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The Burning Passion of the New Testament  Jesus Hanging on the Cross

The apostles were men whose burning passion was the message of God's redemptive acts in Jesus Christ. They turned the world upside down with the preaching of the gospel, not by running around telling people about their exciting religious experiences.

Can you imagine the apostle Peter standing up on the day of Pentecost and declaring, "Friends, I want to tell you about the marvelous experience we had this morning when we were baptized in the Holy Spirit. I felt a great sensation of peace right down to the balls of my feet..."

Can you imagine one of the Marys adding her glowing testimony, "I want to tell you what a thrill it is to speak with tongues. All the joys of my life were blended together in one ecstatic moment—the fun of childhood, the excitement of my first date, the exultation of the finished sex longing. . ." Ridiculous! This plain fact stands out in Holy Writ: Spirit-filled people were so preoccupied with the message of their crucified, risen and ascended Lord that they made scarcely any reference to their own experience. Their experience, of course, was real and genuine. It was the experience of being caught up in and identified with the Christ event.

Luke is the New Testament writer who makes frequent references to people who were "filled with the Holy Spirit." When Zacharias was "filled with the Holy Ghost" (Luke 1:67), he opened his mouth and proclaimed God's redemptive works. When the praying disciples were "all filled with the Holy Ghost," Luke very pointedly adds, “…and they spake the Word of God with boldness…. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." Acts. 4:31, 33.

This pinpoints the vital difference between the Holy Spirit's illumination and religious mysticism. When the Spirit is poured out, something is said. In mysticism something is felt. The one bears testimony to the objective message of God's redemptive activity on behalf of His people. The other bears testimony to some subjective happening.

The Nature of the Gospel

We have said that the burning passion of the apostles was the gospel – the good news about the Christ event. The gospel is something historical and objective. This we must never forget.

When people believe the gospel and become preoccupied with God's marvelous work for them in Jesus Christ, it certainly brings them a new experience. It radically changes them, regenerates, and sanctifies them to a new sort of existence altogether. All this is the fruit of the gospel. But it is not the gospel. The greatest treachery takes place when men take what should be the fruit of the gospel and make it the gospel. It is like using God's gift of grace to rob Him of His glory. The New Testament order is:



(Gospel over Experience)

and it is grave heresy to place



(Experience over Gospel).

If the gospel does not hold first place, it holds no place. Paul's greatest difficulty was with people and churches who were continually inclined to place the gospel in a subordinate role to their own religious experiences. See it in the church at Corinth. What was the issue? Some of the Corinthians were becoming so preoccupied with their spiritual gifts that they were forgetting the gospel. So Paul had to say to them:

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.1 Cor. 15:1-4.

It is not so hard to reconstruct what was happening at Corinth, Galatia, and Colosse seeing that the believers there faced identical temptations to ours. False teachers came among the believers, saying, "Paul brought you the gospel. That is fine – just what is needed to start the Christian life. Now you must go on and rise higher. We bring to you the secret of the deeper life, the full gospel, the real secret of victorious living." This was the great heresy of the New Testament church. It was the heresy of relegating the gospel to something that has great significance at the time of Christian initiation; but after that believers were supposed to go on to higher things.

Luther had to contend with the same sort of mentality in his day. The enthusiasts were prepared to admit that Luther made a good start with the doctrine of justification through faith in God's work in Jesus Christ. But, like neo-Pentecostal Dr. Rodman Williams of today,1 they felt that the great Reformer was very deficient in his doctrine of the Holy Spirit's work in human lives. Wishing to go beyond justification by grace, the radical evangelicals cried, "The Spirit, the Spirit!" The center of their interest was God's work in the human heart, but tragically, like all those who make this the center of their message; they could not see anything higher than their own spiritual navels.

Luther understood the mentality of heresy when he described how people were constantly inclined to put the gospel behind them:

One must not surely stay forever with the same matter, but continue and progress [say the sects]. Dear people, you have now heard the self same stuff for so long a time; you must rise higher. — What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia), Vol.3, p.1268.

The Relation of Gospel and Holy Spirit

As church history has amply demonstrated, nothing threatens the supremacy of the gospel as much as a false preoccupation with the Holy Spirit. It is therefore urgent that we understand the true role of the Holy Spirit in human redemption. We must therefore address ourselves to this vital question: What is the relationship between the Christ event and the Holy Spirit's work today?

The answer is clearly given in the words of our Lord:

Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come. He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of Mine, and shall show it unto you. John 16:13-14.

As Christ came into this world to manifest (to reveal, to exegete, to expound) the Father (John 1:18; 14:9), so the Holy Spirit comes to reveal, to exegete, to expound the glory of Christ's Person and work. Concerning God's work for us in Christ, the apostle Paul declares:

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him. But God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit….Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. 1 Cor. 2:9-10, 12.

