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Be filled with the Spirit

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:15-21).

A biblical imperative

Being filled with the Holy Spirit is a Biblical injunction. It’s a New Covenant imperative. As such, every Christian should obey.

Notice that the verb in question is passive. Those being filled are having something done to them. We also know from the Scriptures that the One doing the filling is Jesus. He is the baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and we are grateful.

The verb being passive is not to imply that we should be at all passive about being filled with the Holy Spirit. Being so is not an optional extra, for it empowers us in our witness, enabling us in words, ways, works and wonders. Jesus is our example in this, as is the early church. In fact, Jesus made it clear that we should ask, seek, and knock in this regard (Luke 11:9-10). These injunctions are all in the present continuous, and best translated “ask and keep on asking”, “seek and keep on seeking”, and “knock and keep on knocking”. We could therefore say that every Christian should be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we should encourage each other to never settle for anything less!

A definitive experience

The terminology used in the book of Acts in describing infilling is instructive. The Holy Spirit is “poured out”, “comes upon” and “fills”. Those being filled “receive” and “drink”. The connection between the two is facilitated by the laying on of hands on occasion, but not always. But no matter the means, the outcome is always definitive. Being filled with the Spirit is a true baptism. An immersion. A dipping, dunking, soaking, steeping and saturating. The idea is one of a bottle thrown into the ocean. The bottle is in the water, and the water is in the bottle. Everyone who is filled with the Spirit knows it. Others present at the time know it too. The evidence is often audible, the most common by far being speaking in tongues, although numerous other signs are included in the Biblical and are still attested to today.

There is merit to the argument that the Scriptures refer to the believer’s first infilling of the Spirit as a baptism, and to subsequent comparable encounters as infillings. This subtle distinction proves important as we recognise that baptism in the Holy Spirit propels the believer into the realms of the Spirit in a definitive way. But there is equal merit in noting that everyone baptised was already in that which they were baptised into. In other words, baptism is a secondary action, but not something totally unfamiliar. Those who are baptised in water first go down into the water before being immersed in it. In the same way, anyone being immersed in the Spirit must already be in the Spirit for that baptism to be able to take place. Understanding this helps us grasp that all Christians are born of the Spirit, have the Spirit, and are in the Spirit, even if not baptised in the Spirit. The latter is distinct from the new birth, and not for salvation, but for empowerment in witness.

Not an ethereal Gnostic bunny-trail

Gnosticism is a category of heresy for any wayward belief which appeals to some form of special “gnosis” or knowledge.

Spiritual things are always vulnerable to Gnostic influences, because spiritual things are by definition revelatory in nature. Everyone alive to God is so thanks to Word and Spirit. That said, some have received much more than others. Maturity plays a part. Having being baptised in the Spirit does also. But then, so do gifts and callings. That’s what makes comparison impossible. How can we compare ears to eyes, as they have completely different functions. Yet in the church, comparisons are both odious and ubiquitous. And because they are objectively impossible, we accomplish the measurement of the immeasurable by imposing the criteria of our subculture.

We keep stumbling over this thing. Dismissing the reality of us having all received a faith of equal standing, and thereby affording one another equal value based on Christ’s assessment, we insist on classifying the citizens of the kingdom based upon our own set of arbitrary performance indicators. Then we’re mortified when the high-profile tele-ministry fails morally. In our convoluted thinking, gifts, callings and influence somehow amount to spirituality and/or maturity. Not so! The outcomes of our lives are by grace and through faith. Confusing performance with spirituality is only possible in the first place thanks to our underlying confusion regarding Law and Grace. It is in this kind of doctrinal detritus that Gnosticism thrives as self-righteousness proliferates.

Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are saturated with this folly. Being filled with the Spirit is right in the middle of the morass, along with anything else regarded as spiritual in that particular subculture. This could be prayer and fasting. It could be speaking tongues or prophesying. It could be miracles, signs and wonders. It could even be serving, or giving, or Bible knowledge. Or falling over and the like. Or a blend of these. Whatever the permutation, it all too seldom defines authentic spirituality by righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, and even less often by love.

