Bishop's Message

The Breath and the Voice

IN THINKING through about the reality and ministry of the Holy Spirit, Christians sometimes do what they should not. They separate what God has put together, often leading to distorted versions of Christianity and Christian discipleship.

One connection that we should hold on to is the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus is a reminder to us that the Spirit does not work without Jesus, and Jesus does not work without the Spirit (Mk. 1:9-12). Christians who do not understand and appreciate the reality of the Trinity end up with a fragmented Trinity in their minds.

Another essential connection that is poorly understood is that between the Spirit and the Church. Pentecost reminds us that the Spirit works in and through the Church and that the Church cannot be without the Spirit (Acts 2). Sometimes Christians talk as if the Spirit and the Church are mutually exclusive! That cannot and should not be.

The third connection, and the focus of this article, is that between the Spirit and the Word of God. Here, we must rediscover the Reformation understanding of the Word and the Spirit. The Reformation leaders did not pit one against the other as some modern Christians do. They hardly thought of the Word without the Spirit, or the Spirit without the Word. This is important for us to bear in mind when we speak about the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

John Wesley held to this Reformation understanding of the unity between the Word and the Spirit. In fact, this was something he personally experienced in his life. On May 24, 1738, Wesley, searching for a deep experience of God, attended a prayer meeting in London. There he heard someone reading Martin Luther’s Preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans. As the Word was explained, the Holy Spirit brought Wesley to a profound experience of God. In Wesley’s own words,

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. Wesley was the recipient of the combined effect of the Spirit and the Word on a person’s life. He knew the Reformation understanding of how the Spirit works together with the Word. After all, it was the Holy Spirit, through whose inspiration on various writers, that the biblical books were written (1 Pet. 1:20- 21). And it is the Holy Spirit who illuminates the reader’s mind to understand the Word (1 Cor. 2:11-12).

Therefore, Wesley, like Luther and John Calvin, believed that the Holy Spirit speaks through the Word, which He helps us to understand and apply in our lives.

THIS unity of the Spirit and the Word is important if we are not to lose the balance. In Wesley’s own day, he warned against losing the balance between the objective reading of the Word and the subjective experience of the Spirit speaking in our hearts. He found fault with those he felt had fallen too much on the side of the subjective (such as the Anabaptists, Quakers, and the “enthusiasts”) so much so that they talked about revelation independent of the Word. They began to rely heavily on subjective revelatory experiences such as visions, promptings, dreams, and intuition while losing a firm hold on the careful study of the Word.

The leaders of the Reformation, such as Luther and Calvin, had rejected such tendencies. They clearly saw the Spirit and Word always working together. The Spirit works through the Word, and the Word cannot be effective without the Spirit. The Spirit and the Word are a unity and should not be separated or pitted one against the other.

Luther and Calvin had some differences in how they conceived of this working together of the Spirit and the Word and we need not discuss them here. Suffice to say that the Lutherans said that the Spirit worked through the Word (per verbum), while the Calvinists talked about the Spirit working together with the Word (cum verbo).

Whatever the differences, the Reformation leaders held to a steady operational unity of the Spirit and the Word. As Luther said, “One cannot separate the voice from the breath. Whoever refuses to hear the voice gets nothing out of the breath either.”

In other words, one who does not regularly read his Bible cannot expect the Spirit to speak to him regularly. The Spirit speaks regularly and most clearly through the Word. This is why the personal study of the Bible and the preaching of the Word are more important and far more profitable than hearing someone’s ecstatic utterances or accounts of dreams or visions, however captivating they might appear to be.

This unity of operation of the Spirit and the Word is well described by Lutheran theologian Henrikus Berkhof in his book The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Berkhof writes, “The Spirit moves through the world in the shape of the Word in its various forms. The Word is the instrument of the Spirit. But the Spirit is not the prisoner of the Word, nor does the Word work automatically. The Word brings the Spirit to the heart, and the Spirit brings the Word within the heart.” Well said, and I think Wesley would concur, based on his Reformation understanding and his evangelical experience. We should do no less. If we try to read our Bibles without the Spirit, we will remain in our darkness. We may have the vocabulary of faith but not its reality. On the other hand, if we pursue the Spirit’s promptings without the Word, we would end up in a world of our own making where we can often mistake our own inner thoughts and desires for the Spirit’s leading.

Wesley had it right. As he heard Luther’s exposition on the Word, his heart was strangely warmed, and his life was clearly and remarkably changed. He had heard the biblical voice and felt the divine breath.