Seventy years ago, Kenneth Morse authored the modern Brethren hymn that would become loved by many after it was incorporated into the 1951 Brethren Hymnal (“the red book”). “Move in Our Midst” is an extended prayer to the Holy Spirit that pleads (with no less than fifteen active verbs) that He direct the church (“us”) in these days. Borne of the confidence of the post-war era, it also recognizes mankind’s evil tendencies without God. Yet the prayer of this hymn still applies in our day. We need the Holy Spirit to fill us as individual Christians, and as a church body.
When encountering the teaching and work of the Holy Spirit, there can be several ways to respond to it. Vance Havner humorously commented that in relation to the Holy Spirit “the professing church wavers today between two extremes, rigor mortis [the stiffness of death] on one side and Saint Vitus’s dance” [the jerky movements associated with the disease chorea]. Those extremes must be avoided.
People may ignore the Bible’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. They may act as if there is not a Holy Spirit and carry on their lives without regard to Him. Even if most other teaching may be orthodox or correct, coldness may prevail due to excessive formalism, hide-bound human tradition, or a lack of love for Christ and His Church. The question fairly may be asked, “Would any difference in the church’s work be noticed if the Holy Spirit were removed?” A number of church denominations that were begun in the Reformation and post-Reformation times became the mainline churches in the United States. Many of them began well, with strong Biblical teaching and high moral values. Now many of these same groups are shells of their former selves, as they adopted theological liberalism and now are falling into moral decay. They have become powerless and apathetic in their teaching.
Some may enthusiastically embrace the Bible’s teaching, and proceed to extreme ends. A fair number of Christians, often from churches that ignore the work of the Holy Spirit, may go to the other extreme of things. Some become so enamored that it seems the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit are all that are emphasized. This has become the case in some congregations, to the point that one may wonder where Jesus and the Father are in the picture. It can go to the extreme such as in where one church group was denying the efficacy of modern medicine, preferring simply to lay on hands and pray, trusting the Holy Spirit to bring healing without regard to the blessings of doctors and medication. Some children grew ill and died, and even a mother died during childbirth, because a doctor was not called.
Some seek out new truth, assuming that the Scriptures are out-of-date. By referring to the “Spirit” extensively, “listening to the Spirit” has been misused to allow one to change and advance anything in Scripture according to one’s own desires or wants. Rather than the unchanging God revealed in the Bible, they find a God who remarkably is very much in line with whatever current (modern, postmodern, or whatever) thinking is in fashion at the moment. This concept of the Spirit is extremely malleable, and is not far off from “God told me” theology. Rather than rest on “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), these ones—as did the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:21, spend “their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.”
Others simply accept the Bible’s teaching, neither ignoring the Holy Spirit nor becoming extreme in their approach. That is, there is no attempt to deny the Holy Spirit’s work, nor is there an overly zealous emphasis on the Holy Spirit. He is understood as existing and empowering the Church, through His gifts, to exalt Jesus Christ and to develop the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of believers. Through the true work of the Holy Spirit, revival may come, and the church may grow in unity and love. When the Holy Spirit’s influence is minimal, sin becomes established and division sets in.
What would happen if the Holy Spirit would move in our midst?
1. The Church would again be seeking to be aligned with the Word of God.
The Bible is God’s Word. God has given us His revelation so that we would know what His will is in this day, and in every day of this age. We understand it to be perfect and trustworthy in its original documents, and that the work of textual analysis has shown that our Bibles today—in accurate translation into local languages from the original Greek and Hebrew—are as close to the Word originally given as can be expected by way of human transmission since it was given by God.
There is a false teaching that the Holy Spirit leads the Church into new revelation, and therefore the Bible is unnecessary at worst and merely inspirational at best. This belief is not new; it has existed since Montanus taught it in the second century A.D. Montanus was a preacher who taught that the Father was the Old Testament God, that Jesus is the God of the Gospels, and with Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, we now live in the age of the Spirit, and so we have no need for the written Word to guide us. Montanists claimed their revelation—coming directly from the Holy Spirit–could supersede the authority of Paul or even Jesus.
There are denominations and cult groups today who follow in the Montanists’ path—claiming God’s authority behind additional and more recent books. Or they say, “God is still speaking,” with the implication that His Word is not enough for us to believe and on which to pattern our lives. Yet First Peter 1:3-4 reminds us, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises…” We have all that we need, for every age, to live to the glory of God. Moreover, Hebrews 13:8 affirms that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”—with the connection that the Church is to be doctrinally stable.
Some may ask, “Didn’t Jesus say to His disciples in John 16:13, ‘When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth’? Doesn’t that mean that the Holy Spirit would provide additional revelation?” The answer is, of course, yes! This prophecy was fulfilled by the end of the first century.
