Is This An Authentic Work of the Holy Spirit?

If you have read my previous articles, then I hope you are becoming convinced that what Christians think about the Holy Spirit really does matter.

But perhaps you are wondering, “What’s all this fuss about the Holy Spirit?” We do, after all, identify ourselves as Christ-ians or followers of Christ. Shouldn’t our attention be focused on Jesus, on trusting, following and imitating him?

The Bible tells us a whole lot about Jesus. The story of his life is told four times by four different gospel writers, and the events of the gospels are thoroughly interpreted and explained in the Epistles.

By comparison, the Bible says much less about the Holy Spirit, and he is difficult to pin down. The Spirit is mysterious, unpredictable, and beyond our human understanding.

If we call ourselves Christians, then shouldn’t we just concentrate on Jesus and let the Holy Spirit do what he wants? Shouldn’t we mainly focus on the gospels and work on our “personal relationship with Christ”?

In certain respects, that’s not a bad idea. The kingdom of God is centered on Jesus. We (the Church) are his bride, and he is our true husband, the subject of our love and desire and worship.

On the other hand, we are not living in the age of the four gospels. We are living in the biblical period between Jesus’ ascension and second coming. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he relinquished control of his earthly ministry to the Holy Spirit. In effect, Jesus looked to the Holy Spirit and said, “Hey bro, it’s your turn now. Take care of things until I come back.” Okay, Jesus probably didn’t call him bro. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that we are now living in the age of the Holy Spirit. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Church is the major fact of this period that defines who we are and how we relate to God.

One reason why some Christians are hesitant to say much about the Holy Spirit is this: Some of what people claim to be the Spirit’s guidance and work is not genuine and really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, consider the practice of publicly speaking in tongues where the speech (which is a string of nonsense syllables – and I don’t mean to be pejorative here) is regarded as a divinely inspired message, and then one or more “interpreters” translate what is being said. If this message-from-God claim were true, then shouldn’t different interpreters come up with the same translation? Experiments have been performed where audio recordings of glossolalia (the technical term for speaking in tongues) are independently presented to multiple interpreters, and the translations they offer are not even close.

J.I. Packer, in his excellent book Keep in Step With the Spirit, describes an Ethiopian priest who went to a multicultural prayer meeting and heard people speaking in tongues. He assumed that these people were praying in their own native languages. Deciding to join in, he stood up and recited Psalm 23 in an archaic Coptic language of his native church. Interpreters immediately translated what he said, and he walked away in bewilderment, saying, “It was all wrong.”

Please do not misunderstand. I am not claiming that glossolalia and all other charismatic phenomena are fake or wrong. Personally, I have never prayed in tongues and have not desired to do so. But many faithful Christians (including some UBF members) do. From what I have heard, it is rarely an experience in which people are seized by an external force and made to do something that is completely outside of their control. In most cases, it is more like a technique of “letting go” that can be learned and practiced, and the person who is doing it can start and stop at will. People who do this claim that it heightens their awareness of God and helps them to pray in a deeper way for longer periods of time. In that sense, it is not entirely different from other practices of meditation and divine contemplation that have appeared in Christian communities throughout the ages. I believe that whenever and wherever Christians draw near to God and pray in the name of Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit is working among them. So in that sense, I would say that most charismatic prayer and tongue-speaking does represent the authentic work of the Holy Spirit. But I do not believe that this Spirit-work among charismatics is unusually miraculous or fundamentally different from what happens among non-charismatic Christians when they worship and pray. (This is what I think: Prayer is extremely hard. Whenever a Christian is able to deeply and effectively pray, then that in itself is a great miracle.)

So although I think that many charismatic phenomena do represent genuine work of the Holy Spirit, I also think that they are often misunderstood and misinterpreted by those who participate in them and those who observe them.

When evidence or claims about the Holy Spirit are being presented, we should not automatically become dismissive or overly skeptical or critical. The Holy Spirit is real and works among Christians in surprising and sometime miraculous ways. The Body of Christ is diverse, and the Spirit’s work in some parts of the Body may look very strange to other parts of the Body. But we also need to test these claims and separate the wheat from the chaff. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22:

Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

So how can we test an activity to see whether it is the genuine work of the Spirit? The criteria that some Christians apply are rooted in sectarianism, prejudice and competition. We may be quick to assume that the Holy Spirit is with us in everything we do simply because our church is “biblically correct.” At the same time, we may dismiss what is happening in other communities because it doesn’t jibe with our own experiences and violates our assumptions about what the work of the Holy Spirit should look like.

Here is a criterion that some have offered: The Holy Spirit will never do anything that is contrary to Scripture. I do believe that this is true. But notions of what constitutes “scriptural” and “unscriptural” vary widely from one community to another. The disputes over glossolalia are a good example of this; Christians hold different positions on speaking in tongues, and they all support their positions with Bible verses. Although Christians widely agree on the big issues regarding the Holy Spirit (he is a person; he is God), there is plenty of disagreement about when he comes, how he works, etc., and part of Scripture that speak to these issues are truly difficult to understand.

In Keep in Step with the Spirit, J.I. Packer notes that evangelical Christians have many good and biblically supportable ideas about the Holy Spirit, but we seem to lack the big picture, the overarching theme of his ministry that clearly states what he came to do. So Packer offers a solution. Focusing in what Jesus said John 16:13-15, he states that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is centered on Jesus Christ. The Spirit never promotes himself or draws people to himself. His purpose is to further the Father’s pleasure by glorifying the Son. While the ascended Jesus is enthroned in heaven, the Spirit will work to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, to draw people to faith in Jesus, to help us to obey Jesus, to promote the knowledge, adoration and love of Jesus – in short, to make it possible for us to have a vital relationship with Jesus until he returns in power and glory. Wherever Jesus Christ is being followed, proclaimed, worshiped and glorified, the Holy Spirit is present to actively direct and support that work.

