paul and the power of the spirit

by robert brow

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).


In the Introduction we began with our experience of the Holy Spirit in the twentieth century. We wondered how this might relate to the good news of "the power of God for salvation" which Paul wrote about in the Epistle to the Romans (1:16). Our proposed model has highlighted the recurring theme of being put right by the power of God. As the epistle proceeds, this empowerment of God is identified with the power of the Holy Spirit which was poured out after the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God.

This has enabled us to see how the epistle relates to references to the Spirit in the prophets and in John's Gospel. In the Gospels Jesus is described as empowered by the Spirit, and Paul shows us how we can be empowered in the same way. There is also a natural connection with Paul's teaching about the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians and Galatians.

Paul is sure that this power is available to us by faith. But faith is not merely believing certain things which justify us before God. As in the life of Abraham (Romans 4) faith is a direction of looking. We need to turn away from our own strength and ability to live by the power of God. This suggested that in Romans Paul was giving an extended explanation of the power of the Spirit to counter the Galatian heresy. Their error was to go back from living by the power of God into trying to perfect themselves by legalism. This was also Jesus' complaint against the Pharisees, and the point of his words to Nicodemus about the energy of the flesh instead of looking to the Holy Spirit.

This interpretation helps to remove the apparent contradiction with the Epistle of James. Abraham's faith was "brought to completion by the works," and "a person is put right by works and not by faith alone" so that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:22-26). Here the works which are part of a genuine faith are not works which we can do in our own strength, but the outcome of the wisdom of God, which seems to be another name for the Holy Spirit. As James explains, "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom." And this "wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits" (James 3:13-17). Which in turn reminds us of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), and Paul's teaching about genuine love (Romans 12:9-13).

This makes us wonder how Paul's teaching about living by the power of the Spirit relates to the crucifixion. In 3:25 we noted the Greek word hilastyrion which was variously translated a "propitiation" (KJV), an "expiation" (RV), a "means of expiating sin" (NEB), a "sacrifice for reconciliation" (NJB), and a "sacrifice of atonement" (NIV and NRSV). All of these translations agree that the term in some sense relates to Jesus' sacrifice of himself on the cross. But we know that any important event in human history turns out to have a complexity of different meanings. So it would seem foolish to try to reduce the sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God to just one of the meanings of sacrifice in the ancient world.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews for example the death of the Son of God on the cross is described as destroying "the one who has the power of death," and freeing "those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death" (2:14-15). But then we also read that the Son "learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:8-9). He is also mediator of a better covenant" spoken of by Jeremiah, which will "put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts" (Hebrews 8:6, 10). His blood obtained "eternal redemption" for us, and removes sin (Hebrews 9:12, 26). "By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:15).

Without denying that Paul may have had these and other meanings of the cross in mind when he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, we have highlighted one aspect of that event which we might set out as follows. In the Gospels Jesus is described as totally dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit for his ministry (e.g. conception, baptism, temptation, preaching, healing, casting out demons).

As Jesus faced his own death in the Garden of Gethsemane, he must have been tempted to doubt whether that power of the Holy Spirit could take him through death to resurrection. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that it was "through the eternal Spirit" that he was able to offer himself "without blemish to God." (Hebrews 9:14).

Paul then tells the Romans that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead "will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (8:11). That life is not something that will only begin after our death and resurrection, but it expresses itself now by way of fruit, gifts, prayer, endurance, teaching, worship, hope, and a sense of adoption into the family of God. We suggested that in a modern home there are a hundred different ways in which electric power is available to us. The Holy Spirit is not an inanimate force like electricity, but the variety of ways in which the Holy Spirit can empower us is likely to be far more than we can imagine.

In our century of the Holy Spirit we can see how the various pentecostal and charismatic movements of renewal at their best have helped Christians into living by the power of the Spirit. But we can also see from the Epistle to the Romans that our faith is not to focus on one or two particular manifestations but on the power of the Spirit who assigns his gifts as he chooses.

