What is the work of the Spirit?

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A while back there was a movement among some churches called the Toronto Blessing. The claim being made was that God’s Spirit was working in a new way in peoples’ lives. It began in Toronto in Canada and then people from there came over here. So I went to some of their meetings to see for myself what was going on. And what happened was this. First of all, they talked about their experiences – which were quite out of the ordinary. They’d had people in their churches falling over, shaking, laughing uncontrollably and so on. Next, they taught that those experiences were the work of God’s Spirit. And then the climax was that someone would pray for the Holy Spirit ‘to come’. And I soon found people around me falling over, shaking, laughing uncontrollably and so on. Someone then came up to me and said, ‘Can I pray for you?’ Well I was pretty sure that much of what I was seeing was not the work of God’s Spirit. But I was willing to be prayed for. So he put his hand on my chest, started praying for me and tried to push me over. He was so convinced that falling over was a sign of the Spirit’s work that he was prepared to give me a shove. Needless to say I stood my ground.

Now what should we make of that – and similar things still happening today? Well I think the people who went to those meetings were looking for assurance – for some kind of experience that would enable them to say, ‘God’s Spirit really has come into my life.’ The sad thing was that the people who led those meetings were misleading, because nowhere in the Bible does it say that falling over, shaking, laughing uncontrollably, etc, is evidence of the work of God’s Spirit. And the question for tonight’s sermons is this: so what is the work of the Spirit? What do we need him to do in us? And how can it happen to us? So would you turn in the Bibles to John 3, where the Lord Jesus himself answers those questions in one of the most famous chapters of Scripture. And my first of two headings is this:


One member of our church is a heart-surgeon. And there are many aspects to his work – like research. But his fundamental work is operating on hearts. Now if we had a whole sermon series on ‘What is the work of the Spirit?’ (which would be very helpful), we could look at many aspects of it – e.g., how he uses our gifts to build up the church, and whether gifts like tongues and prophesy still happen, etc. But we’ve only got one sermon, so we’re going to look at the fundamental work of the Spirit - and you’ll see what that is if you look down to the end of v7 of John 3 - where Jesus says:

‘You must be born again.’ (v7)

That’s the fundamental work of the Spirit that we all need: new birth. So what does that mean? Look at v1:

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." (vv1-2)

Nicodemus was the equivalent of a bishop. He’d spent his life teaching the Old Testament (OT) - especially God’s law. And he believed that if you consistently tried to keep God’s law (albeit imperfectly), God would accept you into his kingdom – i.e., into life with him beyond this life. And he sees Jesus as just another good teacher, and he welcomed that. ‘After all,’ Nicodemus would have said, ‘Our greatest need is to be taught God’s law so that we can get into his kingdom.’ Verse 3:

3 In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (v3)

I.e., no-one (not Nicodemus, not you, not me) is accepted into life with God beyond this life unless he is born again. And the point of that picture of birth is that you can’t do it yourself or to yourself: when you and I were born a first time, someone else had to give birth to us. And Jesus is saying: to be accepted into the kingdom of God, you need God to do something to you that’s as out of your power as being born in the first place was. Verse 4:

4 "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (v4)

So he laughs it off – using humour as a form of defence, because Jesus has said something deeply disturbing. He’s said, ‘Nicodemus, your being born, circumcised and brought up as a Jew and all your Bible-study and all your trying to keep the law doesn’t make you acceptable to God. You need to be born again for that.’ To us he might say, ‘Your being born to Christian parents, being baptised and confirmed, growing up through the youth groups and CYFA, being a member of JPC, all your Bible-study and trying to live right doesn’t make you acceptable to God. You need to be born again for that.’ So defensive humour in v4. Read on, v5:

5 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (v5)

Now just fix in your mind that phrase ‘water and the Spirit.’ And then turn back to that OT reading we had from Ezekiel 36. Because this is what Jesus must have had in mind. Ezekiel was a prophet during the exile. God had brought the people of Israel into being, rescued them from Egypt, called them into relationship with him, given them his law so that they’d know how to love him in response - and then given them the promised land. And they’d responded by ignoring and breaking his law. Which showed they were basically saying to God, ‘We don’t want to be your people. We want to live how we please.’ So finally God judged them by letting them be invaded and taken into exile. Now pick it up at Ezekiel 36, v24. The LORD says to his people in exile:

24 “for I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. [I.e., there’s going to be a physical return to the land. But what’s really needed is a spiritual return to the LORD. So, read on:] 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” (Ezekiel 36.24-25)

And that’s what Jesus has in mind when he talks about being ‘born of water and the Spirit’. He’s using water as a picture of cleansing. And he’s saying: what we need is to have the sinful desires washed out of us. I don’t know what is particularly an issue for you – maybe pride, or jealousy, or unforgiveness, or the whole area of sexual sin, or greed, or anger, or whatever. But if we’re honest, some area like that in our lives has taught us that we can’t eradicate those things from our hearts. The best we can do is to try to contain them with flimsy resolutions - when what we really need is to have them removed.

So that’s the picture of ‘water’. Then when Jesus talks about the Spirit he has in mind Ezekiel 36, vv26-27:

26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Ezekiel 36.26-27)

In the Bible, your ‘heart’ is not your blood-pump but the centre of your personality, where you decide what you love and live for. And the fundamental work of the Spirit that we all need is a change of heart. We need our God-rejecting hearts removed and a God-loving heart put in, instead. So back to John 3. Jesus says, v5:

5I tell you the truth; no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh [i.e., sinners can only produce more sinners], but the Spirit gives birth to spirit [i.e., to spiritual life – to people who want to love and live for God]. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'” (Vv5-7)

I spoke on this once at a school Christian Union and I said that in my experience people are often very surprised - and offended - at being told they can’t make themselves acceptable to God even if they try. And I said to this group of teenagers, ‘If you are offended and you think this isn’t true, I’ve got some stamped addressed postcards. And I challenge you to take one and try this week to say nothing untrue and do nothing unkind (i.e., attempt just two parts of God’s law). And [I said] if you can prove me wrong by the end of the week, send me the postcard.’ Well, the postcards all went. I got one back. ‘Dear Mr Garrett, I tried and didn’t last till the end of the day.’ Very honest. And if you’ve not yet come to Jesus, will you be equally honest? Will you admit that you can’t change yourself and that you need God by his Spirit to change you? And if not, then take the test. I challenge you this week to try to say nothing untrue and do nothing unkind. Or, I challenge you to try to live consistently up to your own standards – let alone God’s – and see honestly how you get on.

Now at this point can I say: I can’t fully explain the Spirit – e.g., how the Spirit is not just some impersonal force, but the third person of the Godhead along with God the Father and God the Son; and how he can be in me and in you (if you’re a believer) and in believers the other side of the world all at the same time. But v8 tells us we’re not going to understand everything. Look at v8:

8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (v8)

I.e., the Spirit’s work is like the wind blowing through a tree: you don’t fully understand how the wind is doing its stuff, but the effects are obvious. E.g., I remember a student who came to faith in Jesus here one Sunday evening and she immediately went to tell her non-Christian boyfriend that she wasn’t going to sleep with him any more. That was a pretty obvious effect. He was completely taken aback and said that was unacceptable. So she broke off the relationship. Which left him even more taken aback. And he was in church the following Sunday and he said, ‘I want to know what’s got into my girlfriend.’

God the Holy Spirit changes people. So the question for all of us is whether we’ve seen any such change in ourselves. Now this side of heaven, the change is always incomplete, so this isn’t asking, ‘Do you never sin any more?’ (The answer to that question is always, ‘No’, this side of heaven.) But it is asking, ‘Are you a changed person? E.g., do you recognise sin where you didn’t used to? Do you resist sin where you didn’t used to? Do you regret sin when you didn’t used to? And over time, assuming you’ve been a Christian for a bit, can you point to any real changes? Can others? Have others done so?’ Because if there’s really no observable change, we probably still need to be born again. Which begs my other question tonight:


That’s what Nicodemus goes on to ask in v9. So look at v9:

9 "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked. (v9)

Now what Jesus does first is not to answer his question, but to answer his attitude. Because Nicodemus has laughed off the idea of being born again and hasn’t exactly shown himself willing to believe what Jesus has to say. So Jesus says, v10:

10 "You are Israel's teacher [you’re a bishop] and do you not understand these things? [I.e., you need to be a bit more humble, Reverend Doctor Nicodemus, a bit more teachable by a Teacher with infinitely more authority than you (if only you realised who you were talking to). Read on, v11:] 11 I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (vv10-12)

So Jesus answers his attitude and then his question. Remember the question is: ‘How does this work of the Spirit happen in a person’s life?’ And here’s the answer, v14:

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man [i.e., Jesus] must be lifted up [i.e., on the cross], 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (vv14-15)

Now at first look, that seems an odd answer to the question ‘How does this work of the Spirit happen?’ Because it doesn’t mention the Spirit - it’s all about Jesus, his death on the cross and coming to faith in him. But once you’ve seen that, you’re very close to understanding the work of the Spirit. Because the work of the Spirit is simply this: to bring people to trust in Jesus and then to keep them trusting in Jesus for the rest of their lives. What the Spirit does is to work in our hearts, to open our spiritual eyes, so that as the message of the Bible comes to us, we see who Jesus is and what he did for us on the cross, and trust in him. So read on in v16, and this is what someone whose spiritual eyes have been opened is able to say about Jesus and his death (I wonder if you can say this with conviction?):

16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. (Vv16-18)

Now to get someone to the point of believing that and therefore being able to say that with conviction, the Spirit has to do two things in our hearts.

