Great Themes of the Bible (#8-Spirit: His Works)

"Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other."

Some of you have read Dallas Willard's book The Divine Conspiracy at my suggestion. All the shepherds and ministry staff have a copy of it. I think it is one of the most significant books by a Christian writer in the past several years. It is a straightforward challenge to what he refers to as "consumer Christianity" or "bumper-sticker faith." Yet it is not negative either in its content or in its tone. It is a mature theological plea for Christians to take discipleship seriously. If you decide to read it, please understand in advance that it isn't devotional reading. It takes concentration. You'll probably need to reread some pages or occasional whole sections. But it will be time well spent.

Playing off the bumper sticker that reads "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," Willard raises the possibility that some preaching these days communicates an impoverished message to the church. From his own experience, he describes his fear of a shallow understanding of the gospel this way:

It says that you can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all. This view so pleasingly presented on bumpers and trinkets has deep historical roots. It is by now worked out in many sober tomes of theology, lived out by multitudes of those who sincerely self-identify as Christians.[1]

Being a Christian is supposed to make a difference. Faith is supposed to create holy actions. "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men" (Rom. 14:17). Righteousness, peace, and joy make a believer's life rich and satisfying. They make her life a credible witness to the gospel. But these spiritual qualities are blessings from God, not attainments through the methods and techniques of our human effort.

Understanding Two Key Concepts

The alternative to "consumer Christianity" proposed in The Divine Conspiracy is not to impose a legalistic holiness code over the gospel's message of salvation by grace. As opposed to a fire-escape mentality for presenting the message about Jesus, however, Willard proposes a rethinking of (1) the nature of the kingdom of God and (2) discipleship. That is, he thinks people should be taught the gospel as more than an escape route from hell. He and I apparently agree that "If you died tonight, where would you spend eternity?" is not the best opening line for sharing the story of Jesus. Church- sponsored "hell houses" around Halloween may get some young people to confess Jesus out of fear, but I wonder how many of these conversions "stick"? Fear isn't a very good long-term motivation for doing anything — much less holy things.

Anyone who is a Christian has access now to the life we are sometimes only too eager to relegate to the hereafter. This life with a new orientation shows itself in a set of new behaviors and is our participation today in what the Bible calls the "kingdom of God" or "eternal life." The personal impact of this new life is "discipleship" — an experience of paying attention to, learning the teaching of, and imitating the lifestyle of Jesus. Christ is the teacher, and those he saves are pupils who learn his thoughts and behaviors.

This is the authentic gospel message as opposed to what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." The gospel so preached and received creates a faithful witness to Christ in the world. It initiates those who receive it into an experience in which the kingdom of heaven breaks into human history again through one who has taken the gospel seriously. It is a believer's intentional surrender to the Holy Spirit that makes the difference between bumper-sticker faith and life-transforming faith, a cheap-grace confession and an everything-to-Christ confession.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

It is the Spirit's work to transform sinners into saints. His power enables one to "put off" an old man or woman and "put on" a new personality and character. His primary task in Christian experience is to make those who follow Jesus "fruitful" in holy things.

Do you remember these words from Jesus? "I am the vine; you are the branches," he said. "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). At the end of his Allegory of the Vine and Branches, he added this: "You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit — fruit that will last" (John 15:16). Instead of being prayerfully possessed of a desire for the fruit of the Spirit, God's people across the ages seem to have been preoccupied instead with the gifts of the Spirit. And, yes, I believe that both supernatural spiritual gifts and discovering one's own spiritual gift in ministry today are important biblical subjects. Even so, I would argue that even the gifts of the Spirit are ultimately aimed at the goal of transformation and holy living.

After treating a number of doctrinal matters in Ephesians — including the gifts of the Holy Spirit at 4:11ff — Paul expounds on the practical difference sound doctrine should have on Christian character. He conspicuously links the following things with the prospect of grieving the Holy Spirit: sensuality, indulging in impure behaviors, lying, anger, stealing, unwholesome talk (4:17-29). In the light of Dr. Willard's point about discipleship and the kingdom of God, pay particular attention to his words:

Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. . . . Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love . . . But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. . . . Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 4:30-31; 5:1-2a,3,18).

Sound doctrine reveals itself in renewed character. Not only in Ephesians but also in Romans, Paul traces out this same foundational truth. After eleven chapters of doctrinal instruction about the grace and mercy of God, he makes this turn at chapter twelve and begins exploring moral and spiritual transformation:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — which is your spiritual worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom. 12:1-2).

Or, in our text for today from Galatians, Paul pleads for his readers to reject a lifestyle of license leading to "acts of the sinful nature" — sexual immorality, hatred, fits of rage, drunkenness, etc. — and to live instead by the power of God's indwelling Holy Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25).

We Are "Under Orders" from God

In these biblical texts, Paul clearly affirms that a lack of this ninefold fruit of the Spirit negates one's claim to be a Christian and makes his or her service to the Lord empty and without profit.

