by Dr. John Yates
Western Christianity is in the midst of a spiritual crisis with issues of sexual immorality, ignorance of scripture and prayerlessness abounding. To seek power from the Spirit as a solution to these problems may initially seem a biblical response, but it is almost certainly a symptom of the spiritual laziness which besets us. It’s easy to become excited about a power that can rescue us from the predictability of contemporary Christian living, but only the power of a person can free us from sin and conform us to Christ, which is the only valid goal of spiritual formation (Rom 8:29). A common stumbling block on the journey to greater Christ-likeness is a failure not only to know the Spirit of God (John 14:17; 1 John 4:2) as a total personality but to be ignorant of his dignity as an eternal Person.
It is not easy to know God’s Spirit for his personal identity is found deep inside the love between the Father and the Son. Nevertheless we can be encouraged that Paul could speak these words to the Corinthians, a Church plagued with many of the problems of today. “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13 ESV). As “spiritual people” we are gifted with the ability to understand how the Spirit’s long and intimate relationship with humanity perfectly equips him to transform us into the likeness of Jesus.
The Eternal Spirit and the Shaping of Man
Since the Holy Spirit “the eternal Spirit” (Heb 9:14) he was intimately involved in God’s purposes for humanity from the beginning, purposes laid bare in two very emotive Old Testament texts. Proverbs 8 speaks of God “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Proverbs 8:31 ESV cf. Job 38:7). There’s something delightful about new life, our family had a new grandchild born a couple of weeks ago which was a great joy, and God was rejoicing in his Spirit’s creativity in bringing forth humanity in his own image (Ps 104:30). The ground of God’s joy becomes clear in our second passage; “v6 I will…bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth,v7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isa 43:6-7). The goal of creation is the intimacy and glory which in scripture is called “sonship”.
The Spirit’s great passion in shaping humanity in the divine image (Gen 2:7) is that we might have a spiritual vision of God as he truly is. Not merely sensing the glory of God as it is reflected through created things (Ps 19:1-4) but becoming the sort of persons who knows God’s heart from the inside (cf. John 1:18). To be filled with God as God is filled with himself is the ultimate goal of all spiritual formation and the special ministry of the Spirit (Eph 3:16-19 cf. Col 2:9-10).
A grasp of the suffering that human sin causes the Holy Spirit requires a proper appreciation of the Spirit’s original work in forming the image of God in Man. Since Luke 3:38 tells us that Adam was “the son of God” the Spirit of God must have testified to the spirit of the first man that God was his Creator-Father (cf. Acts 17:28). The LORD’s personal command to Adam to guard Eden (Gen 2:15; cf. Num 3:7-8; Num 8:26; Num 18:5-6) was a commission to a son to protect the presence of God’s glory in Eden. The prohibition, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17 ESV) was a Spirit filled Word of divine fatherly discipline (Heb 12:5-11) whose purpose was to sustain the glory of God in the lives of the first people. God’s presence and power is however always contested by the powers of evil.
Satan presented himself to Eve as a different sort of father than her Creator (John 8:44). He promises her the same destiny of God-likeness (Gen 3:5; 1:26), but without the need to endure any sort of deprivation. This is a promised “short cut to glory” which in every generation has tripped up the progress of the people of God. Sin did not bring spiritual ascent but spiritual deformation, the Fall. The Spirit of God withdrew from the heart of Man so all became “dead in trespasses and sin”(Eph 2:1). The indifference to holy things which is so characteristic of our culture, and has deeply penetrated even the Church, is a striking manifestation of how sin breeds sloth, laziness and indiscipline. Where humanity is laid back about its spiritual condition the Father-Creator suffers excruciating pain; “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart….the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever…”” (Genesis 6:5-6, 3 ESV).
God’s solution to human depravity is covenant, but the rebellions of Israel intensify the divine anguish, for Israel is the “firstborn son” (Exod 4:22). “In all their affliction he was afflicted… he lifted them up and carried them… But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit;” (Isaiah 63:9-11 ESV). It was never an easy but a costly thing for the Holy Spirit to dwell with sinners. Having witnessed the terrible effects on Saul of the Spirit abandoning him (1 Sam 16:14-23), David cries out following his sin with Bathsheba, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11 ESV). Israel’s history of grieving the Spirit comes to a climax when the nation brought their idols into the heart of the temple. When the LORD could no longer bear his people’s iniquity his glory departed from the house of God (Ezek 11:22; Ezek 8) and never returned throughout the old covenant period. The withdrawal of the Spirit of glory created a seemingly impossible distance between God and his people. The Law remained, but without the Spirit’s power who could conform to God’s written commands? In this situation of spiritual crisis the prophets point to a future Spirit-filled saviour, the Messiah (Isa 11:1ff; Isa 42:1; Isa 61:1).
