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Living in the Presence of God: A Theology of Spiritual Formation

By Edgar R. Lee

What the minister does is an urgent and important matter. Misguided and uninformed activity, even if sincere and energetic, will quickly put a promising career on the rocks. With these dangers in mind, pastoral theology and professional training are designed to prepare the minister to do the right things with reverence, dignity, and competence. Modern leadership theory and administrative training have also been a boon in preparing men and women for Christian service. Without doubt, clergy are better educated than ever to undertake the multifaceted challenges of modern ministry.

Prior to the question of what the minister does, and how he or she does it, should be the question of who the minister is. Is there a mature Christian spirituality at the minister’s very core that gives meaning, purpose, and a sense of direction to all that must be done? Is he consciously a man of God, or is she a good example of a woman of God? Do ministers go about their work with a sense of the presence of God in all they do?

As we work to upgrade the professional education and skills of the minister, we must give renewed attention to his or her spiritual formation. A basic approach is to focus anew on the nature of the meaning of the presence of God in the life of the Christian in general, and the minister in particular.

Biblical Precedents

Great and godly leaders in Scripture had a profound sense of living and serving in the presence of God. Moses, faced with the daunting challenge of leading his immature nation through difficult and unforgiving terrain to a yet unseen Promised Land, implored God, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us?" (Exodus 33:15,16).* "Presence" in this passage is the Hebrew word panîm, that literally means "face." This is a picturesque way of depicting God’s favor and nearness. Moses’ relationship with God was so personal and intimate that Exodus gives us this striking memory, "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend" (33:11). In fact, Moses’ face became radiant from exposure to the divine glory and had to be veiled as he moved among the people (34:29).

New Testament leaders also had a distinct sense of the presence of God. Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God; Paul was caught up to paradise for one of his many revelations from the Lord (2 Corinthians 12:1–4). Confident of God’s work through his own person, Paul wrote to the Romans that he longed to "impart . . . some spiritual gift" to make them strong (Romans 1:11). In closing this letter, he added, "I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ" (15:29). To the Corinthians, he preached "with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power" (1 Corinthians 2:4). As an apostle, he was, on the one hand, conscious of being weak, but on the other, aware of Christ’s power in him (2 Corinthians 12:9). The aroma of his Damascus Road experience lingered throughout his life and ministry (Acts 9:1–9). Where Paul was present as a gifted and yielded vessel, God was also present and working in a special way.

Moses and Paul were called and gifted for powerful prophetic ministries unique to their periods of salvation history. They exercised certain foundational and revelational prerogatives we do not—and should not—expect. However, much of their example is to be imitated, their teachings are to be put into practice in life and ministry, and their passion to know and please God is communicable. Inspired by their longing for the presence of God, we can examine Scripture to see what may be legitimate expectations for God’s presence in our own lives and ministries in the 21st century.

A Regenerating Presence

Our first knowledge of the abiding presence of God comes through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. As unbelievers, we "were dead in . . . transgressions and sins" (Ephesians 2:1) and estranged from the presence of God. While we were conscious from time to time of His inner conviction, the Spirit first entered our lives at our confession of sin and acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus taught Nicodemus, and us, that it is necessary to be "born again" by the work of the Holy Spirit: "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit" (John 3:6). The Holy Spirit moved supernaturally within the body of the Virgin Mary to conceive Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 1:18,20; Luke 1:35). The same Spirit, who is the actualizing presence of God in our lives, acts within the human person who trusts Jesus as Savior to effect new birth.

Paul’s language of God’s presence and work in the Christian life is similar to that of Jesus. He, too, spoke of a regenerative work of God termed a "washing of rebirth (palingenesia) and renewal (anakainosis) by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). Peter wrote about it in his letter and likewise described it as "new birth (anagennao) into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). Paul shifted the metaphor in the Corinthian correspondence, but spoke of the same reality when he described believers as "a new creation" (kaine ktisis) (2 Corinthians 5:17). As new, regenerate persons, the Spirit, who gives us spiritual birth, is resident within.

