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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Regis Nicoll

Regis Nicoll's weblog

Pentecost celebrates the birth of the Church with the coming of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to his disciples.

Yet, few doctrines of the Church are as misunderstood as that of the Holy Spirit. I suspect this is partly due to the fuzzy image connoted by a name that conjures up notions of wraiths, mysterious life-forces, and formless impersonal beings which incline us to think of the Holy Spirit as “it” rather than “him.”

There’s also the matter of instruction. Although we give the Holy Spirit a nod in our slogans, mission statements, and church talk, he is largely ignored in our teaching. In my long Christian life, over a number of denominations, I recall hearing only one sermon devoted to the comprehensive ministry of the Spirit.

He Creates
For folks who think of the Holy Spirit only as a New Testament gift to believers, his involvement throughout the Old Testament can come as a surprise.

In the opening verses of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is seen “hovering over the waters” of the unformed earth. When Elohim (the Hebrew plural name, in form, for God) said, “Let us make man in our image,” he was referring to the triune partnership of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Job’s friend, Elihu, confirms the Spirit’s creative role in his counsel to Job: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”

From Creation to the Incarnation, the scriptures tell of the Spirit descending upon individuals who are tagged for some divine task: defeat a pagan foe, lead a rebellious nation, or speak a prophetic word. In contrast to the “indwelling” of believers in the Church Age, the Spirit’s “ondwelling” was temporary and selective.

But whether by “ondwelling” or “indwelling,” the Holy Spirit empowers humans to accomplish things that are humanly impossible, thus giving witness to the God “who is.”

He Inspires
The second letter of Peter is addressed to a church that was scattered, suffering, and swaying under the influence of heresies. To encourage the believers and help shore up their faith, Peter reminded them of the apostles’ accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection; eyewitness accounts detailing the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies.

Peter went on to explain the Source of the prophetic accuracy: “No prophesy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the biblical narrative contains dozens of prophesies fulfilled in precise detail centuries after they had been predicted and recorded.

He Gifts
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul introduces the concept “spiritual gifts,” writing: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”

Notice the Trinitarian partnership: spiritual gifts come from the Holy Spirit, in service of the Son, according to the sovereign purposes of the Father.

Paul goes on to say, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (Between this letter and Romans chapter 12, Paul lists 15 spiritual gifts, including things like wisdom, knowledge, serving, giving, prophesy, teaching, and mercy.) Also notice, that it’s not a question of whether a believer has a gift. It’s a question of what gift or gifts he has, and in what measure.

Although everyone has some capacity for each gift—with a number of them, like mercy, giving, and serving related to spiritual fruits that every Christian needs to cultivate—it is our primary gift that determines our spiritual role within the Church, whether as a member of the clergy or lay “helper.”

The gifts imparted by the Spirit support the roles established by the Son for the God-sized task of kingdom-building.

He Teaches and Convicts
With the Cross looming before him, Jesus spent his last hours on earth preparing his disciples for his departure. He promised not to leave them as orphans—he would send the Spirit to teach them and remind them of all they had been taught.

The good news, though it didn’t register at the time, was that unlike the pre-resurrected Lord whose company and wisdom they could enjoy only when he was physically present with them, the Spirit, unencumbered by the limitations of a material body, would reside in them, all of them, as an ever-present Teacher, Comforter, and Equipper.

What’s more, the Spirit’s ministry would extend to non-believers, as well. “He will testify about me,” Jesus told them, and “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” In fact, without the ministry of the Holy Spirit belief “unto salvation” is not possible. As Paul explained, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Continue reading here.

Throughout my Christian life the question that has haunted me more than any other is why there is not a greater difference between Christians and non-Christians.

The lack of distinctive Christian behavior and practice has prompted observers like Mohandas Gandhi to conclude, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” It has caused others to stop short of the threshold of faith, concluding, with nineteenth century existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche, “I would believe in Christianity if I saw more Christ in Christians.”

