Feeling Isn’t Everything
Do you want a spirituality that is authentic, relevant, and personal? Do you yearn for your faith to be a constant experience of excitement and emotion? It’s appropriate for us to want a vibrant relationship with God. So what does it look like for us to genuinely experience the Holy Spirit of God at church?
Many churches have worship services that center around emotive music, dramatic aesthetics, and motivating talks. People leave the service saying, “I could really feel the Holy Spirit’s presence when we sang that song.” But was it the Holy Spirit? Or was it emotional manipulation? Certainly we might feel something on Sunday morning, but is it the Holy Spirit? What are reliable indicators that the Holy Spirit is at work in our churches?
It’s important to be asking these questions. Though our human experiences feel authentic, or even supernatural, our intuition can easily be mistaken. We need a reliable standard outside of our emotional experiences to tell us what is true. The Bible, the Word of God, is the only standard that can answer our questions with total authority and trustworthiness.
Here are the three Biblical indicators that the Holy Spirit is legitimately a part of your Sunday worship services:
Indicator 1: The Holy Spirit Proclaims God’s Word
It turns out that Jesus spoke pretty clearly about the Holy Spirit. In John 16:13-14, Jesus says concerning the Spirit, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak of his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Jesus’s words about the Holy Spirit here have three important implications.
The Holy Spirit’s Work Establishes the Bible as Divine Truth
First, the Holy Spirit’s work establishes that the apostolic writings in our New Testament are authoritative and reliable. Just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit declared all that he heard to and through the apostles. Peter explains this work of the Holy Spirit in 2 Peter 1:21 “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Holy Spirit was carrying them along, guiding them into God’s inerrant, objective truth. And so, Spirit-filled churches will acknowledge the Old and New Testament Scriptures as God’s Truth.
The Holy Spirit’s Work Directs the Church to the Bible for Divine Truth
The second implication of Jesus’s teaching is that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead the church into the truth of His Word. Because Christ’s church is built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles (Eph 2:20), we’re not waiting for new, foundational revelation from the Holy Spirit. Instead we expect that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth by keeping us anchored to the foundation of Scripture.
So, on Sunday mornings at church, Spirit-filled worship services will declare the truths of God’s Word. If a sermon gives moral advice, describes a personal experience, or enlists people for a cultural revolution, but isn’t saturated in Scripture, then you have to ask – where is the truth? And consequently, where is the Spirit? God’s Holy Spirit isn’t the Spirit of emotional experience. He’s the Spirit of truth. You will know that the Holy Spirit is present in a place when time and time again you are being brought back to God’s Word.
The Holy Spirit Glorifies Christ
The third implication of Jesus’s words is that the Spirit will glorify Christ. So if the Spirit is at work in a church, people won’t be boasting about their spiritual experiences or moral accomplishments. They’ll be proclaiming Jesus Christ and His work instead of the things they’ve done or experienced. The churches won’t marvel at advanced theological degrees, or at the charisma of their pastors, or the church budget – they’ll marvel at Jesus Christ, in his profound humiliation and his celestial glory. The proclamation of Christ through the proclamation of God’s Word is a good indicator that the Holy Spirit is working in your church.
Indicator 2: The Holy Spirit Illuminates God’s Word
We also know that the Holy Spirit is present, not only when God’s Word is proclaimed, but when Scripture is being illuminated, or understood. “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). The Holy Spirit has an essential role in helping depraved sinners like us to understand God’s truth. Because without the Holy Spirit, we can’t discern spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The Spirit’s work doesn’t guarantee that all Christians or churches will immediately understand everything about the Bible with total accuracy and unity. But the Spirit’s work does give us confidence that we can come to accurately know, understand, and experience divine truth. If you leave church each week with nothing but an emotional impression, then you need to start wondering if the Holy Spirit is truly present. But if you leave church each week with a deeper comprehension and conviction of God’s grace, human sin, or divine glory, then you can rejoice to know that the Holy Spirit has been at work to illuminate God’s Word to you.
Indicator 3: The Holy Spirit Applies God’s Word
Before you think that I’m proposing a sterile version of Christian spirituality, let me affirm that the work of the Holy Spirit never stays constrained to the realm of objective, mental knowledge. The Holy Spirit applies the Word and work of Jesus to our lives. This is profoundly experiential and takes a number of different forms in our churches.
Conviction and Obedience
The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and false religion (John 16:8). So people who are filled with the Spirit have a trajectory of increasing obedience to God. Spirit-filled churches will be places where love, joy, peace, patience, and all the other fruits of the Spirit are growing (Galatians 5:22-23). But faith without these fruits is dead (James 2:17). Spirituality isn’t just about feeling butterflies, being giddy, or getting pumped. We know that the Holy Spirit is working in us when our knowledge, desires, and actions are all being genuinely conformed to God’s Word. And so a church that is led by the Spirit will teach the need for repentance, faith, and obedience.
We also know that the Holy Spirit comforts God’s people. The early church not only walked in the fear of the Lord, with conviction and obedience, but also in the comfort of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). The Holy Spirit comforts us in our afflictions, crying out to God with groans that words can’t express when we’re sorrowful (Romans 8:26-27). But the Holy Spirit also reminds us of our salvation, confirming that we have been adopted into God’s family (Romans 8:15-17, Galatians 4:6). Churches that are filled by the Spirit will be able to extend spiritual comfort to God’s people, as well.
As the Holy Spirit applies the truth of God’s Word to the church, the church members grow in love for one another. And the Holy Spirit distributes different kinds of gifts throughout the church so that the church will be built up in love (1 Corinthians 12:4-26, Ephesians 4:1-16). When people are dividing and deriding the church by boasting in their own spiritual superiority, then it implies that the Holy Spirit is absent. But a Spirit-filled church will be marked by mutual edification and growth.
Subjective experiences of closeness to God can be a legitimate part of your time at church. But if our subjective experiences are detached from a robust understanding of Scripture, then it’s an unreliable indicator of spiritual reality. In 2 Peter 1:17-19, Peter He teaches that the inerrant Words of Scripture are even more fully confirmed than his firsthand, eyewitness experiences with Jesus. Our spirituality, then, must start and end with the litmus test of Scripture.
We do expect the Holy Spirit to occasionally impress personal convictions, desires, and aspirations upon our hearts that accord with God’s normative truth. But because we are still sinful creatures in a fallen creation, we will also expect to have convictions, desires, and aspirations that are instead motivated by fear, greed, or external temptations. Churches led by the Holy Spirit will go to the objective truth of God’s Word to discern the difference. Churches led by emotionalism will go deeper and deeper into confusion and error.
When the message of the gospel hits home in a fresh way, leaving you happy and weeping at the same time, don’t be ashamed. Be thankful for those moments. And don’t despise other people for having those experiences more or less frequently than you. When you feel a strong, unexpected burden to obey God’s Word in a particular way, it may very well be the Holy Spirit at work. Understand that the Spirit of God has uniquely stirred up the hearts of many others before you for specific expressions of obedience (Nehemiah 7:5, Ezra 1:5, Ezra 7:27, 2 Corinthians 8:16, cf. Exodus 35:21, 29).
But don’t expect that the Holy Spirit will always lead the church into emotional highs, easy obedience, or comfortable living. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to lead his church into the truth. So be a part of a church that humbly follows the Holy Spirit’s leading. Know God’s Word. Seek understanding. Obey, be comforted, and build up others. And walk in truth.
Devon Rossman is a Pastoral Assistant at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Kalamazoo, MI. He is currently working toward an M. Div. at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. In his position at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, Devon is training to become a prospective church planter.