Pentecost and True Spirituality
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
What is spirituality, true spirituality? What is it that makes a person genuinely “spiritual”? How do you recognize such a person? How can you tell if you are spiritual?
Ours is a time very much preoccupied with questions like these. Oprah Winfrey’s great popularity is apparently explained in large part because she has convinced many that she has found true spirituality—by freeing herself, she believes, from her repressive Christian upbringing—and she is ready to share with you how you can find it for yourself.
The interest of screen star Richard Gere and others in the Dalai Lama runs much deeper than a concern for the freedom and political rights of the Tibetan people. Many are drawn to him as a religious leader because they believe he embodies and knows the way to authentic spirituality.
When we inquire into the specifics of contemporary claims like these, the answers forthcoming tend to be fairly vague, but a couple of things come through quite clearly: spirituality is personal and it’s plural. I must find it within me and I must find it for myself.
For Christians, who trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord, and who believe the Bible is God’s Word, it shouldn’t be hard to point out what is flawed and fundamentally wrong with so much current spirituality. It reflects the religious relativism and pluralism of our day, with its adamant aversion to the Bible’s teaching on spirituality.
The Bible is unmistakably clear about two fundamental spiritual realities. First, all human beings are sinners, in fact so hopelessly sinful, so inexcusably guilty and helplessly corrupt, as to be spiritually dead. Second, Jesus Christ, because of what he has done in his life, death, and resurrection, is the only Savior of sinners able to deliver us from our sin and its consequences. He and he alone is able to make us spiritually alive.
Still, a nearly unending flood of literature continues to exhibit a confusing welter of claims and counterclaims. The result is this disconcerting state of affairs: the one Holy Spirit of God, given to unify the church, has become an occasion for tension and division within the church.
What is the solution to this distressing situation? Is there one? There is. Notice what I did not say just above. I didn’t say the Spirit is the source or cause of division among Christians about his work and gifts. The source of that discord lies elsewhere. It comes from not listening to the Spirit.
But where can I hear what the Spirit has to say, and how can I know for sure it’s the Spirit I’m hearing? The answer to that crucial question does not come from any person or church claiming to speak with final authority for or about the Spirit. Nor is it found in my or anyone else’s experience of the Spirit.
Rather, the answer—the only answer—is, in that memorable phrase, “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures” (WCF 1.10). The Bible alone is God-breathing today, from beginning to end, because of its unique, “God-breathed” origin in the past (2 Tim. 3:16). It is the only certain and infallibly reliable voice of the Spirit for the church today on all matters that pertain to Christian faith and life, including those that concern the Spirit and his work. We learn of the Spirit and his work only as we listen, first and last, to the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10–14). We discover what are to be our expectations of his work in our lives only as, in possession of the Bible, we are armed with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17) and are exposed to that penetrating Spirit-sword as it, “living and active,” addresses us at the core of our being and in our deepest concerns (Heb. 4:12).
But what about Christian experience of the Spirit? Doesn’t that count for something? Of course it does. But neither my experience nor yours nor any other Christian’s is the definitive source for settling our understanding and determining our expectations of the Spirit’s work in our lives. That source is Scripture and Scripture alone, rightly understood. Our experience is essential, but only as it corroborates that teaching by conforming to it.
The Gift of the Spirit
No doubt there is more than one way to go about briefly examining the Bible’s teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit. One, however, we should not adopt, though it is widely followed today, particularly in Pentecostal and other charismatic circles. That approach focuses on the book of Acts, in particular on accounts there of baptism with the Holy Spirit and instances of tongues-speaking, prophesying, and miracle working. These accounts are then read as providing models to be replicated in the experience of Christians today.
That approach misses the primary purpose of Acts, which is indicated in 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The “you” in verse 8 refers to the apostles, that is, those who were set apart to be Christ’s authoritative witnesses, primarily to his resurrection (verses 20–26). Accordingly, the promise of verse 8 expresses a program of apostolic activity that includes others in the church associated with them. The rest of Acts describes the ongoing realization and completion of this apostolic program.