In context, Jesus was speaking to His disciples on the night of His betrayal and arrest. He was promising them that there would be more teaching from the Holy Spirit after His ascension. The Holy Spirit did this, and it has been recorded for us in the writings of the New Testament, from the Gospels to Revelation. The disciples received a complete revelation. They have left it for us in written form! So today, we receive not revelation (that is, a new word given directly by God), but rather, illumination (the Holy Spirit gives us light to understand what is already written in the Word of God). God’s revelation to us was complete with the writing of John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation.
We must declare what the Bible says, for it alone is concrete enough for us to base both faith and practice. The Holy Spirit will illumine our minds to understand what God’s Word says, but will never contradict what that Word says.
As the Holy Spirit has already given us the Word, then a true Holy Spirit led revival in the Church would drive us back to the Bible, and especially the New Testament, as our sole authority and standard for faith and practice.
2. The Church would exalt Christ.
Jesus declared, “…for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13b-14).
Jesus clearly taught here that the Holy Spirit would not give teaching a different message from what He already had given to the disciples. Rather, the Holy Spirit would amplify and make plain what Jesus did and taught in His earthly ministry. Indeed, the very source of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is Christ Himself.
For the Holy Spirit to move in our midst as a Church, it would mean that Jesus Christ would be lifted up as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). The Holy Spirit promotes Jesus. The Holy Spirit will never promote Himself. Someone has said, “The Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity.” He is in the work of lifting up Jesus. This confronts many modern movements where the Spirit is emphasized in the services, but in truth, He did not come to make a name for Himself. He came to point people to Jesus!
Rather than calling us to “listen for what the Spirit says,” the Holy Spirit directs the Church to obey Christ for what He has already committed to His Word. The Church of the Brethren, in responding to religious pluralism (the false teaching that there are many ways to reach God), has stated, “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Savior of the World and the Head of the Church, according to the Scriptures” (1991 Annual Conference Query on Religious Pluralism and the Headship of Christ). In the discussion surrounding that query, a liberal churchman remarked, “They talk about Jesus like he’s God or something!” That is exactly right, and Christians do so under the direction of the Holy Spirit, for the Scripture says, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord [that He is God] except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
One of the vital ministries of the Holy Spirit is taking the words of the Scripture and illumining them—that is, He enlightens the believer’s mind so that one can truly understand what is being taught. Secular scholars may study the Bible as an academic exercise. Yet unless one is born again, and unless one has the Holy Spirit living within, he may never understand the Bible as it truly is, God’s revelation. Even if one does understand, there is not a corresponding obedience and wonder at the Word of God. For example, the scholars who advised King Herod the Great of the birth of the Messiah knew exactly where He was to be born, and told the king so (Matthew 2:4-6). However, even with the testimony of the wise men and the Scriptures, they failed to go to Bethlehem to see and worship Christ themselves.
The goal of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in us is faith in Christ and glorifying of Him. If we truly experience the new birth, then the Holy Spirit moves us to a new worship of the Son, and a new desire to glorify him through the same Holy Spirit.
3. The Church could begin to experience true revival.
If the Holy Spirit really were to move in our midst, the Church would be open to real revival. Revival is an extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit producing extraordinary results. It is a work of God that He sovereignly bestows on His church in times of great need. While the active work of preachers, teachers, and consecrated believers is important in all seasons of the church’s life, revival cannot be brought about by mere human efforts. That is why we pray to the Lord to send revival. If He does so, it will be evident to all.
In many areas of the world, the Church is in steep decline. Some countries in Europe—where the Church once was predominant—now see regular church attendance in the single digits. Even in the United States, church participation is declining, and unbelief seems to be gaining. While perhaps there are many factors at work, some major ones are that the Word of God is no longer preached in its entire authority, and that many professing Christians no longer believe the message of the Gospel. Many pray for revival, but the professing church’s feeble state could well hinder the Holy Spirit’s activity. People are seeking for solutions to church decline. Committees are called to study the problem. New activities are suggested. Loosening of standards is often recommended.
These solutions often contribute to further decline. When the Holy Spirit moves in our midst, we will be preparing our hearts for true revival. We will confess our own sins, be humble before the Father, and be submissive to His will. We will be glad to proclaim the Gospel. A revival focused on Christ and the Word, on repentance, and on following Christ will be evident if the Holy Spirit moves in our midst.
4. The Church could experience true growth.
The early church as found in the Book of Acts shows us a church under the Holy Spirit’s direction. In Acts 2:42-47, we read this:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
How did the Holy Spirit order the early church? It is key that Luke mentions that the “apostles’ doctrine” was foremost in the church’s activity. That is, the apostles were teaching the Word of God–much as Jesus had done for them, especially as we see in Luke 24:27, where “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” The Scriptures had first place in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. For the Spirit to move in our midst there would necessarily need to be a renewed emphasis on the Word of God and its authority.
“What many men despise today as ‘doctrine’ the New Testament calls the gospel; and the New Testament treats it as the message upon which salvation depends. But if that be so, if salvation depends upon the message in which Christ is offered as Savior, it is obviously important that we should get the message straight” (J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity & The State, page 20).
