Is too much experience a bad thing? How does an emphasis on God’s word square with the activity of the Spirit? It is to these and other questions that John Woodhouse turns in the second article of his series.
There is a strange criticism sometimes levelled at certain kinds of Christians: “They are too experiential”. I think I know what is meant, but what a strange way to put it—as though we can have too much ‘experience’. It’s a little like saying, “That person breathes too much”. Should there be, or can there be, some limit placed on our experience of God?
My argument in the first article of this series (in Briefing #10) might be misunderstood to be arguing against experience in the Christian life. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Christian life is characterized by deep and profound experiences, so much so that, in New Testament times, the Christians were often described with reference to the distinctive experiences that marked them out. There are several expressions like this in the New Testament. One of them is ‘the called ones’ or ‘those who are called’. For the Christians, the experience of having been called was so distinctive and all-embracing that it identified them. The reference is, of course, to being called by God through the gospel word—called to God himself. What an experience that is: to have heard the gospel, and to have realized that you were not being addressed by man, but by God himself!
Do you know that experience? If you do, then don’t accuse others of having too much experience.
There is another very wonderful, and apparently favourite, expression for Christians in the New Testament that refers to them by a characteristic experience. Christians are called ‘believers’. They are people who have this experience: faith in God. They have been addressed by God, and what God has said to them has brought them to this experience of ‘trust’ or ‘belief’. What an experience! Is there any other to match it? Can we have too much of it?
Word vs. Spirit?
In the first of these articles, I came to the point of saying that where there is the Word of God and faith in God because of that word, there is the totality of Christianity. Is this anti-experiential? No, for it focuses on the central definitive experiences of the Christian life.
In this article we will look at a common objection to this thesis: that this narrow emphasis on word is at the expense of the Spirit. It is argued that the arid tedium of much evangelical Christianity is seen right here: the emphasis on word has produced a religion of the mind only. Our preachers are lecturers (with all the dullness that implies) and our Bible studies are literary seminars. Surely there is more to Christianity than just words?
It is an objection that is not without substance, and it comes from people who themselves uphold the reality and power of God’s word. They would offer little objection to anything I have said thus far, except to its exclusiveness, its narrowness. They would object, in other words, not to what I have said; only to what I have left unsaid. It would be agreed that wherever there is genuine Christianity there will certainly be the word of God and faith in God. That is necessary … but it is not all. It is not adequate. It is not sufficient.
When this inadequacy is felt (as I believe it is being felt by many today) Christian ministries begin to take on a new shape. The Christian life begins to develop in a new way. There is, of course, a word dimension, but people begin to seek the missing Spirit dimension. These may not be completely unrelated, but they are nevertheless viewed as distinct and different. The minister still studies his Bible and preaches it—of course—but he is also ‘led by the Spirit’, which is something distinct. The Christian person still reads their Bible and listens to sermons, but there is another experience sought after: an encounter with the Spirit.
An increasing number of Christian meetings are being structured round these two distinct dimensions of Christian experience. There is the reading of the Bible with the sermon, and then there is a quite separate time when the Spirit of God is expected to do something more. It has been described to me like this:
Of course God meets us in his word. But that is not the only way in which he deals with us. There is another dimension, a more direct working of God—almost a more tangible working, by his Spirit.
I want to suggest that this line of thinking, and the implications it has for Christian life and ministry, are mistaken in a most serious way.
Before expanding on this, it needs to be said that it is certainly possible to have an emphasis on words (even the words of the Bible) which is inadequate.
I can study the historical and cultural background of the letters to the seven churches; I can explain the literary structure of the letter to the Romans; I can weave jokes and illustrations round a passage from the gospels; I can talk about the meanings of Greek and Hebrew words. And they can all have to do with the Bible. But I have not necessarily encountered, nor conveyed, the Word of God. All those things can aid understanding the Word of God, but they are not themselves the Word of God. God’s Word is simply what God has said.
