Word and Spirit

One of the very good things about working with brothers and sisters involved in church music from all over the world is that you are forced to think through theological issues carefully, so that they don’t become merely personal theological idiosyncrasies. Taking one particular stand on an area of theology can feel like a petty thing to do, as it can alienate you from the majority. It can also mean that it becomes the main issue talked about instead of the Gospel itself.

However, some issues are worth taking a stand on even if we’re the last one standing, for the sake of the gospel, and the protection of the Lord’s vulnerable sheep.

The issue on the table is the relationship between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is clear that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit work in perfect tandem in their work of bringing life to unbelievers and in helping believers remain in Christ. The way the Spirit works is through the Word of God. This means that if a church is committed to teaching the Word of God, then the Spirit is powerfully at work. It’s not as if there are 2 different types of church – ‘Word’ churches and ‘Spirit’ churches. Nor is it that the preacher ‘does the Word’ and the musicians ‘do the Spirit’. The Word of God is the sword of the Spirit; the Spirit is the very breath/Word of God. One doesn’t work apart from the other. The late John Chapman said that you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the two, but he was only stating in his own words what the Bible has already said so clearly.

As evangelicals we believe this, but we are always in danger of shifting, maybe because of lack of theological clarity, or maybe because people visit our Word-centred meetings and tell us that the Spirit isn’t there. We believe in the sufficiency of the Word of God, but criticism of our ‘Spirit-less’ meetings makes us think that maybe we need to change things to be more Spirit-aware.

The criticism of our meetings is fair – our meetings can often be dull and lifeless, but we need to be clear that though this may be to do with badly-led singing or hardness of heart, it has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit being absent or powerless. If we teach the Bible clearly, then we should have a deep awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit as he is wielding his sword, ‘for the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow’ (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).

As soon as we try to drive the thinnest of wedges between the Word and Spirit (eg by thinking that music can direct a movement of the Holy Spirit), then we start to define our knowledge of God through our own ‘spiritual’ experiences and not by the Spirit’s own revelation of God in his Word. This doesn’t just cause a lack of assurance in believers – it also opens up the door to things like the Toronto blessing and all the stuff about music ushering in the presence of the Spirit. It also means that those who think they are ‘Spirit’ Christians start trying to convert ‘Word’ Christians into ‘Spirit’ Christians (as if this were possible) rather than trying to share the Word of God with those who are really are in the dark spiritually.

We’ve faced exactly the same challenge in the UK, when a chap called Michael Harper believed he had received the baptism of the Spirit in 1962 (a second baptism, as he was already converted). Noticing dull and lifeless worship in evangelical churches, he was keen to encourage evangelical churches to become more open to the Spirit to bring things to life. Fortunately, John Stott and others stood firm and kept their confidence in the Word of God as the means by which the Spirit works, although others sadly followed his lead.

Today we face the same issue, but it seems a little more subtle. I’ve heard the phrase, ‘a church cannot be Spirit-led unless it is Word-fed’. This sounds brilliant, and I’d happily use that phrase, but some take this to mean that once we’ve been fed the Word of God, then the Spirit can come along and do the more spectacular stuff. This exact dichotomy was well illustrated in a book by Jean-Jacques Suurmond, called ‘Word and Spirit at Play’, where the Word and Spirit play a game together. The Word brings order, and the Spirit brings life and vigour.

Others like to call themselves ‘Charismatic with a seat-belt on’. Surely, if the seat-belt is the Bible, then they are evangelical full-stop. Otherwise we could say that we’re Liberal with a seat-belt on, or even Catholic. Either we believe that the Word of God is sufficient, or we believe that the Word of God is not sufficient. If we believe that the Word is sufficient, then we can give up on trying chasing labels.

Speaking from personal experience, my own assurance was rocked when I was at university because I had a friend who claimed she would make me into a charismatic within a year. I was keen to hold on to the friendship, so I prayed and prayed for the gift of tongues (well, my friend’s definition of the gift of tongues anyway) to no avail. I wondered whether I was a Christian at all, but the Lord restored the assurance of my adoption when (through the Word of God) the Spirit testified with my spirit that I was a child of God (Romans 8:16).

Church musicians and pastors, please hold on to the truth that when you preach and sing the Word of God, then the Spirit is mightily at work, even if your meetings are accused of lacking the Spirit. It isn’t the job of a pastor or a church musician to bring the Spirit to life. Keep teaching and singing the Word of God, because ‘the words I speak to you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63 ESV).

Richard Simpkin

Please share this

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. anon

    Excellent post, Richard.

    If you read up on the subject, you’ll find there’s a close relationship between music and “religious experience”. But this is all psychological and not the Holy Spirit. Taken to extremes it can cause the things you mention, like “speaking in tongues” and the “toronto blessing”.

