The Spirit Filled Life

Sitting at the back of a newly opened church in Toronto in the early 1890’s, a young man heard the great missionary statesman, A. J. Gordon deliver his famous lectures on the Holy Spirit in Missions.  Before the series ended the young listener, Rowland Bingham, was praying that the Spirit would call him to serve in some distant corner of the world.

He went on with his pastorate in the countryside near Toronto. The months passed without a clear answer to his prayer. Then he happened to address a small morning meeting in the city, where an elderly lady with a distinct Scottish accent invited him home for lunch, introducing herself as a Mrs. Gowans, a widow. During and after lunch she told him of her son Walter, who had been certain that he was called to take the gospel to the neediest country he could find. He had pored over maps and statistics until one vast area in Africa had impressed itself on him as almost totally without Christian witness. 

From coast to coast, south of the Sahara and north of the rain forests lay a great, populated belt known in the nineties as the Sudan. Before Rowland Bingham left Mrs. Gowans, he knew in his heart that he must join Walter Gowans to penetrate the Sudan with the message of the Lord Jesus  

None had dared go inland in the Sudan, but before Bingham and two other companions could start, Bingham contracted malaria which nearly cost him his life. He remained on the coast to mend and provide a base for supplies while the other two young men went inland. They died within one year of each other of malaria.

Rowland Bingham returned to North America to find help. Five years later he returned to the Sudan accompanied by two other men. Once again, he contracted malaria and immediately had to go back to the coast. The two other men gave up.

Seven years after Bingham had set out with such sure hope from Mrs. Gowans’s home, his mission was a mere mockery. Walter Gowans had died. But Mrs. Gowans’s response to her son’s death had been: ‘I would rather have had Walter go out to the Sudan and die there all alone, than have him home, disobeying our Lord.’ Rowland Bingham was equally determined to obey, whether it led to ridicule or death. 

The next seven years saw a growing Mission, a couple more deaths- but no conversions.  But when Bingham died in 1943, the international, interdenominational Sudan Interior Mission was already numerically one of the largest, with strong national churches growing. It is still growing today from West Africa to Ethiopia, despite past persecutions and the difficulties inevitable in a rapidly changing world, these churches represent a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.”[i]

How did this all come about? One person responded to and understood the will of God and obeyed God’s call. What God’s will is for each of our lives should be our greatest concern? To do His will ought to be our goal. What would motivate a young man like Rowland Bingham to risk his life over and over again in such a difficult environment in the 1890’s? We may not be called to be a missionary to another part of the world, but we are all called to bring his good news into our current place where we live, work, and play. So what is the secret of a powerful Christian life? It is a life empowered by God’s Spirit. But what does that look like?

In a series of lectures on ‘Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine,’ N.T. scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson relates:

Some scholars are reluctant to acknowledge the validity of religious experience in general, much less the religious experience that was the beginning of Christianity.  The first Christians made claims about their significance that are out of proportion to their actual situation in the world, and these claims to their importance were based on other claims concerning their current personal experience. They were saved, they were transformed, they were empowered.

The claim to the experience of power is connected to a central symbol and a basic conviction. The central symbol is that of the Holy Spirit: They were touched by a personal, transcendent, transforming energy that came from God, not from themselves.[ii]

The work of the Holy Spirit is experiential in nature. This is not just a dry confession but an encounter with God, who came in the person of Jesus Christ, lived, performed miracles, was unjustly tried, was crucified, but was raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is as we live an empowered life, we can maintain equilibrium in life’s greatest tests, find meaning, purpose and joy that transcends our human situations. The Christian life is not one that problems are absent from, but rather it is a life where the power of Christ is greater than our problems. The book of Ephesians deals with a number of significant issues facing believers regardless of age, maturity, or time in history. It deals with such issues as maintaining healthy relationships, particularly in the home, church and workplace. It speaks to how we can live a holy life in an unholy world (where we don’t have to conform to the values of our society). It speaks how we can overcome specific strongholds of sin in our lives and ultimately produce the results of a holy, loving life: things like joy, hope, peace, self-control, perseverance, and humility.  

Just before Paul, who most agree is the author of the book, zeroes in on how our marriages should reflect our the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church and all the dynamics involved in the family and work place; he focuses in on the empowerment needed to truly live out a godly life or a wise life.

Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.[iii]   

There are elements that are essential to living out the Christian life. There are two key elements that are critical to maintain a balance in living an empowered life.

