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Experience of the Holy Spirit: the Charismatic Movement and Our Founding Traditions

Believers can, and do, experience powerful encounters with God. A United Church theologian examines how members of traditional churches can understand and respond to them.


The remarkable testimonies we have heard about the Vineyard or Airport ministries, and longstanding awareness of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements, present a theological challenge to us in the so-called 'mainstream' churches.

A clear affirmation of the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit … has been central to both Wesleyans and Calvinists.

I believe that United Church people need to be open to, and to learn from these movements. They rightly draw our attention to certain neglected aspects of the biblical witness to the work of the Spirit. They have roots in our own Methodist tradition, and we must regard them as close cousins in the great extended family of the wider church. Our Methodist tradition, stemming from John Wesley, has always had a healthy respect for Christian experience of the Holy Spirit, and it was often Methodists, disappointed at how staid and dry or ineffectual their churches had become, who formed the original Pentecostal congregations.

It is perhaps the genius of our United Church, and still our great potential, to combine the excitement, warmth and evangelical passion of our Wesleyan heritage with the Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God, and justification by grace alone. A clear affirmation of the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit in bringing men and women not only to justification, but to sanctification and glorification has been central to both Wesleyans and Calvinists. At the same time, our two major founding theological traditions have much to say about both personal and social transformation.

Experience and grace in our founding traditions

It is not my intention to offer an historical paper on our Methodist and Reformed roots. However, a brief glimpse backward may help us to achieve some balance, and a deeper sense of the breadth of the Spirit's work.

Wesley's emphasis on experience of the Spirit had biblical foundations of course. One of his favourite texts was that of Paul to the Romans, 8:15-16, "When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is … [the] Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. … " Wesley believed that if we have indeed received the Spirit, we will know and experience that deeply within ourselves. Wesley insisted, sometimes perhaps overzealously, that the true Christian must have a conscious experience of grace. No doubt this grew out of his own experience of a heart "strangely warmed". His strong empiricist bent (congenial with the philosophy of his contemporary, the philosopher John Locke) inclined him to insist upon those aspects of the biblical testimony that speak of experience of the Spirit's work within us. We cannot, he said, have the peace, joy and love of God in our hearts without knowing that this is so. The Christian life is not some cool, rational opinion about God.

It is a heart-felt relationship with God which arises out of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And so the evangelical revival, with which Wesley was associated, was generally accompanied by warm experience of the presence and work of the Spirit. Now Wesley and his followers did not speak in tongues. But it was common, when Wesley preached, that people cried out or fainted and fell to the ground. (I must confess, regretfully, that this never happens when I preach.) For example, in his Journal he records the following on June 12, 1741:

I preached on the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith. While I was speaking, several dropped down as dead and among the rest such a cry was heard of sinners groaning for the righteousness of faith as almost drowned my voice. But many of these soon lifted up their heads with joy and broke out into thanksgiving, being assured they now had the desire of their soul—the forgiveness of their sins.

Wesley records a similar event in response to the preaching of George Whitefield in his Journal entry for July 6, 1739:

… he preached concerning "the Holy Ghost, which all who believe are to receive"; … no sooner had he begun … to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sank down close to him, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion. A second trembled exceedingly. The third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise unless by groans. The fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God with strong cries and tears. From this time, I trust, we shall all suffer God to carry on His own work in the way that pleaseth Him.

What Wesley and Whitefield witnessed was the response of whole human beings to the good news they had heard proclaimed. People responded not only with minds and souls, but with emotion and body. Our own bodily responses may more usually be limited to a lump in the throat, possibly a tear of joy, or an accelerated heart beat, but it is the same kind of holistic, Spirit inspired response to the message. It is salutary for us in our sober United Church congregations to remember that such events stand at the beginning of our own Methodist tradition. Wesley acknowledged such occurrences as marks of the Spirit's working. On the other hand, it is also evident from his Journals that he could be critical and suspicious of the genuineness of such manifestations. First, as a good Anglican, he cherished order and dignity in worship. Further, if alleged manifestations of the Spirit were not accompanied by the transformation of life, he discounted them as false or superficial. He wanted to see the fruits of the Spirit, i.e., the evidence of sanctification.

… if alleged manifestations of the Spirit were not accompanied by the transformation of life, [Wesley] discounted them as false or superficial.

The inner testimony of the Spirit, wherein the Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God, must be attended by outward signs of obedience, commitment to the church, a life characterized above all by love, and participation in the transformation of the surrounding world, i.e., service to the Kingdom. The conversion and sanctification of Christians, according to Wesley, would surely lead to the social transformation of England. And so, the Spirit's work had to do not only with a heart strangely warmed. Because the Spirit is none other than the Spirit of Jesus, the gift of the Spirit meant above all the life of love. For Wesley it meant renouncing wealth and living modestly in order to share more with the poor.

The Spirit of Christ led Wesley into the prisons. The Spirit inspired him constantly to be working for the relief of the destitute. On one occasion, in his old age, he nearly died of exposure, because he'd been out trudging around in the snow collecting money for the poor. Wesley already knew the need for what we today call 'systemic' criticism and transformation. At that very early stage of the Industrial Revolution, he was already critical of the domination of the profit motive as he saw it developing in his society. The Spirit also led him to oppose slavery, and to directly confront the masters of the slave trade in their stronghold at Bristol. 1

If we have a criticism of this great church father of ours, and the movements that sprang from him—the main Methodist stream, but also the holiness and Pentecostal streams—it could be the tendency to insist upon, or to overvalue particular kinds of spiritual experience. Whether it has been a conviction of absolute assurance of salvation, or (as in Methodist revivalism) a dramatic conversion accompanied by weeping and tears, or the gift of tongues, or of being slain in the Spirit, there was always the danger that these manifestations could become additional requirements for salvation. Wesley taught an unambiguous doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. But an overemphasis on particular manifestations of the Spirit could be heard as limitations on the freedom of God's grace.

Now Calvin and the Reformed tradition have also had a vigorous theology of the Spirit. I think it is fair to say, however, that Calvin put less emphasis than Wesley on dramatic spiritual experience. He also must have had a vivid experience of conversion which turned his life around, brought him into the Reformation movement, and inspired his highly effective ministry. But Calvin does not draw attention to any such personal experience. He declares simply that faith is the principle work of the Spirit. 2

Faith is the one thing needful, and that faith is impossible without the gift of the Spirit. Without faith there is no justification, or sanctification, or glorification. And all of these are the Spirit's work. "It is by the Spirit alone that He [Jesus Christ] unites us to Himself," 3 giving us a share in the benefits of His saving work. It is the Holy Spirit who binds us together in Christ's body, the Church, and who enables the preaching and hearing of the Word. It is a work of the Holy Spirit that the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper become means by which we truly receive Christ Himself. There is a wonderful objectivity and a certain sobriety about the Reformed tradition. God's grace does not depend on our subjective experiences. Calvin does not prescribe that we must experience this or that. Nor can the authenticity of our faith and salvation be tested by any particular manifestations of the Spirit. It is God's grace alone that saves us. It is by faith alone, faith in Jesus Christ, by which we come to God with empty hands, that we have our justification and sanctification, and hope of eternal life. That is why a favourite text for the Reformed tradition is I Corinthians 1:30: "Christ Jesus … became for us our wisdom, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption … " Therefore, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." We are to boast neither about our good works, nor about our spiritual experiences.

However, our Reformed heritage also stresses that faith without works is dead, and calls for actual righteousness of life, as an outward sign of our election, justification and sanctification. Thus, while Calvin never asked people to have spiritual experiences, he did expect the private lives of Christians, and also the public life of Geneva, to reflect the righteousness of God. He also saw to it that the poor and the widows of Geneva were well cared for. The Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life, both personal life and political life, is basic to the Reformed tradition.

We have, then, in Calvin and our Reformed heritage, a strong sense of the depth and breadth of the Spirit's work, which may indeed be quiet and unobtrusive, yet have profound impact on the totality of personal lives and on the world. If we have a criticism of the pneumatology of Calvin and the Reformed traditions that stem from him, it is perhaps to note a certain downplay on the more visible signs and more dramatic gifts of the Spirit.

Our two founding traditions, then, have within them a certain balance, breadth and depth regarding the Holy Spirit, both within themselves, and between them. Where they are deficient, each needs the other.

Turning back now from these relatively recent traditions to the Scriptures, I shall explore very briefly the breadth of the Spirit's work under three headings:

  1. Receiving the Spirit and baptism in the Spirit;
  2. Participation in Christ's continuing mission through the Spirit, and
  3. The universality of the Spirit's presence and work.

