The Spirit and the Word

From the day of Pentecost onward, the coming of the Spirit has been inseparably linked with telling people what God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit. The spreading of the Word and the activity of the Spirit are so intimately linked with one another that theologians speak about the Word as a “means of grace,” that is, a God – appointed vehicle through which his grace enters into a person’s life.

There is some danger if we conceive of this in a simplistic, casual sense, whereby the recitation of the Word becomes the cause and the giving of the Spirit an invariable result. That would run the danger of making the New Testament a book of word-magic: if we simply recite or teach the right words, we will get an assured result. This assumption can easily creep into theological and catechetical traditions.

Charismatics hold to a high view of the power and authority of Scripture, but they take issue with any doctrine or use of Scripture that does not recognize the sovereignty of the Spirit. It is one thing to recognize the “means of grace” (the Word and the sacraments) as the Lord’s gracious provision for coming to his people. It is something else to think of the means of grace as something that we can use or control to obtain the Spirit, or to teach the doctrine in a way that dismisses any working of the Spirit that is not immediately linked with hearing the Word or receiving the sacraments. A theology of the Word that is not linked to a profound sense of dependence on the Holy Spirit can end up ministering death rather than life. Both Scripture and experience confirm the Spirit’s sovereign authority to come when and where and how he pleases – never at variance with the Word, but also sovereign over the Word and our proclamation of it.

The Spirit works through the Word

Nevertheless, the relationship between the Word and the coming of the Spirit is extremely close and must be seen as a key feature of the Spirit’s sovereign strategy. The Spirit exercises creative and redemptive power through the Word.

Already in the Old Testament, God the Father sovereignly created by his Spirit and with his Word. While this connection is implicit in the creation story (Genesis 1:2-26), it is explicit elsewhere: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6). In the prophecy of Ezekiel, the Word and the Spirit bring new life to the dry bones. The Spirit of God will renew the people religiously and ethically through the Word of God (Ezekiel 37: 1-14). Words spoken in the Spirit of God are effective words, words of power (Numbers 23: 19-20; 24:2-4, 16).

The notion of the Spirit using the Word as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose is carried over into the New Testament. The gospel of John, especially, emphasizes that the life-giving quality of Jesus’ words is due to the Spirit: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). In commissioning his disciples to spread the gospel, Jesus laid strong emphasis on the proclamation of the Word: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15).

The Spirit brings salvation through the proclamation of the Word

On the day of Pentecost, 3000 people came to salvation (Acts 2:41). Prior to their Baptism and inclusion in the church, Peter preached the gospel to them. His words, spoken in the power of the Spirit, convicted them of their sin and convinced them of the messiahship and lordship of Jesus. On the one hand, the Spirit empowered and inspired the messenger. On the other hand, the Spirit worked through the Word to bring the hearers to repentance and faith.

The apostle Paul also taught that saving faith comes through hearing the gospel (Romans 10: 17). The Spirit inspires and reveals the words that are to be spoken, making them effective for salvation in the hearers. The Word is the Spirit’s instrument in creating faith. Paul made much the same point in writing to the Corinthians: “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

The Spirit makes the Word effective

The Spirit is the power behind the proclaimed Word. When we speak about the Word as a means of grace, we mean that the Spirit uses the Word as a vehicle of his presence and power. Spirit and Word must be understood in relation to one another. Especially in relation to the missionary situation, Paul emphasized how the Spirit and the Word are united in bringing about saving faith: “God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; also I Thessalonians 1:4-6).

Paul’s own apostolic ministry to the Gentiles illustrates this in a special way. In his “priestly service of the gospel of God … the offering of the Gentiles … is sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” It is Christ himself who, through the ministry of Paul, has won obedience from the Gentiles “by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15: 16-19).

The Spirit inspires the message (“words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” [1 Corinthians 2: 13]), and through our hearing of this message the Spirit creates faith that receives salvation (Ephesians 3:5; 2:8).

The Spirit uses the Word to apply Christ’s redemptive work to the individual

The objective basis of salvation, Christ’s redemptive work carried out in history, has universal validity. Christ’s incarnation, earthly ministry, passion and death, and resurrection and ascension all belong to the events of salvation once for all carried out in history almost 2000 years ago. “He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). All of humanity was included in Christ’s redemptive work. He died for all, that all might rise with him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

God has made Jesus Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). That is the fundamental truth. However, only the Holy Spirit can make this truth a personal confession: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit applies to individuals what Christ has secured for all. But the Spirit does not do this by divine fiat. He does it in such a way that one may freely respond. He makes this application through the Word.

According to the strategy of the Spirit, the fruit of redemption – forgiveness of sins and eternal life – shall be appropriated personally by each individual through the Spirit’s working. It is the unanimous testimony of the New Testament that the Spirit uses the proclamation of the gospel to accomplish this.

Personal faith, the subjective side for salvation, is created by the Spirit in connection with the proclamation of the gospel.

