Lots of people are spending lots of time arguing about the role God the Spirit plays in our world. But I sense all the arguments about visions, dreams, tongues and healings have pushed aside what we most need to know about his work today, and we'd better make it right.
If you stand back from the controversy over the presence of miraculous gifts today, and think biblically and with some amount of reasoned restraint, you will find the primary work of the Holy Spirit is being almost universally overlooked. While some are asking him to fuel their public ecstatic experiences, others are fixated on saying such experiences can't be fueled by him. Either way their myopia may be instrumental in distorting a proper view of the Spirit, and what he is primarily doing in the world.
(Note: For the record, and for those of you who care, I consider myself a soft hard cessationist. I believe the "sign gifts" had a specific purpose - to identify and validate authentic spokesmen sent by God. Further, I believe that purpose no longer exists where the Scripture and gospel are found. Lastly, if there are places where the original purpose of the gifts is needed, I believe God can make them operative once again, according to his purpose.)
My main concern is the role of the Spirit in the proclamation of the Gospel. What I see all too often is the belief that acceptance of the gospel message is dependent on a sinner putting two and two together to make the four of salvation. This idea creates two problems:
First, it makes us think of evangelism in terms of "point-counterpoint" as we study and prepare ourselves to counter all an unbeliever's objections. It turns our witness for Jesus into something akin to selling a car. In essence, we are "selling Jesus" to those who don't even know they're looking to buy.
The second problem is much more prevalent. We shy away from witness because we're just not sure we can sell Jesus well enough, or counter the objections others will raise. We're not confident we can be persuasive enough to move an unbeliever's will to leave the life he or she is living to follow Christ. And, if we try and fail, we'll just be so embarrassed, and maybe lose a friend.
But none of this is built on a true understanding of the primary role of the Holy Spirit in our world today. And it's killing us.
Here's my point: If we were half as fixated on the primary ministry of God the Spirit as we are on this argument over the sign gifts - as valid as it may be! - we would be much more confident and engaged in daily witness for Christ before a rapidly dying world.
The main work of the Spirit today is conviction. This is where we're losing the battle. We think it is our cleverness, our apologetics, or our love that brings sinners to the place where they see their sin, and turn to Jesus. While all of these may have a place, the only variable that really matters in the conversion process is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus makes it clear in John 16:8. The primary role of the Spirit is to "convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment."
God the Spirit is the one who brings true conviction. It is his job to open blind eyes, clear out deaf ears, and drive the truth of God deeply down into the hardened heart of sinners. He is the agent of regeneration, the one through whom new life is given.
Here's how it works: As we witness to the truth of God by living out and sharing the gospel story, the Spirit may be pleased to ride in on that gospel and do his work in the mind and heart of our listeners. The gospel is the vehicle by which the Spirit does his work, and the gospel story has been entrusted to us. Paul called it "the power of God to salvation" because he knew it was the tool the Spirit uses to bring about conviction of sin, and righteousness, and judgment.
First, the Spirit brings conviction of sin. I don't know how it happens, or how long it takes, but I know he is the only one who can bring it about. We might be able to wring emotion out of folks through haranguing, and sad stories, or even guilt-bringing declarations, but only the Spirit can bring about true conviction for sin. We'd be best to leave it to him.
Second, the Spirit brings conviction of righteousness. That is, he is the one that opens the sinner's panic-stricken eyes to the fact his or her own righteousness can never satisfy God's justice. The Spirit is the one that weans us from self-righteousness to understand the beauty of Christ and his righteousness into which we are incorporated through faith alone.
Third, the Spirit is the one who makes the sinner understand just how worthy he or she is of God's wrath for sin. They become fully aware they deserve judgment, and this makes the free grace of God shine all the brighter.
Lastly - and here's the good part - all these things the Spirit works in the heart and mind of the unbeliever are impossible while they are still in a state of spiritual death. Paul is clear: we were all dead in our trespasses and sins. Not merely dead, but most sincerely dead! The important thing to understand is this: when the Spirit rides in on the gospel bringing conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment, he does so by granting new life to our dead souls. The Spirit, through the gospel, causes us to be born again to a living hope by which our sin becomes clear, as does the free offer of salvation in Christ.
It is the Spirit that brings life (John 6:33), produces faith and repentance (Ephesians 2:8,9 and 2 Timothy 2:25), and baptizes the believer into the church, the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). It is all of God. Our part is simply to be faithful in living and sharing the message of grace that has transformed our own lives, and watch as God the Spirit is pleased to transform others.
By now you many be wondering how come you've never heard this, or thought of this before. How come you've always believed it was up to you to make your unsaved friends understand their guilt, and then "lead" them to Jesus. Only the Spirit can truly lead folks to Jesus, because he is the only one who can bring them from death to life.
I am greatly concerned that our preoccupation with signs and wonders has eclipsed our understanding of the Spirit's work in the regeneration, faith, and repentance of unbelievers. This, in turn, has led to a dramatic misunderstanding of our role in gospel living and proclamation. And this has meant a dramatic reticence on the part of individual Christ-followers to engage those in our world in conversations that have eternal merit.
It is time we get back to seeing everyday life as an opportunity to witness to the magnificence of the gospel. To do this I believe we first need to find great comfort and refuge in the work of the Holy Spirit. Let's sow the seeds, and leave the results up to him, knowing that God is at work bringing life and faith to those who one day will be among that "great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9, 10).