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The Holy Spirit is like breath, wind, smoke, fire. It comes and goes where it will. Who can know it? This is, I think, how most Christians if asked would speak of the Spirit. And they would be right in large degree. All throughout the Biblical history the Spirit moves in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. It can be offended but not manipulated. Sought but not coerced. No one knows what the Spirit might do next.

Unfortunately, as true as this is, if from this we conclude that the Spirit has no agenda or that its agenda is unknown, we would be making a grave error. The Spirit is mysterious, to be sure, but not that mysterious. There is mystery in the Spirit’s methods, but not in its desires. Its work is very concrete; its agenda very plain. Yes, God has a wonderful plan for your life, and the Saintly Ass is here to tell you what it is.

Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.

Our whole survey of the Holy Spirit throughout scripture and history has brought us now to the central question—What is the Spirit trying to do in us? What is the goal of all its work? What have we to do with this Spirit?

I find the goal of the spiritual life to be very clearly stated all throughout the New Testament, but perhaps no more succinctly than in I Thessalonians 4, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…”[1] A quick search through your Bible will confirm how central and important to God it is that the Christian be “sanctified.”

Admittedly that word is a piece of over-Latinized theological vocabulary. It may not mean much to you, but it’s a very significant word meaning “to be may holy.” Sanctification is the “holifying” of God’s people. St. Peter drops the imperative on us with a frightening directness, “You shall be Holy for I [God] am holy.[2]

Now to be fair, Christians do not all speak about this divine goal in exactly these terms. There are other legitimate windows into the spiritual life than the idea of “holiness.” That’s fine. I’ll parse some of the other “language games” by which Christians frame this journey in another homily. The only particular virtue of the angle I’m taking is that it is the “language game” I understand best. You’re welcome to do whatever translation work is necessary to make it work for your tradition.

The point is, this is what God wants to produce in the life of the Christian—holiness. What this holiness actually consists of I’ll get to in a bit, but the first question is what the production of holiness has to do with the Holy Spirit. That, after all, is our topic.

The scriptures do not always speak about this “holifying” journey or process as simply as Peter or as Paul in Thessalonians does—as something simply “God” desires. It more often talks about it as something the Father does or the Son does or, yes, something the Spirit does. And there is the window into our conversation about the Holy Spirit. What part of this journey or process is specifically credited to the Holy Spirit? Well, to understand that, we will need to understand the role credited to each of the three divine persons of the godhead.

A few places in scripture actually hint at the whole equation. For example, in his introduction to his letter Peter writes to those… “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling with his blood.”[3]

In these verses Peter admits that God the Father is up to something, the Son, Jesus Christ is also up to something, and finally so is the Spirit—specifically a “sanctifying work.”

So let’s wander for a moment through the New Testament to get a handle on what each of these divine persons is credited with doing.

First, God the Father is the one who desires this work to be done in us. Peter tells us that God the Father has “chosen us” to be recipients of this work. We find this mentioned in Paul’s writings as well, where he says in Ephesians that God “chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy.[4] and also that “we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works[5] And elsewhere he “thanks God because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.”[6] Over and over God the Father is the one identified as the origin of this work. It is the Father’s work that is being done. The Father wills it, desires it. We might even say that the Father’s will is the first cause of this work.

Second, the Son is the one who has made it possible. As Peter says, it is his blood with which we are sprinkled—a allusion to the Old Testament sacrificial system whereby things were cleansed or made pure. All throughout the New Testament the work of the Son during the incarnation—his life, death, and resurrection—are the events that ground the work being done. Listen to how we are spoken of in relation to Christ’s work.

  • We were chosen in Christ[7]
  • We are forgiven in Christ[8]
  • We are brought near to God in Christ[9]
  • We are given grace in Christ[10]
  • God makes us to stand firm in Christ[11]
  • We have redemption in Christ[12]
  • We are freed from the law by faith in Christ[13]
  • We are glorified in Christ[14]
  • We are made alive in Christ[15]
  • And the coup de grace, in I Corinthians, we are sanctified in Christ[16]

Do you hear what’s common here?  We are “in Christ” (en Xhristo). All this work that is done in us happens on the basis of Christ’s prior action. We are placed inside or grounded in that work. The work of Christ at the cross and the tomb is the only foundation of Christian identity. The ground of being made holy lies not in ourselves, our nature, our merit, worth, or effort. Whatever holiness we are to obtain will come only from that source and that source alone.

