The Holy Spirit—So what?

Four guiding principles that have helped me understand more clearly how and when the Spirit moves and works.

Jan Paulsen, ThD, is the retired president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

My wife and I were in Nigeria in the 1960s at the beginning of the Biafran War—a brutal, bloody conflict in which many thou­sands were killed. I was the principal of the Seventh-day Adventist college in west Nigeria where Babcock University now stands. At that time, the college was known for its bakery, and, early every morning, two vans set out to deliver fresh bread to the nearby cities of Lagos and Ibadan.

One of the drivers who took bread to Ibadan came to my house late one evening. He was from the Ibo tribe of east Nigeria, the tribe at war with the rest of the country. As the turmoil had drawn closer to the college, most Ibo students had left the college to return to the comparative safety of their homes. But this student had chosen to stay, and he said to me, “I’m afraid to go by myself into Ibadan tomorrow. Would you come with me?”

We left at four in the morn­ing with an extra box of bread to distribute to the soldiers at the mili­tary checkpoints we passed through. We made our deliveries in the city and then headed back toward the college. But as we came around a long bend in the road, we found a number of cars stopped. Nearby stood half a dozen soldiers in uni­form with automatic weapons—they were Hausa soldiers from north Nigeria, the Ibos’ most implacable enemies. They were drunk on palm wine, unsteady on their feet, and less than rational. They could speak only a few words of English and as they came to each vehicle, they asked just one question: “Which nation?” meaning, “Which tribe?” When they came to our van, they did not need to ask the question because they saw the tribal marks on my driver’s face.

“Come out, come out,” they said to him. I knew what would happen if he left the van; so many Ibos had simply been taken off to the side of the road and had been shot. I opened the door on my side and started to get out. “No,” they said and gestured for me to stay. The leader of the group was on my side of the van. I whispered a prayer and then began to speak to him.

I spoke without pause for about 15 minutes. As I talked, the other soldiers, who had been pointing their weapons through the windows of our van, came around to listen. To this day I have no recollection of what I said. What I do know, however, is that I did not speak their language nor did they speak mine.

Yet they listened intently as I spoke, without moving. After a quarter of an hour, the leader said to the Ibo driver, “OK, we will let you go, but only because your master talked so well.”

As a theologian and professor, I have studied and taught the theology of the Holy Spirit. As a pastor, I have preached sermons on the manifesta­tions of the Spirit in the community of faith. As a church leader, I have prayed for the presence and guid­ance of God’s Spirit in decisions that sometimes seemed to demand more than human judgment.

But in those few minutes on a dusty Nigerian road, the Holy Spirit reached unexpectedly into my life and became real to me in a dramatic way. Was it an example of glossola­lia—speaking in tongues? However you want to define it theologically, I know that God’s Spirit moved physically in that moment to serve a divine purpose and to save the life of the Ibo student, and possibly mine as well.

As pastors and leaders in a church that has rightly taken a cautious approach to purely emotional or esoteric manifestations of the charismata, we have, by the same token, often tended to shy away from emphasizing how the Spirit does move in the day-to-day lives of God’s people. Perhaps in our teaching and preaching we sometimes overspiritualize the Holy Spirit. We consign Him to a realm apart from the nine-to-five realities of our world. We describe His role in primarily abstract, intellectual terms, and thus “elevate” Him to a level of practical irrelevance.

But, to put it bluntly, the role of the Holy Spirit is functional, not decorative. He functions as an active force, not a theological construct. He is a dynamic presence today, not waiting in abeyance to be unleashed at some future moment in time. When He moves, it is according to the divine will, not ours. He reaches into human affairs not merely for the purpose of producing spiritual “fire- works” but to respond in practical ways to tangible needs—both in our personal journeys and the corporate life of the church.

I so often hear the word spiritual used synonymously with “mystical,” “inexplicable,” “mysterious,” “elu­sive.” Yet it becomes clear as we look at the circumstances in which the Spirit was given to the church that His purpose is, for want of a better description, to be “useful.” When He moves, the results are palpable and concrete. He is, in essence, the Divine Facilitator.

