June / July 2017 - Vol. 92

descent of Holy Spirit today
Charismatic Renewal and the Church Today
by Larry Christenson

"Like a brilliant field commander who devises unexpected ways to advance his battle plan, God has ordered a strategic outpouring of his Spirit in a way, and to a degree, that we have not known before."

Does the Spirit have a strategy for the church? In one sense, we know that he does – the 'strategy' of coming and dwelling in believers to bring the living, redeeming presence of Christ to reality in and through them. But this 'strategy' is always the same, from Pentecost to the end of the age. What about particular strategies? Does the Spirit carry out his indwelling work in strategically different ways according to different times and circumstances?

I believe he does. I also believe that the broad movement that comprises Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal is one aspect of the Spirit's present strategy. But my purpose here is not to present a case for this movement. Rather, I would like to identify the message that the movement speaks to the entire church about the Spirit's strategy in our day.

By now, many Christian leaders have had an opportunity to form an opinion of the Pentecostal or charismatic movements. Depending on the local manifestations of the movement that we have encountered, we may have concluded that it is basically healthy or seriously flawed, a major force for renewal or a mere pious devotion. What we have seen of the operation of gifts of the Spirit such as tongues, healing, or prophecy may have awed, intrigued, puzzled, or dismayed us. But whatever reservations or objections we may have formed regarding the movement's diverse theologies and practices, it is worth asking what the movement as a whole may tell us about the Spirit's strategy for carrying out his unchanging purpose in our time.

God's Intervention
The key message of the movement, I believe, is simply that the experience of God's presence and intervention is normal in Christian life.

But this message is difficult for many people to receive because an emphasis on religious experience immediately raises two concerns.

First, a focus on experience seems to imply an indifference to truth. But the central feature of charismatic experience is a profound encounter with the triune God who has revealed himself in the Scriptures, his inspired word. Charismatic experience has the word of the Lord as its basic impulse and as its final norm).

Second, religious experience is also often equated with subjectivity. A concern with religious experience seems to imply an exaggerated concern with one's own feelings. But in the charismatic renewal, 'experience' has a broad, objective meaning. "Experience' is an encounter with God himself or with an action of God, initiated by God and having observable results in the natural world or in the lives of individuals and communities. Authentic charismatic experience is God-given evidence of God's reality and power.

When charismatics talk about 'experience,' they may have in mind an inner perception or change of attitude. But they would draw no significant distinction between this and something visible and concrete, such as a healing. Both would be received as an experience of the working of the Spirit, the only difference being that one took place in the privacy of the inner life while the other took place publicly. The focus is on the empirical reality behind the experience-the intervention of God-not simply on one's subjective response.

Thus the message of the charismatic renewal-that the experience of God's intervention in our lives, according to the pattern and teaching of Scripture, is a normal, objective, indispensable reality - is a message that the whole church should welcome. Without it, our witness to Christ will be weak and impoverished.

According to the pattern and teaching of Scripture, God's intervention in our lives is a normal, objective, indispensable reality.

The Spirit's Coming
One reason why this message has not penetrated some sectors of the churches is that it has been carried in a theological framework that many Christians have found unacceptable. In particular, the Pentecostal and charismatic movements have encountered resistance because of their understandings of how Christians receive the Holy Spirit. The rejection of the theologies offered by the movement has often meant a rejection of the message about the possibility of experiencing God's interventions in our lives and ministries.

But even without accepting the Pentecostal and charismatic renewal explanations, it is still possible to appreciate the reality that their explanations point to.

Three systematic approaches to the coming of the Spirit are prominent in the churches today: the sacramental, the evangelical, and the Pentecostal. Simply stated, the sacramental approach teaches that the Holy Spirit is given in baptism. The evangelical approach links the gift of the Holy Spirit to regeneration: you receive the Holy Spirit when you are born again. The Pentecostal approach distinguishes between a reception of the Spirit in regard to regeneration, and "baptism with the Spirit,' understood as a charismatic reception of the Spirit that empowers one for witness and ministry and that happens subsequent to regeneration.

Although these three approaches overlap and do not altogether exclude one another, they nevertheless stand in considerable contention. Pentecostal and charismatic theology, by speaking of a particular experience of the Spirit's coming to those already baptized, has seemed by some to be a denial of the Spirit's coming at baptism and conversion.

