Why the Holy Spirit matters: Pentecostalism and true spirituality

Authenticity is naturally of importance whenever anything may be of significant worth. Purchasing an item of gold may be gain only if the gold is genuine. Otherwise you suffer a loss, having traded your money for fool’s gold. Worse still, the dealer is a deceiver and a fraud.

Beginning Book I of The Holy Spirit, John Owen shows why this subject matters so greatly by pointing to, not only the absolute dependance of our salvation on the person and work of the Spirit (along with genuine Christianity, the gospel, Christian growth, and condemnation), but also to the many false claims of the Spirit’s work.

1. False spirituality

No area exists with greater levels of deceit than in the realm of spirituality: things pretend be God, or of God, but are not. And the reason is no mystery: The greater the value of a thing (and there is nothing of greater worth that God’s own Spirit), the more often false attempts will be made to represent it. And so the Holy Spirit’s work is often counterfeited. And the greater something’s value the more horrible its abuse. Consequently there is nothing more horrible than false spirituality.

The most visible gift of the Holy Spirit under the Old Covenant was prophecy. But throughout the Old Testament there were more false prophets than true. On the one hand were those who openly served other gods (Deuteronomy 18:20; 1 Kings 18:26); but on the other hand were those who spoke in the name of the Lord, and declared falsely to be inspired by God’s Spirit (Jeremiah 28:2; 1 Kings 22:26; Ezekiel 13:14).

Under the New Covenant it was the gospel that was given by immediate revelation from the Spirit (and declared by his enabling, made effectual by his power and often attested to by miraculous signs from him). Unsurprisingly, false teachers competed by pretending to the very same source of authority. And so the Apostles likened false teachers in this new age to the false prophets of old (2 Peter 2:1) who also claimed divine inspiration.

Consequently, Jesus and the Apostles warned of ‘lying spirits’ and urged Christians ‘not to believe every spirit’, not to give credit to doctrine simply because of an appeal to immediate revelation, but to ‘test the spirits’ because Satan’s work is disguised as the Holy Spirit’s (cf. Matthew 24:24).

And in the very place where we are commanded to this type of proactive caution regarding ‘every spirit’, we are given one very simple means. The Apostle John writes:

We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:6).
With definitive clarity the Apostle puts himself and his fellow Apostles up as the litmus test, whereby we can know who and what is from God, or not: “whoever is not from God does not listen to us;” that is, does not listen to the Apostles whose word we have now in New Testament Scriptures. Whoever is from God or knows God, listens to the Apostles: that is how we recognize the Spirit of truth. Everything else is the spirit of falsehood. Or to put it another way, the Spirit without the word is false spirituality.

2. Dead spirituality

Owen’s work also provided an apologetic against those who practice a form of Christianity while all the time denying the supernatural: this is “hostility to the Spirit of God”, and since it is a “sin of despising his person, and rejecting his work now, [it] is of the same nature with the idolatry of old, and the Jews’ rejection of the person of the Son”.

“The doctrine of the Spirit, and his work on the souls of men, in conviction of sin; in godly sorrow and humiliation; in regeneration and sanctification; the supplies of this grace, and his assistance in prayer, have been preached in the world. Men have been taught that the great concerns of their peace, comfort, and assurance, depend on his sacred influences. They have been urged to examine themselves as to their personal experience of these things; and they have been solemnly assured, that if there be not an effectual work of the Spirit on their hearts, ‘they cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ Multitudes in every age have received these as sacred truths and are well persuaded, that they have found them realised in their experience: but all these things are called in question by some; they look upon them as ‘cunningly devised fables’, as incredible, irrational, and unintelligible notions.” [1]
The Jews had the word of God, and inspired tradition, and reason and sense. They diligently studied their Old Testament Scriptures. And yet the Spirit of God rejected them. So too we who have the New Testament, but if only the letter, if we only philosophise about it, without the Holy Spirit bringing us to obedience to the Lord Jesus of whom the Scriptures testify (John 5:39-40), we are no better than them, who though “they call themselves Jews, and are not, are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9) Or to put it another way, the word without the Spirit is dead spirituality.

Pentecostalism and false spirituality

The subject of the Spirit matters so enormously because there are so many conflicting messages about the work of the Spirit. The world itself is full of differing views about ‘spirituality’ and unfortunately, so is the church. And we are told to take warning. There is only one true and living Spirit, God's holy Spirit. Consequently, there is only one true gospel, one message in Christianity, one teaching from God. But in the church today we see multiple conflicting teachings about the Spirit, so that as foretold, faithful Christians need to hold their leaders to the test.

The Pentecostal movement boasts of living and vibrant spirituality, but runs head long into the risk of false spirituality. It was the Holy Spirit speaking to the church of Sardis who said, “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Pentecostals and charismatic Christians should take care not to ignore this warning, because confidence in an emphasis on the Spirit’s work is misplaced confidence. The more the claim to the Spirit’s work, the more careful testing required. The only thing that counts for true spirituality is “listening to” the Apostles (1 John 4:6): “This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”

A Pentecostal may happily affirm that the ‘word without the Spirit’ is dead spirituality, but equally so the ‘Spirit without the word’ is false spirituality. The charismatic emphasis on direct and immediate revelation from the Holy Spirit in separation from and in isolation to the word of the Scriptural gospel puts Pentecostalism into this very camp.

Many Pentecostal 'prophets' speak in the name of the Lord, claiming to be inspired by God’s Spirit. But much of their teaching fails to listen to the Apostolic doctrine of the New Testament Scriptures. They are therefore, loathed as I am to admit it, false teachers. The 'full gospel' of 'divine healing' teachers and the 'prosperity gospel' of the 'Word of Faith' movement are obvious and stark examples.

But of more broad relevance is the two-tiered Christianity of everyday Pentecostalism. This comes from 'second-blessing' teachers, who insist on the importance of a subsequent step in Christian experience from conversion/sanctification (in order to receive the full work of the Spirit in power). This teaching puts mainstream Pentecostal preachers squarely into the realm of false teaching because this is a different doctrine(and indeed a different gospel) from what we are given by the Apostles as inspired by God through the pages of the New Testament. All Christians today should take great care to ‘test' this spirit to find out whether or not this is really from the Lord, who said "I will pour out my Spirit on all..." (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).

Again I quote the Apostle John:
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:6).

Owen, John. The Holy Spirit--His Gifts and Power. Christian Focus Publications 2004, p. 47-54.

[1] Ibid, p. 54.

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