"You can have a personal relationship with God." We like to pull this amazing declaration out of our evangelism toolboxes, to focus on the fact that a relationship with God is actually possible for human beings. This fact is at the wondrous heart of biblical, evangelical Christianity.
However, another word from the above statement also deserves our attention: personal. More than just a modifier of "relationship," "personal" points to the fact that God Himself must be personal in order to relate to us. How does Almighty God pull off being personal? According to theologian Millard Erickson, "The Holy Spirit is the point at which the Trinity becomes personal to the believer."1 The Spirit is the actual presence of God, active and alive, within Christians. Another theologian wrote, "Though we speak of the Spirit as the third Person [of the Trinity], from the standpoint of experience Spirit is first, because it is the Spirit that enables us to experience God's ... drawing near."2 Think about all these ideas regarding God the Holy Spirit: personal, active, alive, experiential, and "drawing near." As the very presence of God within us, the Holy Spirit does all sorts of things, among them producing fruit, giving gifts, and making holy.
Personal Equipping: The Fruit of the Spirit
One of the great, engaging ideas of New Testament Christianity is that of the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 provides the definitive list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. While much can be said about each of the nine elements, some fruitful ideas can be gleaned from considering the list in its entirety.
First, this single bunch of fruit is more than a random cluster of ethical goals. To be sure, love and peace and goodness are desirable traits for just about any person, but the distinctive quality about this cluster of Spirit-produced fruit is that it is the character of Jesus Christ. The life He lived on earth can be described precisely with these nine elements. Thus, fruit production is the fulfillment of God's promise to conform Christians to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
Second, even though the fruit is produced by the Holy Spirit, the "ripening" requires our participation. Note that the list of spiritual fruit follows close on the heels of Paul's list of the "works of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19-21). Important to note about both lists is that they are packed with activity. One does not drift into love or self-control or, for that matter, moral impurity or envy (Galatians 5:17). All the fruit on that spiritual cluster is done, proactively and intentionally. Think about it: A perfectly ripened peach makes a beautiful display, but ultimately it is meant to be eaten. Likewise, spiritual fruit is not meant for display. God the Holy Spirit produces the fruit, but Christians must act on it, use it, and develop it. At work in the lives of believers, then, is a delicate balance between the Spirit's fruit yield and the Christian's yielded — yet — active life response.
Third, God the Holy Spirit produces the fruit by means of His presence and work within individual believers. Jesus' great words about living water point to this reality. "The one who believes in Me ... will have streams of living water flow from deep within him." He said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were going to receive (John 7:38-39). Just as water surges into the Colorado River, creating a deep and powerful flow, even so the Spirit of God within each believer creates the compelling inclination and capacity to live the fruit. Again, notice that balance between the Spirit's work and our response. He leads, but we must follow (Galatians 5:16, 18, 25).
Another thought about spiritual fruit is worth mentioning. These nine elements — multiple parts of a singular fruit, like a cluster of grapes — perfectly describe life in the Spirit. W. T. Conner, long-time theologian at Southwestern Seminary, phrased it perfectly in saying that the Spirit-filled life is moral and ethical, not "an emotional orgy. ... Paul was no wild enthusiast. His religion always had at its center the element of rational and moral control. Christian character and conduct were the fruit of the Spirit."3
One of the benefits of thinking about spiritual fruit is being reminded of physical fruit. Enjoying colorful and tasty produce is one of God's great blessings. Personally, though friends and family tout the virtues of southern-grown peaches, I am proud to get really messy with the juicy, sweet, Palisade Peach from Colorado. It is a succulent, end-of-the-summer treat. Even as that luscious fruit is craved by those who see it, may the world around us see and crave the fruit — ethical, moral, considerate lives — produced by God the Holy Spirit in us.
Personal Gifting: The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
God the Holy Spirit is not only a fruit producer but a gift giver, too. A spiritual gift is "a specific endowment of spiritual ability for service."4
Note the specifics of this definition. First, "a specific endowment" emphasizes giftedness; they are gifts, not rewards. Second, "spiritual ability" highlights God the Holy Spirit as the source of the gifts. Third, "ability for service" focuses on the purpose of gifts. They are for service, not display.
This idea regarding service may be the most important one to remember about spiritual giftedness. Four lists of gifts are provided in the New Testament, all four being embedded in passages about the body of Christ/the church (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, 28-30; Ephesians 4:11). This context for mentioning spiritual gifts points to their use by different body "parts"/individual members for the greater good of the body. Spiritual gifts are not trophies to be polished and set on the mantle. They are given explicitly "to build up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12). A good test to see if that is happening is to assess a given gift's effectiveness in building up, not tearing down, the body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:13).
An interesting reality about the four lists of gifts is that they are all different. Lining up the gifts in four parallel columns reveals these factoids: the gift of prophecy is the only one that appears in all four lists; teaching shows up in three lists; those appearing in two lists include service/helping, healing, miracles, tongues, and apostle; and twelve separate gifts turn up singularly, on only one of the lists. These facts seem to point to the reality that there is no fixed, comprehensive list of gifts in Scripture. Paul never even hints otherwise. If indeed a comprehensive list does not exist in the Bible, then the possibilities exist that: (1) there were more gifts at work in the first-century church than Paul mentioned, and (2) there may be other gifts in operation today than those mentioned in Scripture.5
The point of noting these possibilities goes right back to the stated purpose of why gifts are given by the Holy Spirit: to serve and strengthen the body of Christ. This purpose implies that God the Holy Spirit can gift any believer to do anything in order to accomplish His work in any given church body.
