The Holy Spirit: Questions and Answers
| ILLUSTRATION BY CINDY CALDWELL|
Interpreter OnLine Exclusive
Sunday, June 12, is Pentecost, when Christians around the world celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit filling Jesus’ disciples. In preparation, the Rev. Thomas R. Albin sat down with Kathy Noble, Interpreter OnLine editor, to talk about the Holy Spirit.
Now dean of the Upper Room Ministries and ecumenical relations for the General Board of Discipleship, Albin is a member of the Oklahoma Conference. He served churches there before spending one year on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology and then going to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary to teach and develop the program of spiritual formation. He taught for 12 years before joining the staff of The Upper Room.
Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Kathy Noble: How do United Methodists understand the person and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of the Trinity?
Tom Albin: To put it in a sentence: We understand that the Holy
Spirit is God in God’s nearness, Christ in his character, living in us the life that God wants us to be able to live, because we can do all things in Christ. The Holy Spirit is that person of the Trinity that Jesus promised, when he went away, he would send, the comforter, the teacher, the Paraclete, the advocate who would teach us everything that we need to know and guide us into the way we live into the fullness of Christ.
| REV. TOM ALBIN|
Why don’t we talk more about the Holy Spirit in The United Methodist Church?
TA: There are at least two reasons. In the 1950s and
‘60s, United Methodism joined the modernist movement. We believed that through science
and psychology we would understand the mysteries and answer the health needs of
the human being. The Holy Spirit was a little too spooky. The Pentecostal and
the classic Pentecostal movements with their enthusiasm – which was the label Wesleyans
had in 18th-century England – were a little too rowdy, too exuberant. They believed
in casting out demons and healing and things we thought psychology and medicine
were going to answer. In this post-modern, post-Christian world, we realize we
need the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit, to
pay attention to that third member of the Trinity. It’s a wonderful time for us
to learn again what the Bible and our Wesleyan heritage teach and that Wesleyan
theology is at the core and at the heart of all Pentecostal and charismatic
What happened on Pentecost?
TA: Acts 1 and 2 tell the story, beginning with Jesus’
promise that he would send the Holy Spirit, who would give us power to be
witnesses. On Pentecost, Jesus’ promise came true. The Holy Spirit came. There’s
some debate about whether Pentecost was a miracle of the tongue that the
speakers were speaking in a language they didn’t know or a miracle of the ear
that the hearers had the Holy Spirit interpret, so that they could understand
the language. Either way a miracle happened. Thousands of them responded to
that invitation to come and know the living Christ. Pentecost is very important
for us. We need that miracle power, so people can hear or so that we’re bold
enough to proclaim (so) that people can hear the love of God, the power of God,
and that it’s there to meet our every need — spiritual, physical, emotional and
In your article
in the May-June 2011 Interpreter, you talk about your sister receiving “baptism in
the Holy Spirit.” Explain what you mean.
TA: Biblical scholars would agree the baptism in the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised is that spiritual transformation that takes place when we believe. Every believer has the gift of the Holy Spirit. Many of us haven’t been taught how to live a life in the Spirit, to recognize the promptings of the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit, to be guided by the Spirit. In the modernist period, we tended to focus on discipleship as a set of behaviors rather than as a set of spiritual responses cooperating with the prompting and guidance of the Spirit. My sister came to understand that for the Holy Spirit to work in her life she needed to open herself up and receive the fullness of the Spirit. In Acts 1 and 2, the people are baptized in the Holy Spirit. In Chapter 4, they’re filled again. We need that continual filling of the Holy Spirit. My sister opened herself to a second work of grace that Wesley taught, and experienced that sanctifying grace, that fullness of the Spirit, because she’d been taught to stop resisting. Some of us have these little promptings or these divine insights, but we think it might be psychological; we might be making it up. We quench the Spirit because we’re uncertain. We’re afraid. She stopped being afraid, stopped being resistant and became more open, more joyful and the fruit of the Spirit in her life began to multiply as well.
Are baptism of water and the Spirit two different actions?
TA: I don’t think they are necessarily separate. Let’s go to the case of an infant baptized in water and the Spirit. We believe that baby is a child of God by creation. Baptism marks them as a Christian. The Spirit is with them even before they understand in the working of prevenient grace. Then there comes that time of confirmation where they accept their baptism. And, if they understood it, I think they would accept the role of the Spirit in their life. I’ve seen people who were taught that the baptism of water and the baptism of the Spirit and their baptism into Christ would happen ... and they actually experienced all of the fullness of the Spirit. They came up from the water praising God and, in some cases, actually praying in an unknown tongue. What distinguishes charismatics from classic Pentecostals is that charismatics believe all of the gifts of the Spirit are possible, but that no one is required to have any one of the manifestations. Classic Pentecostalism says if you do not speak in an unknown tongue, you do not have the baptism of the Spirit. United Methodist theology would not agree with that. The United Methodist guidelines help us understand the difference between a neo-Pentecostal and a Pentecostal or a charismatic and a
How would you explain to someone that they have the baptism of the Spirit?
TA: “Do I have the Holy Spirit? Do I
have the fullness of the Spirit?” That’s a wonderful question. I would say you
are a Christian; you are a child of God. Your understanding of life in the Spirit
will mature. The key is when you’re ready to learn more, to pursue it and to
say, “God, I want everything that you have for me.” I’ve had people say, “I’m
nervous about what the Holy Spirit might do” or “I don’t want to talk in
tongues.” I would urge people to stop being afraid that it would make them do
or be something unnatural. In fact they’ll be more their true self. Jesus said,
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Not “ready or not, here I come, I’m
gonna break the door.” The Holy Spirit is Christ’s character. I’d urge folks to
look more deeply at who Jesus is, what the Holy Spirit does, and open themselves to the power to live the joyful, abundant life. Church
historians agree that the power of the Methodist movement was the power of joy.
