“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8)
When I teach confirmation students about the Holy Spirit, I always talk about what it means to believe that God himself is at work in our lives –- not only about what God does for us but also about what God does in us. Both of these are key to what Christian discipleship is about.
Disciples of Jesus are not simply updated versions of the disciples of Moses or the disciples of the Pharisees, who live according to the Law. The disciples of the Law were empowered by their own human spirit –- i.e. by their own righteousness and obedience to the standards set by God and subject to their own human traditions. What empowered their actions was a desire to achieve a higher moral status. They wanted to be able to show that they were better than all others who followed the law.
The way the Law works is a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” proposition. It is a transactional bargain based on the premise that if you follow God’s commandments, God, in turn, will reward you for your obedience. The Law assumes a back-and-forth reciprocity in our relationship with God, where we do our part for God, then God does his part for us. Just like in John’s baptism of repentance, where each party fulfills their obligations in a divine-human contract, in such a law-based scenario, the Holy Spirit is not present or required.
When it comes to following Jesus, some Christians use the same back-and-forth logic of the Law. Recognizing that God is the one who takes the initiative in grace, they define “discipleship” by simply change the order of the transaction, saying: “Because God has done all this for us, we must now do this for God.” In such a view, works of discipleship and lives of obedience are not required pre-conditions for God’s grace, but they are disguised as necessary “post-conditions” — in a sort of retroactive transaction — as if that is somehow better. Discipleship is understood to be a “no money down, no payments until January” sort of bargain. But all parties are aware that, eventually, the bill must be paid. The Law is still the Law.
The Gospel, however, is not simply a pay-after-the-fact deal. The good works produced by faith are not our human settlement of delayed payment plan. Rather, the good that is produced by faith is fruit of God’s own Holy Spirit at work in us. The logic is of the Gospel is not like the transactional logic of the Law that says: “If you do this for God, God will do this for you.” Nor is the Gospel merely the same Law in reverse, that says: “If God does this for you, you must do this for God.”
The Gospel, from start to finish, is the work of God’s Holy Spirit — both for us and in us. Our lives of discipleship are not our payback for God’s prior grace, but are lives in which the very Spirit of God is at work through us. Discipleship is not an act of our own human will in payment of debt; it is the active expression of God’s own will being done by God, in and among us. We are simply the earthen vessels; the transcendent power belongs to God (2 Corinthians 4:7).
The hammer does not pay back the carpenter by doing its own work, apart from the carpenter’s hand; the hammer is used by the carpenter to do his work. In the same way, we are simply a tool in the Carpenter’s hand. Just as God uses the physical sacraments as his means of grace, God uses our lives as his disciples in a sacramental way to convey his grace and love to others.
When Luther made his famous statement in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has …” — he was not merely speaking of Justification, or simply the grace by which we are saved. Nor was he speaking of some prevenient deposit of grace, for which we must later pay in full. He was speaking of Sanctification, and the power of the Holy Spirit – past, present, and future — by which we are made holy before God. All this is the fruit of God’s own Spirit.
When Jesus promised his disciples on the day he ascended to heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8), he was not speaking of our work in response to God, he was speaking of the work that God himself will do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is what I believe. This is the truth I act upon. Regardless of what others may say about their faith, let the Spirit bear witness in me:
“I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort live as a disciple of Jesus or follow him, but the Holy Spirit is living and active in me, so that it is not my will that is done, but the will of him who is at work in me.”
– Pastor Steven E. King