If what Packer says is correct, then the major test that we should apply is this: In this particular gathering or activity, is the reputation, purpose, and love of Jesus Christ being promoted? If so, then it is an authentic work of the Holy Spirit.


  1. david bychkov

    thanks for wonderful series of posts, Joe. All is very interesting and important and touching theological and practical issues. I’m sorry that I’m not commenting much this interesting things… for me it is not easy to write thoughtful comment in English, and need plenty of time for it. But I want to write something later once will have enough time.
    I’m curious, have you read “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God“by Jonathan Edwards? He has some interesting insights. which were avoid in your works. At least for me they were interesting. I think I could point some. I’m just not sure if it will be interesting for others.


    • Hi David,

      I’ve noticed that you have made several references to Jonathan Edwards, whom I  have been  trying to read on and off for the last few years. But it is more off than on, because his writings  require tremendous focus and concentration to read. As Joe suggested, please do share with us Edward’s main points from what you have read. I’m wondering if you read it in English, or is it translated?

    • david bychkov

      Joe, Dr. Ben!
      Thank you for encouragement. I will try to write something from Edwards, cause I really like him, although his very thoughtful works really required to be strongly focused. But they are very accurate and challenging in the same time. I have read him in Russian. We have some good translations, and for me to read him in English will be not easy thing. Dr. Ben, my way of reading him is very similiar to yours, though.

  2. David, thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I’m glad that you find this interesting.

    I’ve noticed that when we post articles on UBFriends that are specifically  about UBF, discussing issues and problems in own ministry, people seem to get excited and leave lots of comments, and the number of page views goes up. But when we post articles that are of a more theological nature, articles about God and how he works, our readers seem less interested. I was joking with my wife about this. I thought about changing the title of this article to “What I don’t like about UBF” or “Why I’m leaving UBF” or something like that, just to see if the number of page views suddenly goes up.

    No, I haven’t read that book by Jonathan Edwards. If you have time and would like to list some of his “distinguishing marks”, please do.

  3. I think that the 20th century explosion of charismatic theology is both very interesting and disturbing. I am personally very wary of certain manifestations of “the gifts.” While I think it is a good idea not to limit the Holy Spirit in what He can do, or how He works, He never goes against the Bible like you said. There are definitely charismatics who focus on the Bible as the ultimate authority, unfortunately, there are MANY more that believe experience trumps revelation. In other words, one’s experience is applied to the Bible, instead of the Bible being applied to judge  one’s experience. I am not against experience, but there is a more sure word of prophesy that we have, and that word should judge everything we do.

    • The relationship between the Spirit and Scripture is a rich topic that I want to explore in the future. I agree that the Holy Spirit does not contradict Scripture, because he is the author of Scripture. But the Spirit often contradicts a community’s prevailing understanding of Scripture (there are plenty of examples of this seen within the Bible itself). In practice, I think that everyone who claims to be following the leading of the Holy Spirit will also claim that what  he or she is  doing is biblically justified. Experience can be easily  misinterpreted and misused, but the Bible can be misapplied and misused as well, and the latter may be more prevalent than the former, especially in churches that claim to have a high view of Scripture. There  should be  a wonderful freedom in the Christian life, a freedom that comes by walking in the Spirit rather than outwardly obeying a written law. How to experience that while remaining true to Scripture and not misusing one’s freedom is not an easy thing to describe. But it lies at the heart of what the gospel is all about.

  4. Thanks, Joe, for your 5 articles on the Holy Spirit. Responding to Joe and David L, I think that 1 Corinthians 2 explains quite explicitly (and mysteriously) how the Holy Spirit and Scripture work together. Scripture was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, and we need divine illumination by the same Holy Spirit when we read the Bible in order to understand it. Because of this mysterious interplay between the Holy Spirit and Scripture, the gospel is always fresh and new as it deepens our gratitude toward the grace of God, and it also disturbs and distresses  us  when it convicts us of our sin.

    After 30 years of being a Christian, it is so easy for me to spontaneously think that “I already know this.” Such an attitude makes me either proud because of empty superiority, or tired because  there is then no more new discovery that the Scripture and the Spirit can reveal to me, or more likely both.

    Surely, we need many theological topics, which I am slowly beginning to appreciate more these days. At the same time, a eye catching topic like “Why I don’t like UBF” would also be fun!  :-) And yes, the view  counts will surely shoot up.

    • Ben, I know what you are saying. It’e so easy to think “I know this already” and respond with a big yawn. But when I interact with thoughtful Christians, either in person or through their writings, I see that there is so much that I am utterly clueless about. Last month, I re-read The Open Secret by Newbigin and was deeply challenged in my view of how the Spirit works through the Bible in the context of intercultural missions. He raises some issues that are so provocative and eye-opening that they made me question my fundamental understanding of evangelism and discipleship, and my understanding of the gospel itself. Not the facts of the gospel, but the implications for how we welcome sinners into the fold and disciple them. The gospel is radical and continually challenges everyone in the church, no matter who they are, Without the witness of the Spirit, we are clueless. I will try to write about this sometime.