First, he has to open our spiritual eyes to see where we really stand before God. Later in John’s Gospel Jesus says this:

When [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement. (John 16.8)

Now that’s the picture of a prosecuting lawyer trying to convince people about the facts of a case. And we need the Spirit to do that in our hearts - to convince us that we are sinners before a Holy Judge and that without Jesus we ‘stand condemned already’. I remember when I first experienced that conviction. It was in the evangelistic talk that brought me to faith. It was on a verse of the Bible in Isaiah which begins ‘We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way [i.e., turned from God]’ (Isaiah 53.6). Now I’d been trying for maybe a year to work out how God could accept me. At the time, I was being told in a liberal school chapel that what I basically needed was to try to be good. So I tried to be. But when I heard that verse from Isaiah and the Spirit convicted me, I realised for the first time the full truth of what was wrong. Up till then I could have told you some of my faults – e.g., that I was pretty selfish and arrogant, that I could be very cruel to people with my tongue and so on. But as the Spirit convicted me, I saw that those things were not just faults but sins – i.e., things committed against God, and that God hates; things that were not just ‘grey’ but utterly black; and I saw that they flowed from the fact that I had completely ignored God up to that time in my life – that I’d been on the planet 16 years and not given him one real, sincere thought. And the enormity of the offence of that suddenly came home to me. And I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way out of this. If this is really true, I’ve had it.’ So that’s the first thing the Spirit has to do: to convict us of sin. I wonder if you know that experience?

The other thing the Spirit has to do is to open our spiritual eyes to who Jesus is and what he did for us on the cross. In that talk that brought me to faith, the speaker went on to explain the second half of that verse in Isaiah:

We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the LORD [that is, God the Father] has laid on him [that is Jesus, God the Son] the iniquity [i.e., sin] of us all. (Isaiah 53.6)

And he explained very simply that there was a way out. That God had sent his Son to die on the cross, to take my judgement instead of me - so that I could be forgiven, and yet justice would also be done on my sins. And during that talk, the Spirit opened my spiritual eyes to see what Jesus did on the cross. For the previous two years, as I said, I’d been told that what I basically needed was to try to be good. But I had known deep down that only a God with pathetically low standards could accept me as I was – and that the real God must have frighteningly perfect standards. And as the cross was explained I suddenly saw how God had solved the problem of how to accept me and at the same time punish my sin as he should. And I remember the feeling of relief and excitement that there was a way out, and I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the talk to know how to take it.

So that’s the other thing the Spirit has to do: to help us see who Jesus is and what he did for us on the cross. So that in your mind’s eye you can picture Jesus dying there and say to yourself, ‘That was God, loving me enough to let his Son pay the price of my sins.’ I wonder if you know that experience? Because, to go back to Ezekiel’s language, that’s how God changes our hearts. He creates love for him in our hearts as we come to understand and trust his extraordinary love for us. Well, let’s read to the end of our passage, from v19:

19 This is the verdict: Light [i.e., Jesus – see John 8.12] has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. [So vv19-20 describes those who hear about Jesus but reject him. And it highlights, again, the problem of the heart. Its saying: by nature, we love the wrong things and don’t want to come to Jesus, because we know that, metaphorically speaking, he’ll shine his light into everything that needs changing in our lives. V21:] 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God [i.e., done through the work of God’s Spirit].’ (Vv19-21)

So v21 is the person who does come to Jesus, who does want to change and love him. And that only happens when the Spirit opens our eyes to how Jesus has already loved us.

Let me end with some final applications.

If you know you’ve not yet come to faith in Jesus but want to know how to, please do pick up a copy of this booklet, Why Jesus? – on the Welcome Desk near the door, or on the tables at student supper.

But then let me say something if this has made you unsure about whether you really are born again - whether you’re really a Christian. One important thing to say is that those who are born again aren’t necessarily aware of exactly when that happened. I am, but lots of people aren’t - and you don’t need to be. It’s like being born the first time. I’m told I was born on 29th April 1966. Now I wasn’t aware of that. But I reassure myself that I really was born because I’m currently showing signs of being alive. And so it is with being born again. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t aware of when it happened. What matters is whether you’re showing signs of being spiritually alive today. And the three fundamental signs from this passage are conviction of sin, faith in Jesus as Saviour and trying to live for Jesus as Lord. So here are the three diagnostic questions to help us work out whether we’re born again:

1) Are you regularly convicted of sin? Someone said to me the other day they sometimes feel they’re getting worse as a Christian as the Lord Jesus brings to light more of what needs changing in their lives. But that’s a good sign, not a bad one. Because that only happens through the Spirit’s work.

2) Are you trusting in Jesus and finding assurance of forgiveness in his death? Because, again, that only happens through the Spirit’s work.

3) Are you trying day by day to live for the Lord Jesus in response? Because that also only happens through the Spirit’s work.

You remember the story I began with - of the Toronto Blessing? Perhaps the saddest thing of all about that was the number of genuinely born again people, the number of genuine Christians, that went away from those meetings in doubt about whether God’s Spirit was at work in them. Because they hadn’t fallen over. Or laughed uncontrollably. Or shaken. Or spoken in tongues. Or had any of the other experiences that people go on about.

If only they’d known that the fundamental work of the Spirit is to change our hearts – not through ‘zapping us’, but through opening our spiritual eyes to the message of the Bible. And if only they’d known that the fundamental experiences produced by the work of the Spirit are: being convicted of sin, trusting in Jesus as Saviour, and trying to live for Jesus as Lord. They’d have gone away from those meetings far more clear as to whether or not they were born again. As I pray you will, as a result of this meeting tonight.

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