I once heard the dynamics of this kind of Charismatic Gnosticism described in terms of drug dealership. The leaders deliver a dose of the fix on a regular basis, for which the church members slavishly pay their ten percent, and jump through the other hoops set before them. The whole setup is stick-and-carrot riddled, but inevitably over-promises and under-delivers, always reaching for an elusive more. Like the level of life in any church, things wax and wane over time, and the more of the treadmill is in reality nothing other than more of the same. Everyone is always getting filled, but few ever are filled in any definitive way.

The Galatian believers were case in point. Obedience to elements of the Law of Moses became their subculture’s criteria for spirituality. Paul regarded them as foolish, and as having been bewitched. They had started in grace, but were pursuing a spirituality of their own design, and doing so in their own strength. Carefully heeding their example will serve us well.

Rain clouds and rising fountains

The flood of Noah’s day provides us with valuable insight. As is often the case, spiritual things reflect in the natural world, casting shadows in the tangible which enable us to better grasp the workings of the invisible. In similar vein as water, the Scriptures also reveal the Spirit as oil, wind, fire and seal.

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:11–12). The waters came down, but the waters also came up. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is “poured out” and “comes upon”, but also wells up from within. Jesus was emphatic that anyone who came to Him thirsty would be given this river of living water, and that it would well up from within them (John 7:37-39). I’m sure you can see it now. The bottle is in the ocean and the ocean is in the bottle. We are filled in encounter, where Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we receive. And we are filled as He wells up form within us, for all who are born again have the Holy Spirit in residence.

The conflict in notion resolves as we embrace the genius of the “and”. It is not one or the other, but the one and the other.

Our desire is to obey. Our desire is to be filled with the Spirit, just as the Scriptures instruct. But let’s forgo the nonsensical prescriptions of our subcultures. Let’s desire and pursue the fullness and freedom already given us in Christ. This is our privilege and our inheritance in Him. Let’s recognise that the Scriptures often encourage us to seek the Lord, but never do they tell us how. That’s because seeking the Lord is an “in the Spirit” and a “by the Spirit” thing. Thinking that we know how is the surest sign that we have no idea at all.

New wine

“Do not be drunk with wine … but be filled with the Spirit”.

Could any metaphor be more apt. Nine o clock one morning, in an upper room in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit fell upon the one hundred and twenty saints gathered there. In the aftermath of the initial torrent of tears and laughter, they found themselves on the streets of the city, bewildered. People thought they were drunk. Yet, Peter stood and preached the Gospel in clarity and power, and three thousand people were saved. He was so clear about a number of things that day, including the fact that what they had just received was for all who would believe. The drinks were free, and Heaven’s Bar was open!

This drunkenness so offends the religious mind. Bit it’s not the destructive drunkenness of wine, but the delightful inebriation of the New Covenant. Those imbibing on this new wine find their defences coming down, and their generosity going up. Their’s is not the belligerence or frivolity of the fermented grape, but the childlike embrace of the Lord and the moment. Joy unspeakable, and full of glory. Not to mention full of song.

For those who are duck to water with this kind of thing, great may be your joy. In this is great blessing, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. Live drunk, and join the soaking meeting circuit. Just don’t be prescriptive about it. Or judgmental of others. Respect, honour and encourage other believers who have never been to a soaking meeting, and who have no intention of ever attending one. Appreciate that they may be just as filled with the Spirit as what you are. For just as not everyone is at their happiest in the clubs over the weekend, several beers down, not all Christians are equally enthralled with hanging out in Heaven’s Bar. Those who love it love it, but those who don’t end up staying home. And to these, the Lord is as generous and loving, and His desire is that they be as filled as anyone else. And so He invites them into the water just as surely. To use Ezekiel’s analogy, in He calls them, ankle deep, knee, deep, waste deep, and beyond. Deep within them He arises, deep calling unto deep, no one knowing the heart of man better than his own spirit within him, born of God and one with Him. The testimonies are endless. The man who dreamt he was being filled with the Spirit, and saw himself speaking in tongues, only to find himself slowly waking, all the while his prayer language pouring from his lips. How gracious is our God.

