Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 1938
The great Prince of Preachers Charles Spurgeon once said, “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” At the time Spurgeon was addressing a new attitude cropping up in the seminaries, where students thought themselves able to avoid the study of saints in Church history simply because they (the students) had the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
I’d like to open up Spurgeon’s line of thought and apply it to the church today: It seems odd that the church of the 21st century thinks so highly of what the Holy Spirit has taught us that she (the church) thinks so little of what the Holy Spirit had to say to the church throughout history*. Spurgeon’s thoughts here remind us of a very important truth: the Holy Spirit is not an individual gift. The Holy Spirit is a gift to the body of Christ, and he has taught others throughout history and continues to teach us today**.
Unfortunately for many Evangelicals the personal aspect of the Holy Spirit today is continually given more and more emphasis. This over-emphasis is now landing entire churches and denominations in terrible error. For many, their understanding of God’s Spirit is that since he leads us into all truth, they don’t need the church. For others still, they believe that they can easily refute historic church doctrines simply because “the Spirit told me so.” Their personal understanding of the Holy Spirit conveniently allows them to use all sorts of excuses like “that isn’t what this text means to me” or “I have the Spirit so I don’t need to go to church.” When the personal experience of the Holy Spirit is emphasized above the experience of being brought into the body of Christ, that person will always talk about “I” and “me” but never about “we.”
We would do well to catch ourselves in this error while we have a chance before it runs even more rampant than it already has. The result of this personal emphasis of the Holy Spirit is not only unbiblical practices, but an identity build on rugged individualism and proud separatism. This identity can never lead to Christian love.
The working of the Holy Spirit is not primarily a personal category, it is first-of-all a Body-of-Christ category. The gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t about you. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to the church. Scripture tells us that God’s Spirit belongs to him and is a gift to his people:
And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” – Galatians 4:6
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:16-17
The church corporate is being conformed to the image of Christ. Ephesians 1:18 tells us that the saints (read: the church) are Christ’s inheritance. There is one body and one Spirit; we can no longer think of ourselves as individuals (Ephesians 4:4). One way the Bible speaks to this is by means of our adoption. The Westminster Longer Catechism describes our adoption this way:
Adoption is an act of the free grace of God, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, whereby all those that are justified are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow-heirs with Christ in glory.
While we were formerly individuals and lost in our sin, we do not remain that way when we are brought into the family of God:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12–13.
The role of the Holy Spirit is to point us to Christ, and when we are guided to Christ our concern should always become about the church body and not us as individuals. Within the body of Christ, we are intended to love one another. Love is the reflection of what we have received from God through Jesus Christ; this love is the vital reflection and unity of the church. This is why Paul routinely speaks out against individualism in his epistles. Love is not individualistic or proudly separate, but always concerned above all-else with the body and not the individual. This love is inspired by the example and self-surrender of Christ and therefore it is specifically and distinctly Christian.
* Thanks to Dr. Nichols from Ligonier’s “5 Minutes in Church History” for this elaboration.
** Let me first say that I am grateful that we even have a personal understanding of the Holy Spirit. It is certainly important for us to understand that the Holy Spirit does work in the individual and brings individual sinners towards understanding, faith and repentance. The Holy Spirit does train us in righteousness through the Word of God. He does give us the power to resist sin and the devil, as well as the strength and heart to pursue Christ. I am not, and would never deny any of those things (as well as others like equipping the church by the distribution of gifts, etc.).