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|The Trinity We
Profess: The Spirit Who Sustains
A pastor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tells of a woman who lived near his church. This woman was well known for her negativity. In fact, she was not only a hostile person, she "fairly seethed with hate," he said. She had been a church member at one time but had dropped out 20 years before. Something had happened (no one now could remember what) that had so changed her that for, yes, 20 years, she was literally filled with malice.
And yet, somehow, the pastor recounts, the woman happened one week to visit the church again. She came back the next week. And the week after that. She attended services and meetings for about a month. Then one day the woman walked up to the pastor in the church hall. To his astonishment, he saw a totally different person. The woman, now almost beaming, said to him with a smile, "Hey, you know, this Christianity stuff really works!"
That's all there is to the story. It's a true story. It really happened. It's no more dramatic than that.
And yet, it's quite dramatic. Christianity really works! God's means of grace, His Holy Word and the Sacraments, really work. The warming fellowship of being with other Christians and the encouragement in our Lord's love that happens in that fellowship really work. God the Holy Spirit does within us those things that we cannot do. Christianity really works.
1. Is the Holy Spirit a kind of "cosmic force" or a "universal wisdom" that fills all people?
The Holy Spirit is not some kind of force field that floats through the universe. Neither is He some kind of mysterious "life principle" that unites everything that exists in some kind of cosmic entity. Neither is He some kind of philosophical idea or an "inner wisdom" that lives in all people.
Rather, the Holy Spirit is a person, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is our Sanctifier - the one who brings us to faith and who sustains us in that faith.
The Scriptures clearly teach that the Holy Spirit is God. They assign to Him personal names - the "Spirit of Grace," the "Spirit of Christ," and the "Holy Spirit." The Scriptures assign to Him the characteristics, properties, attributes that only God possesses - holiness, omnipotence, omniscience, eternal existence. The Scriptures attribute to Him unique work, work that only God can do. And the Scriptures offer Him divine honor and glory.
The Holy Spirit well deserves that glory for all He is and for all He does. We especially honor and praise Him for His work in bringing us into a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
A story is told about Robert Ingersoll, a famous atheist of some decades ago. It is said that he went about the country lecturing to large groups of people, seeking to disprove the existence of God.
On one occasion, Ingersoll attempted to explain away the resurrection of Lazarus. Ingersoll claimed that this seeming miracle was really just a trick Jesus used to bolster His waning fortunes. In Ingersoll's version of the story, Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus who simply pretended to die. He then let himself be dressed in grave clothes by his friends and buried. The plan, according to Ingersoll, called for Jesus to pass by the sepulcher some days later and give a cue by calling Lazarus's name. Lazarus would then come out from the tomb, and everyone would think Jesus had performed a miracle and believe that He was really God.
To clinch his point, lngersoll asked the audience, "Now can anyone tell me why Jesus said, 'Lazarus, come forth'?"
A Christian in the back of the room replied, "Because if He had not said 'Lazarus,' The whole graveyard at Bethany would have come out to meet Him."
This story illustrates quite well the nature of our conversion. Lazarus, truly dead, couldn't even wiggle his little finger until Christ spoke His divine words. And so we, spiritual corpses as we were, could not come to Christ in and of ourselves. We could not turn to Him. We could not decide it was in our best interests to have faith in Him. We could not drum up faith inside our own hearts. We could not turn to God in repentance and faith. No, we were spiritually dead. Remember Jesus' words? "You did not choose Me, but I chose you."
The Holy Spirit chose us. He called us out of death into life. His Word gave us spiritual life, eternal life, just as surely as Jesus' Word gave Lazarus new physical life. God's Word has power - God's power - to create new life. This new life is wholly His work, not our own.
3. Do we "cooperate" with the Holy Spirit in our conversion?
In the same breath with which we declare how totally dependent we are upon our Lord for our salvation, we shout with joyful praise to God because He has done for us that which we did not and could not do for ourselves. Picture conversion a little like this:
Imagine yourself walking up to a large building on which is written in large letters THE HOLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH. Over the entrance is a sign which reads, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."
You think, "Well, that makes sense. I read the Bible. I pray. I go to church. I fellowship with other Christians. I guess I will decide to become a Christian." And you go in through the door.
But once inside the building, you look up over the doorway, and on it, above the entrance, is a sign which says, "The only way you got in here was by the grace of God."
And now the Christian sees spiritually - with the eyes of faith, the spectacles of the Spirit - that it was not a matter of corning to God or choosing God or deciding to believe, but of God at work that made entrance to the Christian church, membership in God's family, possible.
Our conversion happens entirely because the Holy Spirit has worked new life in us. He alone implants and sustains within us saving faith in Christ. We do not "cooperate." God in His grace alone, effects our conversion.
4. Was Pentecost the birthday of the church?
The Holy Spirit has done His saving work down through history. You know the verse: "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3 RSV). Throughout the entire Old Testament period the Holy Spirit drew people into the family of God. He created within them faith in the Savior who was to come as He gave them many divine promises about that Savior and His work.
