Don’t Expect the Holy Spirit’s Work in Worship to Be Extraordinary

Scott Aniol

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“Our church’s worship is pretty formal, but I prefer Holy Spirit-led worship.”

Such was a comment said by a young evangelical describing his church’s worship service, illustrating a very common perception by many evangelicals today—if the Holy Spirit actively works in worship, the results will be something extraordinary, an experience “quenched” by too much form and order. A common perception, to be sure, but how grounded in Scripture it this expectation concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in worship?

The Holy Spirit of God has worked God’s will in the world and particularly in his people since when he “hovered over the face of the waters” to bring order to creation (Gen. 1:2; cf. Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30)—he gave revelation (2 Sam. 23:2), empowered Israel’s leaders, gifted Bezalel and Oholiab with skill to build the tabernacle (Exod. 31:1–5; 35:30–35), and dwelt in the midst of Israel (Neh. 9:20; Hag. 2:5; cf. Exod. 29:45). With his coming on the day of Pentecost, however, his work took a new form, which has raised questions for many Christians concerning what to expect as his regular work in worship.

A careful study of the Holy Spirit’s activity throughout Scripture, and specifically in the New Testament, reveals what Christians should expect his ordinary work in Christian worship to be. There is no doubt that he sometimes works in extraordinary ways, such as giving revelation (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21) and special empowerment of individuals for service (Acts 2:4; 9:17). Yet extraordinary works of the Spirit do not appear to be the ordinary way God works his sovereign will through the course of biblical history. When extraordinary experiences occur, they happen during significant transitional stages in the outworking of God’s plan. Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains:

In the Scriptures themselves, extraordinary gifts appear to be limited to a few brief periods in biblical history, in which they serve as confirmatory signs of new revelation and its ambassadors, and as a means of establishing and defending the kingdom of God in epochally significant ways. … Outbreaks of the miraculous sign gifts in the Old Testament were, generally speaking, limited to those periods of redemptive history in which a new stage of covenantal revelation was reached. … But these sign-deeds were never normative. Nor does the Old Testament suggest they should have continued unabated even throughout the redemptive-historical epoch they inaugurated. … Consistent with this pattern, the work of Christ and the apostles was confirmed by “signs and wonders.”1Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 224–225.

Extraordinary works of the Spirit do not appear to be the ordinary way God works his sovereign will through the course of biblical history.

Rather, the ordinary work of the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture is better characterized as an ordering of the plan and people of God. This describes much, if not all, of what the Holy Spirit does throughout Scripture, including giving revelation, creating life (both physical [Gen. 1:2] and spiritual [Titus 3:5]), and sanctifying individual believers (Rom. 15:16; Gal. 5:22).

This understanding provides a robust picture of what should be the expectation for how the Holy Spirit works in worship. First, his purpose in all he does is to bring order, to both individual Christians and to the Body as a whole. The descriptions in Scripture of the Holy Spirit’s activity overwhelmingly attest to this purpose, and this purpose would most naturally extend to his work in corporate worship. He worked to bring peace and blessing to Israel as he dwelt among them in the Old Testament Temple, and he does the same as he dwells within the New Testament Temple. This work begins with his acts of convicting sinners (John 16:8) and regenerating hearts (Titus 3:5), bringing life and order to once dead and disordered lives. This re-ordering continues with his frequently mentioned work of sanctification (Rom. 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2). He “circumcises the hearts” of believers (Rom. 2:29) and strengthens their inner being (Eph. 3:16), pouring love into their hearts (Rom. 5:5) and leading them to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Rom. 8:4).

Of particular importance for this discussion is a careful focus on what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22–23, the results of such an ordering in the life of the Christian: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” This was his purpose in the foundational gifts he gave to the apostles and others during the formation of the church, and even if those gifts continue today, their purpose remains the same. Paul states that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). He explicitly connects the Spirit’s giving of gifts to bringing order within the church, commanding, “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12). The Holy Spirit’s gifting of individual Christians with a diversity of ministry abilities serves to build up the unity of the Church—many members of one body (1 Cor. 12:12; Rom. 12:5), with the goal that this body will “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). It is in this context that Paul most clearly defines Spirit baptism—“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13)—which, even if the Holy Spirit is the agent, involves an ordering such that the body of Christ is formed and unified. Or, to use another New Testament metaphor for the Church, by the Spirit, believers “are being built together into a dwelling place for God,” “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21–22).

The ordinary work of the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture is better characterized as an ordering of the plan and people of God.

Second, one of the most influential and long-lasting works of the Holy Spirit to bring order to his people was the inspiration of his Word; this is why the most frequently described act of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is the giving of revelation, and why, for example, his work of “filling” a believer (Eph. 5:19) is paralleled in Paul’s writings with the Word of Christ “richly dwelling” within a Christian (Col. 3:16). The Holy Spirit gave special revelation to disclose the nature and character of God, explain God’s requirements, correct sin, and give hope for the future. Likewise, he guided the apostles into the truth (John 16:13) necessary to establish Christian doctrine and set the church in order (1 Tim. 3:15). Ultimately, he inspired a “prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Pet. 1:19–21), the canonical Scriptures, given to believers “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The nature of such inspiration is important as well: the Holy Spirit did not inspire the Scriptures by bringing authors into a sort of mystical trance as they were “carried along” (2 Pet. 1:21); rather, inspiration is a divine act wherein each author conscientiously penned the Scriptures (Acts 1:16; 4:25; Heb. 3:7; 1 Cor. 2:12–13) using craftsmanship (e.g., the Psalms), research (e.g., Luke 1:1–4), and available cultural forms and idioms. Spirit-inspired revelation is both for the purpose of order and produced in an orderly fashion. Thus, believers should expect that the Holy Spirit will work today primarily through his Word, and he will never act contrary to his Word.

The sufficiency of the Spirit-inspired Word of God leads, third, to the conviction that he has given the church in that Word all the revelation necessary concerning the elements he desires to be part of worship as described above: reading the Word, preaching the Word, singing the Word, prayer, giving, baptism, and the Lord’s Table. Furthermore, because the Holy Spirit inspired the sufficient revelation concerning the elements for worship, believers should expect that he would naturally work through those elements in the context of worship, what the Reformers would later call the “ordinary means of grace”—these were the primary means Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to ordinarily work his grace into their lives.

This leads to a fourth observation, namely, that believers should expect the Holy Spirit’s ordinary work in worship to be that of sanctifying them through the effectual means of grace that he has prescribed in his Word. The regular, disciplined use of these means of grace progressively forms believers into the image of Jesus Christ; these Spirit-ordained elements are the means through which Christians “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13).

In summary, while the Holy Spirit of God, who with the Father and the Son should be worshiped and glorified, may certainly do whatever he pleases in the world broadly and in corporate worship specifically, he is not a God of disorder, but a God of peace. The testimony of Scripture concerning the ordinary ways he works and a careful study of the New Testament’s explicit treatment of his ordinary work in worship should lead Christians to expect disciplined formation when he works. Truly Spirit-led worship is that in which the forms, elements, and content are shaped, guided, and filled with the Spirit-inspired Word for the purpose of the disciplined spiritual formation of his people.

This excerpt is from Changed from Glory Into Glory: The Liturgical Story of the Christian Faith, published by Joshua Press. Click here to purchase your copy.

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1 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997), 224–225.
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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.