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Coop's Column - Spirit at Work: The Transformer's Instruments

God’s Word teaches that the Spirit employs four principal means for shaping Christians: Scripture, the sacraments, a person’s life experiences, and time.

The previous two articles addressed the Holy Spirit’s crucial work of “writing us into the story of salvation,” as Eugene Peterson puts it, and shaping us into fully mature saints—persons who aspire to live in, with, like, and for Jesus Christ. In this article we shall focus on the means the Spirit employs to achieve that goal.

God’s Word teaches that the Spirit employs four principal means for shaping Christians: Scripture, the sacraments, a person’s life experiences, and time. Furthermore, the Spirit puts these four to their optimal intent and use within the fellowship of Christ’s church—his worshiping, witnessing, and serving body.

A brief word about each of these instruments of the Spirit.

Growth in spiritual maturity begins with God’s Word. For healthy growth to occur, the Bible must be read properly, of course. Simply to read it in a rote, mechanical manner does the reader little spiritual good. Scripture must be read in line with its God-intended purpose—namely, to announce the Triune God’s earnest campaign to restore sinful, rebellious human beings to their place within God’s family. “The written Word,” says John Stott, “points to the Living Word and says to us, ‘Go to Jesus.’” Failing to recognize that would be to misunderstand the entire purpose for reading the Bible. But when a person dwells in God’s Word—reads it, memorizes it, studies it, and meditates upon it with an eye eager to see God at work rescuing his children from Satan’s angry jaws—he grows in God’s way.

Sacraments, too—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—are God’s gifts to help Christians grow. The Spirit uses common elements—water, bread, wine—to accomplish what is breathtakingly uncommon: through them believers are bound more closely to Jesus, and the gospel is impressed more deeply and permanently into their hearts.

A person’s life circumstances also serve the Holy Spirit’s high purposes. For it is precisely there—amid the sometimes messy and often mysterious events of one’s life—that the Lord intends the gospel’s promises and commands to be heard and obeyed. God pledges to superintend and guide all of those events in such a way that they can work toward growing a person into Christlikeness (cf. Romans 8:28-39; 2 Cor. 2:14). Thus, a person’s joys in life, her seasons of sorrow and sadness, even her times of wandering and wrongdoing, can serve as soft clay in which the Spirit’s hands can sculpt features of holiness, can etch deeper and clearer lines of saintliness.

Time, too, is the Spirit’s tool. Growth is a lifelong process. John Calvin was correct: Only at death does a person “graduate” from the school of Jesus Christ.

And we must say what has become a mantra these last few articles: these instruments of the Spirit work best together within the fellowship of Christian pilgrims who are enroute together. The Spirit uses the church to unite believers more fully as family, and to encourage them to support one another toward their common goal of becoming like Jesus.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s put these elements into something of an equation. What follows is my attempt to present visually the thoughts I heard from Howard Hendricks at a Dallas Seminary conference years ago. Granted, the formula is much too simple to account for all that goes into the complex divine/human process of moving people toward maturity in Christ. But perhaps it might prompt us to think about the means the Spirit uses in our lives to encourage our growth in godliness.

To explain:

  • God’s Word and sacraments together serve as fuel to live obediently amid life’s events.
  • Obedience, practiced over time, will yield holiness.
  • The church functions as catalyst for this process to happen. (Worshiping and fellowshipping together, Christians are encouraged to “make every effort to add to [their] faith” (2 Pet. 1:5), and to mature in Christ.)
  • The entire process depends upon the Holy Spirit, without whose energy nothing happens.

Some Jewish children once asked their rabbi: “Where did Enoch go?”
Rabbi: “He went to be with God.”
Children: “How do you know?”
Rabbi: “Because the last time people saw him, he was walking that way.”

A journey of lifelong obedience begins by taking the first step.


“O Thou Holy Spirit divine, all my nature refine, till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.”