An Anointing Presence

Christians often use the word anointed to denote that certain persons have an apparent touch of God on their lives enabling them to preach and teach, or even pray for people in a way that brings a sense of God’s presence and activity on their behalf. In keeping with Old Testament precedent, anointing may denote God’s commissioning and equipping of a person for special service. Thus, Jesus announced to His neighbors in Nazareth, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed (the verb, chrio) me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). Just as Samuel anointed David and the Holy Spirit came upon him in power (1 Samuel 16:13), Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit to begin His own ministry of preaching and demonstrable works of power (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32–34; Acts 10:38).

The verb chrio, "to anoint," is nearly always used of Jesus (Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38; Hebrews 1:9). New Testament writers do not, as might be expected from Old Testament precedent, use it for setting apart (ordaining) apostles or other Christian workers for ministry. Rather, the idea of anointing shifts from that of a chosen few to that of an anointing for every believer. Paul used the verb chrio only one time and in precisely this sense, "Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed (chrio) us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come" (2 Corinthians 1:21,22). Thus every believer is anointed. John also used "anointing" to describe the Spirit’s work in every believer, but emphasized the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit to bring truth and certainty. "But you have an anointing (the noun, chrisma) from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth" (1 John 2:20). Then he added, "the anointing (chrisma) you received from him remains in you . . . his anointing (chrisma) teaches you about all things" (2:27). In several ways, the New Testament reminds us that all believers, including those called to ministerial leadership, have an anointing from God associated with the arrival and continuing presence of the Holy Spirit.

An Indwelling Presence

There is an incarnational principle at work in Christian faith. John reported of Jesus, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (skenoo) among us" (John 1:14). The verb that John chose under the Spirit’s guidance means "to live in a tent." God chose to dwell for a time in a normal human body among other human beings, fallen though they were. Now absent in body since His ascension, Jesus is present in the person of the Holy Spirit—who just as easily can be called the "Spirit of God" (Matthew 3:16), the "Spirit of Christ" (Romans 8:9), or the "Spirit of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:19)—and dwelling continuously in His people who have become His physical tents. Theologically, we need to remember that where one member of the Triune Godhead is, the others are present also. Their personalities are distinct, but not separable in the human sense of separate persons.

Paul expressed the reality of God’s indwelling presence as the everyday language of living in a house. He wrote to the Romans, "the Spirit . . . is living (oikeo ‘to live in a house’) in you" (Romans 8:11). Making the point even more dramatic, Paul pointed out to the Corinthians "you . . . are God’s temple (naos) and . . . God’s spirit lives (oikeo) in you" (1 Corinthians 3:16; cf. 6:19). Paul could have chosen the word hieron that speaks of the entire temple complex with its various courts and subsidiary structures. However, he chose naos, the word that denotes the very temple itself, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place where the shekinah, the glory cloud of God’s presence, dwelt. He is powerfully expressing the reality that God’s presence lives continuously in believers both as individuals and as a corporate body.

An Affirming Presence

A theological tradition given to thinking about God in terms more rationalistic than devotional frequently misses, or devalues, a basic scriptural truth. When believers trust in Christ and receive Him into their lives, He convincingly communicates to them that what Scripture describes is indeed occurring within them. His presence is not some ethereal reality that cannot be sensed in a meaningful way. As Paul described it to the Romans, "you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children" (Romans 8:15,16). We know that we are Christians not merely by conformity to an historic tradition; we also know it in a warmly personal and assuring way because of the very real presence of Christ by His Spirit in the inner sanctuary of our lives.

Scripture refers to this reality in other ways as well. Thus, Paul, in writing the Corinthian and Ephesian letters, talked about the way in which God and/or Christ anointed us and sealed us with His Spirit, who is placed in our hearts as a "deposit" (arrhabon, ‘pledge’ or ‘guarantee’), "guaranteeing what is to come" or, "guaranteeing our inheritance" (2 Corinthians 1:21,22; Ephesians 1:13,14). Paul deliberately used the word arrhabon in both texts. While he is certainly describing a divinely accomplished reality above and beyond whatever human emotions that action may engender, this is nonetheless a real presence of the Spirit that powerfully affirms the faith of the believer.

