“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:5-10 NIV).
“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18 NIV).
Let go and let God
It’s time to address the elephant in the room. I know. I know that some of you didn’t even know there was an elephant in the room so let’s start by describing what it looks like and why it is a problem.
The elephant in the room is found in Romans 8: 9 which tells us “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” And just in case you missed it, Paul said earlier in vs. 6 that “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace…” It’s that pesky little word “controlled by” that has everyone wondering what Paul is talking about, especially since he equates it with being a Christian in vs. 9. No middle ground. If you have the Spirit of God within you, the evidence is that you are “controlled by” the Spirit of God.
What in the world does that mean?
I know that we are supposed to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and that we are to be led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14) and, of course, we are to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) but the word “controlled by” the Spirit seems excessive. Since when does God want to control us? I thought he was a gentleman and wanted us to keep our minds and individuality and not just become some mindless robot.
And you would be right. The entire Bible makes it clear that God is not in the business of controlling us in that bad sense of the word, meaning against our will, but rather with our full consent. That’s the whole point of progressive sanctification and our discussion in an earlier post about spiritual maturity based on Romans 12:1,2 where the goal is to agree with God in every instance that His will is “good, pleasing and perfect.”
But the word “controlled” has so many bad connotations that we need to work extra hard to understand exactly what Paul meant, especially since it is the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
One of my favorite authors, J. Robertson McQuilkin, gave some interesting insight from the Keswick perspective about this concept in his contributions to “Five Views on Sanctification” (Stanley N. Gundry, series editor, Zondervan, 1987). He equates this concept of being controlled by the Holy Spirit as the result of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
First of all, he makes it clear that “the beauty and glory of God’s victory in our humanity is that He does not by-pass or replace us. Rather, he renews the new person after the likeness of God Himself (Colossians 3:10)” We need to cooperate with God. That much is clear. After all, that is spiritual maturity.
But still, what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit and, more importantly, how do we cooperate with this “control” that the Spirit wants to have over our will, mind and emotions (what the Bible calls our heart).
Professor McQuilkin gives us three ways to address this question “Have you been filled with the Spirit?” And each of them seems to have some merit but one seems to get closest to the idea of being “controlled by” the Spirit. Let’s take a look.
He starts with the idea of “being filled continually with the Holy Spirit.” In the book of Acts, it tells us that the disciples “were continuously filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52 NIV) and the passage in Ephesians 5:18 which is often translated as “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (as quoted above), in the Greek, gives the idea of “go on being filled” with the Holy Spirit. In that sense, it sounds like a “state or condition,” Professor McQuilkin suggests, almost like saying “filled with joy.”
The problem is that it is easy to interpret this idea subjectively in terms of your feelings rather than in terms of the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, as Professor McQuilkin points out, “one who is filled with the Spirit may have a continuous sense of the divine presence, a gift that must be at the very pinnacle of God’s good gifts (p. 176).
I would agree that being filled with the Holy Spirit is based on faith, hope and love (as we have said before) and that it results in peace and joy which are the first fruits of our new relationship with God. Of course this is a peace that passes all understanding and a joy that knows no bounds. Neither concept can be defined in worldly terms but only in extraordinary terms to describe the life in the Spirit. There is definitely an “emotional” or subjective aspect to life in the Spirit. But there is something more to it than that.
Professor McQuilkin goes on to discuss a second perspective that is also based on the biblical use of being filled with the Spirit in the sense of “personal characteristic” or identification with Christ. It’s like saying that someone is “full of pride,” meaning that the person is characterized by pride in all of his attitudes, actions and motives. “Used in this sense, the expression “filled with the Spirit” would mean that the person was characterized by Godlikeness, by God’s being the predominant person or the pervasive influence in one’s life…Others could watch them and tell that their lives were characterized above all else by their association with God and by the results of that association” (p. 176).
I would agree that this, too, is what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There is no way that someone’s life could be characterized in this way if it were not for the continual presence of God in his or her life. In many ways, this is what Paul (and the rest of Scripture) exhorts us to do with our lives. There is no doubt that this is a significant part of what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Your attitudes, decisions, direction, priorities, values and perspective are all influenced by the presence of God in your life.
So far, so good. The mind needs to be involved. Decisions need to be made. After all, spiritual maturity is about the “transformation of the mind” (Romans 12:2 NIV). But is that all there is to it? Is being influenced by the Holy Spirit where we still are in control and we still make the decisions, the same thing as being “controlled by” the Holy Spirit? Or is there something more?