Do you think it is possible for someone to make a false claim to be a Christian? Do you believe one can fake a spiritual gift by carnal efforts? I suspect most of us would say "Yes" to these questions. For example, a new book about John Lennon claims the ex-Beatle declared himself saved and a Christian back in 1977.[2] He peppered his speech with "Praise the Lord!" and "Thank you, Jesus!" It lasted about two weeks, according to Robert Rosen. At the end of this brief stint of Christian vocabulary and perhaps even a song written during that time, Lennon went back to astrology, tarot-card readers, and psychics. And people from Marjoe to fallen televangelists have gotten away with preaching like prophets while living as backsliders.

What can't be faked is authentic Christian character over time. And genuine transformation of a person's heart and life is a work of the Spirit of God to which every saved person is commanded to submit. Think about it: There is no command in the Bible to be indwelt by, baptized by, or gifted by the Spirit. These are gifts to receive, not commands to obey. But there is a command about being filled with the Spirit. It was contained in a text read earlier: "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 4:18). Is the first part of this verse a command? If so, why would anyone miss the fact that the second part is as well? C.H. Spurgeon commented on this text: "This is not a promise to claim. This is a command to obey."

Granted, Paul is writing to people who have already been baptized, who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and who have the Spirit indwelling them. So what is his point? What is he commanding? We can't have "more of" the Holy Spirit because he is a person and enters us in totality. But he does want more of our minds, feelings, and behaviors under divine control. Paul wanted his readers — then and now — to stop resisting and grieving the Holy Spirit.

"Just as some people abandon themselves to the intoxicating powers of alcohol," Paul says, "you must learn to live under the influence of divine intoxication. No one gets drunk except as he imbibes and comes under the control of some strong drink, and no one becomes spiritual until he drinks deeply at the fountain of the Spirit. So with mind, will, and passions, surrender your entire being. Just as you have been ‘born from above,' now you must offer yourself to God so that you can think ‘from above,' speak ‘from above,' and live ‘from above.' People can tell when someone has had too much wine; they can also tell when someone is captivated by the Spirit. No, she isn't perfect — but she is growing. She is becoming more spiritual in attitudes and desires, in thinking and speaking. People around her are noticing that something has changed."


A major theme in Paul's theology is the contrast and conflict between sarx ("flesh," KJV; "sinful nature," NIV) and pneuma ("Spirit"). Sarx is everything about a human being that is opposed to God and holiness; it is everything I am apart from God and in rebellion against him. Sarx is the precise opposite to being a Christian. Thus Paul wrote: "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sarx. . . . I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sarx a slave to the law of sin. . . . Those who live according to their sarx have their minds set on what sarx desires . . . Those controlled by sarxcannot please God" (Rom. 7:18a,25b; 8:5,8).

Sarx — though translated "flesh" in the King James Version — isn't your bodily frame. Paul's point is not that your brain, tongue, and hands can't be used by God for holy purposes. They can be holy but will be used for evil so long as hostile-to-God sarx is making the decisions and pursuing its agenda. But there is a power great enough to take mind, heart, and body away from its base control and give them to God's glory. Human willpower is not enough, but the powerful Holy Spirit is more than enough. When we were saved, God sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts crying "Abba, Father" and to testify with our spirits that we are no longer Satan's pawns but are now God's children. In that gift of the Holy Spirit, a beachhead for righteousness was established. Now we must obey heaven's call to surrender completely and be filled with the Spirit.

Paul pointed to the difference made by our capitulation to the Spirit's presence and wrote: "Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. . . . You, however, are controlled not by your sarx but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. . . . Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation — but it is not to our sarx, to live according to it. For if you live according to sarx, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Rom. 8:5b,8a,12-14).

If you are going to get past the bumper-sticker excuses for your weaknesses into the fulness of life in God's strength, you must abandon yourself to the indwelling Spirit so he can do his work in you. Just as you recognize and have confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord over heaven and earth, you must acknowledge it in your heart and life by holiness that is empowered by his Holy Spirit who represents him.

The Holy Guest has been present in you from the day of your conversion, but is he president? You possess him, but does he possess you? Is he dormant or dominant in you? The fruit test of Galatians 5:22-23 is your guide for answering these questions.

Are you filled with the Spirit of God? Don't tell me about an exhilarating moment in your life. Don't tell me about a worship time — public or private — in which you felt the movement of the Spirit. Don't tell me about a language you spoke or an insight you received. Tell me about the character defect God has refined, the addiction he has broken, or the evil desire he has lessened. Show me the fruit of the Spirit in your life.

Don't tell me how high you've jumped; tell me instead of how much straighter you are walking in the Spirit's strength. Don't wave the leafy branches of your spiritual gifts, but show me instead the fruit of God's abiding presence. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in a Christian's life. It is the work he does for all who desire, submit to, and yield to the indwelling Spirit. Never resist, grieve, or quench that work in your life, for it is the only path to righteousness, joy, and peace — in the Holy Spirit.

[1]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998), p.36.
[2]Robert Rosen, Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2000).


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