A Sanctifying Presence

The Spirit also has an important role in effecting sanctification in the believer. In Paul’s words to the fractious and occasionally loose-living Corinthians, "But you were washed, you were sanctified (hagiazo), you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). The activity of the Spirit in sanctification occurs too frequently in the New Testament to be overlooked. The Gentiles, for example, are to be an "offering acceptable to God, sanctified (hagiazo) by the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:16). To the Thessalonians, the Apostle wrote, "God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying (hagiasmos) work of the Spirit" (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Peter reminded his charges that they were "chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work (hagiasmos) of the Spirit" (1 Peter 1:2).

While some may be tempted to obscure these passages by interpreting them as an objective, juridical act of God in which He declares us to be sanctified—and God does view us that way in Christ—they make it clear that the Holy Spirit has worked and is working to effect in us a meaningful separation from sin and dedication to God. The Spirit has a well-defined role in convicting humankind of sin (John 16:8) and leading God’s people to the Truth (John 16:13; 1 John 2:20). It is He who gives us that inner sense of well-being with God that follows confession and forgiveness.

An Energizing Presence

A major focus of Jesus’ instructions to His disciples is their need of power for service. Jesus reiterated the Gospel promises of baptism in the Holy Spirit with the assurance that the moment of fulfillment was near, "For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5; cf. Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). Jesus also associated Spirit-baptism with the power (dunamis) required to be His "witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The dramatic events of the Day of Pentecost fulfilled the promise as God the Holy Spirit came to the temple of His waiting people, attested by the phenomena of theophany: the sound of a violent wind and the appearance of tongues of fire (Acts 2:1–3). The 120 "began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled (apophthengomai) them" (Acts 2:4). The verb translated "enabled" denotes prophetic inspiration and indicates the internal presence of the Spirit quickening their speech.

This same power moved Peter to deliver his sermon (the verb apophthengomai is also used in 2:14 where it is translated "addressed") and explain that what people are seeing and hearing is the fulfillment of Joel’s promise of an eschatological outpouring of God’s Spirit that would enable His sons and daughters to prophesy. Luke understood that such activities as speaking in tongues and witnessing for Christ, among others, are expressions of that prophetic promise. God’s indispensable power and presence, without which they cannot successfully serve, has come to His people.

It is apparent from Scripture that the power Jesus spoke about is not an impersonal force. Rather, it flows from God who is himself present in the human psyche by the Holy Spirit. The personal side of the divine presence is also seen in Jesus’ promises in the Gospel of John, that He would send "another Counselor (parakletos) to be with you [the disciples] forever—the Spirit of truth . . . he lives with you and will be in you" (John 14:16,17). The future tense "will be in you" is undoubtedly an expectation of Pentecost. Paul was gifted for ministry "through the working of his power" (Ephesians 3:7) and prayed that all his readers might know "his incomparably great power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:19).

A Charismatic Presence

Despite a host of biblical references to God’s power and activity, the potential of the Holy Spirit’s presence is neglected in many circles. God desires to work through responsible human beings by His Holy Spirit. Gideon, a reluctant and rather unlikely Old Testament hero, is illustrative. As the biblical account puts it, "the Spirit of the Lord [Yahweh] came upon Gideon" (Judges 6:34). Only then did Gideon achieve his astounding victories over Israel’s oppressors. The translation "the Spirit . . . came upon Gideon" is not inaccurate, but it fails to convey the power of the Hebrew verb lâbash, which means "dress" or "be clothed." This verb suggests that the Spirit of the Lord clothed himself with Gideon. When the power of the Holy Spirit is at work in His people, it is power that flows from the personal presence of the Almighty within them.

In the New Testament, while the Holy Spirit may work sovereignly apart from any human instrumentality, the Spirit’s power is usually transmitted through the church by means of the gifts of the Spirit. After Pentecost, believers found themselves in a church, newly equipped with a full range of spiritual gifts enabling both the Twelve and others to do extraordinary things in their witness for Christ. They provided wise leadership (Acts 6:1–6), delivered inspired and powerful sermons and public apologies (Acts 4:8ff.; 6:10), worked dramatic healings (Acts 8:7; 14:8–10), gave accurate prophecies about the future (Acts 20:23; 21:4,10,11), and performed many signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 5:12–16; 6:8; 8:6,13; 19:11,12). The ministry of the church may even be said to be charismatic since it relies on the charismata, the gifts of the Spirit.

