Imagine someone doing a survey asked you, ‘What do you believe about God?’ I guess many of us would say, ‘I believe in the God of the Bible, and that Jesus was and is his Son.’ But imagine they then asked, ‘And how have you experienced God?’ I wonder what you’d say. That’s a more searching and unsettling question. Because even if we can say we have personal experience of God, most of us from time to time wonder whether our experience of God is really what it’s meant to be or could be.
Those who’ve been around long enough will remember ‘the Toronto blessing’. It was an experience that began in a charismatic church in Toronto, where they had people falling over and laughing and shaking uncontrollably and so on. And all of that was said to be an experience of God. And ‘Toronto’ style meetings spread all over the world. And Christians from all kinds of churches went to them. And I think people were looking for an experience that would assure them that God was real and that he was with them and loved them. But if you ask the Bible, ‘Are the things I just mentioned that happened in those meetings really signs of the work of God’s Spirit?’ the answer is, ‘No.’
Now I’m not saying that more ‘charismatic’ churches (to use that label) are getting it all wrong, while we’re getting it all right. All churches are a mixture of getting it right and wrong. And I value some of the more ‘charismatic’ ones for their example of seeking more of the experience of God that the Bible offers, and of talking about their experience of God more naturally. I think they’re stronger on that than we are. But that begs the question: what experience of God does the Bible offer to us? And the answer lies in this morning’s topic, which is: the Holy Spirit.
We’re in a sermon series on the 39 articles – the statements of belief which this church stands for. And we’ve done the first four. So, Article 1 says we believe in one God – but who is three persons in one – Father, Son and Spirit. Articles 2, 3 and 4 then say how we know God is like that. And the answer is: through Jesus, because the Bible claims that Jesus was God’s Son become human – to show us what his Father is like. But it also says Jesus came primarily to die for us and then rise again – to pay for the forgiveness we need if we’re to come into relationship with his Father. And the role of the Holy Spirit is to draw us into that relationship with God and make it real to us in our experience.
So let me read you Article 5:
Of the Holy Ghost [ie, Spirit]
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.
And on a morning where you’ve already lost an hour’s sleep, that kind of language is pretty deadly, isn’t it? It’s good for defining where Biblical belief lies. But I’m so glad that’s not how God chose to present himself to us, in 16th century theological language. I’m so glad he chose to present himself to us in his Son, the Lord Jesus. So we’re going to turn in the Bible to what Jesus said about how the Holy Spirit would enable us to relate to him and his Father, once he was back in heaven. So would you turn in the Bibles to John’s Gospel, chapters 15 and 16.
John 13-17 records the conversation Jesus had with his apostles on the Thursday night before the Friday when he died. So he knew he was going back to heaven via the cross and resurrection. And he was preparing his apostles for their mission of telling the world about him. And he made it very clear what they were up against – look at chapter 15, v18:
“If the world hates you [ie, rejects your message about me], know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15.18)
And that’s a pretty sobering thought isn’t it? Because we tend to think that if only our evangelism and Christian lives were perfect, the world would believe. But it wouldn’t. Because, after all, Jesus was the perfect evangelist. He was God become human, so he spoke perfectly, he lived perfectly – oh, and he did miracles as well. But he was rejected. And actually that’s just what the Old Testament (OT) had predicted. Look on to v25, where Jesus said:
“But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” (John 15.25)
And that’s the truth about every human heart: by nature, we reject Jesus. And not for any good ‘cause’ (ie, reason) but simply because we don’t want him taking his rightful place as God in our lives – we want to live our own way. So Jesus knew he was sending his apostles on a mission that was impossible on their own. But then he promised that they wouldn’t be on their own – look on to chapter 15, v26:
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15.26-27)
So v27 says that the apostles were going to have to tell the world what they’d seen and heard as Jesus’ official eyewitnesses. And we, today, have to tell the world what the apostles said in the New Testament (NT). But that by itself won’t bring anyone into relationship with God. Alongside that (and primarily), v26 says that God has to work in people by his Spirit. And Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Helper’. Literally, the original word means, ‘someone called alongside to help’ – eg, it was the word they used back then for a friend defending you in court.
So one thing this is saying is that the Holy Spirit is a person. So we shouldn’t talk about the Spirit as ‘it’ (like a force or power source), but as ‘he’.
And another thing this is saying is that, to quote Article 5 and the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Which means he comes to us from both of them to make both of them present in our lives and real to us. So a Christian shouldn’t think, ‘I’ve got the Holy Spirit in me, but God the Father and the Lord Jesus are out there in heaven.’ Instead a Christian should think, ‘It’s true that if I wanted to see God the Father or the Lord Jesus I’d need to be transported to heaven. But by the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus are actually in my life with me.’