More than this, however, Christ is also the model and goal of the transformation.  He is the referent, the pattern in which we are being remade. As Peter said, the goal is that we may obey Jesus Christ, that is to follow what he said and to do as he did. Listen again to how we are brought into having a share in his work. We are…

  • Hidden with him[17]
  • Baptized into him[18]
  • Crucified with him[19]
  • Suffer with him[20]
  • Buried with him[21]
  • Built together with him[22]
  • Been given all things with him[23]
  • Made alive with him[24]
  • Made fellow heirs and fellow workers with him[25]
  • We are Glorified with him[26]
  • We shall live with him[27]
  • And we shall reign with him[28]

Christ as done all this work before us, and now we are to be brought into it as if it were to be made our own work as well. We have been joined to this Christ. His righteous life has been credited to us. His is the new humanity that we have received. He is the head of a new race of men and women, who are being conformed into his image and likeness.[29] We are not the ones who decide what holiness or mature spirituality looks like. The goal is that others would look at us and say, though perhaps not in these words, “See how much like Christ she is!” And we should note that this is exactly what the Father will one day say of each of us. “You look like my Son, you bear the family resemblance, welcome to the family home.”

Thus when we speak about Christ doing something “on our behalf,” we are certainly correct. But the scriptures also speak of our being present in Christ’s doing it, so that it is “as if” we had done it. So Christ not only died on our behalf, but also we died with and in him. And if we are thus conformed to him in his death, and do not doubt that we shall be raised to be made fully like him one day,[30] the point is that we shall be made to live and move like him here and now. It is no less and no more than this that is intended when Christianity speaks of being made holy or being sanctified. It has a single referent. We shall be like Christ.

But how is this great transformation accomplished? Now we come to the center of the question.

The Holy Spirit is the one credited with being the agent and the means of this transformation. The Biblical conversation is more diffuse at this point—how appropriate. Many things are said of this work. For instance, we are told in Romans that…

  • The gentiles become an acceptable offering to God by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit [31]
  • In Corinthians, Paul reminds us that, we “were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Christ by the Spirit of God,”[32] and further, that we are one body with many parts, all baptized by one Spirit, and given that Spirit[33]
  • Further in Galatians we are told to live by the Spirit, which in this case means not gratifying the lusts of the flesh. Sin nature is contrary to Spirit, and belonging to Jesus means crucifying the sins of the flesh. In short, we life by the Spirit, so we need to act like it.[34]
  • In II Thessalonians, we are told that “God chose us for salvation through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and belief.”[35]

And as a final case study, I’d invite you to read Romans 8 carefully. It is almost a manifesto on the point. We are told therein that…

  • This Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death, by the work of Christ, so that we might live according to the Spirit.
  • Further, that Christ did what the law could not do—that is, showed his own righteous nature, while dying in the sinner’s place, so that we might fulfill the demand of the law, not in flesh, but in the Spirit.
  • He speaks of the problems with the recalcitrant flesh, how it cannot submit to the Law. Life in the Flesh is death, but this Spirit is life.
  • To belong to Christ means to have this Spirit within you.
  • We can trust it because the very Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, gives life to us also.
  • If then you live by the Spirit, you are putting to death the flesh.
  • This is a process led by the Spirit, thus revealing us to be the sons of God
  • And finally, that this Spirit groans with us and creation in our bondage as we await this promised completion

What does all this mean? It’s one thing to list a bunch scripture passages; it’s quite another to build it all up into a “thing.” What is this “thing” called sanctification? Let me summarize all this as succinctly as possible. The Father has willed that the Spirit use the work of the Son to remake us in the image of that Son.

The Father has willed that the Spirit use the work of the Son to remake us in the image of that Son.

This is all consistent with the nature of the Trinitarian relationships as seen elsewhere, like in the act of creation—where the Father is the originator of the thing to be done, the Son is the one who enacts it, and the Spirit the one who brings it to its final completion.

So in the end, the Spirit may be mysterious in its person and in its movements, but there is little mystery about its agenda, for it is the agenda of the Father—to make us like Christ. Or as Peter put is “that we should be holy as he is holy.”

