Reality: Chapter 4
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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The Holy Spirit and Evangelism
Many churches have recently begun to take an enlarged interest in evangelism.
This is being done with both a sense of urgency and chastened humility. The
urgency arises partly from the nature of the gospel itself- -that it calls for
reaching the unreached- -and also from the desperate need of the world for the
message of redemption. The chastened humility stems from our candid recognition
that we have not been making much progress. Here and there good results may
be pointed to, but the overall picture is one of little lasting success. Still
we know that we cannot give up, and so in many places fresh efforts at evangelism
are again under way.
In this situation I would urge the importance of doing some basic thinking
about the Holy Spirit and evangelism. For here, I am convinced, is the fundamental
area that needs careful reflection. This has been so since the church first
began to bear witness to the Gospel. Let us turn to the New Testament record
where the first proclamation goes forth and examine the connection between evangelism
and the Holy Spirit.
It is apparent that the Holy Spirit and evangelistic witness are closely related.
This close relationship is evident both on the basis of the words of Jesus,
"You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you
shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8), and the fact that after the Holy Spirit
did come (according to Acts 2) the witness of the early church was effective.
The connection is quite clear: only the coming of the Holy Spirit to those who
were to be witnesses for Christ made the work of evangelism possible.
It would also seem to be obvious from the record that what the Holy Spirit
supplied was power: "You shall receive power...." This, the disciples
were told, they had to have; they could not proclaim the message in their own
strength- -nor even with a heightening or deepening of their own capacities.
They must receive power from "on high" (Luke 24:49)- -transcendent,
supernatural power to do the job. The necessity for this was undeniable, for
the task of evangelistic witness was that of bringing people to genuine repentance
and to a new life in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). Natural means were insufficient;
only the power of God could break through human self-sufficiency and create
a new beginning. So it was with the early church: it is hardly different today.
This brings me to the matter of my specific concern. Do we as a church today-
-as ministers, as laymen, as individuals- -have that power? This question by
no means tends to minimize many other important matters, such as the most adequate
means of communicating the message, the connection between word and deed, evangelism
and its relation to the total mission of the church, but it does seek to focus
on what is essential. Do we have that power, or, to use the words of Acts 1,
have we "received" it? Surely if we are lacking here, everything else-
-no matter how sincerely, vigorously, even relevantly done- -is to no avail.
To return to earlier remarks about "chastened humility": I believe
that we are coming to admit frankly that we are wanting in that power. What
happened on the Day of Pentecost was that they were "filled with the Holy
Spirit" (Acts 2:4), and thereby empowered. Here is where we as a church
feel our serious need: we are not so filled, we are empty- -and powerless.
Now I should like to do a brief re-examining of the record in Acts and raise
three basic questions: first, who were they who received the Holy Spirit,
what was required for this to occur, and what was it like when
it happened? These, I believe, are important matters that point the way to a
new power. If so, we need to grapple with them, and ask how the answers apply
to us today.
In reply to the first question: those who received the Holy Spirit were true
believers in Jesus Christ. According to Acts 1, it was the eleven apostles,
later supplemented by over a hundred others, to whom the promise was given.
The gathering was wholly of "brethren" (v. 16) in Christ. They all
were waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. It is important to note that the
gathered disciples had lived through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This
meant death to their old selves and the rising of new persons. Peter may symbolically
represent all, for in his bitter tears of contrition the old proud self was
broken through and a new Peter of true repentance and faith was born. To such
a Peter- -and the others with him- -now forgiven by God's grace, the Spirit
was promised. The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, could thereupon be received.
It is striking to observe that Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost brought
people to a deep conviction of sin: they were "cut to the heart" (Acts
2:37). They knew and admitted their terrible guilt of having put to death the
Messiah- -and out of that shattering experience they came to true faith in Jesus
Christ. The word of Peter to them is sharply etched: "Repent, and be baptized
every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins:
and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2:38). Here, again,
to those who pass through a life-transforming repentance and faith, wherein
the grace of God's forgiveness is realized, the Holy Spirit is promised. Only
such truly changed- -or converted- -persons could possibly receive the promised
Hence, it is to be emphasized today that those who similarly believe are in
a position to receive the Holy Spirit- -and, empowered thereby, to do the work
of evangelism. We dare not overlook or disregard this simple but essential fact.
