As our church has sought to reform our theology, philosophy of ministry, and liturgy to be more gospel-centered and in accordance with Scripture, we have been on the receiving end of some unfortunate and misguided criticism. Since leaving our Pentecostal moorings, we have been considered by some to be a church devoid of the Holy Spirit. We have been called the “b” word— “Baptist” —pejoratively; we have been told ichabod has been written on our church (from 1 Sam. 4:21 meaning “the glory of God has departed”); and we have even received an actual condolence card in the mail for “the death of the Holy Spirit” in our church.
No Christ, No Spirit
But according to Scripture, and what the historic Christian church has confessed for centuries, it is not the absence of altar calls, second blessings, protracted meetings, and prophetic outbursts that constitute a Spirit-less church. Rather, it is the absence of Christ being faithfully preached from all the Scriptures that constitutes a Spirit-less church. Here’s how Martin Luther puts it in article 3 of his Large Catechism (1529): “Where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Ghost who creates, calls, and gathers the Christian Church, without which no one can come to Christ the Lord” (3.45). Luther continues:
For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel. The work is done and accomplished; for Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, resurrection, etc. But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew of it, then it would be in vain and lost. That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried, but be appropriated and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed, in which He gives the Holy Ghost to bring this treasure home and appropriate it to us (3.38, emphasis added).
The Work of the Spirit
Of course, this claim is not unique to the famous sixteenth century Reformer; it is the claim of the Scriptures themselves. The Bible makes it clear that the Spirit works through the proclamation of the gospel. Paul tells us that Spirit-given, saving faith in the Triune God comes from hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). In 2 Corinthians he explains that our simultaneous turning to the Lord, seeing him, and believing in him is a sovereign gift of the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who frees us from our blindness to see God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:15-18). Peter says that we are born again through the good news that is preached to us (1 Pet. 1:23-25). James concurs, writing that God, of his own will, “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas. 1:18).
In short, being born again and receiving the gift of faith are the work of the Holy Spirit, and they are inextricably connected to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Titus 3:5-6). John Piper writes: “The Holy Spirit does not do his work apart from the gospel because his work is to open our eyes to see Christ displayed in the gospel, and until the gospel is preached Christ is not there to see” (God is the Gospel, 91). In other words: no gospel, then no Spirit.
Yes, the Spirit also works by giving gifts to the body (1 Cor. 12:1-7). But even these gifts will only be truly found and rightly practiced in churches where the gospel of Jesus Christ is being preached boldly, clearly, faithfully, and consistently. Confining the Spirit’s power and presence exclusively to charismatic practices (i.e., tongues, prophecy, etc.) not only casts a shadow on the Spirit’s primary work of applying redemption, but it also creates unnecessary division between churches that are all genuinely Spirit-filled, despite differing on the continuation and expression of a few spiritual gifts.
“The Spirit and the Gifts Are Ours”
So, how do we know where the Spirit is truly at work in the world? Michael Horton puts it this way: “[It’s] wherever this word [of Christ] is proclaimed and taught faithfully in ever-expanding witness, and where people are receiving the signs and seals of this saving word in baptism and the Supper. These are the signs and wonders of new-covenant ministry through which the Spirit gives life and growth to Christ’s body” (Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, 282).
Since not many churches would willingly admit they are Spirit-less, how do we know which churches are truly devoid of the Holy Spirit? What does it really look like to be a church where Christ is not preached? Here are some common symptoms:
- Assuming the gospel and not considering the gospel necessary and sufficient for all of life and corporate worship.
- “Moving on” from the gospel to the “deep things” of God, no longer proclaiming the holiness of God, the seriousness of sin, the judgment to come, the need for reconciliation with God through Christ, and our union with Christ through the Spirit.
- Shifting the spotlight from Christ onto the extraordinary (and usually unbiblical) manifestations of the Spirit.
- Eschewing the ordinary means of grace in the life of the church for novel and ecstatic “experiences.”
- Replacing expositional, Christ-centered sermons with moralistic, motivational speeches filled with self-help and pop psychology, forgetting that the message of the cross is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17; 10:13).
- Redefining evangelism to be performing signs and wonders rather than preaching the gospel.
- Seeking new revelation and “fresh” words from God that aren’t based on, found in, or backed up by Scripture, and elevating this new revelation above the Holy Spirit-inspired, Christ-centered Scriptures.
Simply put, if the word of Christ is not faithfully preached in accordance with the Bible then the Holy Spirit is not working, because the Spirit works through, and never apart from, the Word of God (1 Cor. 1:18-25; 2:1-4).
Not Perfect, but Powerful
Of course, our church is certainly not without spot or wrinkle; we are not a perfect church (yet!). But if the word of Christ is being proclaimed faithfully in accordance with the Scriptures, then we know we the Holy Spirit is indeed working in our church. We can be assured that God is moving by his Spirit, no matter how “ordinary” our church seems.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than making us an object of derision, make us the subject of your prayers. Pray that the Holy Spirit would continue his life-giving, fruit-producing, and empowering work in our congregation through the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments, through our corporate worship and our daily discipleship. Pray that God works through our church—and other word-centered, gospel-driven, Christ-exalting churches—to transform this burned-over valley of dry bones into a lush and ever-expanding garden.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk