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Four Keys to Spiritual Formation (part 2)

To read part one in this series, click here.

It's quite possible to fascinate a congregation so that numbers steadily increase, to explain the Bible text so professionally that one's reputation reaches back to the halls of alma mater, to inform the mind so carefully that our people are recognized as Bible experts, and yet still miss out on spiritual formation. Without the energizing power of the Spirit, fresh each time one enters the pulpit, our people will not demonstrate any miracle quality of life. Family and co-workers will not be impacted by the inexplicable. Any good psychologist could explain their attitudes and behavior in terms of genes, early environment, and present circumstances. And who would go to church in search of such an unsupernatural life?

Unless the fire of the Spirit breaks loose, we can forget about spiritual formation.

Unprepared for Christ's mission

That's the lesson the disciples had to learn. After three years in Jesus' seminary, after the trauma of their teacher's gruesome death and the exhilaration of his resurrection, they were still on their own agenda—an agenda set by traditions, centuries of misreading the Scriptures, and by their worldly ambitions. "Is this the time for setting up the Kingdom?" they asked (Acts 1:6ff). They had in mind throwing out the Romans and, no doubt, putting themselves on twelve thrones surrounding King Jesus. Jesus responded: No, no. That isn't your assignment. I do however have an assignment for you. But you're not ready for it. Not ready? After three years in Messiah's School of Theology?

Following his resurrection, over a period of six weeks of final preparation, he'd given his marching orders at least three or four times already (John 20:21; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15). Still they didn't get it. So he told them to return to Jerusalem and wait until they were ready. Wait for what? For the Holy Spirit! "Wait till the fire falls—then you'll be equipped to carry out the plan." There's no record he told them to wait on their knees, but that's what they did. And then the fire fell. Perhaps we're miscuing on what he has in mind for us. We're just not ready for his earth-shaking assignment. Is he saying, "Wait. Tarry on your knees. Back to your study till the fire falls"?

Indicators of a Spirit-filled life

Often the New Testament uses an image to describe this experience: Spirit filled. What will you feel like, what will you look like if you are Spirit filled? The New Testament uses this picture word, full, in three different ways. Sometimes it refers to what most contemporaries who specialize in Spirit-filling have in mind—an inner sense of the Spirit's presence—"filled with joy in the Holy Spirit," for example (Luke 10:21). God pity the preacher who never has that rush, that ecstatic sense of God's presence.

Unless the fire of the Spirit breaks loose, we can forget about spiritual formation.

Sometimes, however, the Bible indicates a relationship more than a feeling—who is in charge? (Ephesians 4:29-32; Ephesians 5:17). If the Holy Spirit is in charge of a relationship, you could say the person is filled with the Spirit. God pity the congregation where the preacher is not unconditionally yielded, fully at the disposal of the Spirit.

By far the most common use of this picture language is to point to the outcome, the evidence of a Spirit-filled life, called "fruit" or "gifts" (Galatians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 12). That is what it means to be filled with the Spirit—so under the Spirit's control that a miracle life is evident, an abundant harvest of Spirit-fruit that every fruit inspector in the congregation can see. So the only way to explain the results of that man's preaching is to say, Spirit power!

Notice something about those Spirit-filled apostles: Every time a crisis erupted, a new opportunity loomed, or things didn't go according to plan, what did they do? They returned to their knees! And what did God do in response? He filled them with the Spirit. Then they preached with boldness and life-transforming power. Spirit-filled people were filled, the record says (Acts 4:31). How can that be?

I find the analogy of a sailboat helpful. A schooner skimming across the water, sails filled with the breeze, is a beautiful sight. But then a stiff wind comes up from the west and whoosh! Those sails, filled already, are really filled. And so with the Spirit. He may be in charge of the preacher's life and ministry, but then comes a special need, a special opportunity; then comes the time to enter the pulpit. The preacher gets on his knees and pleads the wind of the Spirit to blow. That day there is Spirit-filled preaching. If spiritual formation is ever to take place through preaching, that will be the day.

In part three of this series, McQuilkin discusses the importance of calling for a decision and connection with hearers.

Robertson McQuilkin is a writer and speaker, and president emeritus of Columbia International University, in Columbia, South Carolina. He is author of Understanding and Applying the Bible (Moody).

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