As I have previously noted, this mismatch between teaching and practice has vexed the Church from the beginning.

Stunningly, a little more than a generation after Pentecost, the apostle Paul upbraided the church in Corinth for succumbing to the moral rhythms of the Greco-Roman culture. The attitude toward sin in pew and pulpit had become so complacent that an egregious form of sexual immorality went unchallenged by the church leadership.

I suspect that most people reading this know of people in their congregation who are in relationships that are contrary to Church teaching. Thus, Paul’s handling of a church that was losing the aroma of the “Bread of Life” holds valuable lessons for the Church today.

Judge Not?
Upon learning about the unaddressed sin, Paul called for the immediate expulsion of the unrepentant party. He went on to say that open sin among the brethren was not to be tolerated, such that believers were not even to associate with professed brothers who are unrepentant. He then closed his counsel with the accusing question, “Are you not to judge those inside [the church]?”

Judge? But didn’t Jesus warn us against judging others?

Few bible passages have been as misunderstood and proof-texted as Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” In the context of the full passage, Jesus was not prohibiting our judgment of others, but rather he was providing the prerequisite: Before turning the moral spotlight on our neighbor, we must shine it on ourselves and address our own moral failings honestly and biblically.

But how do we judge? Since sin a disease of the heart, how can we discern the moral state of others?

Our Brother’s Keeper
While it is true that we can’t probe the thoughts and attitudes of our neighbors, we can determine whether their behaviors align with those prescribed in Scripture. In fact, later in Matthew 7 Jesus tells his disciples that “fruits” are reliable indicators of one’s spiritual condition. These are “fruits” not only of character, but of obedience, as is clear from the end of the passage: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Hence, Jesus does not prohibit us from judging others—to the contrary, he expects us to: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Yet how can we know that our brother has sinned, much less rebuke him, unless we’ve made a moral judgment?

The preconditions are that we know the standards of moral conduct set down in Scripture and Church teaching, we have taken stock of our own spiritual state against those standards, and we have addressed them through confession and repentance.

But wait! Didn’t Jesus say that he who is without sin should cast the first stone? Yes, but the question is “what did he mean?” Since no one is without sin, that statement, on its face, would go against the balance of his teaching that, contrary to Cain’s slack-jawed response to a probing God, we are our brother’s keeper.

Importantly, the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking was not intending to rebuke or restore a woman caught in sin, but to execute her and trap Jesus in a Pharisaical sting operation. Jesus’s response was ingeniously crafted to show grace to the woman while making her accusers consider their own moral failings. His actions also serve to show why we judge others. Continue reading here. 

The disturbing decades-long decline in church rolls along with the growth of the “nones” and rise of the “dones” has led me to believe that the most urgent business of the Church is not the evangelization of the lost, as important as that is, but the re-evangelization of the “saved.” Why so?

It is a sad reality that as few as 3 percent of professed Christians could be called disciples—that is, believers who have dedicated their lives to become more like Jesus by learning to do the things he commanded us to do.

But imagine if the discipled population was doubled, tripled, or quadrupled over the next decade; what might happen if the majority of professed Christians were actually practicing Christians—believers whose works and words align with the teachings of Jesus? I suspect that we would see a Kingdom movement not experienced since the time of the apostles.

It’s Not Working
I am not alone in recognizing the pressing need of re-reaching the “saved.”

Troubled over the systemic incongruence between Christian teachings and Christian practice, Protestant pastor Bill Hull recounted the day he stood in the pulpit and put a bracing question to his congregation: “Why should we bring … new people into something that is not working?” This, right after the church had received 83 new members!

What wasn’t working was discipleship. Years of investment in programs, strategic plans, cutting edge worship services, small groups, and outreach events, had generated a frenzy of activity, but little transformation. Against the prevailing wisdom, Bill realized that church involvement and busyness do not translate into personal spiritual growth. It is a lesson that could have been learned by close attention to biblical history. Continue reading here.