“Come, Holy Spirit.”
For many Christians today, that brief prayer is often connected with heightened emotions, unguided-spontaneous experiences, and an intense expectation of God’s nearness. Something unusual and powerful is about to happen.
Inviting the Spirit to come, however, is no new phenomenon. Christians of all persuasions have sincerely spoken or sung these words for centuries. Which raises a few questions.
- If God is present everywhere, isn’t the Spirit already here?
- Should we even be praying to the Holy Spirit?
- And what exactly are we asking the Spirit to come and do?
We’re going to seek to answer those questions, specifically as it relates to the gatherings of the church. How are we to think about the Holy Spirit’s presence and our engagement with him?
Everywhere and Yet Present
In one sense, we can’t get away from the Spirit. King David asked, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). Scripture also tells us the Spirit is present when we gather, dwelling both within individuals and in his church (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19). The Holy Spirit is always with us.
In another sense, however, the Spirit makes his presence known in unique ways and specific times. He “localizes” his presence. One of those times is when the church meets. When we meet, Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). The Spirit manifests himself, or “comes,” in various ways and in differing degrees, depending on his intentions.
“The Spirit makes his presence known in unique ways and specific times. He ‘localizes’ his presence.”
That leads us to our second question: Is it proper to pray to the Spirit? Prayers in the New Testament are almost always to the Father, sometimes to the Son. But we don’t find any examples of praying to the Spirit directly. Does that make praying to the Spirit wrong?
No. The Holy Spirit, as the third person of the triune God, can be worshiped, obeyed, and yes, prayed to. Praying to the Spirit is neither forbidden nor mandated in Scripture, and can remind us that the Spirit is indeed God. The most important thing is to recognize our need for his divine work each time we gather.
Seven Ways the Spirit Comes
Whatever language we choose to invoke the Spirit’s activity, there is often a vagueness in our requests for the Spirit’s work that can be misleading, unhelpful, and at times dangerous. So what can we consistently ask and expect the Holy Spirit to do when we gather?
1. The Spirit comes to enable us to worship God.
We are those who worship by the Spirit of God and can acknowledge the lordship of Jesus only because of his work (Philippians 3:3; 1 Corinthians 12:3). Apart from the Spirit, we wouldn’t see or want to respond to God’s glory. John Webster reminds us,
We need to ask God to help us praise him. Praise isn’t natural — we can’t just turn on the tap and let it flow. In the end, praise is something that God works in us. There’s no question here of skill, of capacities that we can work on and hone to perfection. Praise is the Spirit’s gift. (Christ Our Salvation, 101)
While Jesus makes our offerings of worship acceptable to God (1 Peter 2:5), the Spirit actually turns our hearts to treasure Christ over the poisonous idols that tempt us from without and within.
2. The Spirit comes to assure us.
While knowing and believing the truth of the gospel is a matter of eternal significance, God wants to give us more than head knowledge. We ask the Spirit to come so that we might feel the Father’s adopting love. It’s normal to value doctrine, theology, study, and orthodoxy and still be discouraged by our ongoing struggle with sin. We can start to think God has grown tired of us, is disgusted with us, or has simply forgotten us. Scripture reminds us that, “because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). We are personally, passionately, and particularly loved by our heavenly Father — and the Spirit assures us of that reality.
3. The Spirit comes to unify us.
God doesn’t command us to create unity with other believers. Instead, we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3). While Christ made our unity possible through his substitutionary sacrifice, Paul calls what we enjoy together the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Can our unity be strengthened and deepened? Absolutely. But we are helpless to produce it. It is the Spirit who enables us to forgive others, to find evidences of God’s working in those around us, and to love others with a love that transcends our petty squabbles and cold hearts.
4. The Spirit comes to transform us.
God never intends for us to leave our Sunday gatherings unchanged and unaffected. Just as God saves us to make us like his Son (Romans 8:29), he calls us together for the same purpose. And how do we change? Not by hearing another list of things we aren’t doing, resolving to do better next time, or groveling in our sinfulness. The Spirit changes us as we behold the glory of Christ in the gospel and his word (2 Corinthians 3:18). He is the Holy Spirit, who works to free us from all the defiling effects of sin.
5. The Spirit comes to empower us.
What makes for a powerful Sunday meeting at your church? Certainly faithful preaching and skilled musical leadership are factors, but those aren’t the only ways God wants to display his power when we gather. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Not to some, but to each. Every one of us is a potential means through which God wants to manifest the Spirit by displaying his power, kindness, and truth to others. As we eagerly desire spiritual gifts of all varieties (1 Corinthians 14:1), we are asking the Spirit to come and do what we could never do on our own. How different our churches might look if every member asked the Spirit to come and empower him or her to serve others for the glory of Christ!
6. The Spirit comes to enlighten us.
More times than I can count, I’ve sat under the faithful preaching of God’s word and seen something I never saw before. That’s the Spirit’s work. Apart from the Spirit in us, we’d be unable to comprehend or benefit from the Bible. Paul tells the Corinthian church that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). No amount of human wisdom, study, experience, or effort can replace the need for God’s Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts to receive God’s truth and behold the beauty of Christ.
7. The Spirit comes to reveal God’s presence.
The modern emphasis among some churches on pursuing the presence of God has caused other churches to belittle or ignore the pursuit altogether. But the Spirit’s presence is more than mere doctrine. It is an unspeakable gift to be felt and cherished. He is the guarantee of our inheritance, a foretaste of that day when the dwelling place of God will be with man and we will see him face to face (Revelation 21:3; 22:4). For our good and for God’s glory, the Spirit at times will make us aware that God is with us — inexplicably, wondrously, mercifully. And he doesn’t restrict himself to events that are either planned or spontaneous. He works through both to bring conviction, peace, joy, and awe. So why wouldn’t we want to experience his presence more often?
Holy Spirit, Come
Graham Harrison, a UK pastor who is now with the Lord, once said,
There can be no substitute for that manifested presence of God which is always a biblical possibility for the people of God. When it is not being experienced, they should humbly seek him for it, not neglecting their ongoing duties, nor denying their present blessings, but recognizing that there is always infinitely more with their God and Father who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of his Son and regenerated by the work of his Spirit.
“God never intends for us to leave our Sunday gatherings unchanged and unaffected.”
Without neglecting what God has called us to do, nor denying his promise to be with us at all times, we can long and pray for a greater manifestation of the Spirit’s work in our midst. We can ask the Holy Spirit to come and do what only he can do.
And to what end? Certainly for our edification and joy. But ultimately that Jesus might receive more of the glory he alone deserves: “[The Holy Spirit] will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14). Therefore, Webster says, “The basic movement of our life together, the basic movement of assembly for worship, has to be prayer for the coming of the Spirit to make us new. That, Sunday by Sunday, is the chief business of our lives” (Christ Our Salvation, 96).
And so we pray, again and again, “Holy Spirit, come.”