Paul provided a rationale for the Spirit’s charismatic ministry by giving several lists of charismata in his letters (Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:8–11; Ephesians 4:11; cf. 1 Peter 4:10,11). These lists are apparently not intended to be comprehensive. Music and craftsmanship, for example, are not found. Among the charismata, Paul identified "miraculous" gifts that are by very nature spontaneous and occasional (1 Corinthians 12:8–11). He also included as charismata the more "ordinary" gifts that are resident and constant in believers as teaching, serving, acts of mercy, administration, and so forth (Romans 12:6–8). Paul made it clear that the Holy Spirit sovereignly gives one or more of these gifts to every believer (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:7; 1 Peter 4:10,11)—both clergy and laypersons—for the work of the ministry. The Spirit both gives the gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7) and energizes them in their operation (1 Corinthians 12:6). Where the presence of the Spirit is cherished, He will illuminate and activate His gifts.

A Fruitful Presence

The presence of God in the believer also has to do with fruitfulness. Using common images of the vineyards through which He and His disciples regularly passed, Jesus taught, "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit" (John 15:5). He undoubtedly is thinking of both the fruitfulness of a maturing, godly character and the fruitfulness of their witness; the immediate context puts a great deal of emphasis on obedience to His commands and love for both God and neighbor. Not surprisingly, Paul connects fruitfulness in character development with the indwelling wisdom and energy of the Spirit. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:22,23).

In the Ephesian letter, there is an imperative for believers to be "filled with the Spirit" with striking results of charismatic praise and worship, as well as a lifestyle of gratitude and submission (Ephesians 5:18–21) that ripples throughout society (Ephesians 5:22 through 6:9). A parallel passage in Colossians says much the same thing, but there notes that it is the "word of Christ" that dwells in us richly so we can wisely teach and admonish one another in Spirit-filled praise and worship. To have the Spirit of God filling us is also to be engaging the Word of God that is constantly directing us toward true worship, more loving service, and greater conformity to the will of God in all relationships.

Jesus, in His vine and branches imagery, made it clear that even the fruitful branch vitally joined to the vine must continue to be pruned "so that it will be even more fruitful" (John 15:2). Fruitfulness and sanctification go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. The Spirit of God as the agent of the Great Gardener of the church is always attempting to apply the Word of God and prune away the dead branches of sinful thoughts, attitudes, and acts so the divine life can produce more fruit.

A Revelatory Presence

The presence of God in the person of His Spirit implies self-disclosure. What the Triune God first reveals is himself. The Creator wishes to be known by the creature and to have His ways known and imitated. To this end, Paul prayed that the readers of the Ephesian letter "may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you [they] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18,19). He also asked that God would "fill you [the Colossians] with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (Colossians 1:9).

Wisdom and knowledge are an essential part of what God reveals to His children, and this language is often found in the New Testament. "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better," Paul wrote (Ephesians 1:17). Significantly, Paul made reference in that passage to the three persons of the Godhead, all of whom are purposeful in their oft-stated desire to know and be known by men and women.

Those filled with the Spirit of God may also be privy to supernaturally given insight that guides Christians in their personal and corporate journey on behalf of the people of God. Peter apparently knew supernaturally that Ananias and Sapphira had lied to the Holy Spirit in misrepresenting their gift to the church. Certainly, he could not otherwise have predicted that their deaths would follow (5:1–11). An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip directing him to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26). The Lord spoke to Ananias of Damascus in a vision telling him about the newly converted Saul of Tarsus and instructing him to pray for his healing (9:10–19). Similarly, Peter, after receiving a puzzling vision, was dispatched by the Spirit to the house of Cornelius (10:1–23). The scriptural examples of such communication may be multiplied many times over.

Spirit-filled persons may also be recipients of particular inspiration for their worship gatherings. Common to the Corinthian contributions was what Paul termed on three occasions a "revelation" (1 Corinthians 14:6,26,30), obviously something the Holy Spirit directly communicated through them for the edification of the church. It is important to point out that these revelations were not intended to have the status of Scripture, but were instead to be tested by Scripture (1 Corinthians 14:29,37). We understand them to be subordinate revelation, but they are nonetheless authentic communications by the Spirit to the local gathering of the people of God for their immediate guidance and edification. For example, Paul reports he went to Jerusalem to address the thorny issue of Jewish/Gentile relationships in response to a "revelation (apokalupsis)" (Galatians 2:2). The Spirit was present and active all through the Acts narrative granting knowledge, wisdom, and direction to the efforts of the Early Church (cf. Acts 8:26; 10:9–23; 13:2; 15:28).

A Praying Presence

The Holy Spirit within us has a special affinity for prayer. "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests," Paul wrote (Ephesians 6:18). He used the same phraseology when discussing praying in tongues, "I will pray with my spirit . . ." (1 Corinthians 14:15). Toward the end of the biblical canon, Jude inserted this reminder, "But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit" (Jude 20). The Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses by His personal intercession for us with "groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26), which many understand to be our fervent prayer in tongues.

The Spirit will not by himself create a vibrant prayer life. There is the anticipation of cooperation from the human side. As Jude put it, "build yourselves up in your most holy faith." While the Spirit is poised to assist, even moving us toward prayer, it is quite clear that Jude calls for responsibility and initiative on our part. Much as Jesus regularly sought a place of prayer (Luke 4:42; 6:12; 9:18), we must create and maintain a pattern of spiritual disciplines in which the Spirit can energize our prayers. The converse to Jude’s exhortation is plain. If we do not pray in the Spirit, we do not build ourselves up in our most holy faith.

A Departing Presence

One of the most sober and unforgettable scenes in the Old Testament is Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God departing from the temple in Jerusalem. The sin of "the house of Israel and Judah" had become so great that it could indeed be said, "The Lord has forsaken the land" (Ezekiel 9:9). As Ezekiel observed, the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim in the Most Holy Place and moved to the threshold of the temple (10:4). Then as the cherubim took wing, the glory of the Lord rose from the threshold, sat above the cherubim, and moved away to the east (10:18,19), not to return until the time of renewal and restoration (43:1–5).

The presence of God is a holy presence. The one who lives within is the Holy Spirit, and He is not comfortable with sinful thoughts, attitudes, or acts. In the Old Testament, great leaders learned, to their sorrow, that the presence of God could be withdrawn. Samson, after repeated immoral acts and betrayal of his Nazarite vow, found in the heat of battle that "the Lord had left him" (Judges 16:20). The epitaph of Saul’s reign is, "Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him" (1 Samuel 16:14). New Testament writers remind us that the Spirit of God may be lied to (Acts 5:3), resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Ephesians 4:30), quenched (1 Thessalonians 5:19, KJV), and insulted (Hebrews 10:29). Jesus also spoke of the possibility of blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:22–30; Luke 12:10), apparently with immediate reference to the way His opponents were ascribing His work to the evil one. In the aftermath of his sin with Bathsheba, David was terror-stricken at the prospect of the Spirit’s departure from his life: "Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11).

Conclusion

In an affluent, upwardly mobile society such as that of 21st-century America, a growing professionalism in the Christian ministry is inevitable. At its best, such professionalism implies that ministers are well-educated in their theological tradition, well-trained in the professional skills needed for their work, and guided by a high standard of ethics. Mastery of the science of leadership and cultivation of the requisite relational skills will enable us to respond to societal trends and grow larger and healthier churches. Surely Pentecostal ministers ought to be consummate professionals.

Healthy professionalism, sadly, can degenerate into what is often called the professionalization of the ministry. That term is frequently used to denote that clergy have learned well how to manage the institutional church but have lost the reality of God’s presence. They may almost unwittingly crowd out the Word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit and merely maintain a "form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5).

A healthy antidote to sterile professionalization is what the 17th-century Christian mystic, Brother Lawrence, called "the practice of the presence of God." Scripture provides a dynamic theology of God’s presence. We pray that the Holy Spirit will use these truths, ignite a passion for God, and make His presence a powerful and communicable reality that will transform our ministries.

Edgar R. Lee, S.T.D., is vice president for academic affairs, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri

*Scripture references are from the New International Version.

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