April / May 2017 - Vol. 91

Jesus commands Peter to
                  lower his nets to catch fish
The Empowered Christian Life
by J.I. Packer

"It is clear from the New Testament that the power of God is meant to accompany the Gospel, and to find expression through its messengers and in the lives of those to whom the message comes."

Each December, Time magazine produces a set of light-hearted comments on the previous year. At the end of 1987, the editors were isolating the most overworked word of the year, the one most ready for retirement. The word they chose was "power," as in "power lunch," or "power tie," or "power shopping.' I confess that my mind ran to various uses of the word "power" in Christian circles that seemed similarly overwrought, and I rather agreed that there was a strong case for retiring the word.

But then I thought again. Though the word "power' is over-used in society-and, I believe, often frivolously and unhelpfully used among Christians-it is nevertheless a significant New Testament word. Where would I be if I imposed a self-denying ordinance and declined to use it any longer? Where would the church be if we all acted that way?

The Spirit In Action
During the past century, Christians have been very concerned about power. Have they been wrong to be concerned about it? Not altogether. In the middle and late 1800s, there was great concern to find "the path of power." The path of power meant one's ability to perform set tasks and overcome temptations. Was it wrong to seek the power of God for greater self-control and a richer practice of righteousness? Of course not.

At the same time concern focused on being able, through the power of God, to impact others for God through preaching and witness. A great deal was said about the difference between Christians whose witness "had power" and those whose witness did not "have power." Was it right to be concerned that one's witness should have power? Was it right to be anxious lest one's witness should be powerless? Of course it was right. These should be concerns of ours as well.

More recently, Christians who have been touched by that movement which is known variously as pentecostalism, charismatic renewal, and the third wave, are finding, if they can, the ability to channel supernatural demonstrations of God's power in healings of all sorts: healings of the body, inner healing of the heart, exorcisms where there appears to be Something demonic in a person's life. Again I ask myself, is it wrong that Christians are concerned about.these things? Though I see various pitfalls, I cannot find it in my heart to say this is wrong. In my New Testament I read a great deal about such manifestations of the power of God-understood simply as "powers of the coming age," or, in other words, the Holy Spirit in action.

Miracles of New Creation
The coming of Christ the Savior has meant the outpouring of the Spirit on the church and on the world. And the Holy Spirit comes with power. In the New Testament we see this power manifested in all the modes of which I was speaking a moment ago: the ability to perform set tasks and overcome temptation, the ability to impact others through preaching and witness, and the ability to act as a channel for God's power in miracles, healings, and the like. Let us consider each of these three modes, in reverse order.

First, in the Gospels, we encounter works of power in the physical realm, including miracles of nature and healings of all sorts. The scriptural phrase "signs and wonders' is used for them.

These are, to use C.S. Lewis's apt phrase, "miracles of the new creation," in which the power of God that created the world works again to bring something out of nothing, that is, to bring about a state of affairs for which no explanation can be given in terms of what was there before. Everyone knows you cannot get food for five thousand out of five loaves and two fishes, but food for five thousand was produced. Everyone knows you cannot bring the dead back to life, but Jesus on three occasions brought the dead back to life: Jairus's daughter, the widow's son at Nain, and Lazarus.

The coming of Christ the Savior has meant the outpouring of the Spirit on the church and on the world. And the Holy Spirit comes with power.

To be sure, these three 'raisings from the dead" are not the same as the greater miracle of new creation that occurred when Christ himself was raised from the dead. They were only resuscitations; in each case, the person died again a little further down the line. Jesus, however, rose from the dead never to die again. His resurrection is an even more remarkable miracle of new creation-indeed, the normative one: Christ is the first fruits, the beginning of the new creation of God, as the New Testament itself says.
Nevertheless, all these are instances in which the power that created the world out of nothing in the first place produces effects for which no apparent cause can be cited, except that God the Creator has been showing his power again.

Words of Power
One reads on in the New Testament and finds, second, that words of power in Christian communication are very much apart of the gospel story and of the story of the new church. Luke is particularly interested in the power of God, and there are several texts in Luke that are significant here. Let's look at some of them.

