Coop's Column - Spirit at Work: Guide
With “two hands,” said St. Irenaeus, third-century bishop of Lyons, God teaches and guides his people—with the Word and the Spirit. In the last column we focused on the Spirit’s role in writing the Word. In this column we look at the Spirit’s work in guiding God’s people as they read and apply it.
With “two hands,” said St. Irenaeus, third-century bishop of Lyons, God teaches and guides his people—with the Word and the Spirit. Not one only, nor the one acting separately from the other; rather, both, and working together. God’s Word teaches Jesus Christ’s followers his will. God’s Spirit leads them as they strive to interpret the Word and apply its meaning to their lives. The entire process—both the attentive reading of the Word and the careful listening to the Spirit’s guidance in applying it—is called discernment. Discernment is vital to followers of Jesus as they heed his call to learn and to love their Lord’s deeper ways.
In the last column we focused on the Spirit’s role in writing the Word. In this column we look at the Spirit’s work in guiding God’s people as they read and apply it.
History keeps moving on; life keeps changing. God’s people must be on the move, too, ever open to responding to new opportunities and challenges, ever keenly alert to their present circumstances. These opportunities, challenges, and circumstances are—to state the obvious—vastly different from when Scripture first was written. How then to keep their boat on course as wave after wave of change swells and crashes around them? How to steer their craft true to God’s Word? Those are the questions which Christians of every generation must keep asking and answering.
To discern what God’s Word is saying to Christians today is anything but easy—that, too, is obvious. Throughout the church’s 2,000-year history, not seldom have honest believers honestly disagreed about Scripture’s meaning. Not seldom have disagreements turned into debates, and debates into full-blown controversies.
However, the church’s task of discerning, though complex and difficult, is not some stab-in-the-dark guessing game, a willy-nilly act of private and undirected conjecturing. While he was with them on earth, Jesus promised the disciples that his Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). And Jesus’ promise covers every succeeding generation of followers, our own age and generation not excluded (cf.John 17:20f). Jesus has not failed on his promise. Accordingly, with glad confidence Christians confess that the risen Jesus has sent his Spirit to lead them as they strive to discern what God’s Word is saying to them.
Throughout the church’s history, the Spirit has been employing numerous means to help God’s people learn and apply the Word. Among these means are the canon, the definitive list of books which belong in Scripture; creeds, timely confessions of what the church affirms (and rejects); and bishops and pastors, trustworthy leaders who teach and guide. These three together—canon, creed, and bishop—have helped to mark out and illuminate for believers appropriate paths of faithful Christian pilgrimage. They have served as the Spirit’s instruments to guide God’s people.
The Bible’s favorite tense is not the past, but the future. Everything in the Bible breathes future. God’s Word continually beckons the church to stand on tiptoe and with white-hot longing to keep hope for what awaits her: fellowship with her Savior and Lord, finally and fully. The call to practice that hope requires the church to stay spiritually healthy and robust, to renew and refresh herself again and again, and to plead for the Spirit’s help as she seeks to do so. Thus, the church must—yes, she must—keep changing. Jesus’ bride must live by the motto Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum Verbum Dei: “A renewed church ought always to be renewing herself according to the Word of God.” Her life in the present demands it. Her anticipation of the life to come, when she shall be with her beloved Savior and Lord forever (1 Thess. 4:18)—that, too, demands it.
But as she changes and moves forward, the church ought to keep her eyes and ears open to the past, too. She must continue to read and to hear God’s inspired Word. She should learn from and enjoy the treasure of wisdom that is the Christian tradition, which has been accumulating throughout the church’s history.
Where better to receive blessing from God’s “two hands” than in Sunday morning worship? There Christ’s followers gather to hear the Word and to plead for the Spirit’s presence and power to understand and obey it. In the sanctuary of God’s presence (cf. Ps. 73:17) they invoke Charles Wesley’s words and join to sing their thanks for the gifts of Word and Spirit—God’s two strong, steady hands to guide them:
Captain of Israel’s host, and Guide
Of all who seek the land above,
Beneath thy shadow we abide,
The cloud of thy protecting love;
Our strength, thy grace; our rule, thy Word;
Our end, the glory of the Lord.
By thine unerring Spirit led,
We shall not in the desert stray,
We shall not full direction need,
Nor miss the providential way;
As far from danger as from fear,
While love, almighty love, is near.