How then do we recalibrate our understanding of the Spirit and His movement in our church so that it encompasses this fundamental practicality without, at the same time, veering into that which may be self-focused or trivial, a mere “bedlam of noise”?1

For pastors and church admin­istrators who aspire to Spirit-filled leadership, there are additional questions: What does ministering in the Spirit look like in my day-to-day interactions? How can I seek best the guidance of the Spirit and discern His promptings?

This topic is virtually endless, but I would like to share with you four guiding ideas that have stayed with me through the years; ideas that have helped me understand more clearly how and when the Spirit moves in my own life and within the corporate life of our church.

To understand the Spirit’s mission, look to the Son

Consider the final weeks of Christ’s ministry on earth. After three and a half years of friendship, fellow­ship, sharing of life, and instruction, the disciples were understandably anxious about the separation that seemed imminent. What would become of them when Christ was gone? While sincere, they were also at times fickle, unsure, unpredict­able, and ill prepared to stand firmly for what they had come to know as Truth. Would they be able to survive on their own? Would they, in fact, be on their own?

At various times Jesus tried to prepare them for the day when He would leave (see Matt. 26:11; John 7:33, 34). He assured them that although He would be physically absent, He would never really leave them. “ ‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ ” (Matt. 28:20); “ ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you’ ” (John 14:18).2 Christ’s ascension would not end His real presence among His people; it would simply enter a new phase. His presence among His earthly family would come through the gift and ministry of the Holy Spirit, and Pentecost marked the beginning of this new era.

Of course, the Holy Spirit, as the Third Person of the Godhead, had been present and active on the earth since the beginning. He was there at Creation. He was there inspiring the prophets. He was there providing the gift of leadership to the judges.

Why, then, is the Spirit’s special coming to the community of believ­ers after the ascension of Christ specifically signaled in the Bible? He had obviously been there before, so what was new now?

The Spirit’s new assignment, after the ascension of Christ, is very closely tied to the person and message of Christ. In His parting message to His disciples, Jesus tells them about the coming of the Holy Spirit and what He would do (John 14–16).

There exists no mystery here. Although Christ no longer physically lives with us, the Spirit continues His ministry. The Spirit does not bring a new or different gospel. He guides us, reminds us, and teaches us. “By [the Holy Spirit’s] power the vital truths upon which the salvation of the soul depends are impressed upon the mind, and the way of life is made so plain that none need err therein.”3

And so what would be the most important litmus test for any pastor or leader of God’s people who seeks to know where the Spirit leads or to understand what is “of the Spirit” and that which is not? Look to the Son­ His words, His life, His mission—for through the Spirit, Jesus Christ still walks with humanity today.

The movement of the Spirit is revealed in community

If we understand the why—the mission—of the Spirit, then what about the how of the Spirit? How does His presence manifest itself within our lives as individuals and within the corporate life of God’s people?

There are many ways we could describe this. But perhaps the essence of the Spirit’s impact can be expressed in this way: the Spirit will always lead us toward an outward, rather than inward, orientation; that is, the Spirit will always lead us toward Christ and other people.

That the fruit of the Spirit has a social setting and finds its meaning in relationships with other people cannot be attributed to a coinci­dence. And it is also no coincidence that the chapter on love (1 Cor. 13) centers in Paul’s treatment of spiri­tual gifts. The unity of the church is organic. Life and nurture are to flow from one individual to the next; thus, the meaning of being one “body.” The Spirit binds us together.

Since the beginning of time, God has been at work creating and re-creating, designing and restoring through His Spirit. The community of God’s people has always been the community of the Spirit. This is where He functions in practical ways. “The Spirit recreates, refines, and sanctifies human beings, fitting them to become members of the royal family.”4

The presence of the Spirit is to make otherwise frail human beings into a genuine community of disciples. Spiritual gifts equip that community to function for Christ. Not all disciples have the same gifts; the choice is God’s. But the primary gift of the Holy Spirit is extended to all who genuinely commit them­selves to Jesus Christ and live lives of obedience to Him.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote to a church greatly divided over spiritual gifts. He said that all who have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior have this in common, that the one Holy Spirit has been poured out for them to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit and His many gifts are all “given for the common good” (v. 7) and not for some kind of private enjoyment. A sense of spiritual elitism should be alien to the community spirit of the church family. God makes no suggestion that the believers them­selves are to pick and choose from a “menu” of gifts the ones they would like. God bestows gifts according to the needs of His people at any given point in history.

