The Spiritual Gifts: Experiencing the Spirit (Part 1)

The relationship between the Spirit and the Word is a significant issue for the Christian life. It has long been a subject of discussion among theologians and pastors. I plan, in later posts, to discuss the Word/Spirit dynamic, but it is important to set a framework as we begin to dive into our discussion of the experience of the Spirit. While the Christian life should be full of experiences of the Spirit it is important to consider that not everything that we experience can rightly be attributed to the Spirit. The Word of God establishes both the patterns and boundaries of our experience of the Spirit. Anything, then, that contradicts God’s Word cannot be a genuine experience of God’s Spirit. The Word of God is the normative standard for our spiritual experiences.

It’s important to note that the Bible and the Spirit are not at odds. The Bible is the Spirit’s work and through it the Spirit teaches us the supreme sufficiency of Scripture. The Scriptures are, we are told, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Cor. 3:16-17).The Word is, then, normative for all our Spiritual experiences. It sets the standard by which all things are judged and provides the sufficient framework for growth and for discerning other experiences.

The temptation for many is to see the Scriptures as unnecessary if we can experience the Spirit more directly. There are those who attempt to dismiss the Bible in the light of experience, but Jesus states clearly that His “words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35; Luke 21:33). The Word is always supremely important to the believer.

In particular, we see the pattern across Scripture is that God’s words are used to explain Spiritual experiences. Often, God announces what He will do, then He does it, and then He offers an interpretation of what He has done. So, for example, we see that God announces the flood to Noah (Gen. 6:9-21), the flood comes (7:1-8:19), and God explains the flood (8:20-9:28). In Deuteronomy 8:2-5 God interprets the Wilderness Wanderings and the gift of Mana for the sake of the Israelites. Likewise, in Ezekiel 37 God gives the prophet a vision and then interprets the vision for him (v. 11). In the New Testament we also see that Jesus explains all the acts of the Old Testament in light of himself (Luke 24:27). In one sense this is all a microcosm of the whole Scriptures, which proclaims the gospel in the Old Testament and interprets it in the New.

In addition, not only does God’s speech explain His actions, but the Apostles too appeal to the Word of God to explain spiritual experiences. So, Peter quotes Joel 2 in order to explain the experience of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). In Acts 1 Peter references Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. Paul  also does this, referencing Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 55:3, and Psalm 16:10 to prove that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 13:32ff) (see Jack Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God, 101).

God’s Word establishes the precedent for us: Scripture is the key interpreter of what is a true spiritual experience. We do not have the liberty to pit experience and Scripture, nor can we rightly discern Spiritual experiences apart from God’s Word. John tells us that plainly when he warns the church to “test the spirits” and see if they are from God. Then, he spells out plainly that those who listen to the apostles are from God; those who don’t listen to the apostles aren’t from God (1 John 4:1-6).

In other words, we may experience the Spirit in a multitude of ways –we will unpack that idea in posts to come – yet, every experience is to be evaluated by the standard of God’s holy, inspired, infallible, and sufficient Word. Any experience that does not conform to what God has said is not a true Spirit-given experience. God and the Spirit work together, and through His Word, God’s Spirit gives us a framework for discerning true spiritual experiences. The Word is normative.

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