Link back to index.html
What Does the Holy Spirit Do?
By Nicky Gumbel
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit, flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:5-8).
A couple of years ago I was in a church in Brighton. One of the Sunday school teachers was telling us about her Sunday school class the previous week. She had been telling the children about Jesus’ teaching on being born again in John 3:5-8. She was trying to explain to the children about the difference between physical birth and her spiritual birth. In trying to draw them out on the subject she asked, ‘Are you born a Christian?’ One little boy replied, ‘No, Miss. You are born normal!’
The expression ‘born again’ has become a cliché. It was popularised in America and has been used even to advertise cars. Actually, Jesus was the first person to use the expression of people who were ‘born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).
A new baby is born as a result of a man and a woman coming together in sexual intercourse. In the spiritual realm, when the Spirit of God and the spirit of a man or woman come together, a new spiritual being is created. There is a new birth, spiritually. This is what Jesus is speaking about when he says, ‘You must be born again.’
Jesus was saying that physical birth is not enough. We need to be born again by the Spirit. This is what happens when we become Christians. Every single Christian is born again. We may not be able to put our finger on the exact moment it occurred, but just as we know whether or not we are alive physically, so we should know we are alive spiritually.
When we are born physically, we are born into a family. When we are born again spiritually, we are born into a Christian family. Much of the work of the Spirit can be seen in terms of a family. He assures us of our relationship with our Father and helps us to develop that relationship. He produces in us a family likeness. He unites us with our brothers and sisters, giving each member of the family different gifts and abilities. And he enables the family to grow in size.
In this chapter we will look at each of these aspects of his work in us as Christians. Until we become Christians the Spirit’s work is primarily to convict us of our sin and our need for Jesus Christ, to convince us of the truth and to enable us to put our faith in him (John 16:7-15).
The moment we come to Christ we receive complete forgiveness. The barrier between us and God has been removed. Paul says, ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Jesus took all our sins---past, present and future. God takes all our sins and buries them in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19), and as the Dutch author Corrie Ten Boom used to say, ‘He puts up a sign saying “No fishing”.’
Not only does he wipe the slate clean, but he also brings us into a relationship with God as Sons and daughters. Not all men and women are children of God in this sense, although all of us were created by God. It is only to those who receive Jesus, to those who believe in his name, that he gives the ‘right to become children of God’ (John 1:12). Sonship in the New Testament (which is used in the generic sense to include sons and daughters) is not a natural status, but a spiritual one. We become sons and daughters of God not by being born, but by being born again by the Spirit.
The Book of Romans has been described as the Himalayas of the New Testament. Chapter 8 is Mount Everest and verses 14-17 could well be described as the peak of Everest.
Because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs---heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:14-17).
First of all, there is no higher privilege than to be a child of God. Under Roman law if an adult wanted an heir he could either choose one of his own sons or adopt a son. God has only one begotten Son--—Jesus, but he has many adopted sons. There is a fairy story in which a reigning monarch adopts waifs and strays and makes them princes. In Christ, the fairy story has become solid fact. We have been adopted into God’s family. There could be no higher honour.
Billy Bray was a drunken and loose-living miner from Cornwall, born in 1794. He was always getting involved in fights and domestic quarrels. At the age of twenty-nine he became a Christian. He went home and told his wife, ‘You will never see me drunk again, by the help of the Lord.’ She never did. His words, his tones and his looks had magnetic power. He was charged with divine electricity. Crowds of miners would come and hear him preach. Many were converted and there were some remarkable healings. He was always praising God and saying that he had abundant reason to rejoice. He described himself as ‘a young prince’. He was the adopted son of God, the King of kings and therefore he was a prince, already possessing royal rights and privileges. His favourite expression was, ‘I am the son of a King.’
Once we know our status as adopted sons and daughters of God, we realise that there is no status in the world that even compares with the privilege of being a child of the Creator of the universe.
Secondly, as children we have the closest possible intimacy with God. Paul says that by the Spirit we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ Nowhere in the Old Testament is God addressed as Father. The use of the word ‘Abba’ in addressing God was distinctive of Jesus. It is impossible to translate the Aramaic word Abba. The nearest equivalent translation is probably ‘dear Father’ or ‘Daddy’. The English word ‘Daddy’ tends to suggest a Western pally relationship to a parent, whereas in Jesus’ day the father was an authority figure, and ‘Abba’, although a term of great intimacy is not a juvenile word. It was the term Jesus used in addressing God. Jesus allows us to share in that intimate relationship with God when we receive his Spirit. ‘For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship’ (v. 15).
