Category Archives: Reformed tradition

Full of the Holy Spirit

We saw on Sunday that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:24) and I said that every Christian needs to be “full of the Holy Spirit”. Someone, helpfully, asked me afterwards what that means. In Pentecostal churches, the sign of being filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues and having a dramatic experience (based on verses like Acts 10:45-46; 19:6). However, the description of Barnabas as “full of the Holy Spirit” isn’t describing a single experience, but an ongoing, characteristic of his life. Stephen is also described as “a man full… of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 6:5. Clearly, this was something that marked Barnabas and Stephen out; both men oozed with a sense of the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? Isn’t this an idea that Reformed churches are a little uncomfortable with?

Absolutely not! The New Testament is crystal clear that every Christian has the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9b) and has been baptized in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). The Spirit and Christ go together and cannot be divided up. They are indivisible. The danger in Pentecostalism is that it creates two classes of Christians: the haves and the have-nots. It can end up saying: there are ordinary Christians, who’ve been forgiven by Jesus; then there are Spirit-filled Christians, who have moved up to a higher level of Christian experience, when they received the Holy Spirit. Reformed Christians want to abolish any sense of two classes of Christian. We grasp that the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit go hand in hand and cannot be divided up.

But, the fact that Barnabas and Stephen are singled out as “full of the Holy Spirit” shows that this description isn’t true of every Christian. We make a big mistake if we see the Christian life as flat. If you picture the Christian life as a graph, showing a horizontal line from start to finish, or even an ascending straight line at a 45-degree angle, something’s wrong. The Christian life changes and fluctuates. It doesn’t stay the same. Once you’re “in Christ”, there’s a security, but there isn’t a “flat-ness”. There are degrees of closeness to God. There are times when God hides his face (Psalm 13:1; 88:14), or when we experience his fatherly anger (Psalm 6:1). There are times we’re in a spiritual pit (Psalm 130:1) or when unconfessed sin means our bones waste away (Psalm 32:3). But at other times we “feast on the abundance of… [God’s] house” and “drink from the river of… delights” (Psalm 36:8). There are mornings when we wake up and say: “I will sing and make melody!… I will awake the dawn!” (Psalm 57:7-8).

The job of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is to bring Jesus Christ close. Far from being an irrelevance to your Christian life, the Holy Spirit is its key. There is simply no Christianity without his presence in our lives. This is why the gospel is called “the ministry of the Spirit” in 2 Cor 3:8. This is what John Calvin saw so clearly in his book the Christian Institutes and led to him being called the “theologian of the Holy Spirit”. You can’t be a Christian for a nano-second without the Spirit underpinning everything. So, a “Spirit-filled” Christian is a Christian who is believing Jesus Christ and having his saving grace applied to their lives by God the Holy Spirit.

This means: Don’t be shy of experience, but don’t equate your experiences with the Holy Spirit either. There might be times when you “feel” good, but the Spirit is grieved, and times you “feel” bad, when the Spirit is at work. The Holy Spirit’s work shows up in our experiences, but isn’t reducible to or directly equivalent to experience. We cannot read the Holy Spirit’s work straight off our feelings, but nor should we disconnect them either. In fact, if you study Ephesians 5 where we’re commanded to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18), what that looks like is spelt out in the rest of chapter 5 and 6. Spirit-filled Christians sing (v.19), give thanks (v.20), and submit to others (v.21). Spirit-filled wives submit. Spirit-filled husbands love sacrificially (v.22-33). Spirit-filled children obey and Spirit-filled fathers are gentle and bring their children up to know Jesus (6:1-4). Spirit-filled slaves work hard for their masters; Spirit-filled masters treat their slaves humanely (6:5-9).

So, Christian, are you full of the Holy Spirit?

If that question exposes our spiritual emptiness and weakness, don’t fear! Instead let it drive us to our generous heavenly Father, who promises to give us more of his Son Jesus (John 1:17; Eph 1:3), by his Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13; Eph 3:19). Oh, that we’d lead Christians lives where people can say of us: “he or she is full of the Holy Spirit”!

