Continuing in our series on how to discern God’s Will and the leading of the Holy Spirit, we come to the fourth pillar: The Spirit points to Jesus. If this is your first time reading this series, let me encourage you to check out the first two: Pillar One: Mere Christianity, Pillar Two: Spiritual Warfare.
Our seven pillars are based on a book by Reformed scholar, Cornelis Van Der Kooi. Concerning this third pillar, while allowing for the supernatural work of the Spirit, “it is Christ himself who draws near to us. Wherever acts of love and compassion occur, wherever people are placed in the light of the life-giving truth, wherever the new regime of God’s kingdom shakes up the social structure and God’s creatures are dealt with justly, there Christ is not far away.”
But the key element to recognizing the Spirit’s work is that “The Spirit does not claim attention for himself, for his own manifestations, but points away from himself and connects people to Christ.” The Spirit has never given gifts or miracles for the purpose of bringing attention to himself. His ministry has always been to demonstrate both the power of God and his intimacy.
This recognition is often where many Reformed theologians stop, failing to consider the fact that the Spirit, while his ministry is focused on the Father and Son, is still present and powerful. Van Der Kooi’s point teaches us that believers can expect the Spirit to respond to the prayer that asks for him to make Jesus and his kingdom present. It is an improper conclusion to say that, because the Spirit points to Jesus, the Spirit should be ignored, focusing only on Jesus. Rather than honoring the Spirit, this cuts him out and resists his work. It is an unintentional attempt to do the work of the Spirit in the place of the Spirit.
Van Der Kooi’s point also requires Reformed Christians to become more comfortable with praying to the Spirit and asking for him to do the work that he intends to do. It also requires more openness to the Spirit. Mastering the theology of the Holy Spirit but expecting (or requiring) the Spirit to work according to personal preferences or understanding will become one more way to quench the Spirit and usurp his role.
In fact, if we are content to focus on Jesus without any effort to remain attentive to the presence and leading of the Spirit, we risk falling into the very same errors our Protestant forefathers criticized the Medieval church about. Leading up the Protestant Reformation (1517 CE), the Catholic church used this catch-phrase to describe how the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper worked: ex opera operata. It is a Latin phrase that means, roughly, “in the working, it is worked.”
In other words, it was not faith that made the sacrament meaningful, like the Reformers insisted. What made the sacrament “work” was that the ritual leading up to and following it were performed properly. If this sounds more like casting a spell than a means of grace, that’s because it is.
What does this have to do with discerning the Spirit’s leading and presence? Well, if we reduce the Spirit’s work to predictable and external outcomes; if a “decent and orderly” worship gathering is how we define the Spirit’s presence and leading, then we are, at best, toeing the line of ex opera operata. Cutting the Spirit out of our gatherings does not bring more honor to Jesus. It ensures that our churches fall into the error of the Galatians: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3).
This is why it is so important for us to hold all of these pillars together. A working knowledge of essential Christian belief and some healthy self-awareness are going to go a long way in helping you recognize the Spirit’s presence. Otherwise we are only left with external expressions with a detached hope that God will be present and do his work. Letting the Spirit do his work, and learning to pay attention to him, will only bring us into greater intimacy with Jesus.