I pastor in a city called Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s home to LSU football, Cajun culture, and crawfish cuisine. And if you’ve ever traveled down I-10 to New Orleans, you may have been reminded of yet another Baton Rouge trademark. Not a something. A someone. An iconic evangelical figure who thirty years ago became the face of a charismatic movement. Someone who in many ways is still synonymous with American revival: Jimmy Swaggart. Despite the televangelist’s fall from grace in the wake of an infamous sex scandal in the late 80s, his ministry still lives on through two generations of Swaggart heirs who inherited the multi-million dollar empire. Today it’s more than a church. It’s a ministry that features a 24-hour TV channel and includes contemporary sermons from Swaggart himself. If you ever cruise down Bluebonnet Drive, you’ll drive through what looks to be a college campus morphed into a church. “Jimmy Swaggart Ministries,” for its colossal worship center and accommodating hotels, was built to house thousands. Tens of thousands. That’s because in its heyday, crowds of people would flock from all around the country to listen to Swaggart’s famous preaching revivals. These charismatic events called “camp meetings”, significantly dwarfed today, often saw hundreds make confessions of faith in Jesus. That’s the legacy of Jimmy Swaggart.
For better or for worse, that legacy lives on today in different ways. It’s not just in the Bible college or the rigorous evangelism or the elaborate worship presentations. Rather, for all of Swaggart’s enterprises, perhaps the most enduring picture of his charismatic ministry is the elevated role given the Holy Spirit, the very same Spirit whose image you’ll find on the “Jimmy Swaggart Ministries” emblem: a dove. And just as the Spirit descended upon Christ in the Jordan River, false stigmas of the Spirit have since descended upon the modern church years after Swaggart’s famous revivals. And the result is this: many church-going, biblically illiterate evangelicals now misunderstand the role of the Holy Spirit. Just the mention of the Spirit can conjure up pictures of frantic believers shouting in tongues. Or the emotional collapse of people who seem to act more like dominoes than converts. Or men in expensive suits ready to heal miraculously. Unfortunately for many Christians, these are the only images they have in mind when someone mentions the Holy Spirit. And it speaks to the lack of real biblical understanding we have in our churches when it comes to the third Person of the Trinity. An destined to promote self-obsessed worship ignorant of our own sin and our need for newness of life. The Spirit is more than speaking in tongues. He’s more than stage performances. And He desires intimacy more than He desires cameras. So who is He? And what does He look like?
In order to answer those questions and to better understand our Pentecostal brethren, we begin at the same place: the turn of the century. That’s when Charles Parham breathed life into Pentecostalism, a movement that until then had only been a renewed interest in the Spirit. Before 1901, it was known simply as the “Holiness” movement, emerging out of Methodism. If you’ve ever owned a Scofield Bible, then you’ve reaped the fruit of that movement. The “Holiness” teachings of Pentecostals were built upon the idea that the present age, the age of the church, was the age of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, beginning in Acts 2 at Pentecost. And it’s here that we can learn from the Pentecostal movement: our place in salvation history is the unique age of the Spirit. The time between Christ’s ascension and His return. When His Helper is left to guide us to Truth and declare the person and work of the Son. (John 14:16,17; 16:14) To birth us for a new world. (John 3) That’s the time we live in. The age of the Spirit. The age after the crucified Jesus. The age after Pentecost.
But Jimmy Swaggart was more than a Pentecostal. Until the sex scandal that erased his reputation and denominational membership, Swaggart’s church was a part of the Assemblies of God, a distant relative of the original Pentecostals. As I mentioned earlier, the “Holiness” movement arose from Methodist circles. The leader of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was legitimately concerned with the moral fruit of Christians. A fruit he knew could only prove authentic with the aid of the Spirit. But Wesley’s beliefs went beyond historic orthodox Christianity. Wesley believed in “perfectionism”: the idea that through the Spirit, Christians could actually achieve “entire sanctification”…or sinlessness. According to the original Pentecostal view, this experience was the ‘second blessing’ of the Holy Spirit. An experience, I might add, that stands in direct contradiction to 1 John 1:8. Then the ‘third blessing’ was the so-called ‘Baptism of the Holy Spirit’ and included speaking in tongues. As a result, this tradition of immediate ‘experiences’ and ‘blessings’ still lives on in countless American churches.
By 1910 a group within Pentecostalism opposed ‘perfectionism.’ Instead they affirmed that the road to perfection was a process ending in heaven, not an event on earth. (This is more than likely what you believe today) They were called ‘Keswicks’. And from this group was eventually born the Assemblies of God. Rather than believing in the ‘Baptism of the Holy Spirit’, Keswick teaching held to an additional blessing called ‘Filling of the Holy Spirit.’ While the two may sound similar, the difference lies in duration. While the former occurs instantaneously, the latter ‘counteracts’ sin throughout one’s new life. Keswick teaching influenced the ministries of D.L. Moody and C.I. Scofield in the Dispensationalist movement. And today, if you turn on Swaggart’s 24-hour TV network, you’ll be sure to hear him preaching a similar Keswick message. A passive message that calls its listeners ‘to yield themselves completely to God’ and to ‘let go and let God.’ To be filled with the Holy Spirit.