Let’s also recognise that the Lord is able to turn our rooms into an upper room any time He chooses. What He did in Jerusalem He also did at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea also. And what He did then, He still does now. There is no need to manipulate or manufacture. Authenticity has great value, but imitation little.

Keeping the main thing the main thing

What is important here is that we are filled with the Spirit. The focus should surely not be on the process of infilling, but on the resultant fullness. Some subcultures revolve around the unhelpful notion that we somehow leak, and so require incessantly repeating infillings in order to be Spirit-filled. Other subcultures rightly recognise that no Christian can ever be devoid of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is God Himself, which makes commodity-speak about Him nonsensical. We either have Him or we don’t, because He is a person, who isn’t issued by weight or length or any other measure. Yet the infilling of the Spirit is experiential, and those who receive should surely have more tangible evidence on offer than sound doctrine.

The crux of the issue is clear. Fullness in the Lord. On the one hand, the experience of His habitation within us, and on the other His enabling. Some distinguish between these two by saying that the Spirit is within us for our sake, and upon us for others. This dichotomy helps our understanding, but does not quite hold up Biblically though, for those who drink receive a river in their bellies, and that river refreshes them as well as others. It is not a matter of either/or; remember the genius of the “and”.

By grace alone through faith alone

A life in the Spirit is by grace and through faith, which is in essence a matter of control.

Scripture cautions us regarding the Spirit. In our unbelief, we risk insulting Him, grieving Him, resisting Him and and quenching Him. The language is revealing. There is nothing we can do to help Him, but we are able to hinder Him. We are the ones to keep in step with Him, and not the other way around. And so it is that in concluding, we return once again to the Gospel. God is gracious. Ours is to believe, and in our believing, to yield.

Great obedience to God is not founded in our strength or our courage. It is rooted in trust. In letting go. In yielding to His thoughts, His ways, His pace, His path. This is the key to being filled with the Spirit. We do not fill ourselves. The Holy Spirit is the gift of the Father, and Jesus is the one who does the filling. To be filled with the Spirit is His doing. We believe, and believing, receive.

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The Gospel empowers

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31a–39).

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

More than conquerors! Do all things! The prophet Zechariah declared Christians to be prisoners of hope. Jesus Himself said that we would do even greater things than He did. Christianity’s history is that it often thrives most vibrantly in the face of vehement opposition. Something indomitable is going on here, and the Gospel is the cause of that.

It is right-standing with God that sets Christians up for risk-taking, because although a righteous man may fail, he can never be a failure. Right-standing grants glorious immunity for it is apart from the Law. As such, it is divorced from performance, and is defining, constant, unchanging, irrevocable and inviolable. God says that we are not guilty. He says that we are not guilty even when we are guilty. Even when sinning – literally busy sinning – Christians are still justified (not guilty before God), for they are in Christ.

The Gospel doesn’t just tell people that they are new; it actually makes them new! Sin appeals to the flesh, but it cannot satisfy. Sooner or later, with our righteousness a settled conclusion, the desire to live significant lives arises. And since failing cannot turn us into failures, we have every reason to be bold, risk-taking adventurers in our pilgrimage. Someone with nothing to lose has everything to gain, and with the promises of God factored in, all things are possible! Why pray small prayers when you can pray big ones? Why aim low when you can aim high? If it really is all by grace alone through faith alone (which it is), and if it is all to Christ’s account, and already paid (which it is), and if He really is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we could ask or imagine (which He is), then why not go for it!

