A Theology of the Holy Spirit’s Work in Worship
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past several weeks carefully surveying the Holy Spirit’s work throughout Scripture, and specifically in passages that describe his work in worship, to determine what should be our expectation regarding his ordinary work in worship. The common expectation today is that we should expect him to work in extraordinary ways, whether that be in miraculous signs like tongues and prophecy, or through an tangible experience of the manifest presence of God.
However, what we have seen is that, although the Holy Spirit does indeed work in extraordinary ways sometimes in Scripture, that is not the ordinary way we works, and when he does work in extraordinary ways, it is always in connection with key transitional periods in the epic of God’s plan for humankind.
Rather, the Holy Spirit ordinarily works to bring order to God’s world and God’s people such that God’s plan is put into action and he is glorified.
Putting all of this together 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 OT Temple, and he does the same as he dwells within the NT Temple. 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.
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). Thus, believers should expect that the Holy Spirit will work today primary 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: reading the Word (1 Tim 4:13), preaching the Word (2 Tim 4:2), singing the Word (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19), prayer (1 Tim 2:1), giving (1 Cor 16:2), baptism (Matt 28:19), and the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 11:23–32). 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. This is why the Reformers called these prescribed elements the “ordinary means of grace”—these were the primary means Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to ordinarily work his grace into their lives. Thus, the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation,” and the catechism specifically ascribes the effect of these ordinances upon the believer to the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.”
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, what Robert Letham calls “God’s prescribed vehicles through which he communicates his mercies to us by the Holy Spirit,” 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).
Finally, with this being the expectation of how the Holy Spirit will work in worship, what role does emotion and music play in worship, and how are they related to the Holy Spirit? This question is particularly relevant since emotion and music are central to the contemporary expectation of how the Holy Spirit works. Very simply, understanding the ordinary way the Holy Spirit works in worship leads to the conclusion that emotion and singing come as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, not as a cause of the Holy Spirit’s work. Calvin Stapert helpful makes this point with reference to Ephesians 5:18–19 and Colossians 3:16:
“Spirit filling” does not come as the result of singing. Rather, “Spirit filling” comes first; singing is the response. . . . Clear as these passages are in declaring that Christian singing is a response to the Word of Christ and to being filled with the Spirit, it is hard to keep from turning the cause and effect around. Music, with it stimulating power, can too easily be seen as the cause and the “Spirit filling” as the effect.
“Such a reading of the passages,” Stapert argues, “gives song an undue epicletic function and turns it into a means of beguiling the Holy Spirit.” He argues that such a “magical epicletic function” characterized pagan worship music, not Christian. Further, while the NT does describe certain “emotions” that rise out of a heart of a Spirit-sanctified believer, such as the “fruit of the Spirit,” these will be characterized, not by extraordinary euphoria, but by what Jonathan Edwards calls “the lamb-like, dove-like spirit or temper of Jesus Christ.” Truly Spirit-formed “religious affections,” according to Edwards, “naturally beget and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness, and mercy, as appeared in Christ.”
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, not extraordinary experience when the Holy Spirit works, but disciplined formation. 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.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.