Why it’s good to be in a cessationist church

In the Bible, God talks in the following ways:

  • Elijah heard a still small voice (1 K 19:12).
  • Samuel heard a voice calling him (1 Sam 3:4, 6-8, 10).
  • Ezekiel received dramatic visions (Eze 1:4-28; 10:1-22).
  • Balaam heard a donkey talk (Num 22:28).
  • Belshazzar saw a hand write on a wall (Dan 5:5-6, 25-28).
  • Ezekiel’s hearers saw a dramatic enactment (Eze 4:1-17).
  • Daniel received vivid dreams (Dan 7:1)
  • Abraham had a knock at the front door (Gen 18:1)
  • John touched, and saw, and heard God in the flesh (1 John 1:1)
  • Peter was visited by an angel (Acts 12:7)
  • The seven churches of Asia received personal letters from the risen Christ (Rev. 1:19-3:22).
  • The congregation at Corinth heard ecstatic tongues translated (1 Cor 14:5)
  • The Israelites heard God’s booming voice out of the fire at Horeb (Deut 4:15)
  • The high priest used a special device called the Urim and Thummim (Ezra 2:63).

Some churches teach that God still uses this mixture of avenues to speak to us today. These are often called “charismatic” or “continuationist” churches. Presbyterian churches believe that God has stopped revealing himself in these ways, and now only reveals himself to us in the Scriptures. That is what the label “cessationist” means – we believe the former ways of God revealing his will have now ceased. But this position gets misunderstand in a number of ways:

  1. “Cessationist churches believe God has stopped talking”. No, we don’t believe that! We believe God has stopped talking through dreams and visions (etc.), but he continues to talk to us in the Bible, loud and clear and in a living way. Every Sunday at church, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, not by adding to Scripture, but by applying it to us.
  2. “Cessationist churches believe God doesn’t do miracles anymore”. No, we don’t believe that! Cessationism has got nothing to do with supernaturalism. Is God still the Creator of heaven and earth today? Of course! Is Christ alive and ruling over heaven and earth today? Of course! Is the Holy Spirit at work raising people to new life who were dead in sin? Of course! Without supernaturalism, there’s no gospel. Cessationism isn’t about supernaturalism; it’s about revelation.
  3. “Cessationism is disappointing; God talking to me in a book doesn’t seem as exciting as a dream”. No, cessationism is more exciting. It says that with Jesus Christ and the complete Bible in our possession, everything God wants you to know for your life lies on the pages between those two covers. If you look for new revelation today, it actually means the revelatory content of the Scriptures is incomplete; it means you need more than Scripture. If you think God speaks extra stuff, outside Scripture today, it actually means Scripture is inadequate revelation. So, cessationism is really the flipside of believing in the sufficiency of Scripture. We are cessationists because we believe the Bible is completely sufficient for revealing God’s will to us.

This is why it’s good to be in a cessationist church. Cessationism is about stopping anything that will water down and interfere with the exclusive authority of the Bible in the life of a church. Cessationism protects God’s people from intruders adding to God’s perfect revelation. It means any words spoken by me, as a minister, or by anyone else, have zero authority, unless backed up by chapter and verse. Don’t wish for the old days when God’s will wasn’t completely revealed. Rejoice that with a complete Bible in our hands, God’s will for our lives is sitting there in black and white print; and pray that the Holy Spirit takes that black and white print and writes it on our hearts and the hearts of many more people in Ilford.

Why you should care about church history

I know history isn’t most people’s favourite subject. In a world of twitter, Whatsapp, and Instagram, it feels hard enough to keep up with what’s new, let alone with what happened 500 years ago. News headlines grab our attention. We read them on our commute. They’re pushed at us in our news feeds. If offered a choice between something “old” and something “new”, nine times out of ten, we will pick what’s “new”. But what if we’ve been tricked? What if we’ve been conditioned to get this completely the wrong way round?  What if our obsession with the “news” isn’t a sign of our cleverness, but of our foolishness?

Think about it. Have you ever tried to read a 1-month old newspaper? It feels pretty pointless, doesn’t it? Why? Because one month later it is mostly irrelevant.

God encourages us to show respect for what’s “old”.

Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set (Proverbs 22:28)

Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life (Prov 16:31)

As we run the Christian race, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses from church history, watching us (Heb 12:1 and all of chapter 11).

Of course, that doesn’t mean what’s old is automatically right. The past is full of sinners just like the present, and people got it wrong in the past as often as they do in the present, but the past is a place where God has lots to teach us.

So, maybe, rather than switching on Good Morning Britain or BBC Breakfast, or Capital FM, and drinking in what’s “new”, we will be better able to serve Jesus Christ, if we drink in what’s “old”; maybe the voices of Christians who have walked this way before us will be more useful than the voices of DJ’s and presenters sitting on breakfast couches.

Through [Abel’s] faith, though he died, he still speaks (Heb 11:4).