I’ve never understood what a gift horse is, let alone why I’d ever be tempted to look it in the mouth. Perhaps if I knew the definition of a gift horse I would understand why it would seem appealing to look one in the mouth.
In my FE experience, the same is often true of both the church and the Holy Spirit. Among these groups of bible-believing Christians, there are guarded precepts pertaining to both, but there’s a definite lack of clarity (or just plain misconception) on the purpose of the church and the work of the Holy Spirit on the believer.
Why does an FE go to church? To worship God through prayer, singing, fellowship, and preaching. These are the tangible things. I am hesitant to call them “objective” because the interpretation of the service is still up to the individual’s perception. For instance, maybe I appreciated last week’s hymns more than this week and thought the sermon was out of place, while the same time the person 2 pews in front of me is enraptured with the hymns and message (which may actually contain the gospel). This is a strange situation to be in. How are we to gauge the service? Is majority rule determine the effectiveness of God’s movement in the local body that Sunday? This is troublesome because there is nothing we can look to outside of our own sinful hearts to prove “whether you felt like it or not, God was present and has worked.”
For the FE, there’s another category of intangible benefits of church attendance that nobody can enumerate. An FE may describe some of these in terms like “I really feel on fire after that service,” or “I was really fed this morning,” or any number of similar phrases. These happenings are often attributed to the Holy Spirit.
How does one know the Holy Spirit has been present in church on a given day? Personal feelings are examined (and if you don’t feel the same good things that I do, then you weren’t in the proper mindset). Raised hands are counted as eyes are closed.
How does this situation come to be, that the Holy Spirit’s actions are reduced to what “feels like God moved” and even the tangible things are subjective? In the FE paradigm, church is about what man has to offer God, in exchange for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Church isn’t about gathering to receiving the free gifts of God in Christ. Church is about elevating ourselves to the throne of God (and perhaps crediting the Holy Spirit) through praise, prayer, fellowship, and preaching. Perhaps it is even acknowledged that without Christ’s work, none of this would be possible. Yet, there is little emphasis placed on Christ coming down to serve us as we are. There is little talk of the free gift of Christ in the truest sense.
“I disagree,” I can sense someone thinking. “I receive the gifts of God in Christ each Sunday in church.”
But what was this person offered in church that does not depend on what’s going on in the quiet of his own heart? What was offered that wasn’t contingent first on what effort of his own that he gave? What objective assurance was he given in church that God has called him “friend,” despite his countless failings in the flesh, weakness of faith, and the evil in his heart?
Consider instead Martin Luther’s words from the Large Catechism, addressing the third article of the Apostle’s Creed:
Learn, then, to understand this article most clearly. If you are asked: What do you mean by the words: I believe in the Holy Ghost? you can answer: I believe that the Holy Ghost makes me holy, as His name implies. But whereby does He accomplish this, or what are His method and means to this end? Answer: By the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. For, in the first place, He has a peculiar congregation in the world, which is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God, which He reveals and preaches, [and through which] He illumines and enkindles hearts, that they understand, accept it, cling to it, and persevere in it.
In the scriptures, and in confessional Lutheranism, the ordinary way the Holy Spirit works on a person and the way that is most frequently described, is through his own actions performed via the proxy he has created, the church.
God shows up in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, because he said he would. The believer is made holy by God through his gifts encountered in the church. Christ comes to church in the form of a servant, presenting us the gifts we need to please God.
It is objective, and it is external to us. Thanks be to Christ!
Read all of Luther’s commentary on the Apostles Creed in the Large Catechism here.