Consider these additional ideas about spiritual gifts.
Gifts are not to be confused with roles. For example, though some believers have the gift of evangelist, every believer is called to evangelize.
Gifts of the Spirit are not to be confused with the fruit of the Spirit. All believers are given the entire fruit mix (see above) while not all believers receive all the gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8-11).
The relationship between spiritual gifts and talent is ambiguous. Every human being has some range of talent, but only to believers are spiritual gifts given. Furthermore, a Christian's talent may or may not determine his or her giftedness.
Gifts are given according to the sovereignty of God. Though Paul encouraged Christians to "desire the greater gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31), he had already noted that God dispenses them according to His will and purposes (1 Corinthians 12:11).
Did I mention that gifts were for service and not for display?
Personal Transforming: The Work of the Holy Spirit
"Sanctification" is one of those three-dollar theology terms which can either impress or intimidate when people hear it the first time. The word refers to the process of making holy (Latin: sanctus — "holy" plus facere — "to make"). Sanctification is not some theoretical category or concept. Rather, it is a rich biblical/theological idea that encompasses the work done by both God and humans, shaping the latter into the people of the former.
Sanctification moves beyond the two realities about God the Spirit mentioned above. He produces fruit and gives gifts, and yet there is much more to say about sanctification.
The Old Testament speaks of people, animals, places, and even points in time being made holy or set apart (see, respectively, Exodus 13:2; Deuteronomy 15:19; Exodus 3:5; Genesis 2:3). The interesting idea about Old Testament holiness is that really it had nothing to do with the moral qualities of that which was sanctified. For example, the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses was not some special, heavenly shrub growing in miracle dirt. What made it holy was God declaring it holy. Nevertheless, when God declared people holy, He demanded that they reflect that status by obeying the requirements of His law (e.g., cleansing, setting apart, sacrificing, dedicating).
That is the case in the New Testament, too. People and places are declared to be holy or set apart (see, respectively, 1 Corinthians 6:11; Matthew 23:17). Even God Himself, of course, is declared holy (Matthew 6:9). However, holiness takes a new turn in the New Testament. It becomes grounded not just on God declaring a group of people to be His own, as with Old Testament Israel, but in God the Son's saving work. The acceptance of that work, by everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13), results in those individual humans attaining the status of holy (see 1 Corinthians 6:11).
Just as important in the New Testament — and also distinct from the Old — is the work of God the Holy Spirit in the sanctifying/making holy project. The contours of this work are seen primarily in what Jesus prayed and promised the night before He died. In John 14-17, Jesus outlined the work of the Holy Spirit, noting His full-service ministry to human beings, beginning with conviction (16:8-11) and extending to recognizable, divine presence with His disciples (14:16-18).
What is especially interesting in Jesus' words is the emphasis He put on the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. According to Him, God the Holy Spirit would bring to remembrance what Jesus had taught His disciples (14:26 — This becomes applicable for disciples today via the Spirit bringing to remembrance what Jesus has taught us through the Bible), bear witness of Jesus (15:26), speak not independently but in concert with the other members of the Trinity (16:13-15), and continue the teaching ministry of Jesus (16:12-13a). Couple these facts with Jesus' prayer that the Father would, Sanctify them [the disciples] by the truth; your word is truth (17:17), and the idea emerges that the Spirit's primary mode of sanctification is grounded in the Bible. He makes applicable and brings to mind God's revealed, written (and read!) Word, not only about Jesus, but also what the Savior requires of and supplies to His children.
Important to remember is that the Spirit's teaching ministry is more than just data exchange. There is a very real sense that in bringing to the disciple's mind that information about Jesus, the Spirit enables the person to live the Christian life (Ephesians 4:17-18,23; see also Romans 12:2). Paul made a great analogy to salvation in describing the deep, thorough way in which God the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers. After beginning [the saved life] with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3) The Spirit enables and empowers, and people respond in faith and obedience.6 Even as the Spirit effects salvation — spiritually, thoroughly, truly — so He makes holy.
A personal relationship with Almighty God is possible! Accentuate "personal," and the work of God the Holy Spirit begins to come into sharp focus. He is the point of experiencing God, not only via His 24/7 presence but also through His fruit-producing, gift-giving, holy-making work in the lives of true believers. To see the Holy Spirit's activity is to begin to appreciate Him for being much more than "a shadowy, ghostly, poor relation of the Trinity."7 Indeed, the Holy Spirit is God enabling, inspiring, empowering, and filling Christians to live the life God the Son died to provide.
1 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 863.
2 Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 14.
3 Walter Thomas Conner, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1949), 119.
4 Kenneth Gangel, Unwrap Your Spiritual Gifts (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 8ff.
5 This "open-ended" view of spiritual giftedness can be seen also in Ken Hemphill, You are Gifted: Your Spiritual Gifts and the Kingdom of God (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 60; James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, & Evangelical, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 199; and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 891.
6 James Tull described sanctification as "both a divine gift and a human task." Quoted in James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, & Evangelical, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 368.
7 Pinnock, 10.
Earl Waggoner is a member of the Church at Parker in Parker, Colorado, and is Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at the Rocky Mountain Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.