The Holy Spirit is often focused on for his supernatural work as seen in revivals, healings and more. Here we want to focus on his ordinary work which of course is no less supernatural, and hence our heading.
The Spirit’s work
The Spirit’s work is wide and far ranging because God works in his world are usually by his Spirit. We will focus on the Spirit’s work in salvation and Christian growth. Here again many activities attributed to the Father are accomplished by the Spirit.
Hence when we read that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message (Acts 16:14), we should understand he did so by his Spirit. When we read that the Lord’s hand was with those speaking the gospel such that many turned to the Lord (Acts 11:21), we should understand the Spirit was at work.
The Spirit then is the source of new spiritual life in us (John 3:5-8). We are brought to see the truth of the gospel and to trust in Christ by the Spirit (John 16:8-11). Hence Paul says that if we are ‘in Christ’ through faith then we must have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9).
The Spirit then also empowers our spiritual life. This includes leading us into holiness such that we produce his fruit (Gal. 5:16-26); enabling relationship with the Father (Rom. 8:14-16; Gal. 4:1-6); strengthening gospel proclamation (Acts 4:31); bringing unity between believers (Eph. 4:3; Phil. 1:27); and gifting for service in the life of the church (1 Cor. 12:4-11).
Progress in the Christian life is then only possible by the Spirit. While we are to believe, obey, fight sin, serve and more, all this depends on the prior work and ongoing work of the Spirit in us. That will have profound implications for ministry as we will see below.
How the Spirit works
Much of the Spirit’s work is internal and hidden from us. However, there are two key connections in Scripture that we must recognise and appreciate.
First is the connection between the Spirit and the Word of God. Jesus makes a tight connection between the Spirit and words of truth (John 16:12-15) and Paul does so too (1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 3:5). The Spirit reveals truth originally (the inspiration of Scripture) and then reveals that truth as people read the Word (illumination of Scripture). So the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). In fact, the presence of the Spirit will be seen in a love for God’s Word, a right understanding of that Word, and a speaking of that Word.
The second key connection is the work of the Spirit and the people of God. God ministers by his Spirit through other people. We see a prime example of this in the discussion of gifting in 1 Cor. 12. The gifts are gifts of the Spirit through whom God is at work in people’s lives (1 Cor. 12:4-6). As these gifts are used people are built up the faith. Which means people must use the gifts of the Spirit for God to work by his Spirit. So we must not individualise the Spirit’s work. We must keep our understanding of the Spirit connected to our understanding of the church – the Spirit-filled people of God. The Spirit will be active as we interact with each other and engage fully in the life of church.
Both of these connections are to say that the Spirit uses ‘ordinary means’ – the word of God and the people of God. So there is a supernatural ordinariness to ministry. We spend time with people, we organise church life, we speak the Word, we extend hospitality – and as we do so the Spirit works. It is ordinary in that there is nothing spectacular about it; it is ordinary church life. And yet supernatural spiritual work is being done through it.
Implications for us today
The Christian life is, by definition, a Spirit-generated and Spirit-empowered life; there is no other kind of life. Christian ministry is done in and by the Spirit; there is no other sort of ministry.
This leads to some profound implications.
We remain humble because we do not ‘achieve’ anything. We may be planning on planting a new church or we may have been pastoring one for 40 years but we will know that any and all growth is from God by his Spirit. Looking forward we will speak of our need for him to work; looking backwards we will speak of gratitude for his work.
And so we have great reason to remain humble. The Puritan minister Richard Baxter, through whom God achieved much, spoke of himself as a ‘pen in God’s hand’. And so he asked, ‘What praise is due a pen?’ You don’t praise the ‘pen’ you praise the writer. We are what we are in our own life through the work of the Spirit; we will achieve whatever we achieve in ministry through the work of the Spirit, and so we remain humble. All the praise goes to him.
We remain dependent on God to work by his Spirit because there is no growth without him. There is no true growth in our own life without the gracious work of the Spirit enlightening us and strengthening us. There is no ministry of value we do without the Spirit gifting us and working through us.
Hence we are dependent on the Spirit. That dependence feeds into our humility, will flow out into thankfulness for whatever is achieved, but will be seen most clearly in prayer. A church which takes the work of the Spirit seriously, prays seriously. We are so keenly aware of our own impotence to bring people to faith and our inability to grow people in the faith (including ourselves) that we cry out to God to be at work.
The work of the Spirit will also make us very confident. We cannot convince people of their need of Jesus or make them see him clearly – but the Spirit can. We cannot create unity in the church or grow people in godliness – but the Spirit can. As we see churches grow we are confident because of the work the Spirit. As we struggle on in ministry and wrestle with issues in church life, we remain confident because of the work of the Spirit. It is a strange sort of confidence because in our culture we only really know of confidence that arises from within us. But here the source of confidence is outside of us; it is because we believe in him. But that outwardly placed confidence in the person and work of Spirit means we can be confident in ourselves and our work – because he is at work in us and through us.
The supernatural ordinary work of the Spirit will be seen in humble, dependent confidence in ministry.
The original longer version of this article can be found on the Acts 29 blog (http://www.acts29.com/work-spirit-life-ministry/).