In our midweek Advent services this year, we are
focusing each week on one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity and how that
person is confessed in the articles of the creed. Tonight we look most closely
at God the Holy Spirit.
Now, if the Holy Spirit had human tendencies, he might
not want to associate with Lutherans. That’s because even though we give Him
plenty of ink in our confessional documents, in actual practice many Lutherans
tend to shortchange the Holy Spirit and the importance of His work.
Thankfully, the Spirit isn’t susceptible to our weaknesses. He doesn’t hold a
grudge against us on account of our neglect.
We really ought to be a lot more aware of the Holy
Spirit, though, because when it comes to saving faith, the Spirit is the first
person of the Trinity whom we encounter. A person may come to believe that
there is a Creator God from the evidence of the natural world around them, but
no one comes to a correct understanding of God the Father—indeed, no one comes
to the Father at all—except through Jesus Christ, the Son. And we Lutherans do
confess that it is the Holy Spirit that works to generate and strengthen faith
in Jesus as the full and acceptable sacrifice for our sins.
Yet in spite of our confession of the Holy Spirit, we
often avoid discussing the Spirit in any real depth. That’s probably because
of a few reasons.
For one thing, most of us don’t want to make the theological
error of thinking that the Holy Spirit just “zaps” people into faith
willy-nilly or due to their own actions or preparations. Lutherans try to keep
in mind our understanding that the Holy Spirit has chosen to bind himself to
work through the proclaimed Word and the Sacraments to generate and sustain
that faith in Christ.
For another thing, it’s sort of difficult to
intellectually grasp the concept of the Holy Spirit, isn’t it? We can form a working
concept of God the Father in our minds somewhat easily, not only from our own
experience in seeing earthly fathers, but also in impressions we formed in
reading the Old Testament and equating the Yahweh God of Israel with the Father
written of in the New. The old man with long, flowing white hair and beard may
come to mind. And the Son is also more easily grasped, given the incarnation
of God in Jesus Christ—a physical human being of whom many artists have
generated visual images, too.
But the Spirit isn’t so easy. For some, the more
common former term, the Holy Ghost, may have been better, or it may have been
worse. So prevalent in our society are ideas of a ghost or spirit being some
sort of white, shadowy mist wafting through the air, that we run the risk of
turning God the Holy Spirit into a caricature of sorts.
It seems that Martin Luther understood our challenges
in comprehending the Holy Spirit and His work, and perhaps Luther struggled
with his own understanding. Though the Small Catechism devotes approximately
the same amount of space to each of the explanations of the three articles of
the Apostles’ Creed, in the Large Catechism Luther devotes more space to
explain the Third Article than he does to the explanations of the First and
Second articles combined.
According to Luther, two things need to be understood
about the word, “Holy” as it applies to the Holy Spirit. First, that only God’s
Spirit is considered holy. Second, that in being holy, the Holy Spirit carries
out the work of sanctifying; that is, making other things holy. And “holy”
does not merely mean pure and clean, although that’s certainly one of the
important aspects and outcomes of the Holy Spirit’s work. More broadly, our
holiness is a “setting apart,” a removal from the ordinary and the receiving of
a unique status.
We receive this status—this sanctification which gives
and sustains our Christian faith—not by God the Father speaking to us from a
cloud or burning bush, not by God the Son calling us from our nets along the
seashore or from a tax booth. Rather, our sanctification begins and continues
in that entity which is the work of the Holy Spirit, that which we confess in
this Third Article: within the holy Christian church, the communion of saints.
It is in that holy Christian church that we find those
things the Spirit gives to provide us the forgiveness of sins—the Gospel
proclaimed; the Gospel declared, the Gospel splashed, and the Gospel eaten and
drank. All to prepare us and give us a confident faith in the resurrection of
the body and the life everlasting.
You see, while it is faith in Jesus’ death and
resurrection that is the linchpin of our salvation, that faith does not arise
out of nothingness, and it certainly does not spring forth from your or my
corrupt hearts. It must be conveyed to us in the preaching of the Word and the
administration of the Sacraments, or else it would remain inaccessible to us.
The Holy Spirit first brings Jesus to us, and then, according to His own
purpose and timing, brings us to Jesus—not the other way around.
It should be little wonder to us, then, that apart
from preaching of the true Word—that message which was inspired by none
other than the Holy Spirit—there can be no true Christianity, no faith, no
salvation. Those that preach contrary to God’s word are preaching contrary to
the Holy Spirit, and are therefore opposed to God. You begin to understand,
then, how St. Paul could be so vehement about preaching Christ crucified, and
not simply Christ the wise, Christ the miracle worker, or Christ the
victorious. Only where Christ crucified is proclaimed are Christians made by
the Holy Spirit, and only where Christ crucified is confessed are they kept in
the community of saints.
There’s been a trend in Christianity over the past
century or so to move away from the confessing of the creeds, or even some
attempts to re-write them locally for particular individual congregations. You
probably have even heard it said, “It’s deeds, not creeds, that are
What terrible, tragic errors these are. Other than
the Bible, which is of course the sole source and norm of all that we believe,
the creeds that have been passed down to us by those of the early church are
our most certain, most tangible connection to the communion of saints into
which we have been baptized and now belong. Does any one individual have the
insight to more clearly describe God and God’s work than what the collective
wisdom of the Church has developed, accepted, and continued to faithfully confess
What’s more, last I checked, “deeds” were works, and
“creeds” were statements of belief, so rejection of the creeds and the eternal
truths confessed within them are nothing less than a rejection of the way of
salvation which the Bible teaches us—that of faith and not of works.
Thanks be to God that you have been rescued from error
and unbelief by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we have learned, He has “called
you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in
the one, true faith,” and led you into His communion of saints, the Holy
Christian Church. Within her divine walls, protected by the Spirit, you will
dwell in faith until your dying day, forgiven all your sins through the
Spirit’s gifts of Word and Sacrament.
Luther’s high view of the Holy Spirit and the Third
Article of the Creed led him to conclude his teaching on the Spirit in the
Large Catechism as follows:
“This, then, is the article which must always remain
in force. Creation is past and redemption is accomplished, but the Holy Spirit
carries on His work unceasingly until the last day. For this purpose He has
appointed a community on earth, through which He speaks and does all His work.
For He has not yet gathered all His Christian people, nor has He completed the
granting of forgiveness. Therefore, believe in Him who daily brings us into
this community through the Word, and imparts, increases, and strengthen faith
through the same Word and the forgiveness of sins. Then when His work is finished
and we abide in it, having died to the world and all evil, He will finally make
us perfectly and eternally holy. We now wait in faith for this to be
accomplished through the Word.”
This is our continual Advent, then—awaiting not just
the celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Awaiting not just the coming
of our Lord and Savior as judge of all on the last day. Rather, waiting in
prayer and repentance for the Holy Spirit to work on you each day, that you
might be continually cleansed, forgiven, strengthened, and equipped to serve
your God and the communion of saints, until life everlasting is yours. Amen.