The Gospel is clear. The gifts and callings of God are without repentance. The freedom and fullness of our salvation are irrevocable gifts. Why then settle at any point, or ever take no for an answer? A squandered inheritance is not irreplaceable, because God does not have to reallocate slices of pie; He simply makes more pie! (The Lord does not have to take from the older brother in order to reinstate a returning prodigal’s inheritance). Christ is as much Healer of the sick Christian as of the healthy one. This never changes, even on one’s death-bed. Christ is as much Provider to rich as to poor, in bull markets and in bear. His riches in glory are the measure of our supply. No matter how much has been squandered, for whatever reason, Zechariah is right – we are prisoners of hope.

The gleanings of recent years have included in their yield four magnificent illustrations that illustrate our point. None is original to me, but I’ve used them all repeatedly. I can’t recall where they came from (best guess Rob Rufus on most), or else I’d give credit where due. They’re just too good to exclude, though, and so if it’s you I’m plagiarising, please forgive.

Life in Christ is like walking on the high-wire, with His perfect work our safety net. We might slip and fall, but are guaranteed to remain safely suspended in the lofty context of His victory. When we lose our footing, there is no devastating plunge to destruction. Instead, all that needs to be done is for us to regain our equilibrium and get walking again. We’re righteous in Christ, and in that all-important regard, nothing’s changed. Consequently, when we walk, we do so confidently, sans anxiety or fear, for no matter how tetchy things might get on the wind-buffeted high-wire of life from time to time, we cannot fall. So let’s go for it!

For those who love the game of cricket, life in Christ is an innings at the crease with an umpire who will never give us out. The bales scatter; we’re not out. Caught playing the shot; not out. Plumb LBW; a shake of the head from the umpire. We can’t even be run out. That’s because every ball that life or devil bowls is effectively a no-ball. The cross has rendered every ball a free hit. Each and every one remains a scoring opportunity, but none can take our wicket. So, spinner or seamer, it matters not. Simply take a stroll down the wicket and have a go!

Our life in Christ is a ride on an up-escalator. The inexorable upward momentum makes it well-nigh impossible for us to lose ground. Serious regression takes concerted, sustained effort, for He wills and works for our salvation at all times. Stumble we might, but as we do, the escalator of His loving-kindness continues to carry us into our preferable future. He works for our good in all things, even if the things themselves are not of Him and not good. We can rest in Christ and enjoy the blessings and privileges that are ours by unmerited favour, for it is He at work to will and to do in and through us. Forwards, upwards, glory to glory – that’s the doing of this Gospel in which we stand. Let’s live large, and go for it!

Ours is the privileged life of the adopted child. (This is Biblical fact. Indeed, we are His four times over. He created us; He redeemed (purchased) us; we are born again of Him; and He has adopted us). He has taken us into His family and given us His name. We are His, and all our stuff is His! He is our protector and provider, wills the best for us, and plans and follows through accordingly. And so, out there on the giant school playground of life, there’s no need to submit to the bullies of anxiety, fear, guilt, manipulation, oppression, condemnation and shame, and no need to inflict their pain on others. On the contrary, there’s every reason to suck the stuffing out of the marrow bone of life – who is your Daddy!

Nothing is more empowering than the inability to fail. Temporary setbacks are inevitable, but in Christ we have been placed out of defeat’s reach. We might yet disappoint ourselves and others, but our relationship with God is disappointment-proof in any ultimate sense. We are in Christ, and the perfection of His performance has been imputed to us. The most natural thing in the world now is for us to embrace the advantage and live well.

The Biblical accounts of Abraham of old illustrate the potential we’ve been presented with magnificently. Read the descriptive account of his life and times in the Old Testament, and it’s the story of a typical human being. There are moments of extraordinary faith, and there are times of sin and unbelief. He reads just like us. Then read Heaven’s record of that same life and times in the New Testament, and what you find is a fully sanitised account. Post the cross, Abraham suddenly presents as a super-saint, who never doubted for a moment, nor put a foot wrong. Can you see it? The same life and the identical events, when viewed through the gift of righteousness, is flawless. It’s failure-proof. Right-standing with God ensures that there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

The righteous live by faith, and that life has every reason to be an abundant one, for there is no other kind of life in Christ!