1) Receiving the Spirit and baptism in the Spirit

If there is a way to define who is a Christian, or when one becomes a Christian, it is probably in terms of receiving the Spirit. Paul is quite exclusivist about this when he says (Romans 8:9), "Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him". The letters of Paul, and the Book of Acts, speak frequently of people receiving the Spirit, or of being baptized in the Spirit, or of the Spirit falling upon them. Often the receiving of the Spirit was a dramatic, visible event. As in Acts 8:17: "When Peter and John laid their hands on them they received the Holy Spirit." Luke goes on to say that Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands. Again, in Acts 10:44, we are told that while Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit "fell upon all who heard the word," and the believers were "astounded" at this. This was evidently a visible, dramatic occurrence, possibly similar to those witnessed by Wesley, or those that occur today in Pentecostal or charismatic gatherings. Again, according to Acts 19:6, we hear that "when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied."

What of this contentious term, "baptism in the Holy Spirit"? John the Baptist, according to all the Gospels and Acts, said that, while he baptized with water, the One who is coming "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Baptism with the Holy Spirit appears to be a promise to all who would follow Jesus. In that it is Jesus Christ Himself who baptizes with the Spirit, it is what Christ does, in His unity with the Spirit, to draw us to Himself. Generally, in Reformed theology, baptism in the Spirit is understood to be the same as receiving the Spirit, or, to use the language of the Gospel of John, the same as being "born anew of the Spirit." These are all different ways of speaking about the beginning of the Christian life. It is the gift of the Spirit to turn us toward Christ, to enable us to respond to the offer of God's grace, and to re-create us as new persons. "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" is such a basic promise to all, that it is, I think, an error to regard it as a second blessing received by some Christians but not others. 4 We see in the New Testament that speaking in tongues is sometimes an accompaniment of receiving the Spirit, and may often have been the dramatic and visible sign of this, though speaking with tongues is not usually explicitly mentioned. However, Paul makes it clear that "no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:3). In the same chapter Paul declares that "in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body" (I Corinthians 12:13). "Various kinds of tongues" is listed as one of many gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this same twelfth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul asks rhetorically, "Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?" (v-29-30).

The obvious answer is, no. Paul is clear that it is not God's intention that all Christians possess all of the gifts of the Spirit, including tongues. It is an error, then, to suggest that only those who speak in tongues have been "baptized in the Spirit," or to suggest that "baptism in the Spirit" applies only to the more mature, more empowered Christians. It is difficult to imagine a more divisive doctrine than this. If there is a test or criterion as to who is a Christian, and who has received the Spirit, it is presumably just this—that one can say with sincerity and truth, "Jesus is Lord." One cannot do this without the Holy Spirit. He goes on then to speak of "the greater gifts" and a "still more excellent way," namely, the way of love.

We may experience memorable, decisive turning points, or we may recall several, or many occasions of a new deepening, new empowerment.

We do need to recognize, though, that powerful works of the Spirit do occur in the lives of Christians subsequent to the beginning of the Christian life. To insist upon this is one of the great contributions of the Pentecostal movement. Indeed, this should be regarded as normal and to be expected. We may experience memorable, decisive turning points, or we may recall several, or many occasions of a new deepening, new empowerment. These may be dramatic experiences, such as beginning to speak in tongues, or discovering a new gift of the Spirit such as healing; they may be the discovery of less dramatic gifts, such as teaching, or preaching, or administration. Sometimes we are admonished in Scripture to be "filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). At the event of Pentecost, we are told not that the disciples were "baptized in the Spirit," but that they were "filled with the Holy Spirit … " (Acts 2:4). Peter was "filled with the Spirit" also when he preached to the council of the Temple (Acts 4:8).

It is misleading to suggest that particular signs, especially dramatic and visible ones, must accompany the receiving of the Spirit and the beginning of the Christian life. It is also misleading to imply that no signs or gifts of the Spirit will be in evidence. Surely we should be expecting and looking for and praying for signs and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Most especially we should be expecting and praying for the gift of love.

