Why is there so much powerlessness in our lives and our churches?
I wrote an article a few days ago in which I briefly mentioned how often the word “power” is found in the New Testament. In that piece I said that I would need to take a closer look at the term and its use in the NT, so this is one of those promised articles. The previous piece is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/22/the-need-for-improved-spiritual-vision/
This article will also be rather brief, and more serious work on the subject is still needed to do it justice. For the time being, what I have done is simply to take one English word as found in one Bible translation and list every occurrence of that word.
So I have used the NIV here, and just the term translated “power” in English. A proper word study of course would look at all the other English renderings of the various Greek terms involved. But here I just want to offer a cursory overview of how the word tends to be used, at least in the NIV.
Online study Bibles and concordances make this sort of thing easy. Using BibleGateway, I quickly discovered that the word is found 136 times in the NT. I then went through each passage and tried to place each one in one of six main categories. Sometimes there was overlap, and some passages could have gone in several of them, but this is a rough breakdown of the 136 verses:
Angels – 3 times we read about powerful angels.
Believers – around 30 times the life of the believer is described in terms of power.
Death, devil and demons – around a dozen times we read about the power of death, or those who have the power to inflict death, etc.
God – most of the references to power (around 70) are used to describe God or Jesus.
Other – things like earthly powers (rulers) and the like are found some 9 times.
Powers – powers in the heavenlies are mentioned some 8 times, all in Paul’s letters.
My main interest here is with the second category. In these verses we either read descriptions of believers walking in power and authority, or we see verses saying that this sort of life should characterise the believer. Here are just some of those passages. Jesus for example promised that his followers would receive divine power and enablement:
Luke 24:49 “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Luke 9:1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases.
Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We see how this indeed took place in the Book of Acts:
Acts 3:12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?
Acts 4:33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.
Acts 6:8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 9:22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
Acts 19:20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
And the Apostle Paul often spoke of God’s power at work in him:
1 Corinthians 2:4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.
2 Corinthians 6:7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;
2 Corinthians 10:4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.
Ephesians 3:20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.
Ephesians 6:10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.
Colossians 1:29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
1 Thessalonians 1:5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.
2 Timothy 1:7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
I partly raise all this because of something I just came across today. A new study released by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (the Boston institution where I received my MA) has found that “Spirit-Empowered Christianity is One of the Fastest Growing Global Movements”.
The study was conducted by Professor of Global Christianity and Director of the Center for Global Christianity Dr. Todd Johnson. This is part of what was said in a media release:
In gathering information on the spread of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity around the world since 1900, Johnson unfolded myriad statistics on its explosive growth in addition to surprising projections for the coming decades, which include:
-From 1900-2020, Spirit-Empowered Christianity grew at nearly four times the growth rate of both Christianity and the world’s population;
-Currently, Spirit-Empowered believers comprise one quarter of the entire Christian community, which is expected to grow to one third by the year 2050;
-Asia and Oceania experienced the most rapid growth of Spirit-Empowered Christianity. However, the Spirit-Empowered population in Africa is expected to grow more quickly within the next 30 years;
-Today, the countries with the most Spirit-Empowered Christians are Brazil, the United States and Nigeria, whereas, in 1900, the nations with the most were South Africa, Nigeria and the United States; and
-Afghanistan and Cambodia, where Christianity remains relatively new, are the countries currently experiencing the fastest upsurge in Spirit-Empowered Christianity. https://www.charismanews.com/us/80076-spirit-empowered-christianity-one-of-fastest-growing-global-movements-new-study-shows
Of course there is much more that needs to be said about these matters. Just what does the word power mean in these and other verses? Bear in mind that Paul can speak about “power in weakness” as well. So this is not pushing a triumphalism here, or the idea that Christians are invincible.
And to discuss all this does not mean I want to get into yet another big fight over Pentecostalism vs anti-Pentecostalism and the like. Seeking Jesus, not power and the miraculous, should of course be our main aim. But it seems that many Western Christians are woefully missing out on the power and authority that we are meant to have as believers.
We live and act as if there is no God, no Holy Spirit at work within us, and so on. Yes, some Christians can push too far the demand for signs and wonders, and I am well aware of the many excesses here. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater helps no one.
And I am also well aware of how anaemic and how powerless so many Western believers are. We profess to believe what the Bible teaches, yet most of us live such powerless and ineffective lives for the Lord that we seem indistinguishable from non-Christians. We can all do much better here – certainly in the West.
In so many parts of the non-Western world we see so much vibrant, powerful, and Holy Spirit-led Christianity. It really puts us to shame here in the safe, secure and staid West. My recent time in Africa reaffirmed this for me. What I saw there in the churches was so much more powerful and supernatural in nature than most of what is found in the West.
As always, getting the biblical balance right is crucial. If some Pentecostals and charismatics have a lot of life and Spirit, they often can use more emphasis on theology and doctrine. And if some non-charismatics have a lot of theology and doctrine, they often can use more emphasis on life and Spirit.
Both extremes – either a hyper-spirituality that is all focused on signs and miracles, or a lifeless and spiritually dead Christianity – need to be avoided. But I am always reminded of the powerful and shockingly true words of A. W. Tozer about such matters:
“If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”