The Spirit is sovereign in using the Word

The link between the Word and the coming of the Spirit cannot be locked into one predictable pattern. Nevertheless, the happening of Pentecost does provide something of a paradigm, for throughout the New Testament the proclamation of the gospel is the primary means by which the Holy Spirit initiates people into new life in Christ (for example, see Romans 1: 16-17; 10: 17; 1 Corinthians 1:17-18). In the book of Acts, wherever the Spirit is received for the first time, the preaching of the gospel precedes it (Acts 2: 14-36; 8:5, 14-15; 10:34-43; 19:4-5).

Furthermore, the Spirit is linked to an ongoing revelation of God’s purpose in Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that God may give “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe (Ephesians 1: 17-19; also Colossians 1:9; Philippians 1:9; John 15:15). When he comes, the Spirit inspires a proclamation of the Word in order that people’s experience of Christ will be accompanied by clear and ever-growing knowledge and understanding.

The Spirit inspires prophecy

The Word is sometimes oriented toward the future, through prophetic utterance. This accords with Jesus’ promise: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).

This statement by Jesus indicates that the Spirit will inspire predictive prophecy in the church. At the same time, the words provide a safeguard from aberration by emphasizing that the Spirit speaks on Christ’s authority; he speaks only what he hears, and his aim is to glorify Christ (John 16:14).

In the three basic revelatory functions of the Spirit – witnessing, teaching, and prophesying – we see the intimate connection between the Spirit and the Word.

The Word is the keystone in the strategy of the Spirit

Those who seek or desire the Spirit must recognize that he links himself to the proclamation of the Word. We should be wary of any alleged experience of the Spirit that is not rooted in the Word. This does not mean that the Word will in every case precede an activity of the Spirit, in a simplistic causal sense.

People were often initially drawn to the New Testament community by the demonstration of supernatural power, as Emil Brunner correctly pointed out:

People draw near to the Christian community because they are irresistibly attracted by its supernatural power. They would like to share in this new dimension of life and power, and they enter the zone in which the Spirit operates before they have heard a word about what lies behind it as an ultimate transcendent-immanent cause. There is a sort of fascination which is exercised mostly without any reference to the Word, comparable rather to the attractive force of a magnet or the spread of an infectious disease.1

When the apostle Paul was put ashore on the island of Malta, people were moved by a demonstration of the Spirit’s power before there was any proclamation of the Word (Acts 28:3-6). The Spirit is sovereign; he moves when and where he pleases (cf. John 3:8). Whether the Word precedes, coincides with, or occurs subsequent to an action of the Spirit is a matter of his particular determination. Yet it is his settled strategy to act in concert with the Word.

Where the Word is neglected, we may infer that the activity of the Spirit will be thwarted, for in neglecting the Word we grieve the Spirit who has strategically linked himself to the Word. For the same reason, where some part of the scriptural revelation is neglected, the Spirit’s activity in that area of truth will be diminished. The Spirit’s strategy may then call for special attention to that neglected area. Renewal often comes at a point where the Spirit stirs up response to some aspect of truth that has been neglected.

Many people in the charismatic movement testify to a more vital experience of the Holy Spirit than they have ever known before. This has been accompanied by widespread teaching on the subject of receiving the Holy Spirit and his gifts – what one writer has called “the charismatic work of the Spirit”2 – and for many this has been a new thing. More than superficial charismatic enthusiasm lies behind the statement, “We never heard about this in our church!” It says something about the non-place that the Holy Spirit has traditionally held in our everyday expressions of the faith. In many sacramental churches and evangelical circles there has been less, and sometimes no, specific teaching on receiving the Holy Spirit and his gifts. Other truths have been emphasized, but not this one.

This raises an important question about the strategy of the Spirit: Does the Spirit come with his gifts on the basis of a doctrinal position. that assumes his coming without our specifically proclaiming it? The sacramental tradition says, “You receive the Holy Spirit when you are grafted into Christ in Baptism.” Evangelicals say, “You receive the Holy Spirit when you are born again.” Assuming that both of these traditions teach something important about receiving the Spirit, to what degree will a charismatic work of the Spirit actually happen, if a clear word about receiving the Spirit in this sense is not part of the proclamation and teaching? Is the Holy Spirit’s word-strategy linked to proclamation that is specific? Would people, for example, experience the reality of forgiveness even though the word of forgiveness were not specifically proclaimed? For example, if God were presented and believed in merely as Creator? Will people experience guidance, healing, or spiritual gifts if these are seldom even mentioned? Will people be empowered as witnesses by the Spirit if they are never told that such a thing is possible?

Each of the three positions – sacramental, evangelical, and Pentecostal – has something to teach the others about the coming of the Spirit; their doctrinal differences are not irreconcilable. But it is not likely that people will be led into a charismatic experience of the Holy Spirit and his gifts without a clear and energetic proclamation of this particular biblical truth. The Spirit comes where the Word is clearly presented. It’s part of his strategy.


This article is excerpted from Welcome, Holy Spirit: A Study of Charismatic Renewal, Chapter 10, pgs. 63-68, by Larry Christenson, editor, copyright © 1987 Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. 

Top illustration: composite image of open Bible and background illustration by © Kevin Carden, purchased at christianphotoshops.com, with photo of dove representing the Holy Spirit added.

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