The Everyday Work of the Spirit
A critique often leveled against Lutherans and other mainline Protestants is that we have ignored the Holy Spirit or shoved It to the sidelines. And although I think the mainline in large part needs to be more able to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and willing to talk about it, I also think that the critique often comes from an incomplete understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. And I think all too often this incomplete understanding is shared by people on both sides of the complaint.
You see usually when mention of the Holy Spirit’s work is made what is being talked about is the more wondrous and spectacular things that the Spirit has done—things like speaking in tongues, being slain in the spirit, faith healing, and epic conversion experiences akin to St. Paul’s and St. Francis—things that some have called “the sign gifts” because they show God’s power in supernatural ways. (I even heard one theologian call these things the “extras”.) And although I believe that the Spirit can and will manifest itself in these miraculous and supernatural ways, I also believe that if the Holy Spirit’s work is limited to the things that we see infrequently and we see the Spirit’s role in the Holy Trinity as that of Performer, not only do we incorrectly speak of the Trinity but we also fail to see the primary and more regular work of the Holy Spirit.
You see the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is creating faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
And again this was also paraphrased by Martin Luther in his explanation of the third article in the small catechism:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
One of the reasons that Lutherans may be perceived as downplaying the Holy Spirit is that we have always been “2nd article Christians,” that is, Christians who emphasize the life and work of Jesus Christ. I think that the work of Christ is how God brings salvation. So let us keep emphasizing the incarnation of God’s son in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and let’s keep proclaiming the salvation won for us on the cross. And let’s use our next breath to acknowledge that our life-giving faith is a product not of our own reason and deduction. But is indeed made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence living and working in and through us.
Because you see, brothers and sisters, the truth is that Christians witness the work of the Holy Spirit all the time. When a church welcomes another family member through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, infant or adult, we witness the work of the Holy Spirit making connections among us. When we as the church discern what and who God is calling the church to be, we can thank the Holy Spirit. When we see Christians find a place where they can serve God’s church with their gifts and their passions, we can thank the Holy Spirit. When we are driven to our knees in prayer in the wonderful and terrible times in our lives, the Holy Spirit has led us there. When we hear of Christian brothers and sisters around the world standing on the truth in the face of persecution and death, we can thank for the Holy Spirit for such bold faith. Similarly this Memorial Day weekend as we thank God for people who were convicted and moved to lay down their lives for their fellow citizens, we are acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is doing great work in you. Let us not celebrate once a year but every day. Let us not talk about it briefly among each other, but let us proclaim from the rooftops to those who need to be convinced of God’s work. You are a spirit-filled Christian; do not let the world…. Or the church tell you otherwise.