and the work of the Spirit that is! It rests on a number of faulty premises that serve to make plausible the bifurcation of two things God has permanently joined. All authentic Christian life and worship, work and witness, is a product of Word and Spirit together. There is a real sense in which there are no non-Charismatics in the Church of Jesus Christ: every child of God is inhabited and empowered by the charisma, the gift of God, the Holy Spirit himself. To suggest that the primary evidence of the Spirit’s mighty work in the life of the church is always a dramatic overflow of corporate congregational happiness- always keeping perfect time to the up-tempo music, of course- is to betray a fundamental lack of real knowledge of the works and ways of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is true: joy is indeed a fruit of the Spirit and we ought to look for it in worship and church life as well as in every authentically Christian heart. But so, too, are peace and patience- traits often curiously lacking in the hearts of those with little tolerance for historic reformed worship.
On the other hand, many contemporary reformed believers, hearing only the loud claims of the charismatic movement, retreat from thinking carefully about the Spirit out of fear and distaste. We worry that they may be right after all, and so to be filled afresh with the Spirit is to lose control of oneself and will require a church life equally spontaneous and noisy. But reformed folk were not always so squeamish regarding the Spirit’s power and work. In fact, it was the reformed who were the real Holy Spirit-people in generations gone by. Calvin has been named “the theologian of the Spirit.”2 Thomas Goodwin and John Owen, two theological giants of the Puritan era, both wrote extensively on the person and work of the Spirit and enjoyed extraordinary seasons of personal spiritual experience as the Spirit worked in their hearts. The preachers of the Great Awakening were all reformed- Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards and the Tennants, the Erskine brothers, Daniel Rowland- and for them the great need of the hour was an outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church in revival. Edwards has written most fully of all reformed theologians on the ways and works of the Spirit in bringing new life and deepening spiritual health in the church. Clear thinking about, deep experience of, and hearts that longed for the person and work of God the Holy Spirit at every stage of the Christian life were once hallmarks of reformed piety and practice. A recovery of the central place of the Spirit to reformed teaching and Christian experience is long overdue.
And thirdly, we should give ourselves to the study of the Spirit’s work because more than anything else, the great need of the church is for a renewed outpouring of the Spirit of Christ in convicting and reviving power. “If a seminary turned out a hundred times more preachers than it does now, the church would not be one whit better off unless God is pleased to give a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”3 We do not need any more counterfeit revivals, no imitation miracles, no more worked-up ecstasies. Neither do we, the church, need to be more like a bright winter day: perfectly clear but icy cold! Intellectualism and emotionalism are both wrong. What we need is the Spirit of Christ to descend upon His church to lend renewed power to the exposition of the Word of God, that its truth might level us in our sin, raise us to the heights of wonder at His grace, and propel us out to the world in sacrificial witness. Only He can do that. And so we must study the Spirit that we might long to know His presence and power more and more. May God use these studies to whet our appetites and bring new urgency to our prayers for the Spirit of Christ at work among us!
1 JI Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, (Leicester, UK: IVP, 1984) 9
2 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit,(Leicester, UK: IVP, 1996) 12
3 Geoffrey Thomas, The Holy Spirit, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011) 2