    Despite their claims to be “spirit filled”, the charismatic movement is full of bad theology and downright deception. This is not a sign of the Holy Spirit, who leads us into truth (John 16:13)

    But I do have to say that the charismatic movement attracted people because of the fairly sorry state of the evangelical church. Worship that is “dull and lifeless” (to use your phrase) is also not a sign of the Holy Spirit, who brings joy (Luke 10:21).

    1. Richard Simpkin

      Thanks Anon!, and a much more gracious brotherly/sisterly reply than the one I’ve just received for writing a similar article in Evangelicals Now!

      I’ve written quite extensively on the relationship between music and religious experience in the past, and I agree that music can bring about a deceptive assurance of the work of the Holy Spirit because of its effect on the human spirit.

      You’re right too that a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence is joy, though so is a deep conviction of sin (John 16:8), which may not result in joy in the short term.

      It is a fair criticism of some of our meetings that they are dull and lifeless. As those who are committed to singing and preaching the life-giving Word by the Spirit, we should show that we are more full of life and joy than any who boast in super-spiritual experiences that have no foundation. However, let no-one disqualify us from being indwelt by the Spirit even if we show the ‘dullness’ and ‘lifelessness’ of Jeremiah or Job.

    2. James

      Extremes like speaking in tongues? Have you not read Pauls letters to the corinthians. Tongues is simply used to build your relationship with God, it’s an utterance, a feeling words cannot express. It’s the most incredible, wonderful thing and its biblical. The thing I struggle most with about Conservative views of the spirit is that fact they think that it ends with acts. Paul clearly states in the New Testemant that the same power that lived in him lives in us (Romans 8:11) , we are called to spread the good news heal the sick, cast out demons. How incredible is that, we have access to the same power he has, which is insane, life changing. The spirit isn’t just there to help us read our bibles better. (Although that is part of the job). Through the authority of Jesus christ through the work of the Holy Spirit we can change the world.
      I’ve seen incredible healing happen, things that can only be the work of the spirit. I’ve had prophetic words from people, words that could have only been from the Lord. I get prophetic words for people when I lay hands on people, I get prophetic words for my student group, I’ve been healed myself, I’ve felt the presence of the Lord (Happens almost daily). I don’t believe this is a ‘super spiritual experience’ but simply the work of Jesus Christ, it’s normal, it should be normal. It happened in the gospels with Jesus, it happened in the early church with the early church, it happens now.
      I long for the day when angry articles like this need not to be written as we as christians stop fighting and learn from each other. The conservative church can learn to use the holy spirit, and the charismatic church can take more of a value of the word, as a charismatic I can see that this can sometimes take a backseat, but my experience of church is that the bible is extremely important, just so is the tangible work of the holy spirit.
      I don’t even want to label myself as anything, it’s unhelpful christian lingo.
      It’s important to lay hands, to pray for healing, to pray into situations, to invite the holy spirit to work in our lives.
      I look at the revival movements that have happened and I see signs and wonders. Peoples lives changed dramatically by the power of the holy spirit. I don’t know about you but I want to see this nation changed.
      One of my daily prayers is Send Revival start with me. Who were the most incredible revivalists, the early church. They stood out in faith, preached the word and healed the sick, cast out demons, they saw signs and wonders. They lived radically for something incredible such as the love of Jesus, I’d love to see christians feeding the homeless, praying for people in hospitals, praying for people on the streets etc. I feel the church as a whole has lost it’s zeal and passion. The life has been sucked out of it. I love Ephesians 3 14-21, this makes me well with tears. I can’t humanly grasp his love for when and when I think about that all I want to do is bow down in worship and sing love songs to the lord. The concept of grace is mind blowing. It’s scandalous when you think about it and think about how sinful we are, grace we don’t deserve yet we have.
      The lord who died for me , so I can have eternal life. A love so amazing so divine demands my life my soul my all.
      He is far greater than what our minds can comprehend. He is alive, he works in and through us. He works through scripture and through the Holy Spirit as the third person of the trinity, both together and apart. Yet it always matches up with scripture. Don’t box the Lord who created the heavens and the earth into a Book, his works still happen.
      I don’t pretend to be a theologian, or a Biblical expert. I’m a naive 21 year old, longing to see the world become a better place. This is written out of Love and grace, I think the church can learn from each other, so lets start.
      I have much to learn…

      1. Anon


        I am sorry to write as “Anon” but I prefer not to give my name in a public forum.

        Of course I have read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and the book of Acts, and yes, speaking in tongues is mentioned in them.

        But the question I have for you is how do you know that your speaking in tongues is the same as described in the Bible?

        I believe (with the greatest of respect) that it is not. Why do I say that? Well, studies of the Biblical references to speaking in tongues have found that it was always a known language, based on (amongst other things) the Greek words used. There is a bit of confusion on this topic, partly because the word “unknown” that appears in some Bibles (eg the King James Version) was inserted by the translators without any justification.

        People who speak in tongues today do not speak known languages. No cases have ever been found (other than anecdotal reports that cannot be checked), and I am sure that you are no different.

        This immediately suggests that what you are doing is not the Biblical speaking in tongues.

        There’s something else you need to know. Many non-christian religions practice speaking in tongues. The list includes Hinduism, African ancestor religions, shamanism of many types, spiritualists, voodoo, even mormons and some branches of Islam. And they all speak in tongues in exactly the same way as Pentecostals and charismatics. This shocked me when I first learnt it.

        What I suspect happened to you is that you had some sort of spiritual experience in a church service or other christian meeting, and started speaking in tongues. The gathering will have been a charismatic or Pentecostal one; it was probably quite emotional and included a lot of music. I’d estimate 95% or more of tongue-speakers fit this model – my apologies if your story is different.

        If that was the case, it’s simply that the content of the meeting affected your mind and caused you to start speaking random syllables. That’s what people do when they speak in tongues today, be they Christians or any of the other faiths I listed above. It’s just something people are capable of doing given the right conditions, but it’s not from God or the Holy Spirit. It’s also not from the devil, despite what some say.

        You’ll find what I’ve said very hard to accept, such is the power of music-induced religious experiences. Again, that’s the way the mind works. I was once like you and believed the same things. But as I studied in more detail, I eventually realised that it is all fake. The whole history of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, the revival movements you mentioned, is full of scandals, lies, and heresy. This wasn’t an easy journey for me and you probably won’t even want to consider it yourself. If you do, perhaps start by reading John MacArthur’s recent book, “Strange Fire” which covers the topic in far more detail that I’ve been able to go into here. I could respond to many other things you’ve said but don’t have the time. But I do thank God for your faith and zeal, and pray that He will lead you into the truth.

  2. Richard Simpkin

    Thank you to Anon and James for your replies.

    James, I’m very sorry that you perceived anger in the article. There’s certainly no anger there, but I am keen to be firm on this issue, as there are many young people whose assurance of adoption is based not on the liberating truth given in the Word of God, but on outward manifestations. These manifestations may be an authentic sign of the Spirit’s work in someone’s life (and hooray if they are, because they will lead to greater obedience to Jesus and a deeper love of God’s Word) but as soon as we put our assurance in them as a sign that we belong to Jesus, then we are in danger of doubting our adoption if those manifestations dry up or disappear.

    This is well illustrated by a friend of mine who doubted his salvation because he couldn’t sing. All his other friends had amazing experiences of the presence of God, but he had none, and felt as if Jesus didn’t love him. He then looked at his Bible, where God told him that he had crossed from death to life because he had believed in Jesus’ words (John 5:24), that as far as the presence of God was concerned, he was already seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6), and that there was nothing in all creation that could separate him from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus his Lord (Romans 8:39). That gave him real joy, real peace and real assurance.

    It’s worth being firm on this issue for people like this chap. The Bible is absolutely liberating, because through it the Holy Spirit tells us the truth about God in all his beauty and glory, and through that Word we come to have assurance of eternal life in all its fulness too. I’d be the first to acknowledge that I don’t know all the answers, but it’s one of our main aims in Music Ministry to keep pointing us to the Bible, where we find the unfailing wisdom of God.

    Finally, it’s worth saying that we’re grateful for responses on these blogs that encourage us to keep looking to the Word of God, as this helps us sharpen each other according to the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of men.

  3. Simon

    Hi, thanks for this discussion on Word and Spirit…really helpful and thought provoking!
    It strikes me that there doesn’t seem to be a massive gulf in the theological opinions mentioned in this section of the forum, but rather a difference in experience of God. I am a member at an evangelical church linked to the FIEC and we believe in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but our collective and corporate experience is quite different from that of churches I have served in the past that have the same understanding and interpretation of scripture but have decided to step out in pursuing various spiritual gifts with the intention of seeing the church edified further, particularly through every member ministry.

    I believe we can meet God through his Word, who is Jesus(1John 1), through preaching and that without his Word set out in Scripture, we have nothing to weigh stuff against. But that’s just it isn’t it? If we get into a position where we think that God only speaks through the book of the bible, then we are likely to miss out on him speaking to us through life circumstance, people and various grace gifts. God’s word is the standard, the plumbline in which we align our worldview to, but the Bible is not the Spirit, it’s the pages on which is written Christ’s words. Only through the Spirit, which is Christ himself (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) do we know God, experience his presence and become more like him. That might mean an intellectual understanding slowly but surely transferring to the heart over a period of time, or it might mean a heart understanding of God through meeting Jesus within a corporate setting and then being fleshed out through access to and meditation in the Word over time, or any variant of this. I think the point I’m trying to make is that we should be careful when critiquing each other’s experience of God, when actually our theology is pretty similar in my opinion.

    I’m not sure I am convinced with the argument against tongues being relevant nowadays. If tongues aren’t supposed to be a gift (which incidentally, may not be for all believers, such as administration or encouragement) and should be considered a sham, then why did Paul say to the Corinthians that he spoke in tongues more than any of them? (1 Cor 14:18) and not to forbid anyone for speaking in tongues (2 Cor 14:39). I understand your argument about the interpretation of the word ‘tongues’ being similar to what happened at Pentecost where the disciples spoke in intelligible languages, but that does not explain Paul’s argument about tongues being for private devotion or the corporate body with an interpreter because no one can understand them. If no one can understand them, save an interpreter, then why would they be intelligible? Not sure if I’ve made much sense, but hope it adds to the discussion. Really interested to hear what you think on this…looking forward to your reply!

  4. Simon

    Whoops…few incorrect quotes! I meant 1 Cor 14:39 and John 1. Sorry about that…

  5. Richard Simpkin

    Thanks Simon for your gracious reply – and thanks too for pointing us to the Bible. I’m only going to answer the first point about the Word and Spirit, as I’m only able to think about one thing at a time!

    I would love to be able to say that there is not a lot of theological distance between views, but as we can see from James’ reply above, it’s clear that there are big differences here. You’re right to say that it’s about differences in experience of God, but as soon as we decide to look for experiences of God outside of Scripture, theological differences appear by default.

    Of course, God could reveal himself in any way he likes through his Spirit, but it’s clear that the Spirit has chosen to reveal the person and nature of God through the Apostolic Word of God – written in Scripture. You say that ‘the Bible is not the Spirit, it’s the pages on which is written Christ’s words.’ However, Jesus says about Christ’s words (that are written in the Bible) that, ‘The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’ (John 6:63). Of course it’s not the book itself that gives life, but John is absolutely clear that the Words of Jesus recorded there are how the Spirit gives life to the dead, sight to the blind and also condemns people in their unbelief. Kevin deYoung has much more wisdom than me, and in his book (Taking God at his Word), he says, ‘The authority of God’s word resides in the written text – the words, the sentences, the paragraphs – of Scripture. Some people don’t like written texts and propositions because they imply a stable, fixed meaning, and people don’t want truth to be fixed. They would rather have inspiration be more subjective, more internal, more experiential. But according to 2 Peter 1:19-21, the inspiration of holy Scripture is an objective reality outside of us.’

    The question is how much weight we give to voices we hear or experiences of God that come from outside Scripture. I’ve had many such experiences that, when I look back, it’s obvious that God has been sovereignly in charge, but my challenge in the original article is to those who look for those experiences to define the faithfulness and grace of God (however seemingly genuine the source), because then we have started to mould God around our own experiences, and not on God’s own sufficient revelation of himself. So I’d love to challenge your assumption (as gently as I can!) that ‘if we get into a position where we think that God only speaks through the book of the bible, then we are likely to miss out on him speaking to us through life circumstance, people and various grace gifts.’ I’ve only been a Christian for 40 years, but I’ve noticed that every Christian I meet (me included) looks for any excuse to shut their Bibles, even if that looks like listening to godly advice from wise Christians. God’s people listened carefully to prophets who told them that everything was going to be OK. Presumably they’d have thought they were receiving spiritual encouragement and grace from people who thought they had grace gifts – and they were in a corporate setting too. However, they were not being given the truth: ‘I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.’ (Jeremiah 23:21-22, 28 – ESVUK).

    Words that we hear outside Scripture may indeed be the voice of the Spirit, but as soon as we start to build our confidence on voices we hear outside Scripture, then we are building on the sand, relying on a hunch, and we’ll be like little children, tossed backwards and forwards by every wind of doctrine(Ephesians 4:14).

    No wonder that the chap I mentioned above (who can’t sing, and couldn’t feel/hear the Spirit speaking in the same way as some of his friends) had no assurance of salvation. For the sake of brothers and sisters like him I’m keen to stand on the truth that the Bible is sufficient for every Word we need to hear from God by his Spirit. Praise the Lord that the voice of the Spirit in the Bible is so clear and gracious. Please let’s keep craving the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word together that we may grow up to salvation.

Leave a Reply