As always, there can be some rather fuzzy thinking on how the Christian is meant to operate in this world. We must avoid various extremes here. Some Christians more or less expect us to just act and think like the world, without any supernatural help and any of the Spirit’s enabling. They are way off the mark.
But there are also those Christians who may hyper-spiritualise everything, and dismiss anything that may not appear to be spiritual – such as learning, studying, preparation and the like. That too can be a recipe for disaster. Both errors can be quite unhelpful – and quite unbiblical.
And sometimes these faulty extremes can be based on rather faulty understandings of some key passages. Often for example a believer will point to a passage such as John 14:26. It says, “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 said to you.”
There happen to be other passages like this, including:
John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
Matthew 10:17-20 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Luke 12:11-12 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.
Luke 21:12-15 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.
All these verses offer us wonderful promises of God being with us, of his Spirit enabling us, and of the confidence we can have as we go out and minister for Christ. But these verses can be misused and abused – as can almost every other passage of Scripture!
Some believers will appeal to texts like this and say: “See, this proves it. We don’t need to waste time studying or reading, or going to Bible college, or doing theology. We just trust God – end of story.” They may not put it in exactly those words, but that is what they are thinking.
So how might we respond to such folks? The broad answer is that we must consult all of Scripture, and not just select a few verses to the exclusion of all the rest. The whole counsel of God must be appealed to here. Let me offer a more specific reply that I actually offered recently.
Someone had come to one of my articles and did in fact quote John 14:26. The article was about the need for all believers to be apologists, or defenders of the faith. In addition to citing that verse, the person said this: “Why don’t the Christians pray and ask God to help them with the answers?”
I thought it to be a good comment and worth spending a bit of time on, so I replied as follows:
Thanks for that. It of course goes without saying that we always pray and seek God’s help as we try to deal with tough questions from non-Christians and others. But that is NEVER to take the place of proper study and a willingness to learn. Everywhere in the New Testament we are told to ‘study to show ourselves approved’ and the like. We are told about teachers given to the Body of Christ and the need for good teaching. So prayer is never a substitute for actually using our minds for the glory of God, but a supplement. We always need to do both, in other words.
A university student for example who might be overly hyper-spiritual may think that he or she does not need to study for the exam, or even read any of the required textbooks, but just pray and presto: 100% top grades on all assignments and exams. Sorry, but it just does not work that way. God requires of us to do the hard yards – in this case, to study and read and prepare. He never blesses laziness, even if we over-spiritualise things.
It is of course the same in every area of life: God expects us to be responsible and to use our brains as well as pray. If a Christian wants to buy a new car, he or she will of course do some homework first. They will shop around, compare prices, look at options. Sure, they will pray as well, but God normally does NOT bypass our minds – he works with our minds. That is how he made us.
In the same way you might be preparing a fancy dinner for some very fancy guests, and making a very fancy and sophisticated meal. Any normal Christian will not JUST pray and then start cooking. They will pray AND carefully consult some good recipes and use some good cookbooks. Once again, God expects us to do both, not choose between one and the other.
So yes thanks, yours is a good reminder to always make prayer and dependence on God a crucial part of our apologetics and evangelism. But we are always to do both in the Christian life: totally rely on God in all things, but also do those things that He requires of us. In this case that means actually doing some reading and some studying so that we are better equipped to answer the hard questions we may get, and to more accurately portray the beauty and truth of biblical Christianity.
And this is true of other areas, not just evangelism and apologetics. We can mention things like theology and Bible study as well. The same principles apply. Yes, we need the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read and study the Word of God, and as we do theology.
But that does not mean we exclude or downplay vital basics in doing theology and seeking to understand the Word of God. That is, we will of course make use of various Bible study aids, such as Bible dictionaries, commentaries, Bible atlases, and so on.
These helpful tools are not a replacement for the role of prayer and the help of the Spirit, but a supplement to them. God works through them, in other words. But some zealous Christians will seek to argue that we do not need any of those tools, we just need the Holy Spirit and he will guide us into all truth when it comes to understanding the Scriptures.
Again, yes and no. Without the Spirit’s leading we will fail, but without using the means God has appointed (including teachers given to the Body, etc), we will also fail. Consider reading and understanding the Bible. On the one hand the Bible can be read and understood by a child, but on the other hand, it contains much which can be difficult to grasp and properly interpret.
Even Peter said that about Paul and his writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16). And we see the early disciples asking for help to understand Scripture properly, such as in Acts 8:30-31:
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
The truth is, not everything in the Bible is crystal clear, and often we can get things quite wrong as we read the Bible on our own. So we need others, and there is a place for teachers, for basic principles in studying and understanding Scripture, etc. Let me share something I wrote some years ago on this issue:
If the Bible really is so clear and simple to understand, then presumably the meaning of the following passages and ideas should be apparent to all:
What is baptism for the dead? 1 Cor. 15:29
Should women teach? 1 Tim. 2:11-12
Who are the spirits in prison that were preached to? 1 Pet. 3:19
How do you explain the Trinity?
How can people make free choices if God knows the future in every detail?
Can God create a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?
I dare say that if just one of these passages were given to a group of twenty people, and they were told to go away and come back with the meaning, there may well be twenty different understandings and interpretations of the passage given. Being a spirit-filled Christian, in other words, is no guarantee that one will always interpret Scripture properly. The tools of theology help us as we approach God’s word.
Once again, the main point is this: yes, we must rely upon the Holy Spirit, and yes we must pray as we witness or evangelise, or engage in apologetics, or teaching, or preaching, or Bible study, and so on. We would be seriously amiss if we did not pray much and routinely depend upon the Holy Spirit.
But all that does NOT mean that we are just passive and do absolutely nothing. I already gave various examples above about this. Let me offer one more. Any pastor worth his salt knows that he must spend quality time during the week to prepare his Sunday sermon.
Thus most have days set aside during the week devoted just to this task, often with a “do not disturb” sign pinned to the door. A pastor or preacher would be irresponsible and derelict in his duties if he refused to do the necessary homework and preparation.
He will spend quality time in sermon preparation: he will have a topic selected, consider some relevant verses, perhaps consult the original languages, and at least have a rough outline ready. Some will write out their entire sermon. Of course to do all this preliminary work does not mean he will be closed to the promptings and leadings of the Holy Spirit.
He will pray and seek the Spirit’s guidance not only as he prepares his sermon, but as he delivers it as well. The Spirit-filled pastor will present his message as he planned it, but if he senses a strong urging from the Spirit to perhaps go off message a bit, or point out some specific issue, or slightly change gears mid-stream, then he will do so.
He fulfils his human responsibilities while simultaneously always depending on and being open to what the Spirit is saying. In other words, it is NOT a case of being forced to choose one or the other. He will do both. He will study to show himself approved as Paul commanded (2 Timothy 2:15), AND he will pray and seek to be sensitive to how God might lead him.
So we rejoice in the passages that I mentioned earlier on. But we must take care in not misusing them. They contain terrific promises, but they must be read and understood in light of all the rest of Scripture.