What happened to Peter and the others was a passing from death to life. They
had come through an overwhelming conviction of sin (Peter weeping bitterly,
the multitude "cut to the heart") to a life-renewing repentance and
faith. Only this radical and revolutionary change could prepare the way for
the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Surely it must be the same today. Only radically changed people- -true believers-
-can be used by God to change others. True believers are simply not to be identified
with church membership. "All that hear the Gospel, and live in the visible
church, are not saved: but only those who are true members of the church invisible."1
Salvation and church membership are not the same thing- -nor, to be blunter,
is ordination to the ministry, office in the church, or even teaching in a seminary
(!)2 any assurance of true faith.
If we are to evangelize we must be evangelized; if we are to help others to
pass from death to life we must have made the passage ourselves. There is no
substitute for this: the conversion of the church must precede the conversion
of the world.3
The primary thing therefore that we must do is to ask ourselves, who are
we who are talking about evangelistic witness? Is it possible that some
of our failures in this realm have been due to a far too facile assumption that
we are believers- -in the radical New Testament sense of the word- -but actually
are not? If such is the case, our evangelism must begin at home, for unless
we have truly appropriated the divine forgiveness through repentance and faith,
we cannot witness to others.
Our second question is: What was required for the Holy Spirit to come? Here
we must be careful in our answer, for in one sense nothing was required: it
was "the promise of the Father" which He would generously bring to
fulfillment. It was to be at His time, not theirs; it was to be His gift, not
their achievement. Accordingly, they could do nothing to cause it to happen.
They could no more produce the outpouring of the Holy Spirit than they could
bring about salvation.
But, on the other hand, much was required. They had to "wait"- -and
the waiting called for prayer, much prayer. So, we read further, "they
devoted themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14). This was not to cause the Holy
Spirit to come, for such were impossible, but for them to be prepared for the
moment (known only to God) when they would be ready to receive.
Nothing is said in Acts about the nature of what they prayed. However, that
it was persevering supplication day in and day out is unmistakable. Though the
disciples did other things than pray,4
their devotion was to prayer; it was the center of their existence together.
Moreover, it was not just prayer in general; it was rather for one very specific
matter: the coming of the Holy Spirit. This they knew full well they had to
have, for without the power of the Spirit they would never be able to witness
for Jesus Christ. So it was expectant, faithful, even needful prayer.
What the disciples did in waiting before Pentecost may have been pointed to
by Jesus in these words:
"Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and
it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks
finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.... If you then, who are evil,
know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly
Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" (Luke 11:9-10, 13).
The need for persisting in prayer, continuous asking for the Holy Spirit, is
vividly emphasized. Ask, and keep on asking, seek, and keep on seeking, knock,
and keep on knocking5- -as those
who believe this gift to be so important that they tirelessly pray for it. For
God is one who delights to give what His children truly desire. Such is the
way in which He gives His Holy Spirit.
I am quite convinced that none of this suits us too well: prayer over a protracted
period of time like the disciples before Pentecost, or asking, seeking, knocking-
-God alone knows for how long. We're too busy for this, and it sounds so very
impractical; anyhow would it really make any difference? Aren't we reminded
in our secular, fast-moving age that "God is where the action is,"
not in a prayer closet? Shouldn't we be busy doing things for the kingdom,
trusting the Holy Spirit is somehow already with us? No, none of this suits
us very much. Maybe, however, there comes a day (could it be even now?) when
we begin to suspect that much of our activity is pretty superficial, and that
as a people we stand in serious need. It is then we may be driven back to basic
things, and pray as we have never prayed before, something like this: "Come,
Holy Spirit. Fill us with Your power that we may witness effectively for Jesus
Christ in this present age."
We come finally to our third question: What was it like when the Holy Spirit
came? What happened at Pentecost- -out of which the power to witness was born?
To answer this question properly is not easy, but I do believe it has tremendous
importance for the whole church. If we know, we may have further incentive to
seek- -or, God forbid, turn almost fearfully away.
My own church has put the question this way: "Can we expect something
as elevating as the disciples' experience on the Day of Pentecost? Need our
experience of the Holy Spirit be accompanied by exactly the same descriptive
events: the sound of a mighty wind and tongues of flame?"6
I should like to suggest that whether "as elevating as the disciples' experience"
or not, we can expect something "elevating" indeed, and if not "exactly
the same descriptive events" as mighty wind and tongues of flame, that
essentially the same thing can happen now. It may carry us beyond what
we are accustomed to, hence there may be some uncertainty. But if we are willing
to venture, it can be an experience of great richness and meaning.
