Last time we examined some ideas about the Holy Spirit and worship – mostly misconceptions that do not help us understand his presence or work in worship. If the work of the Holy Spirit in worship is not solely or even primarily found in charismatic phenomena, how then can we understand his role? Three concepts are helpful in casting light on this area: binding, directing, and empowering.
Binding may seem an odd choice of words. After all, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). Paul talks about being a slave or bondservant of Christ (Phil 1:1) and while the notion is related, it’s not what I mean by the term. The binding I’m talking about is the deep connection that the Spirit gives us to the inner life of the Godhead and, consequently, to each other. Christ has made a way for us to be reconciled to God, but it is in the Spirit that reconciliation is made a reality.
The Father and the Son have sent the Spirit to the church and the two are so intertwined that we can say that where the Spirit is the church is also, and where the church is, there is the Spirit. He is our constant companion and guide. In him we are drawn to worship God and are lifted up into the presence of the Almighty. The Spirit forms the bond of love between us and God in much the same way that he does between the Father and the Son in Augustine’s vision of the Trinity. The cord of love that binds us to God is the Spirit. As the Spirit binds us to the Trinity, he also binds us to each other. When we submit to the leadership of the Spirit, we also submit to one another in love. This is true for both individuals within a given congregation and between congregations. Just as each believer is bound by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, so the local expressions of that body are bound together in the Spirit.
I should be careful to note that though the Spirit is God’s gift to the church, he is not possessed by it. The Spirit is, and remains, completely God. We can no more command the Spirit than we can command Christ or the Father. He is continually with us, but in the partnership that exists between the Holy Spirit and the church, the Spirit is the senior member.
The close connection binding God and his people dictates both the form and content of worship. We are not trying to reach up and to grab the attention of a disinterested God. Instead, our worship revels in the presence of a God who loves us so much that he has brought us into an extremely intimate relationship with himself at great cost to himself. Like old friends, we reminisce with God over his mighty acts in history. As grateful recipients, we proclaim the praise of our benefactor. As adopted children of God, we listen to the voice of our Father and celebrate at the table of Jesus, our big brother. All of this is done because the Spirit binds us to God, and God to us.
Unlike binding, directing is much more straightforward - the Spirit directs our worship. The New Testament repeatedly references the state of being “in the Spirit.” Most often the phrase implies a submission to the leading of the Spirit. A few of the actions we see being taken in the Spirit include rejoicing (Luke 10:21), praying (Eph. 6:18), and making ministry decisions (Acts 19:21). The first two easily fit into our typical notions of worship. Less obvious is the Spirit’s leadership in these areas.
We rejoice in the good things that we experience and give glory to God, but why? After all, good outcomes can be attributed to our own doings just as easily as they are to Divine intervention/direction, and that’s even before we take into account chance and luck. Some might say that our propensity to give God glory in such circumstances is the product of our own belief that God works in history and directs events as he sees fit. While that is certainly true, we rejoice in our struggles just as much as in our victories (1 Thes. 1:6, James 1:2-4). I find it difficult to accept that a mere mental assent to God’s overlordship can produce joy in difficult circumstances – perhaps it can create endurance, but not joy. Rather, it is the presence and work of the Spirit that leads us to rejoice in all of life’s twists and turns. We rejoice in the worst that life has to offer because of the Spirit’s indwelling presence in our lives. He connects us in Christ with God the Father and creates in us the desire to rejoice. Regardless of what we encounter, he will never leave or forsake us. The assurance provided by the indwelling Spirit that we will never be abandoned, cast off, or marooned is the sole source of our joy in the midst of overwhelming heartache. Even in good times, when it is so easy to find other causes of joy, the Spirit remains our fountainhead of rejoicing.
Prayer offers us an area where we more readily acknowledge the leadership of the Spirit. We commonly talk about God laying someone or something on our hearts as we are praying. We have all experienced times when we felt led to pray, as if God were calling us to speak to him. These are both examples of the directing work of the Spirit, but there is another sense in which we can pray in the Spirit. There are times when we do not know what to pray, but we are led to pray nonetheless. In these moments the Spirit, “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 2:26). I have experienced this kind of prayer most often in moments of intense emotion – an overflow of either sorrow, anger, or joy – where I have been led to pray but did not have any words to say. Again it is the Spirit who leads us to pray but in this case he intercedes on our behalf making the inmost thoughts of our heart known.
Rejoicing and prayer are just two examples of how the Holy Spirit directs us, but the pattern is instructive. The Spirit does not draw attention to himself, but draws our attention to Christ, and through Christ to the Father. In fact, his work is often so subtle that we regularly miss that he is the one leading us to such a response. The same is true for the other things that the Scripture tells us are done “in the Spirit.” The Spirit’s work is not flashy or self-aggrandizing but it is effective and powerful.
All Christians agree that Jesus is the model par excellence for the life that is pleasing to God. But the life that Jesus led and his ministry were not done in his own power alone but by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the same way that the Spirit empowered Christ, he empowers us as well. This is most easily seen in the gifts of the Spirit.
The Spirit endows each believer with particular gifts intended to build up and encourage the church. The individual gifts listed in Scripture are varied and include abilities like prophesy, wisdom, knowledge, healing, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues as well as offices like apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. It may seem odd that both abilities and offices are listed as gifts of the Spirit. After all, aren’t prophets those with the gift of prophesy? Well, yes and no. We need to keep in mind that the purpose of the gifts is to build up the church. Just because someone has the gift of wisdom does not mean they are gifted to be a teacher. Likewise, not all who are gifted to be pastors are bestowed with prophesy. Rather, all are empowered by the Spirit to serve the church in their respective roles.
From the earliest days, Christians have had a bad habit of focusing on the gifts themselves instead of the purpose of the gifts. The Apostle Paul felt the need address this shortcoming in 1 Corinthians. His answer was that three things would last: faith, hope, and love – and that love is the greatest of all. His point was that these three things are also gifts of the Spirit, and while not as flashy and impressive as tongues and prophesy, these three are the higher gifts in that they are given to all believers and allow the proper exercise of all the others. Moreover, love is given the place of honor because it alone serves as the ethical basis for employing the other gifts.
The Spirit empowers believers to be the church through the gifts of the Spirit and thereby bring glory to God. This is the essence of the church as worship. Redeemed individuals are brought together by the Spirit and empowered to worship by exercising the gifts they have been given to build up the church by spreading the Gospel and strengthening the faith of other believers. These tasks are not ends unto themselves but are the means through which God brings glory to himself.
As we interact with God, the standard trinitarian pattern of action reverses – we worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit. All of the motions of worship that are addressed to God follow this pattern. When we pray, we pray in the Spirit. When we sing, we sing in the Spirit. When we give or serve, it is in the Spirit. The Spirit binds us to God, directs our action toward the Father in Christ, and empowers us as we worship. The action of the Holy Spirit is so integral to what we do in worship that without his involvement our actions cease to be worship at all, becoming instead a frenzied attempt at grabbing the attention of a God with whom we have no real connection. If Christ is the door by which we enter into the eternal life of the Trinity, it is the Spirit who enlivens us and draws us to that door. He does this not by making himself the object of our focus, but by setting our attention on Christ. The Spirit, as ever, remains the shy member of the Trinity.