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The Work of the Holy Spirit

FALL 2007
[original publication]

Reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit by Calvin Theological Seminary professors Duane Kelderman, John Bolt, John Cooper, Mary Hulst, and Kathy Smith.

Kelderman: What's so important about the work of the Holy Spirit?

Hulst: Without it we do nothing. It's the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us that animates everything we do—not just what we do in the church, but in our everyday lives.

Cooper: To put it another way, I think the Holy Spirit is behind everything in creation and everything in recreation. The well-known Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper taught that the Holy Spirit is involved in every square inch of creation, even beyond the Christian church. If trees are alive, if Adolf Hitler's heart kept beating—that's the work of the Holy Spirit.

Bolt: It's one of the theological areas still on the agenda of the Christian church. In the early church we worked through the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ; in the Middle Ages we worked through the doctrine of Christ's atonement; in the Reformation we dealt with questions of justification. But there has not been that kind of broad ecumenical work and agreement on the doctrine and work of the Holy Spirit. And then the twentieth century comes along and we have this phenomenal development of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. The church today is just bursting with evidence of the Holy Spirit.

Experientially there is so much evidence that the Holy Spirit has been at work in dramatic ways in the last one hundred years. That's why the view that extraordinary gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy were just for the age of the apostles is simply indefensible. That doesn't mean that everything that seems to be a wonder and a powerful working of the Holy Spirit has to be accepted as such. We still are called to be discerning in view of what Scripture teaches about it. But we have to put our theological arms around this powerful evidence of the Holy Spirit.

Smith: Another reason it's on the agenda is not just what the Holy Spirit is doing in the church, but also the fact that spirituality of all sorts is on the world's agenda. In different religions, in people creating their own religions, in the heightened awareness of spiritual things in general—the church is more aware of spirituality, how it's expressed, and how we think about it.

Kelderman: Years ago someone told me to go through the Heidelberg Catechism and underline all the times the Holy Spirit is mentioned. It's pretty amazing to see how the Holy Spirit is involved in every facet of life and salvation. So what does it mean when the Catechism says that the Holy Spirit enables us to "share in Christ and all his blessings"?

Bolt: The first thing is the benefit accomplished by Christ in his atonement: the full payment of sin. To share in Christ's benefits is to be forgiven and empowered to be the imagebearers of God we were created to be.

Cooper: It's also regeneration and union with Christ. It's the new birth of John 3. The old nature is transformed into the new, though the old still hangs on. But we are new creations. That's the work of the Holy Spirit—a supernatural miracle. This is a charismatic miracle—the regeneration of a human heart like mine—and it happens all the time in the Christian church.

kelderman: Is the fruit of the Spirit also a charismatic miracle?

Hulst: Yes. It's all part of the regeneration. Without that miracle of the Holy Spirit none of us has love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. I think it's really miraculous when you see the transformation happening in a person. And it happens all the time! Bolt: That is the understanding Reformed folks have had of the baptism in the Spirit— that in the Christian life there are times of special empowerments, special baptisms, special anointings of the Holy Spirit in which we are renewed and strengthened in our faith. And those happen over time in a person's life, and more than one time. So to pray for baptism of the Spirit is to be praying for regular anointing of the Spirit that we may be more Christlike.

Kelderman: In the Heidelberg Catechism the phrase "Word and Spirit" appears frequently. Why do Reformed people pair up those two words?

Hulst: One of the correctives we want to give to those who might say, "God told me this," or, "The Spirit told me that," is to check that out against the Word and the Christian community.

Cooper: We also speak of Word and Spirit because of the Trinity. The whole Trinity— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is involved in creation, redemption, and recreation. "Word and Spirit" doesn't just mean the Bible and the Holy Spirit. The Word is the second person in the Trinity and is incarnate in Jesus Christ, and the second and the third persons work together with the first person. Some of the problems in Christianity come when you get Father religion without Son and Spirit, or Son religion without the others. A danger of Pentecostalism is to focus on Spirit, but leave the Father and Son in the background.

Bolt: Let's also not forget 2 Timothy 3:16. "Scripture is God-breathed." Scripture came into existence through the active work of God the Holy Spirit.

Kelderman: My seminary professor Henry Stob said, "The Holy Spirit rides the back of Scripture."

Cooper: That's right. And Scripture came into existence on the back of the Holy Spirit, so it's a symbiotic relationship.

Kelderman: Reformed folks are sometimes perceived to be really weak on the Holy Spirit. Yet when you look through our tradition there is so much richness of the Holy Spirit. Are we not embracing our own theology? Bolt: I think that's part of it. We have to acknowledge Christians who go to church and coast along, and then all of a sudden go to a retreat, read a book, or have a crisis and then think, "I didn't have this power of the Spirit before that I have now," rather than make judgments about their past or about their church. Indeed, if we are not encouraging a full Spirit life in our churches all along the way, we're going to have these kinds of reactions.

