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Keep in Step with the Spirit

To start with, some people see the doctrine of the Spirit as essentially about power, in the sense of God-given ability to do what you know you ought to do and indeed want to do, but feel you lack the strength for. Examples include saying no to cravings (for sex, drink, drugs, tobacco, money, kicks, luxury, promotion, power, reputation, adulation, or whatever), being patient with folks who try your patience, loving the unlovable, controlling your temper, standing firm under pressure, speaking out boldly for Christ, trusting God in face of trouble. In thought and speech, preaching and prayer, the Spirit’s enabling power for action of this kind is the theme on which these people constantly harp.

What ought we to say about their emphasis? Is it wrong? No, indeed, just the opposite. In itself it is magnificently right. For power (usually dunamis, from which comes the English word dynamite, sometimes kratos and ischus) is a great New Testament word, and empowering from Christ through the Spirit is indeed a momentous New Testament fact, one of the glories of the gospel and a mark of Christ’s true followers everywhere. Observe these key texts, if you doubt me.

“ . . . Stay in the city,” said Jesus to the apostles, whom he had commissioned to evangelize the world, “until you are clothed with power from on high.”  “But you shall receive  power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you . . .”  (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). When the Spirit had been poured out at Pentecost, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus . . .” (Acts 4:33); and “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs . . .” (Acts 6:8; see also Peter’s similar statement about  Jesus, who was “anointed . . . with the Holy Spirit and with power . . .” (Acts 10:38). In these verses Luke tells us that from the first the gospel was spread by the Spirit’s power.

Paul prays for the Romans that “ . . . by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Then he speaks of “what Christ has wrought through me . . . by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit . . .” (Romans 15:18, 19). He reminds the Corinthians that at Corinth he preached Christ crucified “ . . . in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might. . . rest . . . in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4, 5; see also 2 Corinthians 6:6-10; 10:4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:13). Of his thorn in the flesh he writes that Christ “said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses,” he continues, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9; see also 4:7). He emphasizes to Timothy that God has given Christians” . . . a spirit of power and love and self-control,” and censures those who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (2 Timothy 1:7; 3:4, 5). Christ, he says, gives strength (endunamodunamoo, krataioo), so that the Christian becomes able to do what left to himself he -never could have done (Ephesians 3:16; 6:10; see also 1:19-23; Colossians 1:11; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 4:17; see also 2 Corinthians 12:10; 1 Peter 5:10). And his own triumphant cry from prison as he faces possible execution is: “I can do all things [meaning, all that God calls me to do] in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

There is no mistaking the thrust of all this. What we are being told is that supernatural living through supernatural empowering is at the very heart of New Testament Christianity, so that those who, while professing faith, do not experience and show forth this empowering are suspect by New Testament standards. And the empowering is always the work of the Holy Spirit, even when Christ only is named as its source, for Christ is the Spirit giver (John 1:33; 20:22; Acts 2:33). So power from Christ through the Spirit is a theme that should always be given prominence whenever and wherever Christianity is taught.

For more than three centuries evangelical believers have been making much of God’s promise and provision of power for living, and we should be glad that they have. For not only is this, as we saw, a key theme in Scripture, it speaks to an obvious and universal human need. All who are realistic about themselves are from time to time overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy. All Christians time and again are forced to cry, “Lord, help me, strengthen me, enable me, give me power to speak and act in the way that pleases you, make me equal to the demands and pressures which I face.” We are called to fight evil in all its forms in and around us, and we need to learn that in this battle the Spirit’s power alone gives victory, while self-reliance leads only to the discovery of one’s impotence and the experience of defeat. Evangelical stress, therefore, on supernatural sanctity through the Spirit as something real and necessary has been and always will be timely teaching.

From Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God, J.I Packer, pp 21-24 (2005).

J.I. Packer

J.I. Packer, Author, (1926 – 2020), known for his best-selling book, Knowing God, as well as his work as an editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He was a signer on the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a member on the advisory board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and also was involved in the ecumenical book Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994. His last teaching position was as the board of governors' Professor of Theology at Regent College in VancouverBritish Columbia. He was awarded the St. Cuthbert's Cross at the Provincial Assembly of ACNA on 27 June 2014 for his "unparalleled contribution to Anglican and global Christianity."


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