What does it mean to believe in the Holy Spirit? There are vast assertions out there, all depending on the denomination to which one belongs. At a minimum, the historic Apostles’ Creed reminds all Christians what belief in the Holy Spirit entails—I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
From here, Lutherans have much more to say on how the Holy Spirit is received, what He does and how He works. From the Augsburg Confession, Article V: To obtain such faith, God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe.
For Lutherans, then, there are a couple of important recognitions. First, faith is completely and utterly a gift from God the Holy Spirit working through the means of the gospel and the sacrament. Nothing we do can earn it, achieve it, or will it into existence. It is all a gift. Second, (and this is, I think, an oft over looked reality) the Holy Spirit works faith in those “where and when he wills.”
Perhaps it seems a bit arbitrary, perhaps a bit unfair. But this confession of faith is merely reflecting the words of both Isaiah (6:9-10) and then of Jesus when he uses Isaiah to explain his use of parables (Mark 4:12): “so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” In short, those in continual rejection of Jesus will remain in their unbelief, not because the Holy Spirit has not spoken to them, but rather because they have hardened their heart to the Holy Spirit and the Gospel. In other words, the Holy Spirit does not coerce, and will not go where He is not welcome.
However, the debate today is often over if people are really rejecting Jesus or if they really just don’t understand. The thought is, if we can just make things more understandable to them, (i.e. cultural relevance, felt needs, emotional appeal, rational thought), they will be more likely to become believers in Jesus Christ.
True, there is something to be said about speaking the Gospel clearly and using understandable words. But, at least for Lutherans, there must be the willingness to let the Holy Spirit do His work “when and where he wills.” This is not to say that every reasonable effort should not be made to communicate the gospel clearly to someone. Rather, it is that the limitations of human effort to create faith in someone else must be understood. For here, one’s desire may be so grand and zealous that, in essence, they end up telling the Holy Spirit, “No thanks, I got this one,” as if somehow, by their own persuasion, appeal, or relevancy, they can bring one to faith apart from the Holy Spirit speaking through the gospel.
Consider the quotes below. The first is a recent post from Ed Stetzer on his LifeWay blog. I by no means intend to dismiss him entirely, as he does have some good things for the church to consider. Nonetheless, the larger point will be to look a how Lutherans differ in our understanding of the work of Holy Spirit “when and where he wills” as it is compared to the call for the church to become relevant. Again, I am not rejecting Stetzer out of hand as he does have some thoughtful things to say. However, from a Lutheran perspective, I think there are some theological realities that he overlooks, of which, the second quote, from Herman Sasse, aims to draw out.
To engage culture with a biblically faithful message, we also need culturally relevant strategies. Again, fundamental to the nature of the gospel is the proclamation of the gospel. But even further, fundamental to the proclamation of the gospel is being sent to people–and that means we must understand those people. Cultural relevance is understanding and communicating with the people God has sent you to reach. People are afraid of that term because it seems to be a compromise. It need not be.
Cool and trendy does not necessarily mean culturally relevant because the definition changes from community to community across America. It changes even more dramatically across cultures. I would encourage you to be a church that seeks out those who are far from an understanding of the gospel and make the gospel comprehensible to them. Everyone who interacts with your church ought to understand what is going on while he or she is there. That is what being culturally relevant means. It is an issue of communication, making sure church forms, style, and method support and aid gospel proclamation. One important focus of being culturally relevant is to create an environment where people are comfortable, at ease and their defenses are disarmed, so they can receive the message of the gospel.
You cannot always be sensitive. The gospel is not sensitive to the conscience or practices of the lost. The cross is scandalous and causes people to stumble across it. It is supposed to offend the sinner, pierce their conscience, and convict their soul. But the church should never create an environment, systems, or rules that cause people to stumble before they even get to the cross. Instead, as ambassadors, we should speak winsomely and act graciously toward those in need of our King’s message. Ed Stetzer, The Life Way Research Blog
Again, this second quote is from Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse and his take on that state of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod already in 1960. Hopefully it makes the distinct perspectives clear.
The optimism and synergism prevalent in America have made such inroads into American Lutheranism that the Augsburg Confession’s ‘where and when it pleases God’ has for practical purposes been given up. Evidence of this is the uncritical taking over of ideas and programs of stewardship and evangelism from such groups as the Seventh Day Adventists. The pastor schools the people so that with the right kind of pious talk they will then be equipped to win other people for the church.
In place of the office of preaching reconciliation comes the training of ‘soul-winners,’ teaching them just the right way of talking with people, to make maximum use of the techniques of psychological manipulation. The system admittedly derives from the methods of American business. Thus people are to be brought into the church, made to feel at home there, led to a decision, and then all together are to carry on their building of the kingdom of God.
What the Word of God is no longer trusted to do is achieved with the psychological techniques of modern evangelization. There is of course talk of the Holy Spirit, but one no longer knows who He is. It seems He can be measured and quantified. Such evangelism produces results. Thousands are won for church membership.
On the other hand we may recall the failure of the Biblical prophets and of our Lord Himself. When one considers the latter, one begins to understand the full earnestness of ‘where and when it pleases God.’ Jesus said: ‘…so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again and be forgiven’(Mark 4:12; cf. Is.6:9-10). Whoever is not awed by what is hidden deep in these words will never truly know the Holy Spirit. Hermann Sasse, “On the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Letters to Lutheran Pastors,” No. 51 July/August 1960 in We Confess the Church.
As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.