Cooper: I think that there is both room for growth in the CRC and also a tremendous forgetfulness about our rich tradition of the Holy Spirit. Today we don't have a mundane enough view of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. The Spirit is there in Genesis 1, the Spirit makes trees grow and hearts beat, the Spirit gives people intellectual and artistic and engineering gifts and teaches farmers how to farm. We also don't appreciate how much our forebears were deeply pious and spiritual. Abraham Kuyper's devotional book To Be Near Unto God is about as spiritual and charismatic and mystical as anything in the Christian tradition. Perhaps we don't emulate these Reformed people enough and believe what they did about the Holy Spirit, but that's forgetfulness about our own tradition. It's important to realize that these deeply pious and spiritual people were also very ordinary people who had hard lives and simply trusted God. They got up in the morning and prayed and went to very difficult kinds of work and came home and didn't know if they were going to have enough money or if their health would be there next year or if their kids were going to live another year. These people had a living faith, but they didn't pray six hours a day and didn't have tongues and words of knowledge and weren't full of bursts of spiritual energy. I think the living faith—the life-bearing, sustaining faith of those hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people over the last four centuries—that's the work of the Holy Spirit! I'm not going to look down on that just because it isn't flashy.

kelderman: This is exactly the message of Eugene Peterson, who admits he's the guru of spirituality but says the first thing we need to do is get rid of the word "spirituality" because it gives this notion of something other-worldly, not part of our normal day-in, day-out lives. Smith: Isn't it ironic that those saints who truly relied on the Holy Spirit every moment of their lives didn't talk about it very much? Today we talk about the Spirit a lot, but in fact our understanding of the Holy Spirit may not be as substantive as it was for people who talked about it very little.

Kelderman: Let's talk about the power of the Holy Spirit from a more global perspective. It seems like our missionaries testify more to dramatic power encounters between light and darkness than we do in North America. Does the enemy manifest himself in different ways in different cultures, and then does God respond in different ways in different cultures?

Hulst: I disagree with your premise. The power of the enemy is not only just as real but just as visible here as it is anywhere in the world. I served pretty much a white bread Christian Reformed Church and was very aware of the powers of the enemy and the powers of darkness in that place, though they manifest themselves in different ways. When you are dealing with domestic violence, adultery, and addictions of different kinds, you may not actually have a demon screaming at you, but they are just as real, and you are in need of the power of the Holy Spirit in those situations as much as in Indonesia. All you need to do is read The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis to understand that the power of the enemy is real and it's subtle. One of the things that I've found in preaching is that you constantly have to call people's attention to where the enemy is working right in their midst.

Cooper: I agree. I also think that North American Christianity turned off on the realm of angels and demons after the historic Salem witch trials. We can be as pious as the day is long and say, "I believe in angels," but we don't think they do anything. Folks in third-world situations who come from a spiritist background of shamanism or primal religion are really tuned into this kind of stuff.

At the same time, I think we have to be very savvy about the fact that almost all the Charismatic gifts claimed by Christians also occur in shamanism or in spiritism, and in manifestations that may be like shamanism more than they are like any biblical expressions of the Holy Spirit. Take, for example, the idea that there are territorial demons that you have to name and locate to cast them out. There's not a word about that in the Bible, but that's a common practice in shamanism. The Shaman is the one who is able to do that. He is the master of the spiritual world. Animal noises, laughter, being smitten when touched by the spiritual guru, speaking in tongues, healings, inflicting curses on people—this kind of stuff occurs regularly in many other religions. We have to have a very discerning spirit. People who are involved in the Pentecostal and Third Wave Movement realize that they must discern the spirits precisely because there are all these counterfeits. I wonder how savvy we are about these kinds of things. I think this is some of what our colleagues Ruth Tucker and Mariano Avila were trying to warn synod about in their minority report.

Kelderman: Let's talk about how the Holy Spirit is involved in worship and preaching.

Hulst: There is a lot of experiential understanding of worship right now. If the music is good and the preaching is good, then the Holy Spirit has been there that day. I think that we need to be really clear that sometimes worship can be not so good and the Holy Spirit is just as present. It is not our experience that determines whether or not the Holy Spirit is in the house. The Holy Spirit is in the house because that's what happens in worship. Human experience is not the barometer of the presence of God.

Bolt: And there is also the idea that planned spontaneity is more an instance of the Holy Spirit's presence than a carefully prepared prayer or sermon.