All three New Testament lists of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:4–11; Eph. 4:8–12) make clear that gifts are for (1) the common good of the church; (2) the building up of the body of Christ, to bring the church to its functional peak; and (3) service. Something must happen! The Spirit is both a functional instru­ment and a catalyst for change.

And so the Spirit’s presence in the church and our personal lives does the following:

  • He makes us sure of our salva­tion in Christ. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom. 8:16).
  • He helps us experience the freedom of forgiveness and the removal of guilt. “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
  • He binds us together as God’s people. “[T]here should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25; cf. Eph. 4:3).
  • He fights against moral corrup­tion. “[L]ive by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Gal. 5:16).
  • He brings forth a variety of fruits. “[L]ove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23; cf. Eph. 4:31, 32).
  • He guides God’s children into a deeper understanding of truth. “ ‘But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things’ ” (John 14:26; cf. 16:12–15).
  • He empowers the people of God to function as a witness­ing community. “ ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:8; cf. Luke 24:49).

That is what it means to be filled with the Spirit! The Spirit, as an enabling force, equips God’s people to function as believers. The func­tion has a practical focus; it has to do with how we think, the choices we make, and the way we act. As Ellen G. White describes, “When by the Holy Spirit divine truths are impressed upon the heart, new conceptions are awakened, and the energies hitherto dormant are aroused to co-operate with God.”5

I cannot leave this topic without particularly mentioning one gift of the Spirit that has special importance to the community of believers—the gift of prophecy, mentioned in all three New Testament lists of spiritual gifts. This gift “edifies the church” (1 Cor. 14:4) and provides guidance as believers seek to understand the Bible.

In order to safely understand the dynamic role of the gift of prophecy in this final period of earth’s history, we must remind ourselves of the whole sweep of the multiple roles of the Spirit in the church today. With an eye to the vast range of functions of spiritual gifts, the gift of prophecy, as manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen G. White, must be understood. Her work is neither a correction of, nor a replacement for, prophetic ministries of the past. If anything, she helps believers remember and understand the prophetic messages that are already there.

When a gift of the Spirit, includ­ing the gift of prophecy, is bestowed on an individual, that person does not become the focus of the church. Christ remains the focus. He is the heart of the gospel. The church belongs to Him. The mission of the church is His. That is the way it always must be or religion deterio­rates into idolatry.

That which looks, sounds, and “smells” Spirit filled is not necessarily so

“How do you, as church presi­dent, know you’re being led by the Holy Spirit when you make decisions that affect the church?” the young man asked, his tone challenging and skeptical in equal parts. The question came during a live Let’s Talk broadcast from Pacific Union College in California. This was one of about 30 free-flowing televised conversations I had with different groups of Adventist young people around the world, during which they talked with me about anything that was on their minds.

The question should be consid­ered important because it probes our fundamental assumptions about the role of the Spirit within the community of faith and within the leadership function in particular.

So far we have explored our need to be more open in recogniz­ing the practical workings of the Spirit in building up and equipping the community of believers. Yet, at the same time, those of us who minister to God’s people face a special—and perhaps seemingly contradictory—challenge. As lead­ers and pastors within a spiritual community, there is a temptation to clothe ourselves, our speech, and our special projects in the language of the Spirit and to proclaim that the Spirit is leading His people in the direction we want to go.

But anointing our plans with words will not guarantee that our will and the divine will are aligned; an elected or appointed position does not come packaged with per­sonal infallibility. Plainly put, being Spirit led does not mean being always right.

How then should pastors and leaders seek the Spirit’s guidance? Occasionally, I have met leaders whose approach to difficult issues is to withdraw into themselves and await a “word from the Lord.” Private prayer, meditation, and study are indeed absolutely critical, but when it comes to identifying the Spirit’s leading, wise leaders will also reach out for the counsel of their colleagues. A leader who retreats inward to seek a personal God-speaking-to-me moment—an experience that can be notoriously subjective—may be perceived by others as unreliable and perhaps even manipulative.