2) Participation in Christ's continuing mission through the Spirit

It is clear, as we move back and forth among the various New Testament authors, that the gift of the Holy Spirit is for the mission. It is not for the sake of people having "experiences." Mission has essentially to do with being sent. This is loud and clear, for example, in John 20, where the risen Jesus declares, "'As the Father has sent me, so I send you'. When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (v. 21-22). The Spirit is for the mission. The Spirit which is received by Jesus' followers is the same Spirit which, at His baptism, inspired Him for His ministry of teaching and healing, and which empowered Him in His death, (Hebrews 9:14) and His resurrection. This same Spirit now indwells His disciples.

What is the mission for which the Spirit equips us? If we want to know what our mission is, we must ask, what is Christ's mission, since the Christian mission is nothing else but a continuation of the mission of the risen Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, and our participation in it. No text is clearer and more explicit about the content of Christ's own mission than Luke 4:18 (which is, I suppose, the favourite text of liberation theology):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. …

The Spirit's work, then, in and through the followers of Jesus, is first to bring good news to the poor. To bring good news obviously means evangelization. Preaching good news is mentioned first when Jesus describes His own mission. But bringing good news to the poor has other, practical dimensions, as both Wesley and Calvin knew well. Good news to the poor specifically also means very mundane things like a roof over your head, and food on the table. It means education for your children and good care when you are sick. It means employment and economic justice. This is very much of a piece with the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Release to captives has to do with justice for those imprisoned.

Sight to the blind speaks of healing, and it is constantly evident throughout the New Testament, that the work of healing through faith and prayer is part of the Christian mission in continuation of Christ's own mission. To let the oppressed go free, once again, has to do with the lifting up of all who are disadvantaged, persecuted or marginalized. In this respect, the mission of Christ in the Spirit is in continuity with God's work with Israel as we see it in the Old Testament.

It was the Ruah (Spirit) of Yahweh who delivered the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. The great prophets, who called out for faithfulness to Yahweh through justice in human affairs, looked for a great Messianic King or a Suffering Servant of God, who would be empowered by the Spirit to bring justice to the nations.

Because the Lordship of Jesus Christ pertains to the whole of life, the work of His living Spirit is indeed broad and deep. There is no dimension of life, public or private, that is not touched by the Spirit, because the Spirit's work is to build up God's Reign in the world—indeed in every nook and cranny of the world. The Spirit's work is holistic. The Spirit strives among us for our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. The Spirit reaches out to us both in our personal life and in our social and political life.

3) Universality of the Spirit's presence and work

I've been speaking about the particular working of the Holy Spirit with Israel, and especially with the church—those who acknowledge Jesus Christ—creating faith, justifying and sanctifying them, inspiring them for mission.

However, it is evident in the Scriptures that the Spirit's presence and work is not confined to Israel or to the church or Christian people. The Holy Spirit, after all, is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Creator, who loves the whole kosmos. God's providential reign in the whole of creation means that the Spirit is never absent, and is always and everywhere at work. Israel knew well that Yahweh was not confined to Jerusalem or to the temple. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 praised God's omnipresence with the words, "Whither shall I go from your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me" (vs. 7, 9). The Psalmist of Psalm 33 extols the Ruah of God as Creator: "By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made and all their host by the breath of His mouth." Yet this is not merely a single, completed act of creation: According to Psalm 104 (vs.30) "When you send forth your Spirit they are created, and you renew the face of the ground." The Spirit of God, then, is the source of the ongoing creativity and fecundity of the created order. In a more ancient text, the Spirit is credited with God's provision of intelligence and skill to Bezalel: "I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship.… " (Exodus 31:2). This means that the Spirit is present and at work enabling what we regard as the natural processes of life.

The ongoing universal activity of God as Spirit to the natural world, as well as to all humanity, is attested in various parts of the Hebrew Scriptures: According to Isaiah, the Spirit makes of the wilderness "a fruitful field" and also brings about "justice, righteousness and peace" (32:15-17). The second prophet Isaiah sees the Spirit as the sustaining, life-giving source of all earthly blessing (44:3-4). We may say that the Spirit of God, whom Christians identify also as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is the ongoing, ever present source, power and life of all creation.