So, for example, at Easter Music last Sunday, when I was explaining the step of becoming a Christian, I said, ‘All you have to do in prayer is to ask the risen Jesus to forgive you and to come into your life by his Spirit.’ Because that step of becoming a Christian is not just (if I can put it this way) about a book-keeping job out there in heaven, where God the Father and the risen Lord Jesus wipe out the record of our sins – although thank God that is what happens. But on the basis of that wiping out of the record our sins, God the Father and the Lord Jesus actually come into our lives, by the Holy Spirit. And in the days after I become a Christian, I vividly remember that new sense of their presence with me – the sense of someone right there, giving me a new feel for what was right and wrong in their eyes, and prompting me to please them, and steering me to avoid sin. And I wonder if you’ve had that experience?
Well, let’s look on into John 16 and see two of the central experiences of God that the Holy Spirit brings:
First, CONVICTION OF SIN
Ie, a deep sense of what’s wrong with you in God’s eyes, and needs forgiving and changing. Look on to John 16, v7, where Jesus said to his apostles:
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [ie, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you [in which case, no-one would believe their message and become Christians]. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.” (John 16.7-8)
A friend of mine was caught speeding a while back by an unmarked police car. He was on the motorway, in a hurry, doing well over eighty – and feeling grateful that there were no patrol cars anywhere in sight. When suddenly the car behind him was flashing its cleverly concealed blue lights. And the presence of that police car instantly convicted him that he was in the wrong. And the presence of the Holy Spirit does the same in us as we hear the gospel about Jesus. Look onto v9, where Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts people
“concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” (John 16.9)
Which is a reminder that the ultimate sin – the sin that underlies all other sin – is: not believing in Jesus, telling the rightful ruler of this world to get lost. So, before I became a Christian, Jesus didn’t feature at all in my thinking. But then the gospel came along and told me he’s actually God’s Son and my rightful ruler. And I remember the moment, during the talk which brought me to faith, when I was suddenly convicted that God and the Lord Jesus were there. I remember the churning feeling in my stomach as I thought to myself, ‘I’ve lived in his world for however many years – and not even given him a thought.’ And I began to feel just how offensive that was to God and what deep trouble I was in.
Then, v10, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts people
“concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (John 16.10)
Our ‘righteousness’ is everything that makes us think we’re basically good enough for God – you know, ‘I’ve always tried to live a good life’, ‘I’ve never really hurt anybody’ and all that stuff that non-Christian people have come out with to me. But then the Holy Spirit makes you realise how your life really looks to God. And what looked fine to you looks filthy when dragged into the presence of Jesus.
And then, v11, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts people
“concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged [or you could translate that ‘has already been judged’ – ‘stands condemned already’ (NIV)].” (John 16.11)
We get a lot of our moral security from the world around us, don’t we? You know, ‘They all think I’m a decent person, so I must be.’ ‘They all do it, so it can’t be wrong.’ But then the gospel comes along and says the world is so badly wrong that Jesus had to die under the judgement it deserves, to offer it forgiveness. So look at the cross and you see God’s judgement on this world – ie, on us – and on Satan, the ruler of this world. And as you look at the cross, the Holy Spirit makes you realise that’s what you’d get if you were to be brought into the presence of God right now, unforgiven.
That’s conviction of sin. And I wonder if you’ve had that experience?
And it’s not just an experience you have at the beginning of the Christian life. It continues throughout your Christian life as the Holy Spirit makes you more aware of more of your sinfulness. So, eg, writing to well-established Christians, the apostle Paul said:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. (Ephesians 4.30)
And that reflects the fact that, if you’re a Christian, you know you can’t sin without grieving God who is in you by his Spirit. You can tell yourself that he can’t see or hear what you’re doing or read what you’re thinking – that he’s in the next room. But by his Spirit in you, you know he’s there, don’t you? You have that inescapable sixth sense of his presence. And either you heed it and experience the joy of obedience. Or you grieve him, and experience fresh conviction of sin and shame – which is designed by God to make sinning miserable and to wean us more off sin and more onto him.
So that’s conviction of sin. And the other central experience the Holy Spirit brings goes hand in hand with that, and it’s:
Secondly, ASSURANCE OF GOD’S LOVE
In the face of our sin – but also of all the hard things that happen to us – we need assurance that God loves us. And, like I said earlier, I think that was the main thing people were looking for in those ‘Toronto blessing’ meetings. In fact, a woman I heard interviewed at one of them said, ‘I was prayed for, and felt this warmth flowing through me. And it was the first time I’d really felt God’s love.’ Now don’t get me wrong. I would like to feel God’s love for me more than I do – and I’d like you to, as well. But she was looking for that in the wrong place. And as I listened to her I thought, ‘If you’re interpreting that warm feeling as a sign of God’s love, you’re going to be back here every day needing the same experience – and ultimately you’re going to be disillusioned when it doesn’t happen.’