The Shaping of the Son of God
A radically new operation of the Spirit of God began when by the power of the Spirit the eternal Word through whom all things were created enters into the fallen flesh from which the Spirit had withdrawn millennia before (John 1:1-3, 14 ; 6:63; Rom 8:3 cf. Gen 6:3). The angel prophesies to Mary, ““The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”” (Luke 1:35 ESV). Where the term “Holy Spirit” occurred only in two Old Testament passages (Ps 51:11; Isa 63:10-11) the expression appears dozens of times in the New. This new revelation of the personal identity of God’s Spirit is intimately tied to the identity of Jesus as the first person in the Bible ever called “the Son of God”. The human Jesus and the Spirit are uniquely related because they share a common bond of holiness; they are each set apart and exclusively dedicated to the will of the Father. Christ’s exclusive commitment to the Father in the power of the Spirit is what makes him to be the Son of God, and it is this relationship of holy sonship which is the substance of all spiritual formation. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of sonship, and his sole passion is to form Christ into the likeness of the Father. This becomes manifest at the baptism of Jesus.
“when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”” (Luke 3:21-22 ESV). From this point that the Spirit “remained” on Jesus (John 1:32) marking him out as a new kind of human being, a man given the Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34). The Spirit’s powerful ministry through Jesus: teaching, healing, miracles, deliverance etc. (Matt 12:28; Luke 4:14 ff) are the outward visible signs of the Spirit’s inward spiritual union with the humanity of Christ. The in-breaking power of the kingdom of God which drew great crowds was the Spirit’s testimony to the truth of God’s word; ““You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”” (Luke 3:22). The Father’s pleasure in the Son releases the power of the Spirit in the world.
The blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the dead raised and the guilty forgiven are mutual gifts between Father and Son in the power of the Spirit (Matt 11:5; 27). This dynamic of the kingdom sharing fills the Godhead great joy (Luke 10:21; Rom 14:17). The climax of such mutual giving is how Jesus and the Father share the disciples; ““I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me….I am praying …for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.”” (John 17:6, 9-10 ESV). This prayer of Jesus in John 17 reveals that the ultimate goal of the saving plan of God is that the Father and the Son might together be glorified in us (cf.Matt 11:27). The communication of the shared life of the Father and Son to disciples is the powerful work of the Spirit and the substance of our spiritual formation.
Jesus prophesied that the Spirit would flow as living water from the heart of those who believed in him; there was however an important condition for this gift, Christ must first glorified (John 7:37-39). Until Jesus’ own humanity was made perfect the Holy Spirit was only a power “with” the apostles and not “in” them (John 14:17). The completion of the spiritual formation of the Son of God himself could only take place in the power of the Spirit through his suffering and death for the glory of the Father. The passion of Jesus brings together two seemingly incompatible operations of the Spirit of God.
Crucifixion in the Spirit
Hebrews 9:14 tells us that “by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice”. It was not at his baptism, nor at the resurrection of Lazarus, nor bathed in the glory of God on the mount of Transfiguration that Jesus was most conscious of the deity of the Spirit, but in the blood, sweat and “loud cries and tears” (Luke 22:44; Heb 5:7) of Gethsemane. Jesus always prayed “Father” but only at the very extremity of his mortality when he is “sorrowful to the point of death” (Mark 14:34) does Jesus pray in the power of the Spirit, ““Abba Father”” (Mark 14:36 cf. Rom 8:16; Gal 4:6). This is the recognisable climax of the Spirit’s work in the life of the Son of God. The Spirit urges Jesus to drink the cup of the wrath of God so that we might be restored as children of God (Ps 75:8; Jer 25:15-17; Zech 12:2-3 etc.). Gethsemane reveals to us not only how much the Son loves the Father but how much the glory of the Father means to the Spirit.