Rather than offering an alternative systematic explanation, I would suggest a different way of looking at the reality of the Spirit's coming-away that gives greater attention to the sovereign strategy of the Spirit in varying situations.

A signal outpouring of the Spirit may be necessary when the indwelling of Christ is at low ebb among his people or when they face formidable opposition.

Applying These Truths
In his coming and working the Holy Spirit has not bound himself to one particular way of doing things. Certainly the Holy Spirit is not unsystematic, in the sense of being sloppy and disorganized. But he is goal-oriented, like a brilliant field commander who comes up with unexpected strategies to deal with particular situations. Serving under that kind of a commander can be unsettling: he keeps you constantly on your toes. But the other side of it is that you keep the enemy off balance and continue to advance.

The Spirit is concerned with advancing the cause of Christ. Whether that satisfies our preconceived theological expectations is not the Spirit's major concern. He wants to communicate not merely correct ideas about Christ but the very life of Christ in all its fullness. That requires more than a clear and accurate statement of truth. It requires application of the truth that is appropriate to a given situation-a strategy that can move successfully against powers that actively oppose the life and kingdom of Christ. Fundamental truths in the scriptural revelation are ever true, but the sovereign Spirit applies these truths to specific situations.

Pentecostals and Christians in the charismatic renewal have laid special stress on the outpouring of the Spirit, and in this, I believe, they have accurately assessed a strategy of the Spirit. A signal outpouring of the Spirit may be necessary when the indwelling of Christ is at low ebb among his people or when they face formidable opposition.

Pitting Truth against Truth
If the Lord has prepared a strategic outpouring, it will not do simply to reemphasize the truth that he already dwells in believers, and to counsel believers that no additional experience need be sought. That would be like a company of soldiers plodding straight ahead when their commander has ordered a quick, flanking movement. Mainline churches have frequently made the mistake of pitting a theology of indwelling, with an emphasis on gradual growth, against a theology of outpouring, accompanied by signs-as though the one obviated any need for the other.

The two are not incompatible. Francis Sullivan, a Jesuit scholar, makes the interesting observation that St. Thomas Aquinas saw the two motifs as complementary to one another:

'St. Thomas asks the question whether one can speak of a sending of the Holy Spirit to a person in whom he is already dwelling, and if so, how this is to be understood. His answer is as follows: There is an invisible sending of the divine Person not only in the initial gift of grace but also with respect to an advance in virtue or an increase of grace ... as, for example, when a person moves forward into the grace of working miracles or prophecy." '

Discussions between different segments of the body of Christ have sometimes become a sterile restatement of positions when they have focused simply on the question, "How do you receive the Holy Spirit?' We may make more progress by shifting the ground of the question and asking, "What is the strategy of the Spirit?' How is he employing these two basic truths indwelling and outpouring-in the present situation?

Looking beyond Terms
The Pentecostal and charismatic movement draws our attention to the truths about the outpouring of the Spirit. The use of the term 'baptized in the Spirit' is open to some criticism, but we should direct our attention to the reality that the term seeks to underline the availability of a fresh outpouring of the
Spirit. The movement demonstrates that the outpouring of the Spirit's power initiates or renews witness and ministry. In the book of Acts, both times the term occurs it describes a dramatic initial outpouring of the Spirit. The history of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements tends to echo this. A key factor in the spread of the movements has been the widely shared personal experience of an outpouring of the Spirit.

The experience of 'baptism with the Holy Spirit' has commonly been accompanied by a manifest demonstration of the Spirit's presence through charismatic gifts, and this is also consistent with the scriptural witness. In the theology of Luke, the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit consistently results in a manifest demonstration of the Spirit's presence, usually in the form of exalted speech: they spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:46, 19:6), prophesied (Acts 19:6), extolled God (Acts 10:46), and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31). Or it was accompanied by a supernatural sign-a healing (Acts 9:1718), a divine judgment (Acts 13:9-11), or a rapturous vision (Acts 7:55).

To state that such an event, or such charisms, are "not necessary' is to miss the point. It goes without saying that a specific outpouring of the Spirit with the manifestation of spiritual gifts is not "necessary" either for salvation or for fruitful ministry.

But that would be like saying, "It is not necessary that an air strike precede an infantry engagement in order for a battle to be won.' However, if the commander has planned things that way, then another kind of necessity comes into play-the necessity of paying heed to his strategy. An argument among the troops or junior officers on the inherent necessity of air strikes would miss the point. The question, rather, is what strategy the commander wants to use in this situation.

