The Spirit in Spiritual Formation

By J.K. Jones Jr.

I’m grateful for our emphasis on logic and reason, but I believe the Holy Spirit is larger than something we can capture or fully understand. But starting with the words of Scripture, we can begin to grasp the Spirit’s role in the life God has planned for us to enjoy.

Some things are so big they nearly resist explanation. Consider the way of an eagle in the sky. I’ve watched our national bird soar over the Mississippi River, gliding effortlessly on waves of unseen air currents, then dive at light speed to scoop breakfast from the water. How do you explain that fully to another human being?

Let me state three obvious observations upfront. First, if I can completely explain God the Spirit’s role in our spiritual formation, then I probably have too small a view of this great Triune God.

Second, I’ve grown up in the predominately intellectually centered and rationally driven Restoration Movement. There has been little room for mysticism and intuition. I appreciate so much the emphasis on logic and reason, but eventually the Spirit’s work cannot be entirely captured, presented, taught, and understood with the mind alone. Surely there is some room for mystery.

After all, the apostle Paul readily acknowledged mystery in Christ’s relationship with his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:32), mystery in the resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15:51), and mystery in godliness (1 Timothy 3:16). He wasn’t saying these things can’t be understood or—like some of the mystery religions of his day—were available only for an exclusive group of insiders. Rather, Paul was reminding them, and us, these truths about Christ are now openly proclaimed, but are also deeper, wider, longer, and higher than any of us.

Third, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is absolutely essential in our formation to look like Jesus. I like saying it this way: God the Holy Spirit takes the initiative. He is the change agent. In other words, there is no spiritual formation where the Holy Spirit is not actively at work. Admittedly, cooperation between God’s Spirit and us is necessary.

Good Bible students have observed the Holy Spirit’s work in our spiritual formation through two large lenses. First, the Spirit enables us to know Christ through the Scriptures. Second, he gives us the power to make Christ known. The Spirit fills us with his power to fight the temptations and seductions of sin just as he did with our Lord when he was on earth (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:9-13; Luke 4:1-13). God’s Spirit also gives us “spiritual gifts” so we might build up his church (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; 14:12; Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Peter 4:10, 11). So much more could be said, but the focus of this article is on the way the Spirit shapes and molds us into Christlikeness (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:2).

 

Continual Formation

Because the Spirit of God indwells in us, or sets up house inside of us at conversion, there is ongoing or continual formation (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Galatians 4:6; and others). We call this after-conversion work sanctification. I say all of that so we can sense something of the magnitude of the Spirit’s work.

There are at least 10 primary verbs in the New Testament that give a glimpse of the oceanic way God’s Spirit is laboring to form us into Christlikeness. The intense and interactive friendship we have with the Triune God is evident in these key words. I list them in no particular order.

First, the Spirit fills us (pletho). Five times in Acts, Luke records this fundamental work of God the Spirit (2:4; 4:8; 4:31; 9:17; and 13:9). One of the most defining uses of this word in the New Testament is perhaps found in Ephesians 5:18: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” The Spirit “acts upon us.” This filling is ongoing. As we grow and cooperate with the vital work of the Holy Spirit, we can hold or contain more and more of his life-giving presence. Filled people are under his control.

Second, the Spirit teaches us (dedaxei from didasko). Jesus promised, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). The word Jesus used for teaching in the borrowed Jerusalem upper room during his farewell address expresses the idea of instructing, delivering a discourse, or explaining the truth. Don’t miss the obvious. Jesus is always the subject matter. This teaching is done primarily and fundamentally through what the Scriptures reveal. Apprentices to Jesus are lifelong learners.

Third, the Spirit reminds us (hupomimnesko). This verb is located in the same verse quoted above (John 14:26) and in five other locations: Luke 22:61; 2 Timothy 2:14; Titus 3:1; 3 John 10; and Jude 5. Some see this promise as limited to the original disciples and not to us. Perhaps, but why wouldn’t the same Spirit desire to impress Jesus’ life and teachings on the hearts and minds of contemporary disciples through those same Scriptures?