But we don’t live in 1900. Or 1985 for that matter. This is 2014. Names like Scofield and Swaggart have been replaced with names like Piper and Platt. But regardless of whether you’ve heard a sermon from Jimmy, Donnie, or Gabriel Swaggart, you’ve been influenced by their ministry. Or rather, the legacy of Pentecostalism. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just think about the last time you heard someone choose the word ‘charismatic’ to describe a church. ‘Charismatic’ isn’t a denomination. It’s a characteristic, denoting the same Spirit-fixed ministry that sprung from the original Pentecostal movement. Just think about the last time someone told you they decided to attend a certain church because of the ‘worship’ instead of the actual message. To be clear, enjoying worship doesn’t make you a Pentecostal. But perhaps more than any denomination in modern American history, Pentecostals have patented a particular Christian activity. An essential activity in the life of the church. But nevertheless an activity that now threatens the very life of the church itself: the experience. A dynamic of worship that can sadly become the heart of worship itself. When we misunderstand the role of the Spirit, we begin to make the Spirit just a synonym for whatever experience we want from church. The singing. The music. The feeling. Even the tears. The objective Word intended for our salvation is gradually replaced by the subjective experience of lost sinners seeking a spiritual ‘high.’ That ‘high’ could come from an emotional song or from a chorus of tongues.
So how did we get here? And what did we miss? We arrived at Christian ‘fanaticism’ through music-saturated, Spirit-less worship devoid of the Word of God. The two things meant to complement and promote one another have now been separated. Christ was the Word made flesh. (John 1:1) And His Spirit declares that Word to us. So the role of the Spirit is to work where the Word is preached. (John 16:14) That’s why Jesus told the woman at the well that his followers would worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24) In the new covenant, you can’t have one without the other. But what happens when we’re left with ‘spirit’ and no truth? The result is a church that chases a feeling instead of Jesus, placing themselves at the center of worship instead of Christ. For the experience.
But is ‘experience’ always bad? Aren’t we supposed to enjoy Christ? Absolutely. We’re commanded to clap our hands and shout to God with loud songs of joy. (Ps. 47:1) Peter even says that we can ‘taste’ that the Lord is good. (1 Pet. 2:3, Ps. 34:8) However, while we’re called to rejoice in the Lord, that joy isn’t measured solely in endorphins. It’s measured in nails. In thorns. In promises that God has revealed to us. That’s why we call Him the ‘Spirit of truth.’ (John 14:17) One never comes without the other. Fortunately, Jesus says our faith isn’t grounded in euphoria, but in His eternal words: “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.” (John 14:26) So when our ‘feeling’ goes away, his words remain. (Matthew 24:35) While Jesus does tell us to ‘baptize’ disciples in the name of the Spirit, He also echoes John 14: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20) In short, the job of the Spirit is to exalt and build upon the finished work of Christ. To advance His kingdom through His church. His body. Knitted together and born from His Spirit. Founded on His Word. If you’ve ever wondered, that’s why churches historically place the pulpit at the center of the sanctuary: the Word was given central focus. But today we’re witnessing a small shift in that perspective. So the next time you think you ‘feel’ the Spirit, make sure you’re hearing the Gospel. If you’re not…it ain’t the Spirit.
So we know what the Spirit doesn’t look like. So what does He looks like? Christians posed this same question after the first great revival: the Great Awakening (1730s). The question arose because they encountered a problem. The ‘converts’ who had given their lives to Jesus listening to the spectacular sermons of Whitefield and Wesley months later did not exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. (Gal. 5) When the revival tents were rolled up, people began to question whether it was all a show. A similar question we ask today. This question drove pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards to compose the work The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741). Edwards states boldly, “A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength.” We could benefit from that small bit of insight the next time someone exiting church tells us that they ‘felt’ the tug of the Holy Spirit without remembering what the message was about.
However, for all of Edwards’ discoveries, I believe it is one in particular that would serve modern American Christians in identifying the Holy Spirit. Listen to how he exposes the work of Satan: “It is not to be supposed that Satan would convince men of sin, and awaken the conscience; it can no way serve his end, to make that candle of the Lord shine the brighter.” Satan’s kingdom, Edwards says, is “encouraging and establishing sin, and cherishing men’s worldly lusts.” That’s what Satan looks like. The Spirit works just the opposite: believers who expose, acknowledge, and repent of their own sin. That’s what the Spirit looks like. Anyone can claim to have an experience. And that doesn’t mean it’s not authentic. But to point to your own sin in light of the Gospel…that’s supernatural. No one can fake that. Real faith means real repentance. And in order for the Spirit to exalt the work of Christ on the cross, He has to point us to our own sin and our need for Jesus. We forget that sometimes. Staring at our own sin and wretched vileness as humans isn’t a nice Easter message. But it’s a necessary one if you want the victory on Calvary. Think about it. One of the first things Jesus tells us about the Spirit is that He will “convict the world concerning sin.” (John 16:8) Has he convicted you? Thomas Watts once said, “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Think about that the next time you consider the Spirit. When you want to ‘let go and let God’, let him lead you to your sin first. Because that’s where the Gospel begins.
The next time you think about the Spirit, think about Jimmy Swaggart. Not for the revivals or the army of back-up singers or the dozens speaking in tongues. Instead consider the image of a man confessing his sin. Whether that admission was sincere or by compulsion, only God knows. But we would be wise to remember this about the Spirit the next time we pray for true revival: He’s more likely to drive a guilty conscience than to drive emotion. So let’s adjust our preconceptions of the Spirit and how He operates in a fallen world. Anyone can have an ‘experience.’ But only a supernatural power can bring someone to repent of their sin and embrace the Gospel. Paul calls the Holy Spirit the ‘Spirit of Christ.’ (Rom. 8:9) And that’s perhaps the best description of the third Person of the Trinity. He’s not a ghost. He’s one with Jesus. And more than likely that’s what He’ll look like.