In Luke 4:14 we read that, following the wilderness temptation, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit." This text introduces not only his works of power but also the words of power that came from his lips. Then, after his resurrection, Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were endued with "power from on high" for the ministry of worldwide evangelism to which he was committing them (see Luke 24:49).

At the beginning of Acts, Luke picks up the same theme. Jesus tells his followers, 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1:8). Then later we read, "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all." (Acts 4:33)

Empowered Preaching
Paul likewise has tremendous things to say about the power of God working through the Gospel and through its messengers. "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes' (Romans 1:16). At the end of the lengthy argument that makes up the book of Romans, and speaking of his own ministry, Paul says, "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done-by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit" (Romans 15:18-19).

And again, in his first letter to the Corinthians, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel - not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).

"Words of human wisdom" is a phrase Paul uses to denote swapping philosophy with the philosophers. The people in the Greek cities where he went to evangelize expected Paul to parade his own cleverness when he spoke in public. But Paul wouldn't do it. He adopted a style of presentation which at first seemed foolish to these folk who were expecting the sort of self-display they got from the other traveling teachers.

"I knew what you wanted," Paul says in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, 'and I was resolved not to give it to you. You wanted me to show off as a philosopher, with dazzling arguments, but I wouldn't do it. And so you thought me a fool." Rather, Paul says, "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

Transformed Lives
The New Testament speaks not only of God's power in the miraculous and in the communication of the gospel, but also, third, of God's power at work in us, enabling us to understand and to do what we otherwise could not.

In Ephesians 1:17-19, Paul tells the Christians what he prays that God will give them, "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us other translations say, 'in us") who believe."

It is not just power in the message. It is not just power through the messenger. It is power in and upon those who believe, making their life utterly different from what it was before. It is resurrection power-a matter of God raising with Christ those who have become willing to die with Christ. Clearly Paul is expecting tremendous changes in the lives of those who now belong to Christ.

He comes back to this theme at the end of chapter three, "I pray that out of God's glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God“ (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Again we see that Paul is talking about something radical, in the fullest sense of that word: something produces a total change. He is praying that through this marvelous inner transformation and enrichment the Ephesians will be utterly different from folk around them-utterly different, indeed, from what they have been so far.

These are samples of the many precious texts in the New Testament about the power of God, working through Christ and through the apostles, manifested in works of power in the physical realm, in giving power to Christian communications so that they have a significant impact, and also in enabling Christians to understand and do what otherwise they could neither understand nor do.

Heightened Expectations
Thus, reflecting on the matter in light of the New Testament, I was compelled to correct my initial feeling that Time magazine had got it right about retiring the word "power." Though there are undoubtedly many ways in which power is spoken of nowadays that are hollow, and even foolish, power itself is a theme that Christians must ever hold onto. It is very clear from the New Testament that the power of God is meant to accompany the gospel, and to find expression through its messengers and in the lives of those to whom the message comes.

This conviction leads me to six theses about the manifestation of the power of God among his people today. My aim in sharing them is to make us more disposed to receive and manifest the power of God in its various forms.

At the same time, I must frankly say that I think there are unhelpful cross-currents in today's discussions of the power of God in the church of God. Thus I think that some aspects of these six theses are needed for corrective purposes. I trust they will clear the way in our minds and our hearts for right thinking and right practice in relation to the power of God, so that this power may be manifested to God's glory in your life, in my life, and in our churches.

1. It is right to bring the supernatural into prominence and to raise Christians' expectations with regard to it.

Our expectations with regard to seeing the power of God transforming people's lives are not, generally speaking, as high as they should be.

It is a fact of history that when the Reformation broke on the church in the sixteenth century, there was a tremendous amount of superstition regarding the Saints working miracles. I am not denying that God may well have worked many miracles through many saints before the Reformation, as it seems he has worked miracles through his saints since the Reformation. But the reformers looked around and saw a great deal which seemed to them to be unmistakably superstitious, so they reacted against it.

Packer's Proverb, however, is that the reaction of man worketh not the righteousness of God. If you are walking backward away from something that you think is a mistake, you may be right in supposing it is a mistake, but for you to be walking backward is never right. You know what happens to people who walk backward in the physical sense. Sooner or later they stumble over some obstacle behind them which they never saw, because their mind and their eyes were fixed on what they were trying to get away from, and then they fell. We are meant to walk forward, not backward, and reaction is always a matter of walking backward.

