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In 1908, a team of Scottish and Irish Presbyterian missionaries to Manchuria wrote a letter home describing an unexpected but undeniable manifestation of God. You may need to know that northern European Christians are not known for their spiritual exuberance.

The same thing was true during the early to mid 18th century in New England, where an intellectually oriented faith was set afire with an experiential affection for God in such a way that historians call that movement of God the Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards would call what he experienced during the awakening in Massachusetts in the 1740s “a surprising work of God.”

But it was a work of God, nonetheless.

The missionaries to Manchuria were equally surprised, reporting in their letter that…

A power has come into the church that we cannot control if we would. It is a miracle for [a] stolid, self righteous Chinese man to go out of his way to confess to sins that no torture… could force from him; to weep for the prayers of his fellow believers is beyond all human explanation.

Perhaps you will say it’s a sort of religious hysteria. Many of us shrank from it at first… but every one who has seen and heard what we have… is certain there is only one explanation—that it is God’s Holy Spirit manifesting himself…. One clause of the [Apostles’] Creed that lives before us now in all its inevitable, awful solemnity is, “I believe in the Holy [Spirit].”[1]

For these missionaries, theological propositions became a living experience. The Holy Spirit was no longer an abstract concept but a very present, personal, and powerful reality. It was unexpected but unmistakable and undeniable.

This is why am I posting the first in a series called Walking with the Spirit. I want what happened in northeastern China in 1908 to happen in 2020. The plan is to focus on one passage or section of Scripture each week that will act as a fulcrum of sorts, leveraging our understanding of the Holy Spirit, leading us to a vital experience with the personal and powerful presence of the Spirit as we live day in and day out.  My goal is not just to present information but to see our expanded awareness of the Spirit lead to spiritual transformation. Though it may be unexpected, I want the manifestation of the Spirit to be so unmistakable that there is only one explanation for what has happened in our lives.

What the Scottish and Irish missionaries witnessed in Manchuria is what we call revival, which is not at first mass conversion of the world to Jesus but primarily is an awakening of professing Christians to the love of God by beholding in increasing measure the magnitude of the cross. The result is men and women who previously would never have come to a place of tearful repentance become broken over their self-righteousness and sin. In that brokenness, they become low enough to need the grace of God and to receive the grace of God as it flows downhill like a mountain stream, filling the lowest places with new mercies.

I want the Spirit to break me of my self-righteousness as much as I trust you want him to break yours as well. I want to love well. I want to know God and walk with him—personally, with a deep sense of his presence and power, freshly awakened to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of his glory and grace.

This is my deep desire for us as we begin a new year and decade—that the Holy Spirit will come among us in fullness in such a way that there can be only one explanation.

The theme verse for this series and focus passage of this post is Galatians 5:25, where, in the context of an appeal to abandon self-righteousness and live with  the gift-righteousness of Jesus as our core identity, the apostle Paul embeds this encouragement and challenge,

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

The encouragement is that our spiritual life is a gift. We were dead but not live. The challenge is to exercise and enjoy the fullness of that gift. As we consider this dual encouragement and challenge today, I want you to know that…

1) Walking with the Spirit is for Every Christian.

When Paul exhorts us to keep in step with the Spirit, he is speaking to all believers, not just some super-spiritual disciples or ordained leaders. This means that what happened to the Christians in Manchuria then can happen to you now.  

What if your friends were to encounter you this week and conclude, “There is only one explanation for the change in his life. God is at work!” What if something so transformative were to take place that your kids and those with whom you work began to exclaim, “I believe in the Holy Spirit! I have to. There is no other explanation.”

What is it in your life that would elicit such a response? Let me ask it this way. What is it that tends to cause strife in your marriage? What is it about you that is the problem? What if that were to change?

For me—among many things—it would be taking ownership of my mistakes rather than shifting blame. Just this week, as we were putting away some holiday decorations, I moved a child gate that we use to keep the dogs on the main level of the house. When I moved the gate, it caused several decorative glass items to crash onto the floor. My initial response wasn’t, “Oh, no. I’m so sorry.” It was, “Who propped the ornaments up against the child gate? It wasn’t my fault.” That is just a small example of hundreds. Over time, a blame-shifting tendency can cause serious cholesterol buildup in the heart arteries of a home.

Is it really possible to change a sinful tendency that has been embedded in your life for years—maybe decades? Yes, it is. But it is not going to change by just trying harder to change. Like the men in Manchuria, and for my blame-shifting, it will take a miracle. It will take a work of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s be clear. This is not a passive thing where we let go and let God. In Galatians 5:25, Paul tells us that…

2) Walking with the Spirit is Proactive and Intentional.

The exhortation to “keep in step with the Spirit” is a call to pursue the fullness of the Spirit’s influence in our lives. Having received our spiritual life from the regenerating work of the Spirit, it makes sense that we would continue to seek spiritual direction from the practical guidance of the Spirit.

In verse 16 of Galatians 5, Paul exhorts believers to “live by the Spirit.” The word he uses for live is the Greek word, peripateō, which literally means to walk. So, to live by the Spirit is to walk with the Spirit. Although Paul uses a different word in verse 25 for “keep in step” (stoicheō) the idea is largely the same.[2] We are to consciously seek the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit to navigate every step we take in this life, as if we are walking with the Spirit hand-in-hand and side-by-side. The New Living Translation even interprets the meaning of stoicheō in verse 25, “Let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.”

Consider how that could affect your prayer life. No longer would prayer be reserved for a minute in the morning or before bed or before a meal or an exam. As we pursue the Spirit’s guidance and seek to follow his lead, we’ll be praying throughout the day, “Help me, Holy Spirit! Show me the way. Give me strength to take the steps that follow the path set out for me in the Scriptures—a path that is good for me and my family and will bring you glory as the giver of life and supplier of grace.” It is the supplier of grace idea really is at the heart of walking with the Spirit, which is why…

3) Walking with the Spirit is Responsive.