Let us look carefully at the account in Acts. Jesus had said that the Holy
Spirit would "come upon" His disciples ("when the Holy Spirit
has come upon you" Acts 1:8), and when this did happen at Pentecost it
was an overwhelming event. The Holy Spirit, for whom they had been waiting and
praying, suddenly, unexpectedly came and filled the place where they were gathered.
It was as unmistakable as the rushing of a mighty wind. Yet they knew it was
God- -His Holy Spirit- -surrounding them on every side, present in unlimited
manner. They were, to change the figure, bathed in His presence: as by a refreshing
on high.7 God was there- -in
But that was only a part of the experience, and as rich as it was, there was
more to come. This same Holy Spirit who filled the house now rested upon each
one of them in vivid fashion, like "a tongue of fire," and then, to
climax it all, He moved within- -and filled them too. God was present without
and within. The wind without was now a wind within, racing through their total
selves. What followed was as extraordinary as all else: they "began to
speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4).
Now let us pause to catch our breath for a moment. Do we sense what it is all
about- -even if we are a bit staggered perhaps? To be sure, the coming of God's
Spirit is ultimately indescribable, since it is God Himself moving in a new
and powerful way into the human situation which has been made ready. "Wind"
and "fire" are only earthly symbols of an altogether unearthly happening,
but what occurred is unmistakable. The Holy Spirit had come upon and into
the waiting disciples- -and taken complete possession. So full were they
with the Spirit that when they first began to speak, it was the Spirit who gave
the words. Their tongues were flooded by the reality of God. Some have called
this "ecstatic" speech or language8-
-but, however named, any human expression is a feeble analogy (like "wind"
and "fire") of the inexpressible. For when God comes in His Spirit,
a whole constellation of the extraordinary is set up, and no description really
suffices. The point would follow that only those who experience this same Pentecostal
reality can understand: for all others it is mystification indeed.
So it was on the Day of Pentecost. The assembled audience, knowing nothing
of the background or reason for what was happening, and arriving on the scene
when the disciples had begun to speak in "other tongues," were utterly
baffled. Many of them, however, heard in their own tongues the disciples "telling...the
mighty works of God" (2: 11). It was the praise of God, praise offered
in multiple tongues by the Spirit through the disciples' speech; it was as if
all the world9 were glorifying
God for His wondrous deeds. To be sure the multitude listening were amazed and
astounded. Some with less spiritual perceptivity categorized the "other
tongues" as so much drunken gibberish ("They are filled with new wine").
But there can be little question: the disciples were not filled with wine, but
filled with the Spirit. And the language they spoke was not irrational nonsense,
but language given by the Spirit to the praise and glory of God.
We come now to the result. Out of this experience of the fullness of God's
presence which overflowed in spiritual praise, the disciples proclaimed the
message about Jesus Christ. Peter immediately thereafter spoke in the common
language of all assembled, but his speech was not the same as before Pentecost.
It was now laden with power- -spiritual power. It was not great oratory or "enticing
words of man's wisdom,"10
but it was in "tongues of fire" lighted by the Holy Spirit. The amazing
conclusion: a great number -some three thousand-that very day came to salvation.
Now, having rehearsed the familiar story of Pentecost, I make bold to say that
what happened there needs also essentially to happen to us if we are to an effective
job of evangelism. Of course we are not to try to go back nineteen centuries
and seek to re-live the situation in Jerusalem (such were an exercise in fantasy);
I do believe, however, that it is becoming increasingly clear to us in the church
that we desperately need an outpouring of God's Spirit as at Pentecost. We may
talk much about repentance, expectancy, prayer: but what does it all signify?
I shall try to specify what I believe it means. Above all it is a recognition
that we need to be visited by the reality of God in such fashion that we know
His full presence. To replace our emptiness must come His fullness: to awaken
our spirits we need His Holy Spirit. When this really happens, His Spirit
creates in our spirit such praise and thanksgiving that the deepest and richest
utterances are of His devising, not ours. Furthermore, emerging therefrom will
be a heightened joy in the use of ordinary speech to glorify His name and the
power to witness in such fashion that men and women will come to hear and believe.
If this statement seems to be a bit radical, this is intentionally the case.
For we live in a day in which the world never more needed to hear the message
of salvation, but at the same time seems to be less interested in, or open to,
what the church has to say. We need undoubtedly to speak a more relevant language,
to find points of contact wherever possible, to reevaluate our patterns and
procedures - -on and on. But, our primary need is for power: the
power of God's Holy Spirit which alone can lead men to a deep conviction of
sin and to faith in Jesus Christ.
