by Bob Wheeler

Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

The Role of the Holy Spirit

    In our last blog post we saw that Paul viewed the salvation of the Corinthians as a matter of God “choosing” and “calling” them, and that the rationale behind election is to ensure that no human being can boast before God. But that still leaves open the question of how that actually takes place. What exactly is it that God does to “call” them?

    It is at this point that Paul describes his own ministry, and he begins by stressing what it was not. “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God” (I Cor. 2:1; NKJV). Here he is undoubtedly comparing himself with the Greek Sophists, with whom the Corinthians were all too familiar. The Sophists valued logic and rhetoric for their own sake, and sometimes put them to dishonorable use. But to hear Paul tell it, he was anything but an impressive orator. “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (v. 3).

    How, then, did he get results? “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that you faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (vv. 4,5). Here Paul draws an explicit contrast between natural means (“persuasive words of human wisdom”) and supernatural ones (“the power of God”), and he states that the basis for their faith was the latter. They were converted by the action of the Holy Spirit.

    But what did the Holy Spirit do to convert them, and why was it necessary? Paul goes on to describe the process of divine inspiration. Christianity is a revealed religion – God Himself must reveal truths to us which are otherwise inaccessible to human reason. And so Pauls says that he got his message by divine inspiration. Moreover, the Holy Spirit was somehow operative in Paul’s preaching. “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” or perhaps as it might better be translated, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” (NASV; cf. NIV, Amp.).

    But there is a problem here. Not everyone can understand and appreciate spiritual truths. “But the natural man does not receive the things of the “Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14; NKJV). Here the text speaks directly to the issue of human inability: “nor can he know them.” The natural man lacks spiritual discernment; this is why he “does not receive the things of the Spirit.” They reject the Gospel because they are spiritually blind.

    Which brings us back to the main point that Paul is making in this passage. It is wrong to exalt the human preacher because he is not the effective agent in conversion. “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (I Cor. 3:5-7). Strictly speaking their conversion was the result of what the Holy Spirit did, not the human preacher. This is what we mean by “irresistible grace.”

    There is an important lesson here for preachers as well. Success in the ministry depends on the activity of the Holy Spirit. The English Puritan preacher John Flavel summed it up well when he said, “Ministers, saith one, are like trumpets which make no sound, if breath be not breathed into them . . . For want [lack] of the Spirit of God how many thousands of souls do find the ministry to be nothing to them?” (Works, Vol. II, p. 58). Is this not the lack in the ministry today? How rarely do we see the message take hold of a congregation? How rarely do we see deep conviction, tears of repentance, and joy at newfound salvation? And yet that is the effect that Paul’s ministry had. Writing to the Thessalonians he could say, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and much assurance . . . and you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit . . .” (I Thess. 1:5,6). Oh that it were so with us today! Souls are perishing and society is crumbling, while the church is languishing under a weak and powerless ministry. When will we recognize our need, get on our knees and pray, and beg God to return and bless us?