“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” Notice that Jesus promised power. He urged his disciples to wait until they had been “clothed with power from on high”.
Pentecost reminds us that Christians should be a powerful people. Is that the general impression we get of the church? Too often the power doesn’t seem obvious and Christians seem little different from good non-Christians.
Some even try to argue that Jesus’ promise of power was only for the first disciples and that we can’t expect the modern church to be like that. None of the teaching of the NT was specifically addressed to the British church. But does that mean it was only relevant to the church in Corinth or Ephesus?
Other Christians say, “Ah. It’s holiness that counts, not power.” But Jesus unashamedly promised power.
Sadly the old charismatic/non-charismatic divide hasn’t helped. (I use “non-charismatic” for want of a better term to describe Christians not involved in the charismatic renewal). It has raised fears and controversy and inflicted hurts. And both sides have been at fault.
Charismatics and non-charismatics need one another. More than that, they belong together as brothers and sisters in Christ. However doctrinally sound we are or however “open to the Spirit” we are, if we have not love we are nothing. And if we claim to have the Spirit of God we should manifest something of the unity he brings in answer to Jesus’ prayer of John 17.
There are extremes on both sides. Those who say charismatic renewal is of the devil must be very careful they are not attributing God’s work to Satan. Those who say a non-charismatic does not have the Holy Spirit need to realise that a person can’t be a Christian without having the Holy Spirit.
Charismatics have fallen into various errors. Some have taken little notice of biblical exposition and doctrine. Their theology is experience-based. They do not ask what is the biblical justification for this particular experience, practice or teaching. As a consequence a number have fallen into false teaching.
A great deal of superficiality has entered some charismatic circles. Many charismatics seem at the mercy of fads and fancies, including the latest Christian roadshow from across the Atlantic. The gullibility of some Christians (including leaders) is quite amazing.
So we’ve seen excessive emphasis on counselling; unbiblical (“name it; claim it”) faith teaching; the prosperity gospel; weird “prophecies”; unrealistic triumphalism etc.
But thank God many charismatics have not fallen into these errors.
There have been errors on the non-charismatic side too. Because of fear or prejudice Christians have been closed to some of the things the Holy Spirit is doing. Some non-charismatics are very strong on biblical exposition and doctrine and that is great. But, all too easily, this can lead to a theoretical approach to Christianity. The emphasis is on knowledge rather than experience.
Take, for example, the controversy about the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”. Some non-charismatics vehemently state that the phrase is not in the NT. True, but Jesus is described in all the Gospels and Acts as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. So it is quite in harmony with Scripture to speak of the Baptism in (or with) the Spirit.
But what is the Baptism in the Spirit? Scripture is quite clear on this. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was the initial baptizing with the Spirit (See Acts 1:5). It was an experience of powerful transformation issuing in joyful praise, spiritual gifts, bold witness, deep unity, prevailing prayer and miraculous signs. And it is promised to all believers (Acts 2:38-39).
Christians disagree as to when it takes place: at conversion or subsequently. And that is a significant point. But surely what really matters is not when it should happen to us but whether it has, in other words whether we are experiencing all the NT says we should. Sadly, some non-charismatics are content to argue about the timing and terminology but to miss out on the blessing that God wants for all his children.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem and I sometimes wonder if he still weeps over his church today – for various reasons. But one of them is Christians who are content to live on a fairly mediocre level spiritually.
Church history is littered with occasions when God did a “new” work and many Christians rejected it. They had been in step with the Spirit previously, but because of the natural human tendency to become more conservative with age, they did not cope with God’s disturbing new work. None of us is immune from this tendency.
It has happened to some people over the work of the Holy Spirit. Because of the dangers of occult counterfeit, some Christians are very suspicious of unusual supernatural occurrences in Christian circles. Many people praying for revival might not like it when it came – if it were like revivals in the past!
The problem may be fear: fear of being deceived; fear of emotion; fear of being vulnerable; fear of losing reputation. Fear is one of Satan’s favourite, and most successful, tactics.
Then there are hurts. Numerous Christians seem to have had some hurtful experience of “renewal”. There may be genuine cause: insensitivity, manipulation, extremism on the part of other people. But why throw the baby out with the bathwater? And what excuse is there for allowing a hurtful experience to close us to the work of the Spirit?
But unbelief also prevents us from entering into all God has for us. It may be personal unbelief: we can’t believe God would ever do something outstanding in our experience.
However, it may be a climate of unbelief in the local church. I would never limit the sovereign power of God to overcome any barrier. But it seems that in a church which doesn’t expect definite conversions few people get converted. In a church which doesn’t expect healings few people get healed. In a church which doesn’t expect to see the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit people tend not to experience his dynamic work.
The climate of faith or of unbelief in a church has a profound effect on its members. We can help or hinder one another spiritually and this puts a special onus on church leadership.
We all tend to remember the scare-stories. And, naturally, Satan will be active to spoil and twist any genuine work of God. But many of those who have experienced “renewal” speak of very biblical effects. Through it God has brought people into adoration. This is not the same as thanksgiving but it is a deep welling up of love, awe and worship of God.
Many testify to Scripture coming alive in a new and deeper way, even if they had extensive Bible-knowledge previously. Then there is a greater expectation of God intervening supernaturally in answer to prayer.
God also gives spiritual gifts of which there are some 27 mentioned in the NT. All must be governed and weighed by Scripture. If someone says, “God has said this to me” some Christians react negatively. Yet those same Christians have long accepted that God guides us through advice, circumstances, inner conviction as well as Scripture. But, whatever language we use, we should never put anything we think God has said to us on a level with Scripture. Rather it must be judged at the bar of Scripture.
It seems to me essential to Christian discipleship to take seriously all the wonderful things Scripture teaches we should be experiencing (adoration, power, gifts, love, joy, peace etc.); to be open to receiving them from God and to pray earnestly that he will release them in our experience.
Scripture also says that we should go on being filled with the Spirit. It is no use relying on some past experience, however wonderful it was.
The NT has a wonderful balance in saying that God works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose. It is God’s work and we should earnestly ask him to do it. But we also have to exercise our wills in obedience to him.
Christians who seek God’s blessing but don’t use their wills to obey him will dry up spiritually. Christians who try to live their lives by will-power without seeking God’s powerful blessing within them are doomed to failure.
Be a both/and Christian not an either/or Christian!
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction