Join our mailing list

Coop's Column - Spirit at Work: Transformer

“The Holy Spirit is writing us into the revelation, the story of salvation. We find ourselves in the story as followers of Jesus. … Our task is to obey—believingly, trustingly obey.”

Eugene Peterson, in his book The Pastor, writes, “The Holy Spirit is writing us into the revelation, the story of salvation. We find ourselves in the story as followers of Jesus. … Our task is to obey—believingly, trustingly obey.” These simple words reveal astonishing truth about the Holy Spirit’s critical role in the Trinity’s campaign to rescue God’s children from sin and bring them safely home again. God the Father mapped out the strategy (cf. Eph. 1:3ff). Jesus the Son, by his death and resurrection, invaded the dungeon of evil, delusion, and despair, and made the rescue. God the Spirit now applies the truth to believers’ hearts and empowers them to live and dance in the fresh air and bright sunlight of God’s good freedom again.

There’s no question about it: to transform a forgiven sinner into a saint is, from beginning to end, divine work. The chains of sin are too strong for us to free ourselves; the chasm too deep for us to make it out on our own. Not a single human being is a match for the power of evil that holds humanity in its grip. That’s what St. Paul had in mind when he prayed, “May the God of peace sanctify (read: “transform”) you entirely, and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thess. 5:23-24).

But the Spirit also empowers us to play our own role in the drama of redemption. Our first duty is to believe the Good News; the second, to trust our Savior’s promises and obey his commands. To do both daily demands our intense focus and diligent effort. In both the prompting to belief, trust, and obedience, and the applying of Jesus’ redemption to human hearts, the Spirit works to transform humans into saints. The Spirit plants us in Jesus; the Spirit brings us into close fellowship with Jesus; the Spirit empowers us to live more and more like Jesus; the Spirit equips us to live forJesus. In, with, like, for—four vital prepositions which describe the Spirit’s vast work of making believers teleios—that is, mature and Christ-like in every square millimeter of their lives. “And all of us,” says St. Paul, “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory into another.” This entire process, he adds, takes place “[through] the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

The Heidelberg Catechism, a 16th-century Christian confession, points out both dimensions of the process of growing in holiness—that is, both the Spirit’s initiating and our responding. Answer 114 states: “In this life even the holiest [persons and communities] have but a small beginning of this obedience”—a bracing reminder of human feebleness and an underscoring of the vital need for God’s Spirit. However, immediately thereafter the creed adds, “Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments,” thus underscoring the active role we [must] play in the process of learning to live as God intends.

William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out the two sides in this way:

It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it; I can’t.

And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that.  Jesus could do it; I can’t.

But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like his. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like his.

Persons need radical transforming. So, too, do congregations. The pews of a church—any church—are filled with people whose hearts, though redeemed, keep pumping out both lovely good and venomous evil. Sinfulness and saintliness lie close to each other within the heart of even the holiest person. What is more, sin often disrupts relationships between fellow believers. It’s no small challenge to get along with fellow congregants—especially when they rub us the wrong way. ‘Tis true—often and everywhere:

To dwell above with saints we love. O that will be glory.
To dwell below with saints we know—that’s another story.

It takes the Spirit’s empowering, therefore, for the fellowship of the church to live together as saints. Jesus delights to call the church his bride. But the Spirit must continue the task of teaching the bride to keep dressing daily in her wedding gown, the clothing of holiness (cf. Col. 2:19; 3:12-17; Rom. 11:20).

On Sundays Christians gather to plead for the Transformer’s energy to work in their lives and in their life together as a church. For

God gives his grace and Holy Spirit
only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly,
asking God for these gifts
and thanking him for them. (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 116)

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).