The first element that is essential for a vital Christian life is experiential.            

            Christianity is not just an intellectual assent to truth, but a living, experience with God. The person of the Godhead that activates this experience is God, the Holy Spirit. He is the One who makes Jesus real to us. He is the One who makes the Word of God come alive in our hearts. He is the One who empowers us to live a holy life, a courageous life.

Here in the Ephesians passage we are commanded to live a life filled with the Spirit rather than experience the effects of having our lives affected and impacted in an altered condition of drunkenness. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).”

Drunkenness is a condition of an altered experience. People who are drunk are having an experience where their mental and physical faculties are being impaired by the effects of alcohol in their bodies. Here we read that this is a negative experience that alters a person’s current state of being, which lowers their inhibitions and causes them to make terrible decisions that impact them. This condition can have life changing impact. I immediately think of someone who is impaired and gets behind the wheel of a vehicle and is in a major car accident, that leads to life changing injuries or even death. It could also mean a prison sentence; because of their experience with alcohol. How many people have done things that they would never have done if they had been sober? Drunkenness is a state where we make many wrong and painful choices that are later regretted. The apostle Paul begins this experiential aspect of Christianity with a warning to avoid a counterfeit experience. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery (Ephesians 5:18a).” So what is debauchery? Webster defines debauchery as extreme indulgence of a person’s appetite. One translation interprets the Greek text asotia or as excess.  Kenneth Wuest explains asotia “as nothing of a saving quality about it, but rather a destructive one. The word as it is generally used expresses the idea of an abandoned, debauched, profligate life.”[iv] It is a life that is utterly and shamefully immoral, a reckless extravagance. It is described by Jesus in the story of the prodigal son who lived that life and squandered away his inheritance. It is a dehumanizing life. It squanders one’s God given talents, resources and time; which God gives to each of us. The concept of ‘getting drunk on wine,’ can easily include all forms of chemical abuses, which people are using as a form of self-medication.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones; a medical doctor turned pastoral leaders writes: “Take up any book on pharmacology and look up alcohol and you’ll always find that it is classified among the depressants. It is not a stimulus? What alcohol does is this; it knocks out those higher centres, and so the more primitive elements in the brain come up and take control; and a man feels better temporarily. He has lost his sense of fear, and he has lost his discrimination, he has lost his power to assess.  Alcohol merely knocks out his higher centres and releases the more instinctive, primal elements; but the man believes that he is being stimulated. What is really true of him is that he has become more of an animal; his control over himself is diminished.”[v]

The apostle Paul then places the work of the Holy Spirit in direct opposition to the drunken state.  We are commanded to ‘be filled with the Spirit.’ This is our responsibility. We must avail ourselves of the fullness of God’s Spirit in our lives in order to be and then do what God wants to accomplish in and through us. We must yield or submit ourselves to God, pray and ask that God would do this work within us. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).”

John Stott describes this Spirit filled life. “Christianity gives a person a new life. It is not a mere negative, mechanical kind of morality that dulls the soul and robs it of life and vitality [It is not a list of do’s and don’ts]. The Apostle, I say by using this comparison [drunk on wine and filled with the Spirit] thunders at us this tremendous fact, that the Christian life is not a negative life, a mere absence of evil and sin. …Christianity is stimulating, exhilarating and thrilling.”[vi] It is a life filled with hope, with joy, self-control. It is a liberated life, not controlled by selfish desires but filled with a loving, self-giving expression toward God and others.

The second element that is essential for a vital Christian life is cognitive.

What I mean by cognitive is that it is an understanding life. There is a desire to learn. The Christian life is not an irrational life. That’s what our culture accuses believers of. But the reality is that we have a teachable, humble heart. A believer desires to understand who God is and what difference that makes in the human sphere. We want to understand God’s creation. There is a growth in our knowledge of and about God and His ways. We see from Paul’s warning that we must be wise. He contrasts that with being unwise or foolish. He is calling for understanding. “Be very careful, then, how you live-not as unwise but as wise, …Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is (Ephesians 5:15, 17).” So what happens when we are filled with the Holy Spirit? 