Professor McQuilkin suggests a third perspective that may also have some bearing on our discussion. He starts by pointing out that when someone is demon possessed, it means something more than that they are characterized by demonic thinking or actions. Being “possessed” meant that you were truly “controlled by” the demonic person and had no will of your own. You were a slave to that spiritual entity at least for a time.
The same could be said of the Holy Spirit but with some caveats. After all, the “domination would be gracious, by invitation only, and would not, like demon-possession, displace or override one’s personal choice” (p. 176, 177). At the same time, it would also mean that “the Holy Spirit dominated, had full control, possessed, exercised imperious claim to the whole being” and therefore would be much closer to the concept of “control” talked about by Paul.
Professor McQuilkin concludes that “this meaning of the term is at least the starting point, for without this relationship of unconditional yielding to the will of God, one does not receive the Holy Spirit to begin with nor benefit by His continuous presence.” In fact, he goes on to say that “this definition of the expression “Spirit-filled” is the one advocated by Keswick teachers, by Campus Crusade for Christ, and by many others” (p. 177).
This is also the concept that Hannah Smith uses in her book “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” which I introduced to you in our last post. And that is the elephant in the room which we are trying to describe. What does it mean to be “controlled” by the Holy Spirit and why is that the evidence of our salvation in the first place.
I agree with this position but I think it is not well-enough defined.
First of all, to say that we are characterized by the influence of God in our life (the second perspective) is not quantitatively different from those who claim that Holy Spirit is the “dominant influence” in their lives (the third perspective). When looked at objectively, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the spiritual maturity, the obedience, or the love of people in either camp.
But qualitatively there may be a good point to be made by this third perspective. After all, if the first perspective is about our emotional transformation by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the second perspective is about the transformation of our mind, then the third perspective can be understood as a transformation of our will. And all three are essential in the biblical concept of the heart – mind, will and emotions.
And in many ways, the will is key.
Professor McQuilkin points out that “one does not receive the Holy Spirit to begin with” if we don’t have a “relationship of unconditional yielding to the will of God.” Of course, you don’t hear much about this now-a-days since there is so little talk of sin and the issue of self-authority that gives sin it’s power in the lives of people. The will is key and an unconditional surrender of the will is key to the Christian life.
But let’s go back a step to look at the bigger picture. Professor McQuilkin is addressing the issue of the subnormal Christian life, one without power to deal with temptation and sin, one that is focused on temporal goals and concerns, one that is not characterized by a consecration to the things of God. Sadly, our churches are full of people just like that who still think that they are Christians. Whether we say that they are “living in the flesh” (which is not really biblically accurate) or simply immature in their faith, something is wrong. Immaturity that is not growing is something more deadly, (or more dead) than what is expected by those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. So let’s agree with Professor McQuilkin in being gracious and calling it a “subnormal Christian life.”
I believe that there are two reasons for this sad condition in the modern church.
The first is that we do not live out our walk with God in the context of the ministry of reconciliation and suffering for the gospel. The early church took things seriously because they had to. There was no other choice. Many times their lives were on the line. There was no room for laziness or a lack of commitment by Christians who just wanted to be religious. Too dangerous for that kind of thinking.
The second reason for subnormal Christian lives is that we do not preach about sin anymore. Every since Dwight L. Moody decided to make the love of God the cornerstone of his preaching, the concept of sin has been relegated to the back pew and is only brought up when necessary. Without a robust concept of sin, you hardly need to talk about self-authority or the need to make every effort to live out your Christian life with fear and trembling. Certainly you don’t need to talk about surrendering your will to the will of God. It simply isn’t necessary.
And that’s the rub, isn’t it?
Right there, at that point, we want to maintain control of our own lives. Forget about the idea of God forcing you to do something against your will. The idea is that you want to do God’s will. You are a slave to righteousness because you want to be. You have been freed by the blood of Christ but you dedicate yourself to becoming a bondservant of Christ in the life of faith. A bondservant willing serves his master. A slave reluctantly does what he is told. The difference is enormous.
But the truth is that we are not all willing bondservants, at least, not all the time. What is more common in the Christian walk than the desire to hold back a portion of our will to indulge in some fantasy, some dalliance, some private attitude or action that we know God would not approve of? We are committed but only up to a point. We claim that Jesus is our Savior and Lord but we are more interested in the Savior part than the Lord part. That’s the truth. I have done it myself many times.
The difficult part is the will.
The emotions are there and they are truly enjoyable. I have worshipped God with tears of joy one moment and indulged in private sin the next. Haven’t you?