Ellen G. White writes that a leader should listen to those who “have been long in the work, and who have gained deep experience in the ways of the Lord. The disposi­tion of some to shut themselves up to themselves, and to feel competent to plan and execute according to their own judgment and preferences, brings them into strait places. Such an independent way of working is not right, and should not be followed.”6

For all believers who seek the Spirit’s guidance—not just pas­tors and leaders—encounters with the Holy Spirit are not necessar­ily esoteric, private, dramatic, or emotional experiences that serve to bathe one in a glow of piety. If we cultivate daily an openness to God’s leading, the Spirit can find us as we dialogue with a trusted counselor, consult with our col­leagues, or talk things over with our spouses. The Spirit can even reach us through the mundane operations of a church business meeting or a General Conference committee!

And so, my answer to the young man’s question during the Let’s Talk broadcast was simple: leadership­ pastoral or administrative—within the church should never be mis­construed as “personal infallibility.” Election or appointment to office does not automatically come with a direct line to the Spirit. Pastors and leaders must seek the leading of God’s Spirit in the same way that every believer does—through individual study of God’s Word and prayer, by seeking the broader counsel of our brothers and sisters in faith, and doing so, always, with an attitude of humility.

The Holy Spirit is already ministering

During a weeklong visit to China in 2009, I met two women whose decades-long ministries have pro­duced results that, quite simply, defy human logic.

Hao Ya Jie is the senior pastor of the Beiguan Seventh-day Adventist Church in Shenyang. When she began her work, she started with a handful of people—just 25 mem­bers. And now, 20 years on, she has a community of 7,000 believers. Three thousand worship at the “mother” church and the others are spread out in the district among 17 other churches.

When Hao Ya Jie looks at you, even though somebody else is translating her words, there is an incredible sense of strength and warmth in her eyes; and when she prays, you are transfixed by the passion of her words.

Soon afterward, I met Zu Xiu Hua, in the northeastern province of Jilin, who is in charge of a district of 20,000 church members. When government restrictions on religion were loosened in 1989, the church in that area experienced major growth. She related one story of a large baptism conducted by the only Adventist pastor there at the time. He was planning to do all the baptizing, but it became too much for him to handle. So he stood in the river, spoke the words, and let the deacons lower the candidates into the water and bring them up again. That pastor stood in the river for three days and baptized 3,000 people—1,000 a day. I asked Zu Xiu Hua, “How do you account for this? Where is this extraordinary appeal?” She said, “The people come to the teachings, and they see our zeal and the Holy Spirit.”

A disarmingly simple answer, and yet so powerful.

Sometimes we look back at the dramatic moment of Pentecost and we look forward to the outpouring of the latter rain, and it can be easy to imagine—especially for the Western mind—that we occupy an in-between space in history where the Spirit is “taking things easy.” Where are the signs and wonders? Where is the drama?

But make no mistake: God’s Spirit is at work today, regardless of whether or not His handiwork fits our preconceptions of what exactly this should look like.

There are dangers in seeing the Spirit only as a future force for which we must wait and pray. We risk diminishing the practical impact of the Spirit’s power in the here and now by “elevating” it to something that always seems just out of our reach. We can become spiritually introspective and distracted from our mission.

The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and church will always be a by-product, not an end goal. It is a by-product of obedience, of our willingness each day to commit our lives, ambi­tions, and choices to the cause of Christ’s mission. For when we, as a church, are focused on mission and assemble all of our resources for mission, we open ourselves to the infilling and empowering of the Holy Spirit, without which we are helpless to fulfill our assignment.


Through the years, I have stud­ied, taught, and preached about the Holy Spirit and I have struggled at times to understand how the Spirit works within Christ’s body. But I have continued to believe that the most important question we can ever ask about the Spirit is, “So what?” As a pastor and leader, what practical difference does the Spirit make in my life? In my decision making? In my leadership style? In the atmosphere I try to cultivate within my workplace and church? In the way I treat people—both within and beyond the community of faith? In my approach to the mission God has entrusted to us?

The Holy Spirit is alive and well. He is present and acting today in His church and for His people as He has in the past. And He will continue to do so for as long as we are here.



1 See Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 2 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), 36, 37.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New International Version.

3 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 113.

4 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 287.

5 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 520.

6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 501, 502.

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Jan Paulsen, ThD, is the retired president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 2012

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