Prince Charles has many titles. He is the Heir Apparent to the Crown, his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Knight of the Garter, Colonel in Chief of the Royal Regiment of Wales, Duke of Rothesay, Knight of the Thistle, Commander of the Royal Navy, Great Master of the Order of Bath, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland. We would address him as ‘Your Royal Highness’, but I suspect to William and Harry he is ‘Daddy’. When we become children of God we have an intimacy with our heavenly King. John Wesley, who had been very religious before his conversion, said about his conversion, ‘I exchanged the faith of a servant for the faith of a son.’
Thirdly, the Spirit gives us the deepest possible experience of God. ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (v. 16). He wants us to know, deep within, that we are children of God. In the same way that I want my children to know and experience my love for them and my relationship with them, so God wants his children to be assured of that love and of that relationship.
One man who only experienced this quite late in his life is the South African Bishop Bill Burnett, who was at one time Archbishop of Capetown. I heard him say, ‘When I became a bishop I believed in theology [the truth about God], but not in God. I was a practical atheist. I sought righteousness by doing good.’ One day, after he had been a bishop for fifteen years, he went to speak at a confirmation service on the text in Romans, ‘God has poured out his love [ie, his love for us] into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us’ (Romans 5:5). After he had preached, he came home, poured himself a strong drink and was reading the paper when he felt the Lord saying, ‘Go and pray.’ He went into his chapel, knelt down in silence and sensed the Lord saying to him, ‘I want your body.’ He could not quite understand why (he is tall and thin and says, ‘I’m not exactly Mr Universe’). However, he gave every part of himself to the Lord. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘what I preached about happened. I experienced electric shocks of love.’ He found himself flat on the floor and heard the Lord saying, ‘You are my son.’ When he got up, he knew indeed that something had happened. It proved a turning point in his life and ministry. Since then, through his ministry, many others have come to experience sonship through the witness of the Spirit.
Fourthly, Paul tells us that to be a son or daughter of God is the greatest security. For if we are children of God we are also ‘heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:17). Under Roman law an adopted son would take his father’s name and inherit his estate. As children of God we are heirs. The only difference is that we inherit, not on the death of our father, but on our own death. This is why Billy Bray was thrilled to think that ‘his heavenly Father had reserved everlasting glory and blessedness’ for him. We will enjoy an eternity of love with Jesus.
Paul adds, ‘If indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory’ (v. 17). This is not a condition but an observation. Christians identify with Jesus Christ. This may mean some rejection and opposition here and now, but that is nothing compared to our inheritance as children of God.
Birth is not just the climax of a period of gestation; it is the beginning of a new life and new relationships. Our relationship with our parents grows and deepens over a long period. This happens as we spend time with them; it does not happen overnight.
Our relationship with God, as we have seen in the early chapters, grows and deepens as we spend time with him. The Spirit of God helps us to develop our relationship with God. He brings us into the presence of the Father. ‘For through him [Jesus] we both [Jews and Gentiles alike] have access to the Father by one Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:18). Through Jesus, by the Spirit, we have access to the presence of God.
Jesus, through his death on the cross, removed the barrier between us and God. That is why we are able to come into Cod’s presence. Often we don’t appreciate that when we are praying.
When I was at university I had a room above Barclay’s Bank in the High Street. We used to have regular lunch parties in this room, and one day we were discussing whether or not the noise we made could be heard in the bank below. In order to find out, we decided to conduct an experiment. A girl called Kay went down into the bank. As it was lunchtime, it was packed with customers. The arrangement was that we would gradually build up the noise. First, one would jump on the floor, then two, three, four and eventually five. Next we would jump off chairs and then off the table. We wanted to see at which point we could be heard downstairs in the bank.
It turned out that the ceiling was rather thinner than we had thought. The first jump could definitely be heard. The second made a loud noise. After about the fifth, which sounded like a thunderstorm, there was total silence in the bank. Everyone had stopped cashing cheques and was looking at the ceiling, wondering what was going on. Kay was right in the middle of the bank and thought, ‘What do I do? If I go out it’s going to look very odd, but if I stay it is going to get worse!’ She stayed. The noise built up and up. Eventually bits of polystyrene started to fall from the ceiling. At that moment, fearing the ceiling would cave in, she rushed up to tell us that we could indeed be heard in the bank!
Since, through Jesus, the barrier has been removed, God hears us when we pray. We have immediate access to his presence, by the Spirit. We don’t need to jump up and down to get his attention!
Not only does the Spirit bring us into the presence of God, he also helps us to pray (Romans 8:26). What matters is not the place in which we pray, the position we pray in or whether or not we use set forms of prayer; what matters is whether or not we are praying in the Spirit. All prayer should be led by the Spirit. Without his help prayer can easily become lifeless and dull. In the Spirit we are caught up in the Godhead and it becomes the most important activity of our lives.