If you want more love and more joy, then get over being afraid and invite the
Holy Spirit to teach you, to grow in you and help you to have those fruits that
God wants in our life.
Talk about the relationship between spiritual gifts, talents and spiritual
TA: If you add
all the lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible together, you get about 27. Even that
I don’t think is intended to be comprehensive. The gifts of the Spirit are
particular and personality-related. They were given to us when we were created.
The fruit of the Spirit are universal qualities. You can be a prophet (gift) and
you can be loving or unloving (fruit) in your prophecy. You can be a preacher
and you can be joyful or not joyful in your preaching.
Why is it important to identify one’s spiritual gifts?
TA: Just like it’s important to know your personality
type, it’s important to know your spiritual gift. When you’re operating in
light of your spiritual gift, that’s when you run and don’t get weary, you walk
and don’t faint. My wife has the gift of service. I have the gift of teaching
and administration. If you want Marilee to be joyful and happy, ask her to plan
the meals for funerals, for people who are sick, to care behind the scenes. Ask
me to teach the class. I’ll say “yes,” and I’ll have fun doing it. When you
know your spiritual gift you know what you should be doing and what you don’t
need to do. It gives you the freedom to say yes and to say no and to do your
part of being the body of Christ. All of the gifts of the Spirit and the Spirit
are for the common good, for building up the body of Christ. When we know our spiritual
gift and operate in it, then the whole church is benefited.
So, one of roles of the lay leadership committee is to identify or help
congregants formally identify their spiritual gifts?
TA: Many growing, thriving United Methodist churches are
doing that. Three or four good spiritual gifts inventories are available. When
you know your gift, you’re going to find the place you were created to grow and
created to serve. There you’ll find your joy.
How is the Spirit speaking to the church today?
TA: Churches are discovering that when they pay
attention to the spiritual gifts of their members and help people grow in their
spiritual gifts their vitality and joy in serving and leading or teaching or
administrating, whatever, is going up. Growing churches and vital churches are
finding that. As we come to know our gifts and to know that it’s not all up to
us, we have this limitless power. With us, things can be impossible. With God,
all things are possible. When new people come to visit, they’re looking for a
community of people who are fully alive in Christ. Being open
to learning about the Spirit and growing in our spiritual understanding help us
to become more fully alive.
Are there some parts of The United Methodist Church you see as more open to hearing
the Spirit than are others?
TA: In the tragedy of the modernist/fundamentalist split,
modernists took the university and higher education and the fundamentalists
took evangelism and Bible study. Both sides lost. Any part of the church that
stayed closer to the Bible text and reading through the whole Bible has had to
deal more regularly with the Holy Spirit. Any one of us that stayed focused on
modernist management solutions and praying for God to empower us to bring about
the kingdom of God because we’ve done a strategic plan and we knew how to do it
is probably struggling more to admit our weakness. But the decline in the
economy, the decline in the denomination, the decline in Western civilization
as we move farther and farther away from our commitment to Christ and our
relationship with God have forced that part of the church to say, “We’re
missing something here.” We’re aware that we do need God’s help. We do need the
role of the Spirit. Those of us in the middle realize that we need to use our minds
and we need to honor the scripture. I don’t want to leave modernism behind or
swing the pendulum too far the other way. I do want to recover that sense of
mystery, of holy, of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit that enables us
to live at a deeper, more faithful level than we have.
If the Holy Spirit is receiving more attention among United Methodists today,
TA: We’re paying more attention because we’re aware of
our need to recover the fullness of our theology. The largest independent gathering
of United Methodists in the United States on an annual basis is at the
Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (an affiliate of the General Board of
Discipleship through the Upper Room) conference
on the charismatic. A thousand people go there wanting to learn; you see our bishops
there helping United Methodists get over our fear of what the Holy Spirit would
do to us if we let it, and helping us to recover that sense that it is our
theology, it is our inheritance. We haven’t drawn on that rich part of our
Wesleyan understanding of the Holy Spirit.
What’s the role of the Upper Room Ministries in this growing awareness of the
TA: You’ll find there a little more trust and confidence
that the Spirit can work. If you’ve done Companions in Christ, you know there’s
this spiritual formation approach. The curriculum invites you to listen to the Spirit,
to open your heart and life. If you’re following the Spirit’s guidance as a
member of a small companions group, you all of a sudden begin to recognize and
recover as well as discover what the Holy Spirit is to you. Most people find
that a life-giving, joy-producing, love-increasing kind of experience. In this
more spiritual, post-modern, post-Christian time, we realize that only the Truth
can help us live the truth. Only the Spirit can produce spiritual life. Ultimately,
it’s only God who can touch us and move us. My hope is that in this Pentecost
season people would again begin to hope there is more, believe there is more
and then stop resisting and open themselves to the more of God that we believe
is sanctifying grace, the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
Holy Spirit: A Pentecost Primer
Fire! Pentecost Worship
We Believe in the Holy
The UMC and the Charismatic Movement (adopted by 2008 General Conference)
Renewal Ministries “Life in the Spirit” seminar
Tools for Spiritual Gifts Discernment and Ministry Deployment