Fourth, the Spirit also guides us (hodegeo). Jesus also promised this in the upper room: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Literally, he will “lead on the way.” Jesus obviously was telling his disciples the gospel truth was not yet entirely complete. The Spirit would guide them into an unknown and unfamiliar future. But what can’t be overlooked is that Jesus himself is the way and the truth (John 14:6). The Spirit directs all disciples, then and now, toward the Son.

Fifth, the Spirit searches all things (eraunao). The ever-wise Paul said, “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10, 11). Part of the Spirit’s extraordinary work is to “closely examine” or “find out” the depth, length, width, and height of God’s redemptive love. He makes that known to us, once again, through the Scriptures. On our own, as humans, we do not have the capacity to know all that God is and what he has planned.

Sixth, the Spirit testifies to us (summartureo). Romans 8 is one of the New Testament’s most remarkable chapters. Among its 19 references to the Holy Spirit and his work is one that speaks eloquently and simply of the Spirit’s labor of love. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (8:16). The vocabulary in that verse is beautiful and breathtaking. God the Spirit speaks intimately and gently about the truth of our relationship with God the Son. For the most part, the Restoration Movement has avoided giving much attention to the assurance God offers us as his beloved children.

Seventh and eighth, the Spirit helps us (sunantilambano) and intercedes for us (entunchano). Also in Romans 8, just a few lines further, we read, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (8:26). Genuine prayer is impossible without the Spirit’s work. He cries out for us to the Father (8:15). We are often clueless about what to pray for and how to pray. These two words remind us the Spirit helps to bear whatever we are carrying to the throne room of God, and then appeals to the Father on our behalf.

Ninth, the Spirit convicts (elencho). Jesus spoke of this work of the Spirit: “When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). Jesus anticipated Pentecost and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of his disciples. Part of the Spirit’s powerful work is to convict the world of its rebellion and sin. He becomes the advocate for believers and the prosecutor of unbelievers. I find enormous comfort here. Paul also used this word to instruct Timothy and Titus to initiate a teaching ministry that convicted the church in Ephesus and Crete (1 Timothy 5:20; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:13 and 2:15).

Tenth, the Spirit enlightens us (photizo). This work, by far, is the most controversial among the 10 verbs mentioned. Some Jesus followers are afraid of anything that hints of the Spirit’s illumination of Scripture, especially those of us influenced by the Restoration Movement’s rational approach to reading Scripture. Some of us are willing to admit at least some form of illuminating by the Holy Spirit as the Christian follows sound principles of interpretation (i.e., context, word studies, background, etc.). In other words, the Spirit can help us understand, remember, or apply certain passages in a surprising way.

Paul records this prayer, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1:18). Paul prayed that God would give the church an inner awareness of all the Lord had planned. Part of the Spirit’s mighty work is to open the eyes of our heart to know Christ deeply and personally in and through the Scriptures.

Study of the Word, accompanied by a long journey with Jesus, has disclosed for many of us that spiritual formation is not the result of human energy, but of divine grace in partnership with God’s Spirit. This continual progress toward Christlikeness is cultivated through a vibrant relationship, not a set of rules or principles. It is more about training than trying.

Spiritual formation begins in the ordinary. It is in everyday life that we find the Spirit waiting and inviting us into a holy relationship. We often admit our need for the Spirit, but we spend precious little time exploring his specific work and how we might cooperate with him. The hope and prayer of this article is that we would awaken to the person and work of God the Spirit, and thereby hunger to cooperate with his grand intentions.

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

 

J. K. Jones Jr. is pastor of spiritual formation at Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois.

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3 Comments

  1. Lynn Lusby Pratt
    February 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Mr. Jones says that the Restoration Movement has had “little room for mysticism.” Let’s be clearer: Christianity has no room for mysticism. Mysticism is an “ism.” Mysticism’s worldview is the “all is one” view of pagan religions, in which there is no transcendent creator God distinct from his creation. Mysticism centers around the idea that the mind and thought interfere with “union with the divine” (that is, my realization that I am divine). The Christian mystic attempts to get beyond the inferior practices of normal prayer and reading the Word; he wants to break through the cosmic barrier (and will attempt this by going into an altered state of consciousness through mantra meditation) to have this superior experience of “union.” As Richard Foster describes, “Contemplatives sometimes speak of their union with God by the analogy of a log in a fire: the glowing log is so united with the fire that it is fire.” (his book Prayer, p 159) Readers would do well to investigate the mysticism behind the teachings of Foster, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross . . . (These names keep coming up under the topic of spiritual formation; Mr. Jones recommended some of them in his 2/22/09 article in this magazine.) There’s a mystical worldview and there’s a biblical worldview. The two are not compatible.

