The Holy Spirit’s Role in Spiritual Formation

            The Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost to fulfill the promise that Jesus made of sending a new Paraclete (John 14:16).  It is in this role today that He is engaged in regenerating, sanctifying, assuring, equipping, empowering, gifting and mediating the presence of Jesus to every believer.  It is certainly no overstatement to say that the Christian’s life in every aspect—intellectual and ethical, devotional and relational, worshiping and witnessing—is enabled and sustained supernaturally by the Holy Spirit. Hence a healthy, dynamic relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit is essential to any success in spiritual formation.

            For centuries Christians have understood and embraced the Holy Spirit’s key role in spiritual development.   However, today, the church has been plagued by people’s tendency to move toward polar opposites of rejection or obsession when they think of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Jim Cymbala, pastor of the famed Brooklyn Tabernacle, speaks to this imbalance when he says that when it comes to the person of the Holy Spirit churches tend to be either cemeteries or insane asylums.  Another way to state this is that many Christians tend to move toward the extreme of a Word focused spirituality that neglects the Spirit or to the extreme of a Spirit focused spirituality that neglects the Word.  Knowledge apart from the Spirit will “puff up” rather than ‘build up” leaving us more dead than alive.  The Spirit apart from the Word will lead to emotionalism, sensationalism, and false teaching. The balance is found in embracing both “Spirit and Truth” (John 4:24).  A balanced Spirit-filled spirituality seeks to unite the mind and the heart instead of setting them in opposition.

            The New Testament Scriptures are very clear as to the Holy Spirit’s many-sided work which is often organized as: empowering, purifying, enlightening, engaging, and equipping. The Scriptures are also quite clear that since Pentecost the Holy Spirit’s primary, basic, ministry is to mediate the presence of Jesus to believers (John 14:18-21; 15:26; 16:14-15).  This means that through the Spirit every believer may continually enjoy three things: 1. Personal fellowship with Jesus.  (John 14:18-21).  2.  The Spirit-given certainty or assurance of being loved, redeemed, and made a part of God’s family (Rom. 8:15-17).  3. Personal transformation into Christlikeness (II Cor. 3:18). It is in this last work of forming the believer into the image of Christ that the Spirit’s work of empowering, purifying, enlightening, engaging, and equipping come into focus.  It is here that the continuing work of spiritual formation is being done as we walk obediently in the light of God’s word (I John 1:7) and keep in step with the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:25).

             The Scriptures use a variety of images to convey the many aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in transforming and forming the believer into a spiritually mature person who truly reflects the character of Christ.  Let’s look at five of those:

Enlightening – It has been said the Holy Spirit has a “floodlight ministry” in relation to both Jesus and the Word.  He is the hidden floodlight shining on Jesus.   “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” (John 16:14).  He also illuminates the Scriptures so “that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God “(I Cor. 2:10-16).  It is only as we “look to Jesus, and see his glory; listen to Him, and hear His Word; go to Him, and have His life; get to know Him, and taste his gifts of joy and peace”[1] that we can truly be formed into His image.  This is possible only through the aid of the Holy Spirit.

 Empowering – The empowering of the Holy Spirit is a wonderful New Testament fact and a mark of all true followers of Christ (Lk.24:49; Acts1:8; 4:8, 31; 13:9-10). The primary reason for the Holy Spirit’s power was that we might be “witnesses” of Jesus (Acts 1:8).  We further learn from Paul in Galatians that if we “walk in the Spirit” we will be enabled to fulfill the law of love (5:14), to overcome the flesh (5:16) and to bear the fruit of the Spirit (5:22).  Simply put, the Holy Spirit has power to deliver us from enslaving sin, to energize within us triumphant righteousness and true holiness, and to enable us to effectively and powerfully proclaim Jesus.

 Purifying- Sin in its essence is an irrational energy of rebellion against God. It is an entrenched self-willed arrogance that God hates in all its forms.[2]  It defiles us in His sight.  Scripture teaches us that it is a filth that needs to be cleansed as well as a guilt that needs to be forgiven.  It is the Holy Spirit that convicts us of our sinful behavior – leading to confession and forgiveness.  It is also the Holy Spirit that reveals to us our inward propensity toward sin – leading to a full consecration and cleansing.  Nothing will ever take away our ability to sin, but the sanctified, Spirit-filled life does effectively deal with our “propensity to sin.” The power of God, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, is greater than the power of sin.

Engaging – Paul teaches us that grace is not a static thing given at particular moments in our Christian life.  Rather it operates in a dynamic, living, growing, daily participation in the life of God through the engagement of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8; Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Cor. 15:10; Heb. 12:1-17). The Holy Spirit is a rigorous disciplinarian that engages us on multiple levels in order to groom us, enculturate us and refine us with an eye towards personal holiness and character transformation in Christlikeness.  On a visit to South Africa I picked up a phrase used by the nationals in their testimonies. They would say, “God has been busy with me.” This is so true to life.  The Holy Spirit is always “busy with us” forming and transforming us into the image of Christ.

Equipping – The Holy Spirit equips every believer with what the Bible calls “gifts.”  A spiritual gift is a supernatural ability sovereignly bestowed upon every Christian by the Holy Spirit, enabling him or her to carry out their divinely assigned function as a member of Christ’s body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:4-7; Eph. 4:7-16).  These gifts are perfectly suited to each believer’s situation in life and when exercised in the context of community, will contribute to the nurture and edification of the body.  Thus the gifts are a vital part of spiritual formation.

            As Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever; so is the Holy Spirit. In every age since Pentecost, the Spirit has continued to do all the things that Jesus promised he would do when He sent Him in this new capacity.  Understanding His role in the spiritual formation of every believer is second only to allowing Him to do His work and form us into the image of Christ.

[1] J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, p.57.

[2] Ibid.,p.32

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