Christian theology in a Sudanese context. God the Holy Spirit and our Christian experience.
Many of the recent divisions between Christians concerning the Holy Spirit arise from a desire towards holy living among all Christian groups. ‘What will make me a better Christian?’ ‘What will give me more power to beat sin in my own life?’ ‘What will make my witnessing more effective?’ J.I. Packer has written an excellent chapter highlighting our need for personal holiness. He points to the pollutions of our busyness and our self-centredness. They make us look for quick answers to questions about personal needs. Packer states the need to refocus on ‘learning to be what we already are’ as Christians. ('Keep in step with the Spirit', IVP, 1984, pages 94-120). We should live the resurrection life given to us by the risen Jesus. We should try not to live that old life of ours, which was crucified with Jesus on the cross (Romans 6:6-14). The Holy Spirit helps us to focus on Jesus. He makes us very aware of our own sins. The Holy Spirit then reminds us that Jesus died to free us from these sins. He leads us to confess our personal sins. We receive forgiveness and cleansing. In this way the Holy Spirit is the Agent we need to work with for our own personal holiness. The Holy Spirit induces us towards the means of holiness: putting our own lives regularly alongside biblical truth, listening to God’s opinions of us when we pray, offering Him praise only from a pure heart. This can be at weekly worship, with disciplined self-examination before taking communion. It may also be done individually, and together with just a few others. The Holy Spirit is essential if any of these things are not to be just hollow rituals. Developing holiness is a process over time, and not normally something that happens in an instant. The danger is that any of the things that tend to be substituted for these spiritual disciplines by some Christians, can become hollow rituals in themselves. I have been with Christians who, probably misunderstanding the actual doctrine of their church, say that ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit’ is the instant means to holiness and power for Christian living. I have been with others who say ‘you need to speak with tongues’ (something I have never done, but something some of my closest Christian colleagues do regularly). My grandfather’s family, the Dymond’s, were involved in the charismatic renewal of the Methodist churches in England around A.D.1815-1907, when the ‘Bible Christian Church’ was formed. They believed in a ‘second blessing’ for holiness. The Bible College where I was trained in Australia during 1969-1970, taught that such ‘second experiences’ and ‘charismata’ (spiritual gifts), were not for today, but had ceased to be when the canon of Scripture was recognised. I never did agree with them on that, and I do not believe so today either, but I can still respect those Christian brothers and sisters who hold a different belief (on secondary matters) to me. It is easy for any words to be meaningless, if the heart of them is missing (1 Corinthians 13:1). Movements of church reform are usually characterised by people: having a changed relationship to God, having a new spirit of praise and worship, listening to God in new ways, and showing an enthusiasm in their ministry. Among the wide diversity of view in the Pentecostal Churches (since around A.D. 1904/1905), and the Charismatic movement (since around A.D. 1960), there has been a threefold emphasis that has caused some controversy and division around the world. Christians
(1) are all urged to seek,
(2) a baptism in the Spirit, some time after their conversion,
(3) which is usually evidenced by speaking in unknown tongues.
I have never experienced number three, I believe I have experienced much of number two – but I would call that ‘a continual filling’ not ‘a baptism’, – and I have definitely sought after the fullness of God’s will for my life regularly. I never have been a member of a ‘Pentecostal’ or ‘Charismatic’ church, but I do recognise the validity of ‘life in the Spirit’ with all the fullness that brings (Romans 8:1-17).
There is no doubt that Christ-centred, Holy Spirit empowered living is a good thing. As Christians and as churches, we do need to be renewed regularly and that renewing usually involves painful changes of structure and tradition. But the emphases of some groups concerns me. Some imply the creating of a Christian elite (Charismatic or non-Charismatic). Others claim to have specific new divine revelation – sometimes beyond testing, because testing is said to show lack of submission to leaders. Others have an obsession with demons. More have an advertised focus on the material blessings of health and wealth in this world.
All of these are practices that trouble my peace before God.
As I try to “understand what the Lord’s will is”, Ephesians 5:17, and to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”, Ephesians 5:21, I must also remember to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted me, in order to bring praise to God”, Romans 15:7. I believe no-one should imprison God the Holy Spirit within a rigid frame. He will break out from it anyway! (John 3:34; John 3:8). We are well advised to be careful in saying ‘never’, concerning the Holy Spirit – unless it is something against the character of the God Whom He is. And we are also well advised against saying ‘everyone’, ‘must’, and ‘always’. (See my suggested ways of discerning, chapter 41). God made a large variety of people. He surely intends to meet and use them all in a variety of ways. Beware of always wanting ‘more’. Jesus Christ is sufficient for everything (Romans 7:24-25). Giving more and more of yourself over to Him is the key. Beware of always seeking ‘power’. Jesus Christ shows best through weak people, not strong people (2 Corinthians 12:9,10). Beware of seeking ‘evidence’ that can be seen just to prove a point. Jesus Christ encouraged believing without seeing (John 20:29). Scripture clearly teaches that the Holy Spirit would enable the Christian church to witness powerfully to those outside of its ranks. Beware of diverting too much energy that could be used in witnessing, into merely debate with other Christians (Acts 1:4; 1:8; Acts 2:4; 2:11; Acts 4:8; 4:31; etc. and Acts 15:1-35). The phrase “baptism with the Holy Spirit” occurs seven times in the Bible.Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; and John 1:33, are all accounts of John the Baptist predicting what Jesus would do. Acts 1:5 records Jesus Himself promising something that would happen a few days later. In Acts 11:15-16 Peter compares the events at Cornelius’ house with what Jesus had said. And in 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul states that the unity of the Christian church is based upon this one ‘baptism by, with or in, the Spirit’ into the body of Christ. I believe ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit’ is the initial event by which people become born-again Christians (John 3:3-8).
Outside of many churches I visited in Sudan there were large water bottles known as ziirs. Usually there were one or two tin cups nearby for people to use taking a drink of water. Anyone could drink from the water. As a khawaja I used to take my own water to those meetings in a plastic bottle, because my body would not be used to the untreated water from the area wells. It was my weakness, not my elitism, which made me do this!
Ultimately, all of the water that everyone drank came from the rainfall God gave. Some of it was brought to the surface from underground streams at wells in the sprawling urban areas. Some of it was bottled in the factories of Khartoum North and sold on to consumers. More of it was piped by Khartoum Water into peoples houses in return for a monthly payment. I did also see a little water being drunk directly from the river – but I would not recommend that to anyone!
The Holy Spirit is the living water of God. He brings God’s life into our lives. We may have a variety of different experiences. We must not let that variety divide us. The unity we have in all drinking from the same life-giving Spirit, unites us in a way that marks us all out together, from the world around us (John 14:17; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
Thinking it through.
(a). What do many Christians share in common, that makes all divisions concerning the
Holy Spirit very sad?
(b). What are the differences (if any) between ‘being baptised with the Holy Spirit’ Acts
1:4-5, and ‘being filled with the Holy Spirit’ Ephesians 5:18?
(c). What differences are there (if any) in the end result in a believers’ life?
(d). While it is right to ‘seek, knock and ask’ for a greater experience of God (Matthew 6:33;
Matthew 7:7), what dangers are there in always wanting more? (Philippians 4:4;