In the Academy of the Holy Spirit The Holy Spirit and spiritual growth
Nowadays much is written not only about economic growth or growth in car-use, but also growth in faith receives increasing attention. Conferences dealing with the latter can be assured of wide interest.
In many congregations, growth projects are started up, where over the course of a number of weeks relevant topics are intensively dealt with in the preaching and in discussion groups.
We can say many good things about this increased interest in growth of faith. The Heidelberg catechism underlines on more than one occasion that God’s children may never be content with the “status quo”. True faith manifests itself in growth. It is all about “more and more” as our instruction book repeatedly points out. We are more and more renewed after God’s image (HC answer 115). We pray that we may more and more submit to God (HC answer 123). We learn to become more and more aware of our sinful nature (HC answer 115). We desire more and more to amend our life (HC answer 81). We are more and more united with Christ (HC answer 76). We more and more die to sin (HC answer 70).
This emphasis on spiritual growth is fully scriptural. The Scriptures in many places teach us that we may not become stagnant, but that there may and must be progress in our life of faith. Paul speaks of growing up into Christ, our Head (Eph. 4:15), of growing in faith (2 Thess. 1:3) and a being changed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). Peter speaks of becoming holy in all your conduct (1 Peter 1:15) and of an increase in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). And in Revelation 22:11 we hear that whoever is holy, let him be holier still.
Conferences are held, projects are started in congregations, books emerge about the knowledge of Christ. In the middle of it all however, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that our confession also clearly points out which means the Holy Spirit is pleased to use for our growth in faith and obedience. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 25 points to the preaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments. If we want to grow spiritually, than it is not conferences and group discussions which come into focus in the first place, but church services where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered to us. Growth in faith goes hand in hand with faithful church attendance, in faith hearing the preached Word and taking part in the sacraments. We do injustice to the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit when we busily attend conference after conference but are neglectful in our church attendance and in the afternoons leave our seats in church vacant.
It always strikes me how the Canons of Dort have the chapter dealing with rebirth and repentance end with a paragraph (IV,17) which makes a strong appeal for us to use the means by which the Holy Spirit wishes to work His power in and through us. The Canons thereby point to the proclamation of the Word, the sacraments and church discipline, stating that: “For grace is conferred through admonitions, and the more readily we do our duty, the more this favour of God who works in us, usually manifests itself in its lustre, and so his work best proceeds.”
The recipe for spiritual growth is simply first and foremost: to church, to the preaching of the Word, to baptism and Holy Supper! That is where the Spirit works and consolidates faith (See answer 65 HC).
Many publications dealing with growth of faith pay very little attention to the darker side of life. Several evangelical frontmen now come to acknowledge that they have portrayed Christian life somewhat one-sidedly, as one of pure joy and victory. There has been too little recognition of the fact that Paul speaks also of the groaning of God’s children (Rom. 8:23), that whoever believes will be subject to many tribulations (Acts 14:22) and that God’s children can also be sad (1 Thess. 4:13, 2 Cor. 6:10).
It is surprising that the New Testament views especially that sorrow, as a means to growth in faith! You could say that when we are afflicted by sadness we become cadets in the academy of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, his training ground is first and foremost in church, when Word and sacraments are being administered. But the Holy Spirit by extension also has another special academy. That is the academy to which Paul, James and Peter refer when they speak of suffering and trials, showing how it is that God’s children may learn from these. Whatever we may have been taught in church and have believed, is then personally lived and learned. Thus grows a certain experience of which Psalm 46 testifies when it confesses: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”.
Martin Luther especially saw temptation and affliction as special means in God’s hand to help us progress in the way of faith. The reformer writes: “Beyond the suffering, which would separate us from Him as would a wall, he stands hidden, observing me. He cannot avert his eyes from me. He stands in the shadows, ready at any moment to come to my aid in his grace. He reveals himself through the portal of a dark faith.” Luther sees trials and sufferings fully in the light of God’s love for his children. They make “the best medicine”, for these are an effective means to bring us to humility and dependence. Especially when our lives pass through deep valleys, we learn what it is to pray, trust and wait on the Lord. And thus Luther is able to say “Faith amounts to nothing when we bask in prosperity. I can only learn to believe when surrounded by death and when sin and hunger seek to devour me”.
What Luther is saying here, we find back in the book of Psalms, where we discover the lessons taught us in the academy of the Holy Spirit. David sang his greatest songs under the most trying of circumstances. The ultimate song of faith time and again sounds forth especially from the depths! That is where God’s children learn to seek and to knock (Matt. 7) and eventually to find.