Here, then, briefly by way of summary: first, our churches- -that means all
of us, pastors, teachers, laymen alike- -need a candid re-evaluation of who
we are. Are we "true members," that is, have we truly known and
appropriated God's work of redemption? Have we existentially been led by God's
Spirit into such conviction of sin that we have cried out for God's mercy in
Jesus Christ? Have we received God's gracious forgiveness- -or been satisfied
just to talk about it, or maybe forget it altogether? Without this salvation
there can be no effective witness for Jesus Christ.
Second, wherever and whenever people come to a life-transforming repentance
and faith, they are then in a position to wait and pray for the power of God's
Holy Spirit. Have we become so preoccupied with other matters (even preaching,
teaching, and many, many other good things!), or so caught up in the activism
of our day that we are not willing to pay the price of persistent asking, seeking,
and knocking? Without this prayerful waiting there can be no effective witness
for Jesus Christ.
Third, the conclusion of such expectant prayer, by God's grace, can be the
extraordinary, amazing event of Pentecost in our own generation. Have we been
somewhat confused about it in the past (all this business of "wind"
and "fire"- -and especially "tongues"!), and maybe a little
fearful about what the Holy Spirit would do if He really took over in our lives?
The marvel, however, is that when God's Spirit does lay hold of people, they
are moved to a new level of praise and thanksgiving- -and the power of Almighty
God begins to flow through in all they do. Without this power there can be
no effective witness for Jesus Christ.
The church of Jesus Christ, thus redeemed, expectant, and empowered, can once
again proclaim the Gospel in such manner that Christ may be lifted up and the
world today find new hope and new life.
1. Quotation from Westminster Larger Catechism,
2. Karl Barth wittily but trenchantly suggests
that the theologian, for all his "high-flown contemplation, explication,
meditation, and application," might even be "unenlightened, unconverted,
and uncontrollably corrupted," Evangelical Theology, pp. 83-94.
3. Bonhoeffer writes of the need for "the
Church's conversion and purgation." Thereafter, he adds, "men will
be called to utter the word of God with such power as will change and renew
the world," Prisoner for God, p. 140.
4. The election of an apostle to succeed
Judas occurred during their days of prayer (1: 15-26). This would suggest that
their devotion to prayer by no means excluded other activity.
5. This is the actual meaning of the Greek
words used in this passage.
6. Guide to "Call to Repentance and
Expectancy," Study 6 (Presbyterian Church, U.S., 1965). Two other questions
in the Guide relate to what has just been discussed: "Have we left our
upper rooms prematurely? How long should we engage in prayer and expectation
before moving out to witness?"
7. Jesus also spoke of the coming of the
Holy Spirit as a "baptism"- -"Before many days you shall be baptized
with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). Peter describes the event, in his sermon
at Pentecost, as an "outpouring" ("He [Jesus] has poured out
this which you see and hear" Acts 2:33). The various terminology of "filling,"
"baptism," "outpouring," etc., all point to the totality
of God's spiritual presence with the disciples. The word "refreshing"
is found in Acts 3:19, "...that times of refreshing may come from the presence
of the Lord."
8. E.g., Paul Tillich writes of "the
disciples' ecstatic speaking with tongues" at Pentecost (Systematic
Theology, vol. 3, p. 151). It is interesting that the New English Bible
translates Paul's words in 1 Corinthians about "speaking in tongues"
as "using the language of ecstasy" (14:2 and elsewhere). Though the
word "ecstasy" does point to an experience of joyous intensity- -which
doubtless was there- -the term is misleading for two reasons: first, "ecstasy"
is a highly emotional word and implies a kind of uncontrollable mystical frenzy;
second, the word suggests a human mood of high elevation- -a going "beyond
oneself." The record in Acts points to neither: the disciples are fully
in control of themselves (indeed, for the first time, from Pentecost on!), and
it is not that they have been lifted up to a high pitch: it is rather
than the Spirit has come down and permeated their lives.
9. In Luke's words, "Devout men from
every nation under heaven...each one heard them speaking in his
own language." Thus it was the universal praise of God represented in the
10. To borrow Paul's language in 1 Corinthians
Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. New York: Holt,
Rinehart, and Winston, 1963
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison.
New York: Macmillan, 1958.
Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago
Westminster Larger Catechism. See The School of Faith: The Catechisms of
Church, tr. and ed. by Thomas F. Torrance. London: James Clarke and
Co. Ltd., 1959.
Minutes: Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1965. "Call
to Repentance and Expectancy."
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