Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 12/21/1997
The doctrine of Sealing with the Holy Spirit is very important but seldom discussed. Therefore I want to give it one more look from a different perspective before we move on from it. We have seen that the work of the Spirit in conviction, calling, regeneration, and sanctification with its accompanying marks is the seal which both attests to the authenticity of our spirituality and preserves and protects us in it. But precisely because my emphasis has been more objective than that of many who speak about the ministry of the Spirit, I want to stop and ask one more question: What does it feel like to be sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise?
To many of us, this might seem like the wrong kind of question to ask. If you are like me, you have a natural (and justifiable) negative reaction to the excesses of the Charismatic movement (or Evangelical pietism in general) that makes you want to avoid anything subjective and flee to the seeming safety of the objective truth of Word and Sacrament. We react to the subjective interpretation of Scripture by feeling rather than grammar and context. We react to exhortations that seem to equate emotional experiences of a certain kind with spirituality. We react to the misuse of certain spiritual gifts and the assignment of significance to them which is blatantly unscriptural. And rightly so. But the tragic result is that we can actually become afraid of Christian experience; the tragic result is that our fear of the false experience of emotionalism can deprive us of the real benefits of true Christian experience.
We should not accept the dichotomy between irresponsible and subjective emotionalism or being God's Frozen People as inevitable or desirable. For clearly in the NT knowing Jesus as Lord, loving the Father through him, having the assurance of salvation and God's favor and acceptance based on the Seal of the Spirit, was a deeply moving experience. Think of Acts 2:42-42, 4:31, 13:48, 16:25, 16:34, Rom. 8:15, 16, 26, 14:17, 15:13, Phil. 3:1, 4:4, 1 Pet. 1:5-6, 8. Where is this "joy unspeakable and full of glory" in our lives (or in those of the pietists who are so focused on emotion, for that matter)? Yet according to the cumulative impact of these and other passages it ought to be normative.
This conclusion is verified by Church History. Think of just a few testimonies from great spiritual giants of the past. Puritan father Thomas Goodwin said, "There is a light that cometh and overpowereth a man's soul and assureth him that God is his and he is God's and that God loveth him from everlasting. It is the next thing to heaven." John Wesley said, "I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt that I did trust Christ, Christ alone for my salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." It was said of John Flavel that "such was the intention of his mind, such the ravishing tastes of heavenly joys, and such the full assurance of his interest therein, that he utterly lost a sight and sense of this world and the concerns thereof . . . . The joy of the Lord overflowed him and he seemd to be an inhabitant of the other world. He many years after called that day one of the days of heaven and said that he understood more of heaven by it than by all the books he ever read." Jonathan Edwards, riding in the woods in 1737, "had such a view that was for me extraordinary of the glory of the Son of God as Mediator between God and man and His wonderful, great, full, pure, and sweet grace and love. The Person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an ecellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception, which continued about an hour. . . . . I felt an ardency of soul to be, I know not how otherwise to express it, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust and be full of Christ alone; to love Him with a pure and holy love; to trust in Him; to serve and follow HIm and be . . . made pure with a divine and heavenly purity." George Whitfield reports, "I found and felt in myself that I was delivered . . . and I knew what it was to truly rejoice in God my Savior, and for some time could not avoid singing Psalms wherever I was. But my joy gradually became more settled, and blessed be God, has abode and increased in my soul, saving a few intermissions, ever since."
Note: All of these men were intellectuals! Not one of them ever spoke in tongues. None of them were charismatics. Some believed in a second crisis experience of grace, and others did not. But they all lived close to the Lord.
What conclusions can we draw then about the place of emotion in the Christian life? First, that Man is a whole person, and God saves the whole person, so every part of us should be affected together by this. Emotionalism that rules or downgrades or bypasses the mind is simply inauthentic Christianity. But a dry, barren intellectualism that cannot feel the joy of its salvation is too.
Second, experience is not an end in itself but a byproduct of a healthy relationship with God. The Seal logically gives ground for assurance, and assurance is a joyful thing. That joy leads to confidence and boldness and further growth, which creates a deeper and sharper impresssion of the Seal. And we must be happy about that or confess ourselves to be dead. But all this comes from leading the Christian life. If we seek emotional experience for its own sake, we may well find it; but it will be counterfeit and the joy it produces will be forced and shallow.
Third, it is not normal for a person who believes the Gospel and walks with the Lord to be unaffected emotionally. We must expect hills and valleys. We cannot stand nor would we want (if we have any sense) continual excitement. But when we are convicted we should feel guilty and when we are forgiven we should feel released; when we worship God or read the Bible we should enjoy it. We should feel a love for God and for the saints which is profoundly joyful. If we don't or can't or never do, there is something wrong. As long as it does not usurp the central focus, as long as it remains the byproduct of real spirituality and not a substiture for it, we should give ourselves permission to recapture the rich inner life which should be the natural effect of the Sealing with the Spirit.
If you really believe the Gospel , if you can discern the Seal of the Spirit, then you should have many experiences of joy unspeakable and full of glory. If not, why not? Sin, unbelief, failure to give yourself wholely and unreservedly to Him, even intimidation or distaste because of the excesses of those whose emotionalism is unhealthy and who have tried to make the rest of us feel guilty for not being like them, can all be factors. Give yourself permission to feel (and think). Then meditate on the Word, pray, express to God the love you should be feeling (and your inability to feel it if that is so), and ask Him to break these barriers down and restore to you the joy of your salvation: joy unspeakable and full of glory.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams