“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…”
(1 John 4:1 ESV)
A couple of months ago I posed the question, “How does the Holy Spirit work?” The question was particularly relevant (and remains relevant) as I was about to embark on my first experience at the General Assembly of the PC (USA). Entrenched advocates for both progressive and traditional views on every issue claimed to have the power and influence of the Holy Spirit. Nearly every forthcoming decision was said to be the “will of the Spirit,” even those that were passed by very narrow margins.
I just recently finished the book, A Quest for Godliness: the Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (J.I. Packer), which I had been reading for a pastor’s study group. Within the discussion on the nature of revival and evangelism within the church, Packer turns to Jonathan Edwards. The prevailing question of Edwards’ day was the same as ours, “how do we know when the Holy Spirit is moving?” Edwards preaching brought great revival, but many in his day dismissed the claims that the revival was authentic because of the emotionalism and experimentalism (i.e. experiential) nature of the revival. To answer his opponents, and following the teaching of 1 John 4:1-6, Edwards distinguished the marks of the work of the Spirit of God as follows:
- When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of that Jesus who was born of a Virgin, and was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem; and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Savior of men; it is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God… The devil has the most bitter and implacable enmity against that person, especially in his character of the Savior of men; he would never go about to beget in men more honorable thoughts of him.
- When the Spirit that is at work operates against the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts; this is a sure sign that it is a true, and not a false, spirit… It is not to be supposed that Satan would convince men of sin, and awaken the conscience.
- The spirit that operates in such manner, as to cause men a greater regard to the Holy Scriptures, and establishes them more in their truth and divinity, is certainly the Spirit of God… A spirit of delusion will not incline persons to seek direction at the mouth of God.
- The spirit operates as a spirit of truth, leading persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true… that there is a God, and that he is a great and sin-hating God; that life is short, and very uncertain; and that there is another world; that they have immortal souls, and must give account of themselves to God; that they are exceeding sinful by nature and practice; that they are helpless in themselves…
- If the spirit that is at work among a people operates as a spirit of love to God and man, it is a sure sign that it is a Spirit of God.
These criteria could be, and ought to be applied to any movement within the church. Does this program, message, mission, statement, etc., raise our esteem of Jesus and bring others to faith in him? Does it mortify sin and lust and promote righteousness and truth? Does it stand in accord with a straightforward and clear understanding of God’s word, and call us to a greater reliance upon Scripture? Does it lead us to greater truth about God and ourselves, and our ultimate and absolute dependence upon God? Does it promote love, love to God and to man, a love that is pure and holy?
I Kings and 2 Chronicles both retell the story of the prophet Micaiah. Micaiah was summoned to King Ahab to tell the king whether he would be successful in battle. When pressed, Micaiah told Ahab that he would fall in battle, and that the people would be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. The rest of Ahab’s prophets had given a favorable vision, so Ahab asked why Micaiah was such a trouble maker. This is his reply:
“I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you” (I Kings 22:19-23 ESV).
Judging by the direction our denomination seems intent to take, I am left to wonder if God has not sent out a lying spirit into our midst to entice us. When a church puts truth on the level with a lie and promotes moral turpitude and humble piety as equally valid options for life, which spirit are we following?
What the church needs now, as much as ever, is an outpouring of the Spirit of God. We don’t need a spirit of inclusivity. We don’t need a spirit of peace. We don’t need a spirit of unity. While the Holy Spirit surely includes those who have been outcasts; while the Holy Spirit brings peace where there has been enmity; while the Holy Spirit brings unity where there has been division; what we need more than anything else is true communion with God through Jesus Christ our savior in the power of His Holy Spirit. No judicial action, no legislative position, no assembly’s decision can replace our need for the authentic and powerful presence of God’s Spirit in our church.
May God’s Spirit move upon our church today!