If the cry ““Abba Father”” is the recognisable climax of the Spirit’s power in the Son, then the hidden climax of the Spirit’s operation in Jesus is his cry, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). Obedience at baptism meant an ecstatic experience for Jesus in the Spirit of Sonship, obedience as the Lamb of God bearing the sin of the world (John 1:29) means an experience of abandonment where “God” is no longer known as “Father”. This is the time of the complete quenching of the Spirit’s manifest power, the final agony of the Holy Spirit, the true Spirit of sonship (Rom 8:16; Gal 4:6). Even if the Spirit fell silent about Christ’s sonship he was still active. If “the Spirit helps us in our weakness…intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”(Rom 8:26 ESV) how much more were his petitions to the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3) heard in heaven. The Spirit was searching out the heart of the Father on behalf of the crucified Christ and the answer from heaven was power from the Spirit to enable the Son to faithfully obey, even when the Father was hidden under the darkness of his wrath (Zeph 1:15; Mark 15:33; Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2).
The Spirit of the Man
People ignorant of the power of the cross often seek to diminish Jesus’ suffering by saying things like, “Well Jesus knew he would be raised from the dead.” They fail to understand what was going on in Jesus’ heart as he carried our sins in his body on the tree (1 Pet 2:24). The absence of the Spirit’s testimony to Jesus that he was the Son of God meant that he obeyed the Father by faith alone (cf. Heb 12:2); the measure of the Father’s pleasure in such trust was the explosive power of the resurrection(Heb 11:6). The resurrection of Jesus in the power of the Spirit is the completion of the spiritual formation of Jesus as the obedient Son of God; this is why Paul declares that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 1:4 ESV) (cf. Rom 8:11; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18). Through death-and-resurrection Jesus has been perfected by the Spirit (cf. Heb 2:10; 5:9; 7:28) as a newly created human being whose nature is indestructibly glorious (Phil 3:21).
This means that the Spirit is now sent to us from heaven in an entirely new way. In the recreated humanity of Christ the Holy Spirit has become so internalised and intimate with Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 6:17) that Christ is now the one who sends the Spirit of God (Matt 3:11; Luke 24:49; John 7:39; John 20:22; Acts 2:33; Acts 8:17). The “medium” the Holy Spirit passes through is the perfectly formed humanity of the man Jesus. When Jesus spoke of the coming of the Spirit as “the promise of the Father” to empower us (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; Acts 2:33) he was prophesying about the gift of One who carries the form, shape and character of his own life.
Christian Life in the Spirit
The Holy Spirit can only do in us and share with us what he has already achieved in Jesus. This means that the power of the Spirit is his sharing with us everything that Jesus learned and received from his Father during his earthly life. Any talk of “The Holy Spirit as the Power of Spiritual Formation” must be in-formed by Jesus’ own story, and particularly his death and resurrection. The leading of the Spirit is not some vague influence but is always his conforming us to Jesus’ loving obedience for the Father (John 15:10; Rom 8:29). The work of the Spirit is simple and Christ-defined, in all the circumstances of life he is seeking to crucify our flesh and to impart to us the resurrection life of Jesus (Rom 8:13). He is sharing with us the glory of a sonship that can never be lost. It is to this amazing process that we are called to submit in what some have called “spiritual formation” (2 Cor 3:16-18)
The Holy Spirit is an eternal Person whose love for us and intimate residence in us brings him many joys and sorrows over the course of our lives (Acts 13:52; Rom 15:13; Eph 4:30; 1 Thess 1:6). Despite any protests our crisis in discipleship today reflects the failure of the Church to be grasped by the real person-hood of the Spirit. Whilst many Christians love the Holy Spirit for what he can do, far fewer love him for who he is. We are not living as spiritual persons who discern the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-13; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
Such “deep things” are nothing other than the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God in the power of the Spirit; for the Spirit is one with the Son in both humiliation and exaltation. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of an eternal person who has loved us enough to share in the agony of the cross so that he might share with us the ecstasy of resurrection. This is why he is always at work spiritually forming us to be like Christ, killing us so that we might born to eternal life (2 Cor 4:7-12; Gal 2:20; Phil 3:8-11).
The Spirit seems the most difficult person of the Trinity to know, but it is in coming to God through Jesus that we learn his ways. The agonies and ecstasies of life are not random and meaningless events but can be experiences over which the Spirit of Christ powerfully broods as we bring them all to the Father through the Son (cf. Gen 1:2; Deut 32:10-12). No Christian tradition commands us to “Turn to the Spirit”, but many call us to “Turn to Christ” (cf. Acts 2:36-38; 9:35; 11:21). If we by faith “Turn to Christ” the eternal Spirit will take care of our spiritual formation.