How do you know if your church is Spirit-filled?

One answer, the charismatic one, is to equate passion with presence. The presence of the Spirit is displayed in a congregation’s passionate expression and rockin’ music—to use technical language. As an example, recently I spoke to a local minister who raved about a church that was “simply on fire.” How so? According to him, God’s work was evident because of their large attendance, loud singing, and expressive worship. For his sake and theirs, I hope he is right. But if numbers and noise are all it takes to qualify as “Spirit-filled,” the prophets of Baal would be headlining Christian conferences (see 1 Kings 18).

Another answer moves in the opposite direction. Since the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of truth (not falsehood), order (not confusion), and holiness (not irreverence), a Spirit-filled church is properly organized, doctrinally-sound, and dedicated the service of the Lord. Certainly, holiness does mark the presence of the Spirit. Truth and testimony will be present in a Spirit-filled church, but we can all imagine (and many of us have experienced) churches where truth is present, but love and zeal are not.

Our charismatic friends rightly react against this kind of “spiritual lethargy.” Still, activity in the church is no more a proof of life than putting a corpse in an elevator. Neither vigorous activity, musical expression, or doctrinal precision guarantee a real sense of the Spirit.

So what does?

Three Marks of Christ’s Real, Spiritual Presence

In John’s Gospel, the beloved disciple three times indicates the kind of work the Holy Spirit will do when Jesus sends him from the Father. From John 14:26; 15:26; and 16:13 we get a real sense of what Spirit-filled looks like.

First, the Spirit will produce spiritual fruit by means of the Word.

In John 14:26, Jesus says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Jesus indicates that the Spirit will enable the apostles to remember his teachings and write them down for the sake of the church. This verse undergirds our doctrine of New Testament inspiration, but it also indicates the way in which the Spirit works more generally.

When the Spirit is present, he instructs his disciples with the words of Jesus. For the first century apostles, this meant writing Jesus words; for every subsequent generation, it means reading (or hearing) and understanding how the Words point to Christ.

Going one step further. The Spirit not only provides illumination but spiritual efficacy (cf. 1 Cor 2:10–16). As if to prove that point, the next verse (John 14:27) indicates that Jesus will give his disciples “my peace.” Like he would say in John 15:10 (“abide in my love” and “you will abide in my love”) and 15:11 (“my joy will be in you”), Jesus promises to give his spiritual life (“my joy,” “my love,” and “my peace”) to his disciples by means of his Spirit he will send.

Therefore, the presence of Jesus is mediated by his Spirit and when his Spirit is present his disciples will be (1) growing in Jesus’ teachings (which includes the whole counsel of God) and (2) bearing the fruit of the Spirit as a result of the Word that is understood via reading, preaching, studying, etc.

Second, the Spirit will speak explicitly about Christ. 

In the Christian life, there is nothing fuzzy about the gospel. The Spirit comes to us adducing verbal testimony that leads to emotional satisfaction. As John 15:26 reads, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

Building on what Jesus said earlier, the Spirit-filled church is the place where Christ is proclaimed, where he inhabits the praises of his people, where in regular speech Jesus is the content of the conversation. How do you know if your church or your home or your life is “Spirit-filled”? Listen to the conversation? Do you find clear, biblical testimony to Christ? If not, you can be assured that the Spirit is missing. That said, just because the name Jesus is heard does not mean the Spirit of God is present, which leads to the third point.

Third, the Spirit will glorify Christ with verbal testimony. 

In John 16:14, Jesus simply says of the Holy Spirit, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Notice three things about this potent verse:

  1. The Spirit comes to glorify Jesus.
  2. The Spirit glorifies Jesus by means of what he declares.
  3. The Spirit declares what Jesus gives him (to declare).

By saying that the Spirit will glorify Jesus it overturns any conversation that impugns Christ or speaks falsely about him. Obviously, the Spirit is absent from churches who malign Christ, but he is also absent from churches who trade the Word of God for old traditions or new fads. Insofar as a church is Word-centered, it has the potential to be Spirit-filled. Ultimately, the filling of the Spirit is the Spirit’s work (see John 3:1–8). However, whenever a church ignores or distorts the Word of Christ, it loses any chance of being Spirit-filled.

Simply put, Spirit-filled churches are Word-centered churches that (under the influence of the Spirit) rightly understand and speak the Scriptures. As the previous verse reads (John 16:13), “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

The abiding mark of a Spirit-filled church is one that lifts high the name of Jesus by means of singing, praying, reading, and explicating the Word of God. Don’t get caught off guard. Whenever you hear a church speak of the Spirit apart from the Word, or spiritual fullness apart from Christ, you have discovered a church that only has a thin veneer of religion, but no spiritual power. As Leslie Newbegin wisely observed,

The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The decisive mark of his presence is the confession that Jesus Christ Lord (1 Cor 12:1-3; 1 Jn 4:1-3). His coming in power is the fruit of hearing and believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. He takes the things of Christ and shows them to us. He leads men to Christ, in whom we are baptized into one body, the body of Christ. He is no will-o’-the-wisp, leading men to all sorts of individual vagaries, but the one who binds men to Jesus Christ in the fellowship of his one body. It is true that he is free and sovereign; he goes ahead of the Church, as every missionary knows—but it is (if one may put it so) the Church that he goes ahead of. (Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, 79–80).

Indeed, there is no evidence that the Spirit moves on the mission field without the Word (defended and declared by the Church). And in the church, there is no promise of spiritual presence apart from the regular attention to the Christ of the Scriptures. As Jesus himself testifies in John’s Gospel, 1) the Spirit leads people to Christ as he conforms them into his likeness, 2) he bears explicit, verbal witness to Christ, and 3) he glorifies Christ by means of the truth of God’s Word.

Is Your Church Spirit-Filled?

Are you are wondering if your church is Spirit-filled? Then, look no further than John 14:26; 15:26; and 16:13. These three verses and their surrounding contexts give concrete evidence that Spirit-filled churches are Word-centered, Christ-exalting, fruit-bearing, and jealous for the glory of God in all things.

If your church doesn’t pass the test? Don’t give up hope. Cry out for God’s mercy. God loves to bring life to dead things. He turns deserts into pools of water, a parched lands into springs of water (Ps 107:35). And he does so with his Spirit, the Spirit of Christ as prophesied in Isaiah 32:15.

For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
–Isaiah 32:14–17 —

This post first appeared at David’s blog and is posted here with his permission.