This is one of a series of posts adapted from the e-book “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox. Go to the first post in the series by clicking here.

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The power of the Gospel

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation!

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16–17)

1This glorious Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not passive, but active. It works. It does stuff; it accomplishes things. It’s also not just that the Gospel can be powerful when put to appropriate use, for example by powerful preaching or testimony, or when accompanied by confirming signs and wonders. The Gospel is powerful all on its own without any of these very good things attending it. Stand-alone, the Gospel is powerful! It is the power of God for salvation. It’s glorious to partner with, and it certainly makes good use of our gifts and callings, but the Gospel all on its own is able to save, for saving is its purpose, and save it does.

EarthGlobeAfrica.tif.746x600_q85The creation account helps us to understand. God the Father decreed; He spoke by the Living Word, Jesus; Holy Spirit did the work. Will, Word and Works, and there you have it – the Trinity in glorious synergy bringing something out of nothing. Into the dark, formless void that was, Father decreed, and that which was Spoken was accomplished by the Spirit, who was to be found brooding over the project to do all that was willed. In exactly the same way, salvation in Father’s will, through and in Jesus, and by the Spirit. When the Gospel is proclaimed, the Good News and the Spirit work together in creative synergy – Will, Word and Works – their sublime redemptive poetry, joyfully engulfing, loving, and saving, just as choreographed to do before time began.

GerminationJesus Himself made the same point very simply when He described the Gospel as a seed. Fertile seeds are powerful things, containing everything necessary for maturity, including life, thanks to their ingenuity in design. The whole oak is in the acorn. In the same way, the freedom and fullness secured for us in Christ is in the Gospel. Jesus crucified, died, buried and raised – such a tiny seed – yet therein lies every provision and every victory, sufficient for everyone who believes, and in an abundance befitting eternity. Just as fertile seeds can lie dormant for decades before conducive conditions facilitate germination, in the same way the Gospel shared can patiently await its appointed time. Like any seed, harvest depends upon the soil into which it’s sown, but scant harvest on occasion in no way reflects upon the perfection of this seed. On the contrary, just as we’ve witnessed plants of all kinds breaking through paving or rock, the Gospel produces exceedingly abundantly above expectation, again and again, even in the most adverse of circumstances.

Both Jesus and Paul demonstrated their confidence in the power inherent in the Good News in a rather noteworthy way. Both encountered self-appointed ministries whose motives were questionable, and neither sought to put a stop to them. Both knew that the Gospel was well able to look after itself. Good motive or bad, the power of the seed remained unchanged.

picture1This blog post sets up a series of a further ten posts, each expanding on what the Gospel does. It works wonders; awesome wonders. The Gospel bears fruit; plentiful, abundant, lasting fruit. The Gospel does all that the Lord designed it to do. It is ever so worth our while teasing out the richness of the Gospel’s power, so as to better to understand, admire, appropriate and communicate it. The beauty is that the Gospel doesn’t justify or redeem or reconcile or …; it justifies and redeems and reconciles…. Where one stops and another starts is of little consequence, for the colours, flavours and facets (pick the metaphor you most prefer) work off and into one another in magnificent, enriching, enhancing and compounding splendour.

downloadContemplating the Gospel in this way is comparable to gazing into the night sky. It will always be breathtaking, and there will always be more to see. This is the nature of the infinite. Describe what you see in terms of planets, stars or galaxies, whichever you prefer, for magnificent remains magnificent, even when perspective shifts. My prayer is that this exercise in Gospel-gazing will whet your appetite for a lifetime of exploration. Together we will forage on the fringes of the inexhaustible, exploring the limitless bounds of the revelation of our Lord that will keep us captivated for all eternity.

Adapted from the e-book Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever! by Gavin Cox

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