  2. February 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm

    I suspect there are various meanings and interpretations of mysticism. Since Jesus says that he and the Father abide in the believer, and the believer in them, there is some Christian concept of “oneness.” This oneness is not something that erases boundaries and translates believers into divine being, but a recognition that Jesus says that in some form, the Godhead and the believer abide together.

    Whether we need to accept every description of infused contemplation is debatable, and various writers describe it in different ways. Merton, Nouwen, John, Theresa, and Foster describe both their understanding of theological points and their understanding of their experiences. Whether they have adequately described either of those to our liking is likewise debatable.

    However, to simply dismiss others’ experiences of describing a little understood concept as is the mutual abiding with God, seems a bit of an over-stretch to me.

  3. Mark Jacobs
    February 15, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Mr. Jones’ articles makes a few assumptions that are integral to some of his main points. The first assumption that I see is that the Restoration Movement is intellectuallly centered and rationally driven and so the “answer” to our flawed way of approaching the Scriptures is to allow ourselves to be open to an experience, i.e. mysticism, that brings us beyond the Scriptures. At first glance, this seems harmless. Some may say, “Well, I’ve been in some of those churches that are rational and intellectual and they’re boring. I’d rather be a part of a church that has something else to offer.”
    The problem is that regardless of how simple or complex the “mystical” experience is, the result is an experience that can bring division. It becomes all about the “person’s individual experience.” I agree that the Restoration Movement has in years past has seemed to ignore the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but the answer isn’t injecting some superficial, puffed up experience called mysticism in place of the Holy Spirit.
    The second assumption that Mr. Jones makes is that the intellectual and rational approach to the Scriptures might keep us from experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives.
    I agree that this can happen, but the opposite is also true. Just because we have a mystical experience doesn’t mean that we have experienced the Holy Spirit. In fact, as Lynn pointed out, mysticism only offers a counterfeit experience for our faith.
    The reason we approach the Scriptures with our intellect and rational thinking isn’t because we want to keep the Holy Spirit in a box. We do this because we know that God speaks to us through His Word. When we read and study His Word, we use our minds to think through what He is saying to us. Then, the Holy Spirit stirs within us and helps us to keep on learning, to keep on reading, and to then obey what God says.
    That’s the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit parterning with us, as we apply our minds to the study of God’s word.
    The last assumption he makes is that there must be room for mystery in our churches because our minds can’t fully comprehend or allow the Holy Spirit to fully work. Again, we don’t put God or the Holy Spirit in a box just because we rationally approach the Scriptures with our intellect. Remember Paul tells Corinth in his first letter to them, that he came preaching Christ crucified and didn’t rely on a 3 point sermon with a couple of good jokes. (the last part…I’m paraphrasing) Paul’s point was that the church at Corinth was established by the preaching of the Gospel and His Word, and, even more important, is the church would continue to be established by the faithful preaching of His Word. Paul knew that the power of the Holy Spirit could work only if God’s Word was proclaimed.The same is true for today. If we faithfully proclaim God’s Word, the Holy Spirit will move as men/women hear and respond in faith to God’s message.
    Surely, the Holy Spirit is moving in ways we don’t understand. But, in our churches, the Holy Spirit moves and works when God’s Word is proclaimed. The problem is that many have come to the conclusion that God’s Word isn’t needed to aid in the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of an unbeliever or in the life of a believer. So, many look for an “experience,” which is often counterfeit, and then they come to the false belief that God or the Holy Spirit is moving. If these experiences are taking place without the faithful preaching fo God’s word, they fall woefully short in producing faith.
    I’m grateful that Mr. Jones has reminded us of the 10 ways the Holy Spirit works. We must be ever mindful of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But, we must not forget that the Holy Spirit works only in tandem with God’s Word as we submit to Him in obedience. This is our sanctification, this is the only true “experience” of our Christian faith.

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