The Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit

The date and place of the series of talks that makes up this volume of “The Golden Candlestick” are unknown. It must have been not long after World War II. T. Austin-Sparks wanted the congregation to take to heart not only the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit, but also the fact that the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit is not without purpose. His work is not at random, but has a specific direction: the glory of God in Christ expressed by the community of believers, the House of God, its main feature being love. And that is why the Spirit works in the hearts of believers.

In this series Brother Sparks takes the book of Ezekiel to emphasize the prophetic ministry of the Christian community in the time in which it lives. A comparison of the book of Ezekiel with the book of Acts shows that God’s message is both judgement and hope, not only for Israel, but for the entire world. But an interpretation of the vision of the glory of the Lord, the living creatures and the wheels as “Christ and the Church” is unique to Sparks. It is hard, though, to see how the vision can symbolize Christ and the Church, as Ezekiel himself recognizes the living creatures as cherubim. The significance lies rather in their movement, generated by the Spirit, suggesting the unlimited omnipresence of the glory of God; the glory of God is not bound to a locality, like the Jerusalem temple, but is even to be found — much to the young priest’s astonishment — in pagan Babylon. In the exile Yahweh is not a defeated national God, as the spectators, the gentile nations around Israel, might have thought, but it is His dealing. He, the universal God, is not only dealing with Israel, but, in His wisdom, taking even a step further towards the redemption of the whole human race in Christ. As God’s people today, we should take to heart God’s ‘jealousy’ for His own Name (see 2 Cor. 11:2 and Jas 4:5) and His irrepressible zeal to fill the earth with His glory, through salvation in His dear Son. On the cross Jesus has taken God’s judgement upon Himself — that is the good news! Jesus is our Immanuel — God with us — as Ezekiel’s prophecies close: the name of the city from that time on shall be ‘Yahweh shammah’, ‘God is there’.
Another question we may ask with reference to this series of talks by brother Sparks is how God’s sovereign choice of a prophetic instrument like Ezekiel and the formation of the Church through salvation in Christ are to be compared. With Paul and the apostles, of course, salvation and calling were, as it were, a package, all in one. In a way that can be said of the Church as a whole. But Christian communities are not sovereignly chosen by the Lord, but commissioned to preach and live out the Gospel. With Ezekiel, the Spirit’s role was to give visions, to equip the prophet and give him strength, while the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 is the sealing of the New Covenant of grace in Christ and His provision in power to witness. Our brother does correct himself in pointing out that the Spirit’s way with believers is sovereign and always with the fulness of Christ in view. This is a very striking point indeed, for us Christians, in the days in which we live, when it seems we can just “choose our Church”, the company of Christian people which we like most out of several others that are round the corner. We may even choose to travel more than an hour to attend “our” meetings rather than have fellowship with a brother next door. We may do well to ask ourselves if that has anything to do with the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, Ezekiel is both prophet and evangelist. His prophetic message concerns the restoration of Israel, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Name of the Lord, the glory of God, so that Israel might fulfill its call to be the channel of God’s blessing of salvation to all the nations. It is the message of pure grace in Christ. Likewise, there is needed, in every generation, a prophetic message for God’s people, the Church, to repent from unfaithfulness, from relying on its own means and strength or even on “foreign” powers rather than on the Holy Spirit, and from unholiness. Its testimony of grace should greatly impress, as the Lord speaks through Ezekiel about Jerusalem, “You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendour that I had bestowed on you” (16:13-14). And after that comes the awful “but …”. In Ezekiel the Lord has all kinds of accusations against Jerusalem and Israel that apply to the state of the Church nowadays: false prophets, self-centred leaders and a tendency to “… be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone” (20:32).
But this is not the message that T. Austin-Sparks is trying to get across. His aim is much more positive. He even warns against “a doctrine of ‘come-out-ism’, that you decide to leave all the organised system of Christianity and take an independent position”. His focus is on the faithfulness of God, His consistency towards His eternal purpose to let His glory shine out by His Son as the Firstborn among many sons in glory. Because God is faithful, He sovereignly chooses a prophetic instrument. The message of Ezekiel is grace: even in a situation of terrible judgement, exile in an unclean land, God is there, working towards salvation. That should cause us to marvel and worship. And, of course, it causes us to wish to be involved in such an instrument in some measure, being aware that it is costly. It should urge us on to live a holy life as well, individually, but much more so in the context of local communities of God’s children. Indeed, the final exhortation must be love. This is perhaps the context in which we should place the dynamics of revival. Ezekiel, though, cannot be called a ‘revivalist’, neither can it be said he met presupposed initial requirements to become God’s prophetic instrument. It seems he was even bitter and angry with God* when He called him (3:14). It is confusing to talk about God’s sovereign work and about requirements to get involved in that work at the same time. For being able to preach the Gospel, Paul says, it is required to be faithful (1 Cor. 4:2), “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).

Two minor corrections may be useful for those who want to study the portions of Scripture that were chosen for these talks in their historical setting. Firstly, Ezekiel was not one of the exiles of the ten tribes in 722 BC, but belonged to the deportation with king Jehoiachin in 598 BC, 11 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. Secondly, Ezekiel’s wife did not die on the day that Jerusalem fell, but when the city was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar, about eighteen months to two years before it actually fell.

Finally, a subtle difference in approach of what Paul means by “the letter” over against “the Spirit” in his second letter to the Corinthians may be worth considering. It seems that T. Austin-Sparks alludes to a “literal” or “orthodox” way in which the Bible is treated by some believers, by which it may become “dead” and only when the Bible is read seeking a “spiritual” revelation of the text, or when the Holy Spirit reveals its “inner meaning”, it becomes the living Word. But he does not mean to say that. What he means by “revelation” — and this is unique to Sparks — is that to the believer the Person of Jesus Christ becomes the practical answer in a particular situation of crisis, so that the meaning of a Bible text that is applicable to that crisis becomes his very life. However, this is not what Paul means to say in 2 Corinthians. Paul compares the ministry of the law of Moses with his own ministry of the Spirit. The ministry of the law, Paul says (defending himself and his own ministry against attacks by a critical party), is glorious, but, however glorious it may be, it is limited. It is limited because it cannot change lives from within, from earthly, fading glory to heavenly, eternal glory. It cannot change lives from within because it does not provide free access to the glorious presence of God as reflected in the face of Jesus and ministered by the Holy Spirit. And that is why “the letter” kills and, contrary to that, the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit gives life. Indeed, when believers read the Bible as law that must be obeyed in order to be justified, the letter kills. We need the Holy Spirit, not to reveal a suggested deeper meaning of a Biblical text, so that this text might become “living”, but, with the help of God’s Word, to lead us — children of God — and empower us unto righteousness (Rom. 8:9-17). The Word of God is revelation. We do not need revelation to understand the Word of God. But we do need “revelation” as T. Austin-Sparks uses the word, that is to see how utterly sufficient our glorified Saviour Jesus Christ is as the answer to our perplexities and weaknesses, so that, in the end, to our amazement, God will say, “I will accept you” (Ezek. 43:27). The point where brother Sparks is deviating from Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 3 is that he is contrasting practical application of the Word of God with unapplied Bible teaching, while Paul is contrasting the ministry of the Spirit with the ministry of the law. With Sparks the emphasis lies on experiential knowledge of the Word, but with Paul the emphasis lies on the unveiling of the hearts after having turned to the Lord, so that the Spirit can start His life-changing work according to the image of Christ, the eternal glory. In other words, Bible teaching and analysis cannot be compared with the ministry of law. It should, self-evidently, lead to practical application. By “freedom” in verse 17 Paul does not mean freedom from dead religion, but freedom from “the veil” brought about by the Spirit. The veil stands for the utterly frustrating limitation that is bound up with the ministry of the law. The law itself is glorious. It may even make the face of Moses shine — for a while —, but it kills. It is intended to do exactly that: it finds us out and condemns us to death, so that we might cry out, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?! — thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 7:24-8:2).
Having said that, it is not only fair but also very instructive to reflect on the courageous step the fellowship at Honor Oak took when they decided to resign from being part of a particular denomination (a reflection is given here). This is the event T. Austin-Sparks refers to when he talks about his experience of entering into the liberty of the Spirit. Or maybe it is better to say that the decision was made as a consequence of an experience of embracing the liberty of the Spirit in a fuller way than before.

* Christopher Wright, The Message of Ezekiel, p. 62, BST

May 2020
On behalf of The Golden Candlestick team,
Hugo de Jong