The Need for a Fresh Marriage of Word and Spirit in the Church

by Rev. Mark Horton

The history of revivals in Christianity teach us that the fresh outpouring of God upon his people have been times that have joined a reverence for the Word of God and an openness to the Holy Spirit. One without the other typically produces extremes. The Word alone is the letter that kills and usually results in some form of legalism and works righteousness. An exalted view on the intellectual abilities of men can lead to pride and a self-dependence that grieves the Spirit and causes God to withdraw his blessing.

On the other hand, an emphasis on the Spirit without a proper dependence on theWord of God has led to personal experience being the highest authority in one’s life. I remember a college professor who related dealing with a person in one of his churches about her conduct. He referred her to several passages of Scripture to which she replied, “I don’t care what the Bible says, this is my experience of God.” That attitude leads to the church living as Israel of old when there was no king. “Everyone did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).

The Word is our authority from which we derive our doctrine and rule of practice. The Spirit is given to supernaturally change the heart of man and lead him into all truth — not truth apart from the Word but truth in subjection to the Word. God’s enabling power allows one to rise to the level of the Scriptures in his day-to-day living.

The loss of this God-ordained wedding has led to much of the weakness of the twenty-first century church. The Pentecostal movement tends toward an emphasis on the Spirit to the neglect of the Word. Emotional experiences become the bedrock upon which a person builds their profession of faith. This leads to an emphasis on ecstatic utterances, healings, prophetic proclamations, casting out demons and even greater extremes such as the Toronto blessing in which people make noises similar to animals or experience “holy laughter.” One who has had these experiences uses them as “proof” of God’s blessing upon their life. Yet the movement is riddled with the lives of preachers who fell into sin.

In his evaluation of the “Toronto Blessing,” David Pawson expressed hope that there would be a fourth wave, in which the Word and the Spirit would be integrated as they were in the New Testament. He wrote, “Now I fear that Word and Spirit are drifting apart again, with some seeking the Spirit but less interested in Scripture; others are returning to the Bible but shying away from direct encounters with the Spirit.”

It was the words of our Lord himself who told us that in the end many would seek entrance into heaven on the basis of their many mighty works but would be rejected on the grounds of failing to do the will of God in living a holy life. A thoughtful reading and a courageous preaching of the truth as revealed in the Word of God would soon heal these extremes. God wants to engage our minds as well as our emotions. Doctrine is necessary and so is experience. Charles Wesley described this integration of heart and mind:

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love, let all men see.

Another extreme tends to occur among Calvinists. I suspect that much of this is the result of observing the extremes that those who neglect the Word have exemplified. The cover article for the September 2006 issue of Christianity Today reveals that there is a revival of Calvinism among young people. Most of them have only known seeker-sensitive and charismatic churches who tended to avoid doctrine. Yet these kids are attracted to a message that offers serious answers. For too long youth ministry has been little more than fun and games, but there is a dramatic change in philosophy in youth ministry. Now John Piper advises youth pastors who have discovered an intellectual Calvinism to get permission to teach their newfound convictions — even in Wesleyan - Arminian churches.

Yet R. C. Sproul, in The Holiness of God, emphasized transcendence, trauma, and struggle, concluding with Luther’s phrase which described the Christian as simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinful). He made no reference to sharing in God’s holiness (Heb 12:10) or being made partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). B. B. Warfield described the Calvinistic emphasis as “miserable-sinner Christianity.” He wrote, “Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just ‘miserable sinners’: ‘miserable sinners’ saved by grace to be sure, but ‘miserable sinners’ still, deserving in ourselves nothing but everlasting wrath.”

Wesleyan-Arminian pastors have been schooled to soft-peddle doctrine in order to attract larger crowds. Yet they may wake up to find their crowd has gone elsewhere in order to find some content. I believe the reason Calvinism looks so good is that we have no knowledge of our own heritage. Classic Wesleyan- Arminian theology can adequately rebut the tenets of Calvinism. Yet doctrine became a dirty word and now false teachings are seeking to make proselytes of our own converts. Unless we begin to stand for something, our congregations will fall for anything.

As is typical of human nature, our reaction to an extreme usually takes us to another one. It is truly ironic to hear an exposition on John chapter 3 and believe that one is to attain the new birth which is “of the Spirit and not the will of man” just because we read it and say we believe it. No amount of accuracy in preaching on the new birth can substitute for the transformation of the heart that must occur on an individual basis as the person interacts with God. Each one of us must be born of the Spirit. Exposition and experience must unite together to say, “Amen.”

Dispensationalism teaches that the baptism of the Spirit is a “non-experiential work of the Spirit.” They teach that the believer can be regenerated, indwelt, sealed and baptized by the Spirit without necessarily being conscious of the Spirit. Thus, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not an experiential, but a positional truth and the only assurance of salvation is the rational acceptance of certain propositional truths.

We must have more than an intellectual exercise at church. Our learning must be translated into living. The Holy Word becomes holy life. Here begins the rule of God in the individual’s life. We cannot hope to change our culture without the power of a holy life that is the result of a union of Word and Spirit in our lives. Without the Word, we live with a religious moral relativism where we are led by our own “hunches” as to what pleases God in our varying circumstances. Without the Spirit, we are sterile exponents of a truth that still waits to be experienced. We will begin to see an impact of God on those around us when we have been given over to a life filled with the Spirit and the Word. Stephen, the first Christian martyr was “a man full of God’s grace and power” (Acts 6:8) and as he preached, his opponents, “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (v10).

We will never transform culture by compromising with it. Our churches have sought to be seeker sensitive and sinner friendly to the point we have lost our God-given distinctives. The power and courage we lack awaits us in the reuniting of those things that God has joined together. As long as they are apart we will be married to the spirit of our age in an anemic profession of faith that leaves our lives little different than those around us.