Around the churches I see a lot of folk whose faith has gone cold. The problem is not that they don’t know their Bibles — often they know them very well. But there is an unreality about their faith. I’ve tried to list a few symptoms of this common condition:
* a lack of any recent testimony to what God has done in our lives;
* an embarrassment to use Jesus’s name in conversation;
* a faith which is more intellectual than experiential;
* an excitement about being a Christian is missing.
And, when God seems far away, like this, then we struggle to take Christian commitment seriously. A certain laxity arises. We keep Christian involvement to a minimum.
Do you feel I am describing you? ‘Yes’, many of us might say, ‘but I don’t know what to do about it.’
Apart from the continuing presence of our fallen sinful nature, the reason this condition so easily comes on us, is that we live in a secular society. We are trained by our whole environment to operate our lives with as little reference to God, as possible. We don’t need to look to God because we’ve got a house and a job and money in the bank for security. If we are ill, there is the NHS and insurance policies. If we need cheering up, there is TV and the internet. Living such a spiritually insulated life, in which we do not need God to intervene in any significant way on a regular basis, God becomes somewhat unreal. Faith becomes a bit of a charade.
Compare that with Paul’s aspirations for us as Christians in Ephesians 5.15-21. Here are some of the ‘symptoms’ of the Spirit’s presence evident in that passage:
* an experience of joy which does not come from alcohol (v.18);
* a speaking to one another about spiritual things (v.19);
* a heartfelt worship of the Lord (v.19);
* a thankfulness to God in everything (v.20);
* a continual attention to and witness for the name of Jesus (v.20);
* a submitting to one another — service for each other’s good (v.21).
When we juxtapose our two lists of symptoms, the diagnosis is fairly straightforward. The Holy Spirit is not among us as he should be. He is not having the influence he should have. We are not saying the Spirit is completely absent. We would not be Christians at all if that were the case. In 1 Corinthians 12.3, Paul tells us that everyone who confesses ‘Jesus is Lord’ has the Spirit and is a true Christian. But we are saying that we are not experiencing the fullness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God with us. He is the One who makes God real to us.
Initiation in the Spirit
We meet this idea of drinking in the Spirit in a number of Bible texts. Jesus speaks of it in John 7.37,38. We find the same expression in 1 Corinthians 12.12,13. And the same idea lies behind Ephesians 5.18. ‘Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit’.
How do people get drunk? They drink! In 1 Corinthians 12.12,13 we read: ‘The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptised with one Spirit into one body… and were all given the one Spirit to drink’.
Here we are introduced to the idea of the church as a body. We constitute one body by being baptised in or by or with the Holy Spirit into one body. The ‘baptism in the Spirit’ has sadly been an area of confusion and trouble. But Paul sees the baptism in the Spirit as the reason why Christians are one body. We have all been immersed in the Spirit and have all been given the same Spirit to drink.
You can see immediately that the idea of the baptism in the Spirit as a second blessing which only some Christians have had won’t wash. I’m not saying Christians don’t have deeper experiences of the Spirit, but they are not ‘baptism in the Spirit’ nor do they make those Christians into some kind of elite. Paul is telling us that through baptism in the Spirit we are made one, not put into different categories.
‘Baptism in the Spirit’ is another way of talking about conversion or new birth. As Christians, we all share this Spirit-wrought change of heart which has brought us to personal repentance and faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit living in us. Our hearts have been changed by the Spirit.
Paul then tells us that we are ‘all given one Spirit to drink’. We should not take that as a one-off event, but having been initiated into the life of the Spirit we are given the Spirit to drink and to go on drinking.
Filled with the Spirit
Going back to Ephesians 5.18, we ask: ‘How are we to be filled with the Spirit?’ We are to drink. How? We drink of the Spirit through ongoing repentance and faith. Let’s see four things from Ephesians 5.18.
First, ‘be filled’ or ‘go on being filled’. ‘The imperative is in the present tense, indicating that the believer’s experience of the Spirit’s fullness is to be a continuing one’ (Lincoln). This gives the sense of the Holy Spirit being continually available, being poured out, flowing like an accessible fountain of water to which we can come at any time. This is what the cross secured for us (John 7.37-39). The Spirit, having been ‘poured out’ (Titus 3.6), is freely available. So, as we think about being filled with the Spirit, we should not think in terms of any reluctance on God’s part. We come in faith in God’s generosity.
Second, that we are to be ‘filled’ with the Spirit gives the idea of it being right to view ourselves as vessels of some kind, jars with capacity to be filled. We can think of the Lord Jesus at Cana telling the servants at the wedding to ‘fill the jars with water’ (John 2.7). Now, if the Spirit is available and we are jars, what could possibly be the problem with us being filled? Nothing! Unless there is already other stuff filling the jar. If it is already full of stones and sand, then even if you bring the jar to the fountain you are not going to get much water in there. So, to be filled with the Spirit, there must first be involved some kind of emptying out of the rubbish — putting off the old self — repentance.
Third, what do we want to be filled with the Spirit for? The Holy Spirit’s concern is to serve and glorify Jesus. We have to be renewed in the attitude of our mind. Our old attitude was all about self. We might even be those who wish to be filled with the Spirit, but with the motive of serving self — that’s how it was with Simon the Magician (Acts 8.18,19). That won’t do at all. Our attitude must be changed. There must be more repentance at this point. God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him.
Fourth, the Lord Jesus is the giver of the Spirit. We must ask for the Spirit (Luke 11.12). We must wait upon him and look to him with a desire. Why do people drink? Because they are thirsty. We thirst as we realise that going on in our own strength is getting us nowhere. We thirst as we realise from Scripture and elsewhere what the Lord is capable of doing through us as he fills us with the power of his Spirit.
God has been doing great things in China. It is interesting to read the agreed statement of faith put out by the Chinese house churches in 1998. ‘In Christ God grants a diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church so as to manifest the glory of Christ. Through faith and thirsting, Christians can experience the outpouring and filling of the Holy Spirit.’
How to get ourselves thirsting? Think of the needs of our spiritually barren and wasted land! But think of what might be if God sends his Spirit. Think of the conversions — think of the joy in families, the lives changed! Think of the love and genuine kindness in the church! Think of how our towns and cities might be changed! Doesn’t it make you thirsty? Here is the antidote for Christians whose faith has gone cold.
John Benton – pastor of Chertsey Street Baptist Church, Guildford, Surrey, and editor of Evangelicals Now
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)