I believe the reformers' reaction against all thought of the supernatural in the lives of God's people in this age of the Holy Spirit was, frankly, more wrong than right-as have been many subsequent attempts to rule out the present-day reality of the supernatural. It has been necessary to recover this theme in the twentieth century, and we should thank God that expectations of supernatural healing and answer to prayer have risen during this past thirty or forty years. The only thing that I would say here as a caution is that there is a danger in undervaluing the natural and the ordinary. There are people who want every problem to be solved by an immediate miracle, a display of the supernatural, a wonderful providence that will change everything. I think that is a sign of immaturity.

Again and again the Lord leads us into situations that are painful and difficult, and we pray-as Paul prayed regarding his thorn in the flesh-that the Lord will change the situation. We want a miracle! But instead the Lord chooses to strengthen us to cope with the situation, as he did with Paul, making his strength perfect in our continuing weakness.

Think of it in terms of the training of children, and you will see my point at once. If there are never any difficult situations that demand self-denial and discipline, if there are never any sustained pressures to cope with, if there are never any long-term strategies where you have to stick with something for years in order to advance, there will never be any maturity of character. The children will remain spoiled all their lives, because everything has been made too easy for them. The Lord does not allow that to happen in the life of his children.

It is extraordinary how little the New Testament says about God's interest in our success, by comparison with the enormous amount that it says about God's interest in our holiness, our maturity in Christ, our growth into the fullness of his image. When one starts thinking in positive terms about the supernatural in one's personal life, one must also remember it may very well please God to leave situations as they are, to decide not to work a miracle, in order to strengthen us his children who are involved in the situation so that we can grow from it.

Empowered Ministry

2. It is right to aspire to use one's God-given gifts in powerful and useful ministry.

It is right to want to know what gifts for ministry God has given us. It is right to want to harness them and see them used for the blessing of others as widely as possible.

But there is always a danger that the person who believes that God has given him or her a good sprinkling of gifts will be betrayed by that old enemy, self-importance. God does not value us according to the number of gifts we have, or by their spectacular quality. God does not value us primarily in terms of what we can do-even what we can do in his strength. He values us primarily in terms of what he makes us, character-wise, conforming us to Christ by his grace.

Jesus was already sounding the warning note when his disciples came back from a preaching tour all gung-ho and excited. "Lord,' they cried, 'even the demons are subject to us in your name

''Very good," says Jesus. "But don't rejoice that the demons are subject to you. That is not the truly important thing. Rejoice, rather, that your names are written in heaven. Rejoice in your salvation. Rejoice in what you are by the grace of God, rather than in the way God uses you. Rejoice in being his child and in entering upon your destiny of being transformed into Jesus' image."

Gifts are secondary. Sanctity is primary. Never let anything divert your mind and heart from holding fast to that truth.

Meeting Needs

3. It is right to want to be a channel of divine power into other people's lives at their points of need.

Just be careful, however, lest you become one of those people who suffers from the neurosis of needing to be needed - the state of not feeling that you are anything or anybody unless you are able to feel that others need you. That is not spiritual health. That is lack of spiritual health.

One of the disciplines to which the Lord calls us is the willingness, for certain periods of our life, not to be used in significant ministry. Here is a gifted sister, and for quite a long period it may seem that the Lord sidelines her so that her ministry is not being used. What is going on? Is this spiritual failure? It likely is not spiritual failure at all, but the Lord teaching her over again that her life does not depend on finding that people need her. The source of her joy in life must always be the knowledge of God's love for her-the knowledge that though he didn't need her, he has chosen to love her freely and gloriously so that she may have the eternal joy of fellowship with him.

In the spiritual life, what we are is always prior to what we do. If we lose touch with what we are, and with the reality of God's free mercy as the taproot of our spiritual life, the Lord may have to sideline us until we have learned this lesson again.

Empowered Evangelism

4. It is right to want to see God's power manifested in a way that has a significant evangelistic effect.

The line of thought to which I am referring here is the one which says that evangelism is not evangelism until it has a particular kind of miracle attached to it. Frankly, I think that is a gross overstatement, a real error. The danger to which it gives rise is that those who practice evangelism will devise ways and means of manipulating people and situations to make it look as if wonderful things are happening through the power of God. Dishonesty and deception at this point must prove disastrous.

