“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes, so it is with those who are born of the Spirit,” the Lord Jesus said in His evening catechesis with the Pharisee Nicodemus on Holy Baptism. There is a union between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is known by hearing with the ears. This is not an internalized activity. Even at the New Testament Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Spirit comes with the sound of a great rushing wind. But Jesus is quite clear that the Holy Spirit is not separate from the working or presence of the Father and the Son (cf. John 1:14). The sense here is hearing. The preaching and teaching of the Word of God is where the Holy Spirit is at work for us to be filled with Him in Christ. Consider these words of Jesus:
John 15:26 – But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.
John 16:13-15 – However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.
The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, is of one indivisible essence with the Father and the Son. The way the Holy Spirit is often spoken of in pop American Christianity and in liberal mainline Protestantism is that He is somehow separated, off on His own, only there to depart from what has gone before, to confuse or distract us from Jesus and the Gospel of salvation in His death and resurrection. But Jesus says just the opposite. The Spirit is the “Spirit of truth.” And as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14: “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”
If there is a new revelation or a claim of new revelation, the Spirit does not contradict Himself, especially not the Holy Scriptures. Whether it be a sincere Christian coming with a claim of a “word of prophecy,” or a leadership-driven pastor claiming to have a binding “vision for ministry” that is a new missional revelation of the Holy Spirit, we cannot separate the Holy Spirit from the Word of God (externum verbum). All teachers are bound to the canonical Scriptures to function within them as foundation and skin for the church. “Vision casting” simply isn’t biblical and such leadership notions borrowed from the corporate world slathered in the candy-coating of charismatic verbiage. Vision casting certainly can’t be squared with the Lutheran Confessions that speak this way:
In a word, enthusiasm inheres in Adam and his children from the beginning [from the first fall] to the end of the world, [its poison] having been implanted and infused into them by the old dragon, and is the origin, power [life], and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the Papacy and Mahomet. Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments. [Smalcald Articles]
This “enthusiasm” is internalizing the source of divine revelation so that it is indistinguishable from one’s desires, imagination, sentiment, or will to power. Theologically it is the Old Adam claiming divine inspiration and dogmatically separating the Holy Spirit from the external Word. In Trinitarian terms such “enthusiasm” (schwaermerei) divides the substance of the Trinity in theological assumptions, to borrow the language of the Athanasian Creed. The Holy Spirit calls us to faith “by the Gospel” which is to say through the Word and Sacraments of Christ. The Holy Spirit is all about delivering to us Jesus in the means that Jesus provided and bringing to our remembrance the words of Jesus.
To separate the Spirit from the Word in teaching and practice is to open the doors of the Church to a darkness and a spirit of darkness and deception that is, as we cited Luther above, “the source, power, and strength of all heresy.” It is akin to the occult. The utterances of the Holy Spirit are not simply the echo of our own longings and spiritual self-expression. Here motives are not enough. So what is the answer in this, for those who want to be Spirit-filled as churches?
First of all, the answer is not in what we’re often told. Those who claim to major in the Holy Spirit are at best confused. As in the Spirit’s work of sanctification, it doesn’t happen chiefly by talking about it. To be filled with the Holy Spirit individually and as a congregation is to be filled with Jesus. For that is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son in eternity but this is reflected also in how the Holy Spirit comes to us in the here and now in the means of grace. The Holy Spirit is sent in Jesus’ name, in the proclamation, in the catechesis, in the sacraments, to deliver all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive in faith.
The work of the Holy Spirit is not measured by a mood or feeling. That doesn’t mean feelings are bad, but they aren’t the measure of what’s true. God’s promise and history of faithfulness tells us what is most certainly true. To be a Spirit-filled Church, then, is to be a church that is abundantly rich in the Word and the Sacrament as they are taught and delivered, most especially in the Divine Service but also during the week in the study of Scripture, confession and absolution, and so on. To be a Spirit-filled Church the way the New Testament speaks of it is to be a clearly law and gospel preaching Church, a church that celebrates Holy Baptism, a church which offers confession and absolution regularly, and a church with a strong grasp of the Lord’s Supper as it is offered frequently. To be Spirit-filled is to see that these things cannot be on the side or merely occasional but as central and of the essence of the church. For these are also the marks of the church. He (the Holy Spirit is not “it”), the Holy Spirit, works in them for faith.
Don’t be fooled by what we’re often told is “more-spiritual” or Spirit-filled. We do not engineer or use group dynamics or entertainment to direct the Spirit. The Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He pleases in those who hear the Gospel. To be sure, sometimes even “conservative” churches could use a stronger focus on the true source of being Spirit-filled (see Revelation 3:20). The seventh letter in the book of Revelation to the church in Laodicea was written to a church that thought it was well-off and rich in itself, but was really putting the Lord’s Supper on the side. But they were missing so much. We think of times in our history in America when the Lord’s Supper was only offered once a month or four times a year in many places. The proclamation of the Spirit in the Scriptures leads us to rejoice in the full use of the Lord’s means of grace, especially the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood frequently, so that faith may be fed and the Church be made strong in this world. Jesus sends our Lord, the Holy Spirit, that He may deliver the forgiveness, life and salvation, that was obtained through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. This is what it means to be a Spirit-filled Church, rich in the Word and Sacraments, the means of the Spirit.