The Spirit is to be found everywhere and among all people, giving and sustaining life. The Spirit's work among the nations is not for nothing; it is always salvific, creating wholeness and blessing. Indeed, the Ruah of God was there from the beginning of creation, "brooding over the face of the waters," according to Genesis 1:2. And according to the Yahwist, when God shaped humanity from the dust of the earth, God breathed life into His nostrils (Gen 2:7). The gift of humanness is the work of the Creator Spirit. Humanity's very humanness is this in-breathed life of God, which is given to all of humanity by the Spirit.

This omnipresent work of the Spirit is attested by Calvin, in Institutes I, 13 -14. Calvin writes, (referring to Gen 1:2):

"the Spirit of God was expanded over the abyss or shapeless matter; for it shows not only that the beauty which the world displays is maintained by the invigorating power of the Spirit, but that even before this beauty existed the Spirit was at work cherishing the confused mass. … [The Holy Spirit, is] … diffused over all space, sustaining, invigorating, and quickening all things, both in heaven and on the earth. The mere fact of His not being circumscribed by any limits raises Him above the rank of creatures, while His transfusing vigour into all things, breathing into them being, life, and motion, is plainly divine." 5

It is appropriate then, returning to our theme of experience, to speak of experiencing the Spirit in the stuff of everyday, natural life and in the beauty and order of the world.

The presence and work of the Spirit, the Spirit of the Creator, who is the Spirit of Christ, is also at work in all of human history striving for wholeness, liberation and justice. Not only the history of Israel, of Christ, and of the church, are the realm of God's providential work. Note the words of the prophet Amos (9:7):

Are not you Israelites like Cushites to me? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Aramaens from Kir?

The text suggests that wherever we find works and events of justice and liberty, there we find the activity of God. Israel's experience of the redeeming God whose Spirit led them from Egypt to the promised land, who spoke through their prophets and accompanied them in exile, who brought them home through the hand of Cyrus, inspired in them an awareness that their God of compassion was indeed the life-giving Creator of all.

The American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson speaks well of this. If the Holy Spirit is God, he argues, "this Spirit's wind must blow on and through all things". We must look far and wide, then, to see the Spirit's work of blessing, wholeness and justice in the entirety of the world and among all people. But Jenson warns us, "the enterprise is also perilous, for it must be the particular Spirit of Jesus … to whom we attribute cosmic efficacy.… 6

… both the Scriptures and our own particular Protestant traditions, encourage us to be open to a great variety of experiences of the Spirit.

This realization that God's Spirit is not tied down to us, that God loves the whole world, and makes this love effective, saves us from arrogance and superiority toward others, including members of other religions. We must be open to their wisdom, even while sharing the Gospel with them, for God has not been absent from them through all the millennia of human history. This should be grounds not for jealousy, but for humility, and for praise and thanksgiving.

Conclusion

I have suggested that both the Scriptures and our own particular Protestant traditions, encourage us to be open to a great variety of experiences of the Spirit. We should expect that the work of the Holy Spirit should be evident among us in various ways, whether strange and spectacular, or very quiet, even ordinary ways. On the other hand, we ought not to demand experiences—either to demand them from God, as proofs of the divine reality and presence, or to demand them of others, as proofs of the authenticity of their faith. Faith is the one thing needful, as Calvin insisted, since no one can say "Jesus is Lord" without the Holy Spirit.

I've also distinguished between the universal working of the Spirit in the whole world and among all people, and the particular working of the Spirit which marks the history of Israel, the Christ event, and the life and mission of Christians. The particular working of the Spirit which brings people to Christian faith may be referred to as baptism in the Holy Spirit, or receiving the Spirit, or being born anew of the Spirit. This particular gift of the Spirit implies justification, sanctification, glorification, and, above all, faithful participation in the continuing mission of the risen Christ.

1) See a thorough treatment of these themes in Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992).

2) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, I, 4. (London: James Clarke & Co., 1962, Vol. I, p. 465).

3) Ibid.

4) Note that Wesley rejected the notion that 'baptism in the Holy Spirit' was an event subsequent to conversion. See a thorough discussion of this by Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994) pp. 134-136. The argument is made meticulously by James D. G. Dunn, in his book Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit in Relation to Pentecotalism Today (London: SCM Press, 1970).

5) Institutes 1-1.13-14.

6) Robert W. Jenson, Christian Dogmatics, (Vol. II) ed. C. E. Braaten, R. W. Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) p. 165.

Harold Wells is Professor of Systematic Theology, Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology.

Originally published in the Theological Digest & Outlook, March 1998
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