In that sense, then, the Christian church predates Pentecost by centuries. Having said that, though, we need to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit's work today differs significantly from His work in the Old Testament church.
Under the Old Covenant (the "Old Testament"), the Holy Spirit "filled" primarily prophets, priests, and kings. He indwelled them to equip them for their work as God's servants, as God's witnesses.
Today, the Holy Spirit indwells all of God's people for the same purpose - to equip us for our work as God's Servants, as Christ's witnesses. In fact, the New Testament clearly calls Christ's people "priests," "kings," and even "prophets":
"You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9, italics added).
"[Jesus Christ] ... has made us kings and priests to serve [our] God" (Rev. 1:6 NKJV).
On Pentecost Peter pointed to the prophecy of Joel in which God promised His Old Testament people that one day their sons and daughters would prophesy: "Even on My servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy" (Acts 2:18). God had promised this 800 years before the birth of Christ.
In that sense something dramatic happened to the holy Christian church on the day of Pentecost. It was so dramatic, in fact, that the apostles themselves referred to it as "the beginning" (Acts 11:15). What began at Pentecost continues today.
Think of it! You and I have a power and a privilege that at one time was reserved for only prophets, priests, and kings! Think of it! You and I are now the successors to the prophets, priests, and kings of old! The Holy Spirit is alive and at work in us to empower us for both works and words of witness.
5. Is our love for God the motive for all we do in our Christian life?
The Spirit gives us a zeal for seeing God's kingdom advance. The Spirit works courage in our hearts, especially during times of persecution or trial. The Spirit builds within us a desire for worship. The Spirit floods our hearts with compassion for the people around us, a compassion that reaches out in self-sacrificial love to them. The Spirit stirs within our hearts a hunger and thirst for God's Word and for the Sacraments. In short, the Spirit creates within us love, love both for God and for other people.
Love, then, is not simply a "motive," much less our motive. It is rather the evidence that God is at work within us. Love is not something we bring into being on our own. The Holy Spirit creates it within us. He does that as He works through His Word and the Sacraments to develop the image of Christ Himself within us.
We talked earlier about conversion. In one sense, it happens only once - at that moment when the Holy Spirit places saving faith in our hearts. But in another sense our transformation, the process of sanctification, is a lifelong process. We are even now "becoming Christians," growing more and more like Christ, and someday by the Holy Spirit's power that process will be completed.
People really miss the boat when they think that the objective of the Christian is to learn to keep the Ten Commandments. Christians aren't just people who "follow a set of rules." Rather, the Holy Spirit is working in us to transform us, to change our hearts and minds so that we share Christ's attitudes, so that we see other people and the things around us with Christ's eyes.
When that happens, our lives become lives of response. Like trees whose roots have grown deep into good soil, we just spontaneously bear the fruit of the Spirit. Not because we try hard to do so, but because we know who we are - in Christ, and who we are becoming - by His Spirit's power. Just as sin used to "come naturally" in our lives, so now the spontaneous thing for us to do is to bear good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and all the rest (Gal. 5:22 - 23).
The Ten Commandments are far more than "rules for right living." Luther strongly stressed the positive prescription, not only the negative prohibition, of the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment invites us to faith. The Second invites God's people to pray. The Third inspires worship. The other commandments incite care for our neighbors and opportunities to give of ourselves - just as our Lord did.
A minister tells of a woman, a happy and efficient wife of a fellow pastor who experienced her share of life's sunshine and shade, but with no real darkness falling her way. Then, without warning, her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her terribly alone and afraid - afraid of her own decisions, afraid of the present, afraid of the future. When the pastor visited her, he found her in the vicelike grip of fear - so tyrannized that eventually she became bedridden.
When the pastor saw her two years later, he was surprised to find a poised, serene woman, working as a receptionist in an insurance office. He asked about her recovery, and she replied, "I couldn't work at all until I faced my fear and saw it was basically a selfish rebellion against God and what I thought was God's will. When I saw that, I began to pray that God would forgive my selfishness. And as I prayed, I became aware of God's hand reaching down to me. The Holy Spirit moved me to reach up in faith until I finally clasped that hand. And then to my amazement, I found His hand clasping mine. I knew He really cared and that He wouldn't let me go."
Jesus called the Holy Spirit the "Helper." Where do you need help right now? With a particular temptation? With a challenge in your family or on the job? With your finances or your future?
Jesus called the Holy Spirit the "Comforter." Where do you need comfort? As you witness to that loved one? As you face that surgery? As you remember that particular sin and the way you've committed it again and again and again? As you listen to that co-worker ridicule your faith? As the love you've tried to show is misunderstood?
The Holy Spirit is here for you. The Holy Spirit lives in you. The Holy Spirit is transforming you. The Holy Spirit wants to comfort and to help you no matter how insignificant you think your needs are, no matter how impossible you think your situation looks. He's reaching out to you in love. Let Him take your hand.
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