For the early church, the infallible evidence of being a Christian was the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, at work in a person's life. The ways the Spirit manifested varied from person to person (not everybody spoke in tongues for example), but the bottom line was this: if you were a true believer, you received the Holy Spirit. It is clear in Acts 19:1–7 that Paul had not been with the people in Ephesus very long before he began to realize that they were missing something. After a little gentle probing, he saw that what they were missing was the Holy Spirit. When Paul told them about Jesus, they believed in him and were baptized—in Jesus' name this time. Then when Paul laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit, Jesus' living Spirit, and showed evidence of it in their lives.
So where does this leave us as 21st century Presbyterians? Many of us were baptized as infants or children and made our profession of faith later in life. And for some of us, the Holy Spirit did not really come into the picture in any personal way. It was a doctrine and showed up in the Apostles' Creed; however, we might not have ever really thought about or experienced the Spirit as the presence of God bringing the power of God into our life as a daily reality. So, do we need some kind of special spiritual experience before we can be real Christians?
I would say an emphatic no to that! The heart of the matter is not about spiritual experiences. What makes us Christians is the same thing that made the Ephesians Christians. This is relationship. Specifically, a real relationship with God made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's all about knowing and trusting a personal God who knows us and loves us and came to earth in the person of Jesus to get involved in our lives.
It was when the Ephesians came into relationship with Jesus that things began to happen for them. It was when they committed themselves to live for him that the Spirit became a living power in their experience. The same is true today. The Holy Spirit actually begins working in us before we are able consciously to believe in God. The fact that we were brought to the point of believing is a sure sign that the Spirit is at work in us. Whenever we receive the risen Christ into our lives by faith and give ourselves to live for him, the Holy Spirit comes and takes residence in our lives. God lives in us! And the great thing is that this is only the beginning! The more we let God into our life, the more of the Spirit we receive. The more of ourselves we surrender to God, the more the Spirit is able to work in and through us. It’s the power of relationship, and as the relationship grows, everything else comes along with it in God's timing.
The Holy Spirit is the necessary power source of the Christian life and is the very life of God in all believers. The Spirit is indispensable if we are to be the spiritual leaders God has called us to be. Since this is the case, it is really good that the Spirit is ours for the asking.
“Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus said. What an amazingly graceful invitation!
A Spiritual Exercise
Read Luke 11:5–13. Think about the story of the man who comes to his friend at midnight in light of Jesus' invitation to ask, seek, and knock. Meditate on the fact that we have a “how much more” God. Our God is so much more responsive and ready to give than even the best earthly parents. If you are led, pray that God would open you to receive more of the Spirit than you have yet received. Make this a daily prayer and observe how God responds.
Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.