In Light of a “Strange Fire” – Some Holy Spirit Thoughts

In light of the recent controversy that John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, et al. have been stirring up about evangelical church and the Holy Spirit (See Mark Driscoll’s provoking response to John MacArthur, and these articles by Trevin Wax and Kevin DeYoung reflecting on the conference), I wanted to post some working sections from a book manuscript I just completed for Zondervan, scheduled to come out some time next year. We’re in the editing process right now, so your thoughts are welcome.

If you’re looking for a positive side to this controversy, this is a discussion long overdue in the evangelical church. The discussion about the Holy Spirit is one we need to have every 20–30 years, due to how quickly we forget his ministry, how badly we need it, and how quickly we twist it, and we haven’t had it in a while.

I have a friend—I’ll call him Brennan—who served for several years as a leader in our church. A bright young college senior, Brennan was well-spoken, well-regarded and a leader both on campus and in our church. But Brennan had a dark secret he had shared with no one. He had a same-sex attraction that led him first into pornography, then into online chat rooms, and finally to a string of hook-ups with random guys.

When Brennan finally confessed to his campus leader and me, he was a broken young man. He had tried everything—behind the scenes—to fix himself. He had memorized Scripture, made vows, and even gotten rid of his internet connection. So together, we plotted out a course of recovery that involved professional counseling, more Scripture, and high accountability. Brennan progressed a little, and for brief seasons would look like he had overcome his problem, only to fall back down into the same low valleys. Eventually he checked himself into an intensive ministry that helps believers learn to cope with the lusts of their flesh.

After being there for several months, Brennan told me he was surprised to hear how frequently the counselors at this ministry—who had all come through their own struggles and sexual addictions—referred to the Holy Spirit. For them, he was not a theological concept, but a person with whom they interacted and on whom they depended.

Brennan, who had grown up in Baptist and Reformed circles, knew all about the Holy Spirit. He knew the Holy Spirit came into his heart when he trusted Christ and that he was in there helping out somehow in the sanctification process. But never, he said, had he sought after the Holy Spirit like these believers did. They sought his presence like their lives depended on him. Brennan began to understand that he needed more than right belief to bring the lusts of his flesh into captivity. He needed power. Resurrection power. And a constant companion who would always be there to help.

And this discovery,” he said, “marked a turning point in the struggle with my sin. These temptations are still with me,” he said, “and I suppose always will be. But I have found in the Spirit of God a potency greater than the lusts of my flesh. Being filled with God the Holy Spirit has done more for me than all the seminars I sat through or coping techniques I have mastered.”

Do you know the Holy Spirit this way? Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans. will come to you.” Jesus did not become an absentee God at the ascension. He simply came to his disciples in a different form. And, remarkably, he told his disciples that his presence in them would be even better than his presence beside them.

This Spirit, he said, would bring to their minds all that he had said and taught. He would take the Word of God and make it come alive in their hearts. They would walk with the Spirit by means of the Word, and they would gain the ability to obey that Word by the power of the Spirit.

An Eternal Partnership

In Scripture, the word of the gospel and the power of the Spirit always go together. The Word is God’s revelation to us, profitable for rebuke, for correction, for training and instruction in righteousness, capable of making us complete, capable of any and all good works (2 Timothy 3:16–17). But only through the Spirit, Jesus said, could we ever understand or obey that Word:

When the Counselor comes—he will testify about me… he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.

Apart from me, you can do nothing.[1]

The Spirit makes the word come alive in us. He brings it to remembrance at the right times. He explains it to us. He convicts us where we are not living it. He applies to specific situations in our lives. He gives us spiritual eyes to see the beauty of God. He empowers our obedience.

Paul understood this. After explaining the gospel in great detail in the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul stops explaining and starts praying that the Spirit would enable the Ephesian believers “to know how high, wide, deep, and long is the love of God that surpasses all knowledge.” Did you catch the play on words? He prays they would know something that is beyond all knowledge. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Not at all. Certain kinds of “knowledge” do not come through the accumulation of cognitive facts. Some things you know only by experience. Paul wants us to have a knowledge of the love of God that we feel deep within our soul. It is like the “knowledge” of color that comes into blind eyes opened for the first time, or the “knowledge” of sweetness that comes with a tongue’s first taste of honey. It is the knowledge of the lover who cannot only tell you about their beloved, but knows the joy of their presence and the warmth of their embrace.

When we know God’s love this way, Paul says, we are “filled with all the fullness of God.”[2] The Spirit of God takes the revelation of the love of God and consumes us with it.

Two Extremes

Christians tend to gravitate toward one of two extremes regarding the third person of the Trinity. Some pursue experience in the Spirit apart from the Word. They listen for voices in their hearts or seek “signs” from God in the heavens. You might know some of these people. They are always talking about what God said to them through a stirring in their spirit or in a strange confluence of circumstances.

Others, however, seek to know and obey the Word without any interaction with, or real dependence on, the Spirit. These Christians might know who the Holy Spirit is and that he floats around in their hearts somewhere. They might even know that he produces “spiritual fruits” in their lives because of a song they learned in Sunday School. But they relate to him in ways similar to how I relate to my gall bladder: I know it’s in there somewhere, and that it’s necessary for the digestive process, but I have no real “interaction” with it. Its work remains invisible and undetected—even if necessary.