The three hangingNo one could comprehend the significance of the Christ event without the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us (because of Christ's atonement) with no modified energy but with fullness of divine power. Nothing less than Pentecost is needed to see what Christ has done for us. This fact is clear from the New Testament record. No gospel sermon was preached until Pentecost. Why? It was not until Pentecost that the real significance of the Christ event dawned upon the disciples. It was Pentecost which gave to the disciples that illumination into Christ's Person and work. Not until Pentecost did they fully realize that they had actually been living in the presence of the Lord of glory. By the gift of the Spirit they were lost in the awesome wonder of the Incarnation, and they could talk of nothing else.

We also need the Holy Spirit to see what the disciples saw in the Christ event. Then we will know that the human mind can contemplate nothing greater than this:

God Himself made a visit to this planet in the Person of His Son. It was the Creator of heaven and earth who was born in that donkey's feed box. It was the Lord of glory who was wrapped in those swaddling clothes. He who owned the cattle on a thousand hills had not where to lay His head. It was the Judge of all who was arrested at midnight by sinful men and arraigned before corrupt courts where He was abused, spat on and bruised by unfeeling men. The Judge of all became the judged of all. The vile rabble judged Him worthy of death – not a decent death, but the cruelest, most shameful kind of execution reserved for those regarded as the scum of the earth. He was treated as a snake, a venomous serpent fit only to be crushed and cast out of human society. Thus He became the antitype of the serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14). See Him suspended between earth and heaven as that forsaken, cursed Man. Lifted up from earth because earth had refused Him. But not only earth, for heaven also numbered Him with the transgressors. God laid our sins upon Him and treated Him as we deserve.

When Jesus Christ was crucified, The darkness hid His face;
Forsaken there by God and man, He took the sinner's place.
Transgressors cannot dwell with God, They have no ray of light;
So Christ saw not the Father's face, Only eternal night.

Having borne our sins and suffered their consequences, Christ rose from the dead, triumphed over death and ascended into glory.

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifest in the flesh,
justified in the Spirit,
seen of angels,
preached unto the Gentiles,
believed on in the world,
received up into glory. 1 Tim. 3:16.

As we survey God's awesome act of atonement in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit gives us faith by hearing the message of Christ (Rom. 10:17). As John Calvin said, "Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit." — John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, p. 541. Faith is the eye of the soul that sees our identity with Jesus Christ. Namely:

He became our Man. He took our human nature upon His divine nature. He was our Representative. Just as we were united to Adam, our first head, and were in Adam when he sinned (and were made sinners by his act of disobedience— Rom. 5:18-19), so it is faith that enables us to see ourselves in Jesus Christ. The good news is not only that He lived, died and rose again for us, but that, as believers before God, we were in Christ when He lived, died, rose, and ascended to glory. It was actually our human nature that lived a perfect life in Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. It was our humanity which was punished, slain and buried in Joseph's new tomb. And when Christ rose from the dead and ascended into glory, we rose in Him and were made to sit down on the right hand of God's favor with Him (Eph. 2:5,6). In Christ, God purged us, perfected us and took us to the throne of glory. The good news is that we have been washed clean in Jesus Christ and taken into perfect fellowship with God. The good news is not, "Be patient, God is not finished with me yet," but it is the message that God has finished with us in Jesus Christ, for "ye are complete in Him." Col. 2:10.

We say again that the Spirit's chief work is to give us faith – faith which comes by the Spirit's exegesis of the Christ event. Faith is the eye of the soul that can see nothing but the glory of Jesus Christ. Like the eye, it cannot see itself. New Testament faith is not faith in our experience – it is not faith in our new birth; it is not faith in our commitment and surrender; it is not even faith in our faith. It is faith in Christ's Person and work.

When Paul reaches his glorious climax in presenting His gospel thesis to the Romans, he challenges tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present and things to come to condemn or separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Upon what was Paul's confidence based? On his Spirit-filled life (for Romans 8 is the great chapter on the Spirit-filled life)? Does Paul encourage himself by thinking of his new birth, his Spirit-filled ministry or great missionary experiences? No! His Spirit-filled life may rightly be called a faith-filled life. Faith in what?

Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Rom. 8:34.

See how the foundation of the apostle's confidence is completely objective. It is based wholly on historical, gospel verities.


The Christ event and the coming of the Holy Spirit – here are the two great themes that must be correctly related. These must not be seen as two focal points which compete for our attention. The New Testament knows of one focal point – the Christ event. The Spirit comes to unfold and exegete the significance of that to us.

We therefore must state that the burning passion of the current religious scene lacks the New Testament evidence of the Holy Spirit's work. Instead of being preoccupied with Christ's Person and work as were the apostles and Reformers, the current religious scene is preoccupied with religious experiences. This is a very serious observation, but most of the current religious literature must be thus judged on its own testimony. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."

Wherever the Spirit is poured out, there you will find men and women preoccupied with the gospel—Christ our Representative, Christ our Substitute, Christ the Surety of the better covenant, Christ our high-priestly Intercessor at the right hand of God, Christ guiding the affairs of human history toward the day of His coming in glory. We say again that where God's people are thus preoccupied with Christ, there is the true evidence of the Holy Spirit.

1 J. Rodman Williams, The Pentecostal Reality (Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, pp.38-40.