Thus we are beginning to fathom the words of the reformer: “No one ought to think that he is able to pray without fear and desperation. That is why our cross (our suffering) is a great treasure”.
What Are We Learning
Paul proclaims to us in Romans 5:3 and 4 what it is that we may learn in the academy of the Holy Spirit. There we read “and not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance and perseverance, character, and character, hope”. The Spirit uses suffering to teach us perseverance. The Greek word used here by the apostle means so much as stamina or ability to carry. Like an athlete is hardened through training, gaining in endurance, so we learn to persevere through trying circumstances: not to give up. We discover that marvellous secret: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13 NKJV).
Secondly, we receive through this learning process trustworthiness. As Christian you are tested. You sustain the test and thereby prove to be a true believing child of God. That which Peter calls the genuineness of faith (1 Peter 1:7) comes to light. Your faith becomes the proof of its genuineness. It does not disappoint but shows that you really trust in the Lord and hold his hand. This in turn makes you stronger in that third thing Paul mentions: hope. He who under sadness perseveres in faith, looks with even greater trust to the day on which God will wipe away the tears of his children, when they will share in his glory. He knows together with the apostle that the sufferings of these days do not compare to the glory, which will be revealed (Rom. 8:18). James also points to the blessed results of suffering. He names patience as fruit of testings, but adds what patience in turn may lead to. For he writes: “But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4 NKJV). What James wants to say is: spiritual maturity comes by way of testings. Your faith is deepened and becomes visible. This goes hand in hand with the bearing of fruit in your life. This does not remain unfinished, but results in pure and undefiled religion as James calls it in verse 27.
In conclusion Peter also exclaims how the Lord works in us through trials. Suffering for God’s children is like the crucible of the goldsmith (1 Peter 1:7). Our faith is subjected to a refining process. It is cleansed from insincere and ulterior motives. That process has as its aim to bring out the genuineness of our faith, to bring to the fore its true nature. Such as it was with Abraham, concerning whom the Lord, after he had laid Isaac upon the altar, said: “Now I know that you fear God …” (Gen. 22:12 NKJV).
The Motive of Joy
There is yet another thing which we need to mention in this context. I think of how foreign it is that Paul and James speak so appreciatively of suffering. For Paul speaks of glorying in tribulations (Rom. 5:3). The ESV even says the following: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings.”And James calls out to us: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” (James 2:1 NKJV). Is this not overly spiritual? Do we not find ourselves more in what Peter writes, when he speaks of being grieved by various trials (1 Peter 1:6)?
Happily, Paul and James are not saying that we must be happy because of the suffering, which assails us. This very clearly is about joy and gladness in the midst of and during trials. Such a disposition is possible and real when we see our suffering in connection with the Lord and in recognition of his academy. James especially points to this. He motivates his call by writing: For you know to what end your troubles serve! (James 1:3). They do not come upon you without reason, but they come from God’s hand to serve his loving purpose. Suffering occurs as part of a growth process. The Holy Spirit uses it to teach us and continually to bring forth his fruits in us (Gal. 5:22).
Whoever realises that, knows himself happy in the midst of suffering, for he knows that the Lord is at work in him, using hardship to make us share in his holiness (Heb. 12:10).
How wonderful it is that we have the book of Psalms in the Bible! Especially when we enter as cadets into the academy of the Holy Spirit, this Bible book speaks to us. With it (to echo Luther), we look into the hearts of saints, enjoying full communion with them. There we learn how God’s children endure troubles, lament, sigh and cry out. We hear how they, despite all sadness, yet find refuge with the Lord and find their anchor in his Word. When our soul is burdened, the poets of the Psalms call out to us to hope in God. In the Psalms we see before us how the Spirit, through trials, works perseverance, triumph and hope.
This may give us encouragement when we are burdened. The saints surround us in the book of Psalms. They followed the same academy. Look how they progress, find the light and emerge richer, growing in faith!
On top of that we, New Testament believers, have the power and example of our Redeemer with us. He too learned (though never assailed by sin) in the academy of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 5:8). Especially when our endurance is at stake, we need to focus our eyes on him (Heb. 12:1). He is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). He led the way for us and gives us strength to follow that way. At the same time he demonstrated what it is to have faith and how we are to follow that way.
We travel with the Son of the Father on board. We must not be surprised when a storm hits us (Matt 8:23-27). But let us in the middle of the storm, hear his call: “Why are you afraid, o you of little faith?!”