Hulst: Every preacher has had the experience of offering a sermon that isn't the best. It's the Hamburger Helper of the kitchen of God. It's going to do the job, but it's not filet mignon. You get up there and do your best with it. At the end you are hanging your head a little bit in the back of the sanctuary, and invariably it's after those sermons that someone comes up and says, "Wow, God really spoke to me today with that message." You have enough of those experiences as a preacher not only to make sure your humility is well in place, but also to be aware that this is not about you as a preacher—something else is going on.

Kelderman: I hate to be the skunk at the lawn party, but . . . . While I don't disagree with anything that has been said here, the fact is that we have people leaving the CRC in significant numbers. We can quickly scapegoat these folks and say they misunderstand the riches of their own heritage. But that won't do. When I ask people, "Why did you leave?" often the theme that runs through their answers is, "You know, I just ached to see the power of God, but in the church I was going to work of Sunday after Sunday I didn't see it. The minister, the worship leaders, the congregation as a whole -- no one seemed to really believe anything deeply. A lot of going through the motions." We have a problem here. People, particularly young people, are leaving the CRC. They are yearning to see the power of God.work of the ^ Sunday after Sunday holy Spirit ~ I didn't see it. The minister, the worship leaders, the congregation as a whole—no one seemed to really believe things deeply. A lot of going through the motions." We have a problem here. People, particularly young people, are leaving the CRC. They are yearning to see the power of God.

Hulst: I think we have been weak at testimony. We don't know how to articulate what God is doing in our lives. We don't know how to talk about it with each other. Testimony is bearing witness to the power of God in your life. I think one way we can revive worship and congregational life is to incorporate the power of testimony.work of the ^ Sunday after Sunday holy Spirit ~ I didn't see it. The minister, the worship leaders, the congregation as a whole—no one seemed to really believe things deeply. A lot of going through the motions." We have a problem here. People, particularly young people, are leaving the CRC. They are yearning to see the power of God.

Smith: Maybe that would open us more to the practice of inviting a word from the Lord. That's a practice in other traditions that then moves toward what we might call extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. Moving from offering testimonies to "who has a Word from the Lord this morning?" is not that big a step and would be a good practice to develop.

Cooper: Certainly we can't scapegoat these people who are leaving the CRC. We have to take a long, hard look at ourselves. In my own experience the parallel between physical health and spiritual health is illuminating. I can take my health for granted and eat what I want; or I can watch my diet and work out, to enhance the gift of health I have been given. One of the essential marks of the Christian life is taking up your cross and growing in Christ-likeness. But many of us are satisfied with a status quo kind of Christianity where we are not taking the gift and cultivating it. I think vitality and growth are what people find missing when they leave the church, but what they're missing then is not some special charismatic manifestation of the Holy Spirit as much as the ordinary fruits of regeneration. I think many of us are spiritual couch potatoes—perhaps the majority in some congregations.

Hulst: A lot of people go to worship as spiritual couch potatoes. "It's up to you, worship leader, to get me fired up, get me going." But worship is the work of the people and we need to enter it expecting to do something too to make it flourish. When you have a preacher who doesn't hit it out of the park every week, how do you actively listen to those sermons for the presence of God? How do you actively worship if the music isn't to your particular taste? Is it "what did you get out of worship," or "what did you bring into worship?" We need to take responsibility for the growth of our spirituality in worship.

Bolt: We also may be failing to make clear our humble reliance on the Holy Spirit. We're Calvinists—we are "can do" people in the context of American "can do-ism." I don't think we always give the impression of being a church that is lost without God's Spirit working in us.

Kelderman: Let's talk a little about the Holy Spirit and prayer.

Hulst: I had a conversation recently with an elder who was talking about the efficiency with which their chair of elders got them through their meetings. I asked how much time they spent praying in those meetings. She said, "At the beginning and the end." I asked, "And how much time are you talking about what's going on in the church and the struggles that people are having?" She said, "Well, we're really not doing that." I replied, "Your efficiency may be trumping your spiritual leadership." If we are not going before God in prayer and bringing up the needs of our congregation as their spiritual leaders, how can we expect to lead the people of God well and wisely? If we don't cultivate spiritual leaders who are people of prayer and passion, we are not going to be as sensitive to the Holy Spirit as we need to be.

Kelderman: We need to challenge one another to a deeper and fuller life of prayer without reducing prayer to another program in the church. It's difficult because we do need programs for prayer—systematic teaching and practice and accountability for a life of vital prayer. But at the same time we have to be careful to acknowledge that the people with the deepest prayer life in our congregations usually had that life of prayer long before and will have that life of prayer long after a specific program to make a congregation pray better. I don't want to put down programs for prayer renewal. I also don't want to overlook scores of saints in every congregation who truly walk with God in prayer but just don't broadcast it.

Smith: There's that theme again—how extraordinary is the ordinary work, or how ordinary is the extraordinary work, of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives!

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