So, how can we experience assurance of God’s love? Well, as with conviction of sin, it comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, as we hear the gospel. So look down to John 16, v12, where Jesus said to his apostles,
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now [ie, you can’t take them in now, can’t get your minds around them now].” (John 16.12)
And remember: ‘now’ was the Thursday night before Good Friday. So Jesus’ death and resurrection were yet to come – but at this point, the apostles hadn’t begun to understand why they were necessary and what they were going to achieve. But that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
To which you want to say, ‘But, hold on, Lord – you’re running out of time. When are you going to help these guys understand your death and resurrection if not now?’ And the answer is: after they’ve happened – when, by his Spirit, he will help them to get their minds around it all. So, read on, v13:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth [ie, all the truth about Jesus], 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 [ie, he’ll help you understand what I’m about to do through my death and resurrection]. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16.13-14)
And ‘he will glorify me’ means ‘he will bring it home to you who I really am – that I’m fully God – and that what I’m about to do on the cross is for your forgiveness, out of love for you.’ So before the Holy Spirit does that for someone, they might be prepared to say that Jesus did really live and then die on the cross. But that’s as far as it goes. They have no sense that the cross had anything to do with them. So, eg, I remember seeing a church one Easter time with a big wooden cross outside it and a banner saying, ‘Does this mean nothing to you?’ And it’s pretty obvious that for most people around us the answer is ‘Yes.’ And I can remember the cross meaning nothing to me, either – until I heard the gospel in the talk which brought me to faith. And the Holy Spirit both convicted me of sin and then – like it says here – glorified Jesus. Ie, he brought it home to me that Jesus was and is God, and that what he did on the cross was for me, for my forgiveness, out of love for me.
And at the end of that talk which brought me to faith, I prayed a prayer pretty much like the one I invited people to pray at the end of Easter Music last Sunday. I asked the risen Jesus to forgive me and to come into my life as my Lord – not at all sure what, if anything, that would feel like, what would happen. But I remember, as I walked away from that talk, feeling like the barrier between me and God had gone. I remember feeling a huge relief that everything God should hold against me had been lifted away from me. I remember feeling real joy. And I remember later, last thing before going to sleep, praying spontaneously for the first time – and just knowing for the first time that my prayers were actually getting through. And I now know from the Bible that all that was an experience of the Holy Spirit assuring me of God’s love and forgiveness and that I now had access into his presence in prayer, just like my children have access to me and my listening ear.
And I wonder if you’ve had that experience?
And again, that’s not just an experience you have at the beginning of the Christian life. And to see that, let’s end by turning on to Romans chapter 5 and v5. The apostle Paul is writing here about hope – which is the Bible word for being certain that, at the end of my life, God will welcome me into heaven. And in Romans 5.5, Paul says:
and hope does not put us to shame [ie, we who trust in Jesus know that we won’t be put to shame by being turned away on the day of judgement. And how do we know that? Read on:], because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5.5)
But how does the Holy Spirit ‘pour out God’s love into our hearts’ – ie, assure us of God’s love for us? By making me feel all warm as someone prays for me? No – read on:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5.6-8)
And at first sight it looks like Paul has changed the subject there. It looks like in v5 he’s talking about the Holy Spirit and then in vv6-8 he switches to the cross. But he hasn’t changed the subject at all. Because the way the Holy Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts is by bringing home to our hearts that what Jesus did on the cross was for us, and shows his all-forgiving love for us, and that it covered all our sins – past and future – so that there will never come a point when he says, ‘You’ve sinned one too big or once too often – so that’s it, I give up on you.’ The whole point of Romans 5 is that he’ll never do that, which is why we can be certain he accepts us now as the sinners we are – and that he’ll keep accepting us until the day we meet him face to face.
Time is up. And I’ve only begun to say what needs saying about the Holy Spirit. But those are the two central experiences of God that the Holy Spirit brings into your life: conviction of sin – which on its own would leave us on the floor – and assurance of God’s love.
And if this has left you thinking, ‘I’m not really sure that is my experience yet,’ then can I encourage you to take way and read a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? – which summarises what Jesus has done for us and what we have to do to respond.
But if what I’ve been talking about is your experience, then be reassured that you not only believe something about God but know what it is to relate to him personally. And be grateful, because you didn’t get yourself into that relationship; he, by his Holy Spirit, got you.