Martyn Lloyd Jones argues that the intellect, emotions and will are all stimulated. After every great revival the desire to learn intensifies. “History proves that a desire for education always follows a spiritual revival and awakening. It happened at the Reformation, it happened after the Puritan Awakening, it happened in a still more striking manner after the Evangelical Awakening of 200 years ago. There were those besotted, drunken miners and others in the Midlands and in the North and round about Bristol-suddenly they were converted by this power of the Holy Spirit, and they began to clamor for schools, and wanted to be able to read. The Holy Spirit stimulates the mind.”[vii] 

We find this idea in the Scriptures themselves. After the Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost and people were witnesses of what was happening in the lives of the early believers, the crowds in Jerusalem asked what was happening.  Peter preached a sermon and again, we see the Holy Spirit bringing conviction of sin and 3000 were added to the church. The outcome was a desire to understand. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).” What is listed first? A desire to understand or to grow in their understanding. So what does the Lord’s will specifically look like here in the Ephesian context?

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.[viii]  

We quickly notice the way we are to speak. It is described as Spirit filled speaking. What do we speak about? We speak about what is flowing from the abundance of our innermost being. We speak from the heart. Here we are told to admonished to speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. This would suggest that we are in a context of corporate worship. We are to be addressing the Lord. Those under the control of the Holy Spirit will have a song in their hearts and it will be directed upward. The songs will be prompted and directed by the Holy Spirit.

The second aspects has to do with an attitude of gratitude. We are ‘always to give thanks to God the Father for everything.’ In summarizing his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes: “Be joyful always;         Pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).” We need to make a clarifying remark about what we thank God for. We certainly don’t thank God for evil, but even in times of evil we can still have a heart of thanksgiving to God. We are not thanking God for every circumstance but in every circumstance because we know that God is in control in spite of the circumstance. I love the incident in Paul and Silas’ life as they are singing in the Philippian jail, after being beaten and fastened with stocks; we find them worshiping God. What a reminder to us that we also can count it all joy when we are facing trials of many kinds as James reminds us (cf. James 1:2).  James calls it pure joy. We can only live like this when we are full of the Holy Spirit. Are we rejoicing in this time of restriction due to Covid 19, or any other difficulty in our life?

Finally, we see not only how to speak, have the right attitude, but also to live in mutual submission to one another.   

John Stott puts out that living in submission out of reverence for Christ is not an imperative, but rather another participle dependent on the command to be filled with the Spirit. In other words it is an outcome of what happens when we are filled with the Spirit. John Stott relates:

Such are the wholesome results of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. They all concern relationships. If we are filled with the Spirit, we shall be harmoniously related both to God (worshiping him with joy and thanksgiving), and to each other (speaking and submitting to one another).  In brief, Spirit-filled believers love God and love each other, which is hardly surprising since the first fruit of the Spirit is love.”[ix]

John Stott reminds us:

Be filled is not a tentative proposal, but an authoritative command.  We have no more liberty to avoid this responsibility than the many others which surround it in the book of Ephesians. To be filled with the Spirit is obligatory, not optional. To not be filled with the Spirit is disobedience. It is a state of rebellion against God. It’s the idea that I can somehow live the Christian life apart from God’s empowering presence. It cannot be done. We can have all the right information, but we lack the energizing power to live that life apart from being ‘filled with the Spirit.’ We will be then powerless. In some sense it is a form of idolatry. We are trusting in ourselves, rather than trusting in God.[x]

How can we impact our world in our own human energy? We can’t, but when we are filled with God’s Spirit, we can do things we couldn’t do before.

Secondly, it is in the plural form. In other words, it is addressed to the whole Christian community. None of us are to get drunk; all of us are to be Spirit-filled. The fullness of the Spirit is not an elitist privilege, but available for all the people of God.”[xi]

So how do we go about this life of ‘being filled with the Spirit? We need to ask for God to fill us with His Spirit. “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13).” When we ask, we simply, yield to God by obeying what he is revealing to us in his word. “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him (Acts 5:32).”

Let us cry out to our God to fill us with His Divine Presence: The Holy Spirit!

[i] The Long March, 81-88, adapted.

[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, ‘Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine,’ The Great Courses, (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2002), 48.

[iii] Ephesians 5:15-21, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iv] Kenneth Wuest, Ephesians in the Greek New Testament, 127.

[v] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit: Marriage, Home, Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18-6:9, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House, 1973), 19-20.

[vi] Ibid, 20.

[vii] [vii] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in the Spirit: Marriage, Home, Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18-6:9, 20.

[viii] Ephesians 5:19-21.

[ix] John Stott, Ephesians, 208.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid, 208-209.

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