The Holy Spirit also welded them together in fellowship. The early believers got together often to open the Scriptures and be taught by the Apostles. At this point in the church’s history, many Christians were from other places in the Roman Empire, and before they returned to their homelands, they wanted to be together as much as possible. Much as a family spends time together before one member departs, these disciples treasured their time in fellowship, knowing that it could end soon and at any time. If the Holy Spirit moves in our midst, our keen desire will be to unite often and long together in teaching and worship.
The Holy Spirit joined them together in the practice of the ordinances (the breaking of bread). We do not have an authoritative word on how often the Church practiced the Love Feast, but the New Testament tells us that it did, and also frequently practiced other ordinances such as assembling together, the holy kiss, the anointing for healing, and the laying on of hands for special service. These works set them apart as a group, and Christians did not seek to sideline or “hurry through” these demonstrations of the work of Christ in their lives.
The Holy Spirit moved them to pray. With Jesus as their example, the early Christians got together for prayer meetings on a frequent basis. What a contrast to many congregations today, where if you announce a carry-in meal, many show up; announce a special prayer meeting, and see how many turn out! The church was committed to bringing their needs before the Lord with thanksgiving, and the Lord responded with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit repeatedly.
The Holy Spirit moved them to share of their bounty. With so many out-of-towners in Jerusalem for an extended period, the Church was directed to provide for all who had need. Yet notice that this was not their primary aim in working. It was an activity subsequent to preaching the Word, fellowship, and prayer. The Gospel moves believers to be generous; generosity does not necessarily move people to accept the Gospel.
Before we can expect God to bring people into our churches, we must become a people that are made ready for receiving new people. The purging of sin and self will remove those things from us that have been keeping us from drawing near to God. We cannot expect God to work through us to win the world until He works in us to make us more Christlike.
5. The Church would be moved to unity in the truth as upheld by the Holy Spirit.
Should the Holy Spirit move in our midst, we would see a new commitment to the truth, as found in the Scriptures. In Acts 2:46, it describes that the early Christians were together in one accord. They were united. It was not a false unity based on a church name or heritage, good feelings, common endeavors, or vague doctrine. This unity was in the Word of God. Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church in John 17:21. That unity is to be based on the truth, as Jesus explained in John 17:17, 19. He explicitly declares what that truth is: “Thy word is truth.”
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
“The need [is that] of an outpouring of the Spirit of God. But clearly, by definition, the Spirit of God can only be outpoured on, and can only honor, his own truth. The Holy Spirit cannot honor a lie. He cannot honor a negation of the truth. The Spirit who is poured out in revival is the same as the one who led these people to write the books of the Bible. It is he who has given the truth, and safe-guarded its writing in an infallible manner. This is the truth of the Spirit.” (D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, Crossway Books, page 43).
Thomas Oden, in Turning Around the Mainline (page 111), writes:
“These four following arguments have prevailed in liberal ecumenism, each unintentionally eliciting disunity. Each is a mistaken “if-then” correlation:
“1. If we can just get together on some common ethical standards, then we will therefore achieve the unity of believers.
“2. If we could have the same open ecumenical feelings or experiences, then we would feel our unity.
“3. If we could just be open to dialogue, then we would grow toward unity.
“4. If we merge the separate institutions based on different memories created by the Spirit, then we would experience our unity through an institution….
“All these attempts are alike in one way: they put unity ahead of truth. … All misfire for the same reason: they base unity on something other than the truth, by avoiding the only basis from which Christian unity can emerge—that is the revealed Word whose hearing is enabled by the Holy Spirit and received through faith.”
Not long ago, I witnessed the movement of the Holy Spirit. As I concluded a straightforward message on how astonishing God’s grace truly is, the congregation began to sing a closing song. I had given no invitation. No emotional appeal of calling forth persons to come forward was given. The congregation prayed, and the congregation sang. As we sang, the Lord moved in our midst. At first one person—an older man– stepped out from his bench and came forward. Then a younger sister came up. Then came the first man’s wife. Then a teenager stepped up. All were unbidden. All came to pray for the Lord to transform their lives, and to thank Him for His astonishing grace that brought them into eternal life with Christ. While opportunity was given, at that point no one else stepped forward. As I prayed with each one, I thanked God for showing Himself in our congregation that day.
After the service, a number of others commented that they also experienced the touch of the Holy Spirit—not in an emotional way, but in response to the message of the Word of God. Others told me that they should have stepped to the front. Another who was new to her relationship to Christ asked for a conference on becoming a member of the church, and later on that week, three more—already believers—indicated their decision to join the congregation. It was a remarkable start to the new year.
This was not a spectacular incident such as some friends who have seen hundreds or even a thousand persons come to Christ through a message they preached. Nonetheless, it was real. If we could see even such seemingly insignificant movements of the Holy Spirit in every congregation, what would be the result? Perhaps the Lord would give us a transformed fellowship of churches, and revival would fall on us, and the Church would be renewed.
All sincere believers in Christ pray that the Holy Spirit “move in our midst.” “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
– Craig Alan Myers