Paul might have added that when he was converted on the Damascus Road there was a light from heaven brighter than the sun, he fell to the ground, heard a voice speaking in Hebrew, and he lost his sight till a Christian brother laid hands on him (Acts 9:3-18; 26:13-14). He was given these signs of the power of the Spirit, but he did not need to keep going to meetings to have them renewed each week.

Similarly people who are touched by the Spirit in a powerful new way might find themselves knocked to the ground like Paul, speaking in tongues, or seeing tongues of fire, as on the Day of Pentecost. Some have found themselves laughing, crying, clapping, hugging, dancing with joy, shaking like Shakers, quaking like Quakers, roaring like a young lion, or, even like Jesus or Saint Francis, have a dove come fluttering down upon their head.

But things go badly wrong when we imagine we need to repeat the same experience again and again to maintain our spirituality. And zealous Christian workers must avoid inducing one or other of these manifestations by the energy of the flesh. Only the Holy Spirit has the right to choose a gentle breeze, breath, voice, touch, dream, nightmare, hurricane, earthquake, bright light, burning bush, or forest fire, just exactly as needed for the occasion. And Paul would add that in all circumstances "the kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:17).

How do I begin?

Jesus told his disciples simply to "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you." He explained "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (Luke 11:9-13). And from what Paul has said about the Spirit in the Epistle to the Romans, we know Paul would have agreed with James that all we have to do is ask. "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask of God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you" (James 1:5; see the invitations of wisdom in Proverbs 1:23; 2:2-5, 10; 4:7-9; 7:4; 8:17, 34; 9:4-6).

So we might begin with the most troubling or perplexing problem in our life, define it exactly, and ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom to see it in the light of God's love. Having asked, it is important to listen and perhaps write down the new insights that we receive.

Paul tells us "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). In each case we could bring to the Spirit the person we find hardest to love, the situation which is making us miserable, our worrisome lack of peace, what makes us impatient, behavior which hurts someone, the mean streak in our life, the responsibility we have accepted and find ourselves avoiding, our fits of anger. There is no need to grovel in guilt, or keep asking for forgiveness. We just leave what needs changing to the Spirit to work in us in his own way. Again it would be good to write down what we asked, and review what has happened in our life.

Paul told us to let the Spirit guide our prayers. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). After the items of our own immediate agenda, thanksgiving is important (Philippians 4:6), and then we should be quiet and listen for the concerns of the Spirit. These may emerge as a situation or person we can see needs our prayer. Or longings which we can hardly put into words. Some find that they begin with an unknown language, and they ask the Spirit to interpret the prayer need for them (1 Corinthians 14:13,14).

We should allow the Spirit to clarify our function in our local gathering of Christians or mission team. Some of the gifts or functions that are needed to build up the body of Christ are listed for us (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-3; Ephesians 4:11). But we should not be surprised if the Holy Spirit give us a task that no one else has done before. And if we don't know what we have to offer, we can begin with helping someone else do something that needs doing. But we can assume that the Holy Spirit will never move us to divide the body of Christ (Romans 15:5-7; Ephesians 4:3).

Both in local churches and mission teams, and in all levels of government, industry, business, and social service, there is a huge need of leadership. We saw how Joshua and the judges were given the gift of leadership by the Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9; Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25). The hardest part of leadership is freeing others to grow and exercise their gifts to the full. There is no room for self-importance, despising or lording it over others (Romans 12:3).

We also note the importance of the artistic (Exodus 35:30-35) and creative gifts that the Holy Spirit may give us. And we remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit is creative and unpredictable, so that we will again and again be surprised by what we are given. If we think we have this or that gift for a particular situation at a particular time, others will recognize it. They will sense our love, experience joy in working with us, and there will be harmony in the work of the kingdom (Romans 14:17-19). As Jesus said, our ministry will be a servant ministry, and will be concerned for the freedom (ransoming) of others (Mark 10:41-45).

The Epistle to the Romans is Paul's explanation of the power of the Spirit, but the first need is to open ourselves to what the Spirit might do in us, and learn as we go. "The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you . . . He will guide you into all the truth" (John 14:26; 16:13; see also 14:12). And this is exactly what Paul prayed for the Christians in Rome, and would no doubt pray for Christians in every town and city of our world.

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).

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