It may be that Pentecostals and charismatics have made a theological system out of their own perception and experience of the Holy Spirit. We may not agree with some aspects of the Pentecostal way of explaining the coming of the Spirit. But, I believe, we will not be far off if we acknowledge that they have accurately perceived the Spirit's strategy. He is calling believers to receive a personal outpouring of the Holy Spirit; he is calling them to be filled with the Holy Spirit in a way, and to a degree, that they have not been before.

One of the great misconceptions that circulate around discussions of the Holy Spirit is the notion that we have everything that we state in our doctrines. That is like claiming a victory on the battlefield because you have a textbook on military strategy.

Responding to His Strategy
One of the great misconceptions that circulate around discussions of the Holy Spirit is the notion that we have everything that we state in our doctrines. That is like claiming a victory on the battlefield because you have a textbook on military strategy. The Spirit is calling the churches to experience more of what the doctrines talk about, to go beyond an intellectual belief in the third person of the Trinity to a demonstration of the Spirit and his power (see 1 Cor. 2:4), to extend our expectation of the Spirit's working to the horizons of Scripture, This will not happen simply by asserting doctrines of the Holy Spirit. It calls for an obedient response to the strategy of the Spirit-a personal encounter with Jesus, who fills his followers with the Holy Spirit.

Whether one understands this as an appropriation of something already received (sacramental, evangelical) or a reception of something promised (Pentecostal), the strategy of the Spirit will be served. The Spirit will be poured out; believers will talk about the Holy Spirit with a new sense of reality; they will walk in new power, they will register gains against the powers that oppose the gospel.

Emphasis on Gifts Overdue
The Pentecostal and charismatic movements have been faulted for an emphasis on spiritual gifts. But, again, while one need not agree with all the ways that participants in these movements have exercised spiritual gifts, one must wonder whether there is not something important to be learned from the movement's explicit encouragement to 'receive the gifts.'

In the New Testament we see that the apostles expected that Christians would receive an outpouring of the Spirit leading to the working of spiritual gifts. "They laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit'' (Acts 8:17). The strategy of the Spirit called for manifestations. The new believers needed to receive the Spirit in that specific sense, and the apostles took steps to bring it about.

It does not seem likely that people will be led into a charismatic experience of the Holy Spirit and his gifts without a clear and energetic proclamation of those particular biblical truths.

If the strategy of the Spirit today calls for manifest demonstrations of his presence, then we need to talk about "receiving' him in this specific sense with the simplicity and directness that Scripture itself employs. Pentecostals and charismatics have been faulted for making too much of spiritual gifts, especially the gift of tongues. If an emphasis on particular manifestations of the Spirit is implicitly linked to the issue of salvation or to one's status as a believer, the criticism is helpful. But if the strategy of the Spirit is the point at issue, then an emphasis on manifestations of the Spirit was probably long overdue.

Pentecostals and charismatics are coming up to the front lines, bearing a clear, even a stern, communiqué about spiritual gifts: "Pray for them. Use them.' Manifestations of the Spirit are not options. They are equipment that every soldier is expected to receive and use-an integral part of the strategy of the Spirit for advancing the cause of Christ.

Proclaiming These Truths
Many Christian leaders are uncomfortable with laying such an emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit and urging believers to receive and exercise his gifts. In many sacramental churches and evangelical circles there has been little or no specific teaching on receiving the Holy Spirit and his gifts. Rather, the truth of his indwelling has been emphasized.

But this raises an important question. Does the Spirit come with his gifts on the basis of our holding a doctrinal position about him and simply assuming that he will come, without our specifically proclaiming it? The sacramental tradition says, "You receive the Holy Spirit when you are grafted into Christ in baptism.' Evangelicals say, 'You receive the Holy Spirit when you are born again.' But assuming that both of these traditions teach something important about receiving the Spirit, to what degree will a charismatic work of the Spirit actually happen if a clear word about receiving him in this sense is not part of the proclamation and teaching?

Take, for comparison, another aspect of God's work. Would people experience the reality of forgiveness if the word of forgiveness were not specifically proclaimed, if God were presented merely as creator? If not, why should we think that people will experience guidance, healing, or other spiritual gifts if these are seldom even mentioned? Will people be empowered as witnesses by the Spirit if they are never told that such a thing is possible?