There are times when evangelicals fall into this error of studying the words of the Bible for their own sake. If we separate the words from the Speaker and give them autonomy, we have missed the point of Bible study entirely. (There are schools of modern literary criticism which insist on doing just that, and must therefore be regarded as inadequate approaches to the Bible.) The words of the Bible matter, but only because they are the words of God.
Word AND Spirit
Having made that qualification, let us look at the connection between God’s Spirit and God’s Word in the Bible. One problem for us in understanding this connection is that English lacks a word which has the range of meaning of the Hebrew ruah and the Greek pneuma. Both of these words can mean ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’. Throughout the Bible, the Spirit of God is as closely connected to the Word of God as breath is connected to speech. The connection is suggested in the very first words of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the breath of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there by light”; and there was light. (Gen. 1:1-3)
Skipping past generations of Old Testament history, we also find the connection in the prophecy of Isaiah.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isa 11:2)
See how close the attributes of the Spirit are to the attributes of the Word of God. More clearly still, consider Isaiah 59:21:
“And as for me, this is my covenant with them”, says the Lord: “My spirit which is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your children, or out of the mouth of your children’s children”, says the Lord, “from this time forth and for evermore.”
Here it is not too much to say that “my spirit which is upon you” and “my words which I have put in your mouth” are the same thing. They are used interchangeably. The connection is maintained in the very important text of Isaiah 61:1a.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted …
Notice the ‘because’. Jesus quotes this prophecy in Luke 4:18:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim the gospel.
This is the same as saying: “He has anointed me to proclaim the gospel therefore the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”.
Where the word of God is, there the Spirit of God is also. Word and breath cannot be separated. The connection flows on into the New Testament.
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matt 10:16-20)
What will the Spirit do? Speak through the testimony of the disciples to Jesus—through the gospel they will speak. Note also the famous statement in Acts 1:8:
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.
What will happen with the coming of the Spirit? The disciples will bear witness to Jesus. They will speak the gospel. See it happening again in Acts 5:30-32:
The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.
The gospel they preach is not only their testimony, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit … (1 Thess 1:4-6)
Are there two things going on here—“not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit”? No, he is describing one experience: what they experienced “when our gospel came”. The gospel is never just words.
Exactly the same point is made in the next chapter:
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess 2:13)
The gospel comes in power and in the Holy Spirit precisely because it is the word of God. And notice, too, that Paul says that God is at work in you who believe. How is God at work? ‘By his Spirit’ would be a thoroughly Pauline way of putting it, but here he says it is the word of God which is at work. Is there a difference? I suggest not. It is by his word that God’s Spirit is at work.
We will understand the work of the Spirit of God in the New Testament, and in our lives, only when we see the inseparable connection between God’s Spirit and God’s Word—when we see, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 6:17, that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God.
There are many statements in the New Testament where ‘Spirit’ and ‘Word’ are virtually interchangeable. When James says that God “brought us forth by the word of truth” (Jas 1:18), would he have been saying something very different if he had said, “God brought us forth by the work of his Spirit”?
You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living abiding word of God … (1 Pet 1:23)
Is he speaking of something different from Jesus?
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Jesus said of the Holy Spirit:
When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:8-11)
Was he speaking of something other than what would happen through the proclamation of the gospel? The Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 16:13) who will lead us into all truth, and this truth is the gospel—as Jesus said “he will bear witness to me” (John 15:26).
Let me return to our proposition: Where there is the Word of God, and faith in God because of that word, there is the totality of Christianity.
There is a danger in this proposition. It can be misunderstood as: Where there are words about God and some kind of assent to the words, there is Christianity. And perhaps some of our Christianity has become like that. Certainly, you can have ten thousand words about God and not have Christianity. That is not what I am saying.
Where there is the word of God, there certainly is the Holy Spirit. After all, it is his sword. The Christian life is fully lived in the power of the Spirit, not when something additional to the word of God is discovered and called a spiritual gift, but when, and only when, the word of God is at work in you who believe—when God, by his Spirit, addresses us and we receive his word.