To say that walking with the Spirit is responsive means that Christians do not seek to walk with the Spirit in order to gain merit with God. Rather, we walk with him because we have already received mercy from God.

As Paul writes in Ephesians 2, while we were dead in our sins, we have been made alive, reborn unto spiritual life. This new birth is nothing less than a spiritual resurrection.

In response to the gracious life-giving, regenerating work of the Spirit, Paul challenges us to respond to that grace by walking hand-in-hand and side-by-side with the Spirit every step of our lives.

4) Walking with the Spirit Takes Place Moment by Moment.

In his book, True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer writes, “The cross of Christ is to be a reality to me not only once… at my conversion, but all through my life as a Christian…. There is to be an experiential reality… a moment by moment, increasing, experiential relationship with Christ…. through the agency of the indwelling Holy Spirit, by faith.”[3]

This is Paul’s meaning in Galatians 5:25. To keep in step with the Spirit is to walk hand-in-hand, side-by-side, moment by moment. It involves conversation and confession as an ongoing dialogue of prayer that recalls and applies the wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs 3:5-6,

“5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”

Solomon was instructing his son to seek the Lord’s guidance and to follow his leading in everything—“in all your ways.”

The concept of acknowledging the LORD is more than an appeal to God for advice but is a resolve to submit to his ways, taking steps of obedience, trusting that his ways are not only right but good. For some reason, we cringe when we hear the word submit, don’t we? You know why? The flesh.

The sin nature within each of us hates to submit to the wisdom and ways of God. The sin nature is selfish, self-righteous, defensive, and seeks autonomy unto spiritual anarchy, bristling and pushing back against authority.

With a robust and realistic theology of indwelling sin, we will discover that, while walking in the Spirit takes place moment by moment…

5) Walking with the Spirit is an Ongoing Battle.

In verses 16 and 17 of Galatians 5, Paul draws attention to this ongoing battle, writing,

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other.

Every day, you and I wake up in a war zone. It may not look like a war zone outside. But make no mistake, every moment of every day we face enemies on three fronts who often gang up on us at the same time. Who are these enemies? The world (conventional cultural wisdom), the devil (the enemy outside of us), and the flesh (the enemy within).

I find that the most dangerous of the three is my flesh. Maybe this is why, in verses 16-17, Paul highlights the prime enemy of the Spirit in the life of the believer is not something outside of ourselves but something within. It is an enemy we should never underestimate nor be surprised when see it rear its head.

A suggestion. Never make an excuse for the flesh. The only way I will take my sin and put it under the blood of Jesus is to call a spade a spade.

This is how we wage spiritual warfare. By crucifying the flesh through repentance and taking my sin to Jesus, believing that through his sacrifice for my sin debt, it is all forgiven, removed from my record entirely and replaced by his own perfect righteousness.

The battles we face day in and day out begin and are won depending on what we do with our flesh. Will I yield to its desires? Will I believe its lies? Will I live as a defeated sinner or rise up with new life in view of the cross as a liberated, victorious recipient of fresh mercies?

The central question in the battle is whether I will abide in the finished work of Jesus, knowing that it is unwavering faith in my forgiveness that unleashes the fullness of the Spirit’s empowering and transforming grace in my life.

To review, we have learned that walking in the Spirit…

  • Is for every Christian.
  • Is proactive and intentional.
  • Is responsive.
  • It takes place moment by moment.
  • And it is an ongoing battle.

Father and Son, Walking Hand-in-Hand

One of my favorite father memories took place when my son, Schaeffer, was about four. I had taken him to our community playground to swing and climb and run… and to feed the ducks which lived at the small lake that sat in the center of the park just beside the playground.

While the terrain wasn’t especially hilly, the walk from the pond back to the parking lot was uphill. After a morning full of playful exertion, Schaeffer was ready for a snack and a nap. As we began walking up the hill toward the car, Schaeffer was lagging behind with his head bent toward the ground as if he were about to collapse from exhaustion. Each step had become a struggle.

As I walked back to him and held out my hand, he looked up, smiled, and put his four-year-old little boy hand in mine. We walked up the hill to the car together, hand-in-hand. Helping him up into his car seat, I buckled it snug and gave him a kiss. He was asleep before we made it out of the parking lot.

Why is that such a special memory for me? I suppose I realized in that moment that is what God as Father does for us. He knows we can’t make it on our own. So, he comes to us and holds out his hand.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe your emotional reaction to the letter from the missionaries in Manchuria. Does it make you expectant, fearful, or something else?
  2. If God were to do something that could only be explained by an intervention of the Spirit, what would that be? How do you think that would impact your life, family, and work?
  3. What will it mean for you to realize that pursuing the fullness of the Spirit is not passive but proactive?
  4. How does the idea of walking with the Spirit moment by moment both challenge and encourage you?
  5. Describe your experience with the spiritual battle Paul describes in Galatians 5:16-17.
  6. What difference does it make for walking with the Spirit to know that the hands of Jesus are nail-scarred?

[1] Jonathan Goforth, By My Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1942), 17, 18. Quoted in J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Revell), 32.

[2] Stoicheō has a nuanced meaning of not merely walking but walking in a line according to a rule.

[3] Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: Volume 3, A Christian View of Spirituality (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 226, 264

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  • Bro, well written. Passionate. I long for both romance and power of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure how that comes about. Usually when I am most in touch with my own desperation. This tends to “awaken” my appetite for God. I also want to “experience” God by feeling and desiring his Spirit. When He speaks, my heart lights up! I am longing for this explosion in our community and in my heart. Scott