Another part of developing our relationship with God is understanding what he is saying to us. Again the Spirit of God enables us to do this. Paul says, ‘I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened...’ (Ephesians 1:17—18). The Spirit of God is a Spirit of wisdom and revelation. He enlightens our eyes so that, for example, we can understand what God is saying through the Bible.
Before I became a Christian I read and heard the Bible endlessly, but I did not understand it. It meant nothing to me. The reason it did not make sense to me was that I did not have the Spirit of God to interpret it. The Spirit of God is the best interpreter of what God has said.
Ultimately we will never understand Christianity without the Holy Spirit enlightening our eyes. We can see enough to make a step of faith, which is not a blind leap of faith; but real understanding often only follows faith. St Augustine said, ‘I believe in order that I might understand.’ Only when we believe and receive the Holy Spirit can we really understand God’s revelation.
The Spirit of God helps us to develop our relationship with God and he enables us to sustain that relationship. People are often worried that they will not be able to keep going in the Christian life. They are right to worry. We can’t keep going by ourselves, but God by his Spirit keeps us going. It is the Spirit who brings us into a relationship with God and it is the Spirit who maintains that relationship. We are utterly dependent on him.
I always find it fascinating to observe how children can look like both parents at the same time when the parents themselves may look so different. Even husbands and wives sometimes grow to look like each other as they spend time together over the years!
As we spend time in the presence of God, the Spirit of God transforms us. As Paul writes, ‘And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are transformed into the moral likeness of Jesus Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is developed in our lives. Paul tells us that ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22). These are the characteristics that the Spirit of God develops in our lives. It is not that we become perfect immediately, but over a period of time there should be a change.
The first and most important fruit of the Spirit is love. Love lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Bible is the story of God’s love for us. His desire is that we should respond by loving him and loving our neighbour. The evidence of the work of the Spirit in our lives will be an increasing love for Cod and an increasing love for others. Without this love everything else counts for nothing.
Second in Paul’s list is joy. The journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote: ‘The most characteristic and uplifting of the manifestations of conversion is rapture---an inexpressible joy which suffuses our whole being, making our fears dissolve into nothing, and our expectations all move heavenwards.’ This joy is not dependent on our outward circumstances; it comes from the Spirit within. Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned for many years and frequently tortured on account of his faith, wrote of this joy: ‘Alone in my cell, cold, hungry and in rags, I danced for joy every night.., sometimes I was so filled with joy that I felt I would burst if I did not give it expression.’
The third fruit listed is peace. Detached from Christ, inner peace is a kind of spiritual marshmallow full of softness and sweetness but without much actual substance. The Greek word and Hebrew equivalent shalom means ‘wholeness’, ‘soundness’, ‘well-being’ and ‘oneness with God’. There is a longing within every human heart for peace like that. Epictetus, the first-century pagan thinker, said, ‘While the Emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns, more than ever for outward peace.’
It is wonderful to see those whose characters have been transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ as these and the other fruit of the Spirit have grown in their lives. A woman in her eighties in our congregation said of a former vicar, ‘He gets more and more like our Lord.’ I cannot think of a higher compliment than that. It is the work of the Spirit of God to make us more and more like Jesus so that we carry the fragrance of the knowledge of him wherever we go (2 Corinthians 2:14).
When we come to Christ and become sons and daughters of God we become part of a huge family. God’s desire, like that of every normal parent, is that there should be unity in his family. Jesus prayed for unity among his followers (John 17). Paul pleaded with the Ephesian Christians to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3, italics mine).
The same Holy Spirit lives in every Christian wherever they are; whatever the denomination, background, colour or race. The same Spirit is in every child of God and his desire is that we should be united. Indeed, it is a nonsense for the church to be divided because there is ‘one body and one Spirit.., one hope.. .one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4:4—6, italics mine).
The same Spirit indwells Christians in Russia, China, Africa, America, the UK or wherever. In one sense it is not so important what denomination we are---Roman Catholic or Protestant; Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican or House Church. What is more important is whether or not we have the Spirit of God. If people have the Spirit of God living within them, they are Christians, and our brothers and sisters. It is a tremendous privilege to be part of this huge family; one of the great joys of coming to Christ is to experience this unity. There is a closeness and depth of relationship in the Christian church which I have never found outside of it. We must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit at every level: in our small groups, congregations, local church and the worldwide church.
Although there is often a family likeness and, hopefully, unity in the family, there is also great variety. No two children are identical---not even ‘identical’ twins are exactly alike. So it is in the body of Christ. Every Christian is different; each has a different contribution to make, each has a different gift. In the New Testament there are lists of some of the gifts of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians Paul lists nine gifts:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another the ability to speak in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each man, just as he determines (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).
Elsewhere he mentions other gifts: apostles, teachers, helpers, administrators (1 Corinthians 12:28—30), evangelists and pastors (Ephesians 4), serving, encouraging, giving, leadership, showing mercy (Romans 12:7), hospitality and speaking (1 Peter 4). No doubt these lists were not intended to be exhaustive.
All good gifts are from God, even if some, such as miracles, more obviously demonstrate the unusual acts of God in his world. Spiritual gifts include natural talents which have been transformed by the Holy Spirit. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann points out, ‘In principle every human potentiality and capacity can become charismatic [ie, a gift of the Spirit] through a person’s call, if only they are used in Christ.’
These gifts are given to all Christians. The expression ‘to each one’ runs like a thread through 1 Corinthians 12. Every Christian is part of the body of Christ. There are many different parts, but one body (v. 12). We are baptised by (or in) one Spirit (v. 13). We are all given the one Spirit to drink (v. 13). There are no first- and second-class Christians. All Christians receive the Spirit. All Christians have spiritual gifts.
There is an urgent need for the gifts to be exercised. One of the major problems in the church at large is that so few are exercising their gifts. The church growth expert Eddie Gibbs said, ‘The present high level of unemployment in the nation pales into insignificance in comparison with that which prevails in the church.’37 As a result, a few people are left doing everything and are totally exhausted, while the rest are under utilised. The church has been likened to a football match, in which thousands of people desperately in need of exercise watch twenty-two people desperately in need of a rest!
The church cannot operate in maximum effectiveness until each person is playing his or her part. As David Watson, the writer and church leader, pointed out, ‘In different traditions, the church for years has been either pulpit-centred or altar-centred. In both situations the dominant role has been played by the minister or priest.’ The church will only operate with maximum effectiveness when every person is using his or her gifts.
The Spirit of God gives each of us gifts. God does not require us to have many gifts, but he does require us to use what we have and to desire more (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1).
It is natural for families to grow. God said to Adam and Eve, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ It should be natural for the family of God to grow. Again, this is the work of the Spirit. Jesus said, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
The Spirit of God gives us both a desire and the ability to tell others. The playwright Murray Watts tells the story of a young man who was convinced of the truth of Christianity, but was paralysed with fear at the very thought of having to admit to being ‘a Christian’. The idea of telling anyone about his new-found faith, with all the dangers of being dubbed a religious nut-case, appalled him.
For many weeks he tried to banish the thought of religion from his mind, but it was no use. It was as if he heard a whisper in his conscience, repeating over and over again, ‘Follow me.’
At last he could stand it no longer and he went to a very old man, who had been a Christian for the best part of a century. He told him of his nightmare, this terrible burden of ‘witnessing to the light’, and how it stopped him from becoming a Christian. The man sighed and shook his head. ‘This is a matter between you and Christ,’ he said. ‘Why bring all these other people into it?’ The young man nodded slowly.
‘Go home,’ said the old man. ‘Go into your bedroom alone. Forget the world. Forget your family, and make it a secret between you and God.’
The young man felt a weight fall from him as the old man spoke. ‘You mean, I don’t have to tell anyone?’
‘No,’ said the old man.
‘No one at all?’
‘Not if you don’t want to.’ Never had anyone dared to give him this advice before.
‘Are you sure?’ asked the young man, beginning to tremble with anticipation. ‘Can this be right?’
‘It is right for you,’ said the old man.
So the young man went home, knelt down in prayer and was converted to Christ. Immediately, he ran down the stairs and into the kitchen, where his wife, father and three friends were sitting. ‘Do you realise,’ he said, breathless with excitement, ‘that it’s possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?’
When we experience the Spirit of God we want to tell others. As we do, the family grows. The Christian family should never be static. It should be continually growing and drawing in new people, who themselves receive the power of the Holy Spirit and go out and tell others about Jesus.
I have stressed throughout this chapter that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Paul says, ‘If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ’ (Romans 8:9). Yet not every Christian is filled with the Spirit. Paul writes to the Christians at Ephesus and says, ‘Be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). In the next chapter we will look at how we can be filled with the Spirit.
We started off the previous chapter with Genesis 1:1—2 (the first verses in the Bible) and I want to end this chapter by looking at Revelation 22:17 (one of the last verses in the Bible). The Spirit of God is active throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say. “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life’ (Revelation 22:17).
God wants to fill every one of us with his Spirit. Some people are longing for this. Some are not so sure that they want it---in which case they do not really have a thirst. If you do not have a thirst for more of the Spirit’s fullness why not pray for such a thirst? God takes us as we are. When we thirst and ask, God will give us ‘the free gift of the water of life’.
Link back to index.html