Once, as Paul taught on the Christian life to a group of new disciples at Ephesus, he mentioned the importance of the Holy Spirit and they interrupted him: “Wait… who? We have not heard that there is a Holy Spirit!”[3] Many Christians might well still be, functionally speaking, in the same place. Though they have heard of him in the doctrinal sense, they have no real interaction with him. Functionally, they are still “unaware that there is a Holy Spirit.”

But the Spirit and Word work inseparably. One without the other leads to an incomplete, and dysfunctional, Christianity.

We Cannot Experience the Spirit Apart from the Word

We cannot know the Spirit apart from the revealed Word, a Word, Jesus said, which was all about him (John 5:39). The Spirit, Jesus said, would point to his (Jesus’) words and works, not his own (John 16:14). There is a certain irony in how the Spirit operates—whenever he is present, you think about Jesus, not him.

Have you ever driven into Washington, DC on Interstate 395 late at night? If so, you’ve probably marveled at the brilliance of the Washington Monument illuminated against the night sky. Numerous lights, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, shine directly on the stone pillar memorializing the father of our country. Yet I doubt you have ever noticed, or even thought about, those expensive, brilliant lights. They are there to illuminate, and direct your attention toward, something else.

The same is true of the Spirit of God. His purpose is to illuminate the gospel and the glory of Jesus. J.I Packer says that the ministry of the Spirit is a “floodlight” ministry, quietly turning everyone’s attention on the Savior.[4] Theologian Dale Bruner calls him the “shy member of the Trinity,” because he doesn’t like attention on himself.[5] That means that when someone claims to be filled with the Spirit and yet spends most of their time talking about their own experiences with the Spirit, you can be sure the Spirit is far from their heart. The Holy Spirit only likes to talk about Jesus. When he is speaking in someone, you tend to forget both the Spirit and the person who is speaking.

As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, the fullness of the Spirit comes, Paul says, as we plumb the depths, heights, widths, and lengths of God’s love revealed in the gospel. And the more he comes into us, the more we know his love, and the more of his love we know, the more full he is within us.

So do you want more of the Spirit? Seek greater knowledge of God’s love in the gospel. Do you want to know more of the gospel? Seek the power of the Spirit. Where the gospel is not known, the Spirit will not be experienced. Where the Spirit is not sought, there will be no deep, experiential knowledge of the gospel. The two always go together.

Seeking experiences with the Spirit apart from the Word leads not only to confusion, but absolute disaster. Leviticus records the chilling event of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, offering “strange fire” before the Lord. God had proscribed a certain way to offer sacrifices, but Nadab and Abihu thought they had discovered a better—or at least an alternative—way. Their new fire burned just like the proscribed fire and it seemed to accomplish the same purposes. But God killed them for their “strange fire.” We can commune with God only in the ways he proscribes. If we want to experience the fire of God’s presence, we must seek it in exactly the way God has appointed.

We Cannot Fulfill the Word Apart from the Spirit

Just as there is no experience with the Spirit apart from the Word, there can be no true obedience to the Word apart from the Spirit. “Apart from me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing.” “Nothing” is a big word, but I can’t imagine Jesus didn’t choose it intentionally. Without his divine presence living inside of us, we cannot truly obey the first word of his commands. That means we cannot overcome sin without his presence. We cannot love others. We cannot accomplish the mission. We cannot raise our children. We are like an appliance unplugged from the socket. We can do nothing.

Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit was so essential to their lives and would be such a help to them when he came that if they truly understood him they would be glad he (Jesus) was going back to heaven because then the Holy Spirit could come:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Think for a minute about how absurd that must have sounded to those first disciples. It would be to their advantage for Jesus to go away? Really?

Apparently so.

For if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Jesus claimed that having the Holy Spirit in them would be better than having him beside them.

Wow. Let that sink in for a moment.

I mean it. Go back and read that sentence again.

Now, be honest with yourself: Is your experience with the Holy Spirit like that? Do you feel as though your relationship with the Holy Spirit is better than if you had Jesus for a personal companion? Is the Spirit’s presence inside you really preferable than having Jesus beside you?

I said, “Be honest.”

Or, to raise the stakes on you: Would your experience with the Holy Spirit validate Jesus’ claim?

And if not, doesn’t that mean you are missing somethingand likely, something important?

Jesus believed that the Holy Spirit would be a better teacher than he had been. That may sound hard to believe, but the Spirit, he explained, could apply the word more poignantly than he did, because he could speak it into the deep recesses of our heart at just the right moments. [6] And the Holy Spirit, Jesus believed, would be a better director of mission. He could supply words at just the moment we needed them, whatever circumstance we are in (Luke 12:12). He would not be merely a God beside us, coaching and inspiring us, but God inside of us, working in and through us.

[1] John 15:26; 16:14. John 14:26; 16:8–9; John 15:5.

[2] Romans 5:6–8; Eph 3:18–21.

[3] Acts 19:2

[4] “The Holy Spirit’s distinctive new covenant role, then, is to fulfill what we may call a floodlight ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ… When floodlighting is well done, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them; you are not in fact supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the building on which the floodlights are trained…. This perfectly illustrates the Spirit’s new covenant role. He is, so to speak, the hidden floodlight shining on the Savior.” J.I. Packer, Keeping in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), p. 57

[5] F. Dale Bruner & William Hordern, The Holy Spirit: Shy Member of the Trinity. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1983.

[6] John 14:25–26; 16:5–14; 1 John 2:27–28.

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