An overall purpose of Acts, in other words, is to document an apostolic agenda that has been completed: the apostolic spread of the gospel, the extension of the church, from “Jerusalem … to the ends of earth” (Rome). Acts describes the expanding scope, through the apostles, of this church-building gospel from Jew (Jerusalem-Judea) to half-Jew (Samaria) to non-Jew (the Gentile ends of the earth). Their activity signals the universality of God’s saving purpose, as the proclamation of the promised salvation fulfilled in Christ spreads from one nation, Israel, to all nations.
This aspect of the apostles’ activity is captured graphically in Ephesians 2:19–22, where Paul pictures the church as a building under construction. In a context (verses 11–18) where the universality of salvation and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ effected by the gospel is again prominent, the apostles (and prophets), with Christ as the cornerstone, constitute the foundation of the one church-house that God is constructing in the period between Christ’s ascension and his return.
This house, in other words, is a historical model. The laying of the apostolic-prophetic foundation of the church-house is complete. It is not an ongoing activity that continues to the present. Nor does it have to be relaid periodically (assuming, as we must, that God, its master architect-builder, knows what he’s doing!). As the work of Christ, the foundation-cornerstone (see 1 Cor. 3:11), is completed, unrepeatable, and noncontinuing, so also is the foundational role of the apostles. Answering to the once-for-all, finished work of Christ is the once-for-all, finished witness of the apostles to that saving work and its implications. The church today is in its postapostolic period when, in terms of Paul’s model, its superstructure is being erected, an ongoing activity until Christ returns that rests firmly on the building’s finished, well-laid, Christ-centered, and apostolic foundation.
Acts, then, is not an open-ended chronicling of loosely chosen episodes from the earliest days of the church’s history for our emulation today. Acts is not amenable to an added chapter 29 to complete the narrative it presumably leaves unfinished. Rather, it ends where Luke intended, with the completion of the worldwide apostolic task he set out to document. Notice in this regard that Paul is aware that through his ministry as “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), the gospel is being spread “in the whole world,” “in all creation” (Col. 1: 5–6, 23).
The Significance of Pentecost
What about Pentecost then? If the experience of the apostles and the others present with them described in Acts 2 doesn’t provide a model or pattern to be sought and replicated in the lives of Christians subsequently until Christ returns, what is the significance of what happened on that day?
Though occurring near the beginning of Acts, Pentecost is clearly the high point of the book as a whole, of the entire history that Luke narrates. Why? Pentecost has this climactic prominence because the baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5)—also described as the “pouring out” or “sending” of the Spirit (2:33; Luke 24:49)—completes the once-for-all work of Christ. The importance of Pentecost is nothing less than this.
We miss the point of Pentecost if we focus on the experience of those who were present and its assumed potential as a model for our own, no matter how striking and memorable that experience undoubtedly was. Pentecost is much more important than their experience. Without what took place then, the work of Christ on earth would have been unfinished.
This importance may be seen from a couple of related angles in Luke-Acts. In Acts 1:5, Jesus looks both forward and backward by connecting his promise that soon the apostles will be baptized with the Spirit, a promise that we know was fulfilled on Pentecost, with the ministry of John the Baptist marked by his water baptism.
The opening verses of Luke 3 summarize John’s ministry by capturing what was central in it and defining it as a whole. Verses 15–17 recount a comparison John made in response to the crowd’s question whether he was the Messiah. In that comparison, baptism is the common denominator that highlights the difference between the ministries of John and the coming Messiah. But why does baptism serve as the basis of comparison? Because a baptizing activity is a basic index of each ministry. “I am not the Messiah,” John says in effect. “I am but the forerunner, the one who prepares for the Messiah’s imminent coming. Accordingly, my baptism is with water; it is only a sign, a pointer. In contrast, the Messiah’s baptism, a basic index of his ministry, will be with the Holy Spirit and fire. That baptism is the reality to which my ministry, marked by water baptism, points.”
In this passage, then, John surveys the ministry of Christ as a whole, and at its heart, as central as anything else, is baptism with the Holy Spirit. From this perspective, Christ’s work on earth, culminating in the cross as the atonement for the sins of those he came to save, is properly seen as one large effort to secure for them, and give to them, the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is what Christ did for his people on the day of Pentecost. There is nothing subsidiary or secondary about what happened at Pentecost; it was no mere “second blessing.” The baptism with the Spirit that took place then is a matter of first order, primary blessing, blessing integral to the salvation Christ came to accomplish. Without that baptism, that gift, Christ’s work for our salvation would not be complete.
These reflections on John the Baptist’s revelation concerning Jesus are reinforced by Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost. As that preaching draws to its close, he affirms climactically, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:32–33). Four events are linked here: Jesus’ resurrection (revealing the saving efficacy of his messianic ministry culminating in the cross, verses 22–31), his ascension, his reception of the Spirit from the Father, and his outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Clearly these events are inseparable; any one only occurred with the others either having already taken place or in view. Together, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, reception of the Spirit in the ascension, and Pentecost constitute a single complex of events. Pentecost is no more capable of being repeated in individual Christian experience than Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension are capable of such repetition.
Despite a widespread misconception, Pentecost does not bring a fundamentally new or different experience of the Spirit. The differences in experiencing the Spirit between Old Testament believers and New Testament Christians are real and important, but no more than comparative: richer or greater or fuller for the latter. Rather, the newness of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost resides primarily in two related considerations. First, the Spirit is finally present because Christ’s work of accomplishing salvation has been completed. The Spirit that came at Pentecost, fulfilling the promise of the Father, is the Spirit of the now-glorified Christ (“the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified,” John 7:39 NASB); he is the eschatological Spirit. Second, the Spirit that came at Pentecost is the Spirit poured out on all flesh. The people of God are now the fellowship of the Spirit, consisting of Gentiles as well as Jews, from every nation, kindred, tribe, and tongue; he is the universal Spirit.
If Pentecost means anything, it is that the Spirit is here with the church to stay—permanently, irrevocably. Because of Pentecost, believers can be confident that the Spirit will not abandon them. But to say that is also to say that Pentecost means that Christ is here to stay and will not abandon believers. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to the Father (verse 12) and promises them that when he does he will ask the Father to send them the Spirit as Helper or Advocate (verses 16–17). And then he immediately adds, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (verse 18; see also verse 23). This statement hardly refers either to his temporary resurrection appearances or to his return at the end of history, but to what will be true in the sending of the Spirit.
For the Spirit to come is for Jesus to come. So inseparable are the two in their activity that the presence of the Spirit is the presence of Christ. Paul expresses this reality—in what is in effect a one-sentence commentary on Pentecost—by saying that in his resurrection the glorified Christ, as the last Adam, has become the “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Hence, he subsequently writes, “the Lord [Christ] is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17).
To summarize our reflections on the gift of the Spirit, when Peter, in preaching the gospel on the day of Pentecost, declared that those who repent “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), he was not promising, at least not in the first place, the gift of speaking in tongues they had just been witnessing or, for that matter, any other particular gift the Spirit gives. Rather he has in view much more than that: the Spirit himself as “the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4; Luke 24:49). The gift is nothing less than the Giver himself. In fact, the great gift, in which every believer shares, is God himself—God our Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. We are bound to maintain nothing less than this full, Trinitarian perspective on all matters that concern true spirituality.
The author, an OP minister, recently retired from teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary. This article consists of slightly edited extracts from The Work of the Holy Spirit, available from the Committee on Christian Education on OPC.ORG under “Publications.” Unless otherwise indicated, Bible quotations come from the ESV. New Horizons, January 2012.