But having repeated Peter’s words, Peter himself wants to make sure that we do not mistake the kind of holiness he means. Listen to the whole passage…

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” [36]

Peter not interested in a misty spirituality or an otherworldly holiness, but a holiness that results in a certain behavior and conduct. It is holy choices that the Spirit desires to produce. Christ’s own holy life and actions produced in us. It doesn’t get more practical or concrete than this.

From this we should put aside forever the idea that spiritual things are vague or cloudy, or that they are necessarily defined by a hyper-emotionalism or a hyper-rationalism. None of this stands at the center of the definition. I cannot state is more directly than this: A thing is “spiritual” because it is of the Spirit of God, according to that Spirit’s agenda, part of what the Spirit is doing.

But can I be more specific on the sorts of attitudes and action the Spirit is interested in? Yes, easily. Paul tells us quite directly in Galatians what the Spirit is trying to produce in the life of the Christian. They are rightly called “fruit,” meaning the things our lives ought to produce. Paul says that these fruit of the Spirit…these qualities which are to take root in our own souls and flower forth in our conduct are… “Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control.[37]

These fruit are called “spiritual,” not because they are vague and intangible, but precisely because they are of the Spirit. They reflect the Spirit’s agenda. This is what holiness looks like when translated into conduct, that we would be dominated—shaped by—walking illustrations of love, joy, peace, and so on. Why? Because in the ultimate sense, these are the very qualities of Christ, and the Spirit wishes to make us like him.

You want to be “spiritual?” You want to be a person who is moved and guided by the Spirit? You want to know what God wants for your life? Think about that list—Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control. There is enough in that list to keep you busy for a lifetime. Apply those words to your relationships, your occupation, your free-time. Good heavens, apply them to your Facebook feed and your Internet history. If you are the least bit conscientious, you will discover, like me, innumerable places where we are governed, not by self-control, but by insatiable desire. Governed, not by gentleness, but by anger and hardness. Occupied, not by the loving and the joyful, but by the moribund and the trivial.

Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control. There is enough in that list to keep you busy for a lifetime.

You see, many debates about the work of the Spirit stand before us. Questions of the Spirit’s work in our midst, but if we do not first concede the place of these fruit, there is no use in discussing deeper and more contentious questions. We must learn to walk before we can run.

I maintain that for all the debates that are yet coming in our journey with the Holy Spirit, if we can take this step together—if we can agree on the goal, on the fruit to borne—then I believe the Spirit is big enough to sort out the rest of our differences. If our deepest desire is that we might live and move within the agenda and values of the Spirit, much of the rest will sort itself out. Regardless of our positions on the coming matters, we will have become Spiritual, Holy, Mature. We will have come to look a lot like Christ.

We’ll see you next time at The Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.

[1] I Thessalonians 4:3
[2] I Peter 1: 16, but see also Leviticus 11:44f; 19:2; 20:7
[3] I Peter 1:1-2
[4] Ephesians 1:4
[5] Ephesians 2:10
[6] II Thessalonians 2:13
[7] Ephesians 1:4
[8] Ephesians 1:6, 4:32
[9] Ephesians 2:13
[10] I Corinthians 1:4
[11] II Corinthians 1:21
[12] Colosians 1:13
[13] Philippians 3:9
[14] IIThessalonians 1:12
[15] Romans 6:11
[16] I Corinthians 1:2
[17] Colossians 3:3
[18] Romans6:3ff, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:12
[19] Romans 6:6, Galatians 2:20
[20] Romans 8:17, I Corinthians 12:26-7, II Corinthians 2:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24
[21] Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:11
[22] Ephesians 2:19, 22
[23] Romans 8:32
[24] Romans 5:17, I Corinthians 15:22, Ephesians 2:4f, Colossians 2:13
[25] Romans 8:17, Ephesians 3:6, Hebrews 3:14, and II Corinthians 6:1
[26] Romans 8:17
[27] II Corinthians 13:4, I Thessalonians 5:10
[28] II Timothy 2:12
[29] Romans 8:29
[30] Philippians 3:10
[31] Romans 15:16
[32] I Corinthians 6:11
[33] I Corinthians 12:12
[34] Galatians 5:16, 22-24
[35] II Thessalonians 2:13
[36] I Peter 1:14-16
[37] Galatians 5:22-23

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