Packer's Proverb: The reaction of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

Nonetheless, it is not wrong to want evangelism to be done in a way that impresses and blesses people because it convinces them that all this talk about a new life in Christ through the power of God is for real. Moral and spiritual transformation by the Holy Spirit through new birth remains the supreme miracle and should be highlighted in evangelism, firsthand witness to Christ doing for lost souls what alcohol and rock music and sex and drugs could not do for them still brings about the most fruitful sort of "power encounter" between the sinner and the Savior.

5. It is right to want to be divinely empowered for righteousness, for moral victories, for deliverance from bad habits, and for pleasing God.

The good news is that through the means of grace, all Christians may be so empowered. Through the Spirit, you and I may and must mortify the deeds of the body. Through the Spirit, you and I may and must manifest the new habits, the new Christ-like behavior patterns that 11

6. It is right to want to be divinely empowered for communion with God in a love that answers the knowledge of his love for us.

Again, this empowering, if appropriately sought, will be found. The last verses of Ephesians 3 proves that. So let us pray for it for ourselves and for others.

The Power Path
I spoke earlier of the "power path." Perhaps it will be clearer now what I mean when I say that the power path is humble dependence on God to become channels of his power. We are to be channels, first, through which the power of God flows into the depths of our own being as we open ourselves up to the Lord and his grace. Then, by God's grace, we will find that again and again we are becoming channels of his power into the lives of others.

God's power is God's power, and he exercises it. He does not give us power as a gift. He does not give us power as our possession. The power of God is not something handed over to us for us to use at our discretion. Our relation to the power of God should be one of becoming, by his grace, channels through which his power is exercised. Our attitude toward the power of God must never be such that we seek to possess the power for ourselves so we can use it at our discretion. If ever you hear Christians talking about using the power of God, I hope red lights flash in your mind. If, however, you hear Christians talking about finding the place where God's power can use them, nod your head. But don't seek power as your own possession or you will be off track, perhaps ruinously so.

Weakness and Strength
Finally, a few words about what I call 'the power scenario." The power scenario is that God perfects his strength in our weakness. And therefore, I would say, the more conscious we are of that weakness, the better.

Think again of Paul and his thorn in the flesh. We do not know, of course, exactly what the "thorn' was. But whatever it was, it was surely something painful or he wouldn't have called it a thorn, and it was surely something in his own makeup or he wouldn't have called it a thorn "in his flesh."

Paul went to the Lord Jesus in solemn seasons of prayer three times over. He went to the Lord Jesus because Jesus was the healer, and this was something that needed the healer's touch. He prayed that the thorn might depart from him, but the Lord said no. He said, "I have something better in view for you, Paul." (God always reserves the right to answer our prayers in a better way than we ask them.) "I'll tell you what I'm going to do," the Lord said. "I'm going to make my strength perfect in your continuing weakness so that all the things you fear the end of your ministry, the diminution of your ministry, the enfeebling of your ministry, the discredit of your ministry - will be avoided. Your ministry will go on in power and in strength as it has done, but it will also go on in weakness. You will carry that thorn in the flesh around with you as long as you live. But my strength will be made perfect in that weakness.'

This, I believe, is a pattern that is likely to be worked out again and again in your life and in mine. The Lord first of all makes us conscious of our weakness, so that our heart cries out, 'I can't handle this.' We go to the Lord, telling him, "I can't handle this. Please take it away!" And the Lord replies, "In my strength you can handle this, and in answer to your prayer, I will strengthen you to handle it." Thus in the end your testimony, like Paul's, will be, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." That, I believe, is the fullest expression of the empowered Christian life.

[This article is adapted from a presentation at the 1991 conference of Allies for Faith Renewal, on "Repentance, Holiness, and Power" by J.I. Packer. This article was first published in the January / February Issue of Faith & Renewal, Ann Arbor.]

J. I. Packer is a Reformed theologian and retired professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is a prolific author, and a well-known pastor, teacher, and lecturer.

Return to Table of Contents or Archives  (c) copyright 2017  The Sword of the Spirit