The mind is transformed and it truly makes a difference. Much of my life has changed but not everything. Sure it is a progression and it isn’t going to happen all at once but whatever I am aware of, whatever I am conscious of, I am responsible for today, not tomorrow or some vague time in the future.
My mind is being transformed but my will is still my own. I’m still in charge. I will progress in my sanctification at my own speed and deal with my sins as I see fit.
That is why the will is key. Professor McQuilkin is correct in saying that we cannot even receive the Holy Spirit the first time if we do not surrender our wills and claim Jesus as our Lord. But in the context of the modern church, that claim needs to be challenged, defined, worked on continuously and the doorway to that victory is going back to our original commitment to his Lordship in our life and renewing that initial consecration as many times as necessary.
That is why the will is the gateway to the mind and results in the emotions.
The will is the ongoing issue. Think of it like repentance. There is an initial commitment to a new way of life, 180 degrees opposite to our sinful lifestyle. There is a declaration of intent (which statements about the future always are) and now you begin to walk down that path. At first, you are filled with joy and peace (emotions), you study the word of God and are learning new things every day (mind) but there is an erosion of the will as you face the enormity of what you have to do.
You are trying to do things in your own strength. To do things in the strength of the Spirit is only possible if you surrender your will to His care unconditionally every day.
Listen to the description that Professor McQuilken uses of an unyielded, unsurrendered heart – “unreconciled personal relations, unforgiving spirit, a complaining attitude, unloving criticism, persisting in a wrong even after realizing one is sinning, grieving more over what hurts oneself than what hurts God, making decisions on the basis of personal benefit rather than promotion of God’s purposes, and seeking the praise of other people. Even if one displays no conscious rebellion, behaviors such as these indicate that the individual must choose to surrender unconditionally to the will of God” (p. 170,171).
You get the idea. The power of God is at our disposal only when our wills are surrendered to Him unconditionally. There is lots to talk about in terms of how to do that effectively every day, but the truth still stands. What that means is that the power to overcome sin in one area of your life may depend on surrendering another area of your life. It must be complete and unconditional. It is a relationship after all not just a strategy. God wants all of us and when we give everything to God without reserve there is power to overcome anything that life can throw at us. That is the secret to a happy Christian life.
Professor McQuilkin says “for Christians who are experiencing a subnormal life, reentry into normal, supernatural Christian living is through the gate of surrender” (p. 171).
It doesn’t get any clearer than that and that is what I meant by the qualitative difference between the influence of God that characterizes our lives and the influence of God that controls our life. For some, that may not be very clear but the gateway is surrender. And that gateway is plenty clear. Sure, we need to grow in our ability to surrender unconditionally and, by nature, it is a rocky road of crisis and process and crisis again.
Perhaps that is why we need to let go and let God get to work.
We need to let go of our sin, our self-will and let God lead, influence and even control our lives so that there is nothing to hinder our relationship with Him. Letting go of sin and self-will is key and letting God take control is also key.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t cooperate in the process or that we are somehow passive in our sanctification. Far from it. We actively surrender our wills and turn away from our sin and we actively make every effort in the power of the Spirit which is released in us as we are unconditionally surrendered to His will in every known area of our lives. The point is that now our efforts are empowered and that makes all the difference in the world. We don’t get arrogant since we know that we are polluted with sin but our intentions are clear and pure and we surrender our wills on a continuous basis so that we can be filled with the Holy Spirit on a continuous basis.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t have the Holy Spirit when you sin or when you fall into sin. After all, the Bible describes that as “grieving the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30 NIV). We don’t get off the hook that easily. Acting like a single guy when we are really married doesn’t mean that the marriage doesn’t exist. You are still married but now you are “grieving” your husband or wife and you need to surrender your will to the dictates of that loving relationship once again.
Every relationship has elements of emotion, mind and will so that is no surprise to us but in terms of our relationship with God, the gateway to spiritual power and maturity is to surrender our wills unconditionally to His will. And do that as many times as it takes. That is how we struggle in the Spirit or wrestle with God and that is the source of our power and anointing in the life of faith.
One word of warning to remind us of what is at stake is Paul’s comment that those who are not “controlled by” the Spirit, who are not continuously yielding up their wills to the Lordship of Christ and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit, may not be saved. In that sense, this surrendered life is the normal Christian life and that is the evidence of our faith that we need to look for. It’s not complicated but it is necessary.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, I surrender all to you. Every area of my life is yours. I belong to you. I tremble a bit at the whole idea of surrendering my will and I have no idea how I will be able to do it but you promise me Holy Spirit power to deal with temptation and sin and so I trust your word on the matter. Thank you. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.