It does not seem likely that people will be led into a charismatic experience of the Holy Spirit and his gifts without a clear and energetic proclamation of those particular biblical truths. The Spirit comes where the word is clearly presented. That is part of his strategy.

Manifestations of the Spirit are not options. They are equipment that every soldier is expected to receive and use.

Shifting the Focus
Killian McDonnell, a leading Roman Catholic authority on charismatic renewal, has observed that, seen from the outside, the charismatic renewal could almost be mistaken for a prayer movement. Especially in the early years of the movement, the prayer meeting was the major gathering place for the nurture and spread of the renewal.

Over and over the pattern was repeated: a handful of people would decide to gather for prayer, and the word would get around. Soon people would come from miles away to study the Bible together, hear a speaker, and pray. Prayer groups sprang up all over. In metropolitan areas one could find prayer groups to visit almost any time of day, every day of the week. It was a springtime of prayer, Bible study, and personal renewal. The pattern is still being repeated as the movement enters its third decade.

Here we come very close to the practical center of the Holy Spirit's basic strategy, vividly described in the New Testament and fulfilling the promise of Christ himself. Prayer is the activity par excellence that bridges the gap between an intellectual belief system and a living faith. In prayer we move from talking about God to talking to God. When prayer ceases to be a ritual formality and becomes a genuine encounter with God, then the central focus of life begins to shift from self back to God.

This fits the strategy of the Spirit: he is coming against the kind of entrenched humanism that has planted the autonomous human being firmly at the center of all things. The Spirit knows that an alternative belief system, be it ever so biblical and orthodox, will not break the grip of secular humanism. The strategy of the Spirit is to equip believers to demonstrate a life that proceeds in every regard from a radical dependence on God. For that, prayer is indispensable.

The lordship of Christ is the central issue that the charismatic renewal raises in the church.

Against an Opponent
'Strategy' is a term appropriate to contest or warfare. One employs strategy with a view to an opponent.
The strategy of the Spirit is indeed devised with a view to an opponent. "We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places' (Eph. 6:12). The strategy of the Spirit is devised with a view to how the kingdom of God opposes the kingdom of Satan. His strategy unites us with Christ and with one another; it fills us with his power, so that together we may move forward in the cause of Christ.

I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has a strategy for our day, and that he is ready and willing for us to learn about it and become involved in it. This does not imply an uncritical acceptance of all present-day charismatic experience or theology. But I believe it requires an accurate understanding of the Spirit's message through the Pentecostal and charismatic movement.

If we speak about charismatic experience, it is because those of us in the movement understand that this is something Christ wants said in his church (consider 1 Peter 4:10-11). If we call for a more radical dependence on the Holy Spirit, it is because we understand that Jesus himself, for a variety of reasons, wants to honor and call attention to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. If we emphasize certain parts of Scripture, such as those dealing with spiritual gifts, it is because we understand this to be a present priority of the Lord.

The charismatic renewal has sometimes been dubbed a 'tongues movement,' as though that designation fully accounted for its significance. This would be like dismissing Israel as a 'silent marching people' because that was a feature of their behavior at the battle of Jericho. We know, however, that behind the marching was a command of the Lord, who wanted his people to carry out a particular strategy. The reality of his lordship, not a technique of marching in silence, was the central issue. If the charismatic renewal gives particular attention to spiritual gifts, it is because we believe that the restoration of the full spectrum of spiritual gifts to the churches is part of the Lord's present strategy.

The lordship of Christ is the central issue that the charismatic renewal raises in the church, and it is by this issue that it wishes to be judged (2 Cor. 4:5). The Pentecostal and charismatic movements proclaim that it is his prerogative and desire to set the course for his people.

[This article was first published in the November / December Issue of Faith & Renewal, Ann Arbor. It is adapted from a volume produced by an international Lutheran charismatic theological consultation edited by Larry Christenson, entitled Welcome, Holy Spirit, Augsburg Publishing House, 1987]

Larry Christenson is an ordained Lutheran minister, speaker, and author of numerous articles and books, including The Christian Family. He has been a key leader in the early development of the Lutheran charismatic renewal movement in the United States and worldwide. He and his wife Nordis have four grown children, and fifteen grandchildren.

Top illustration of the Holy Spirit by (c) David Sorensen

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