10 Things You Should Know about Quenching the Holy Spirit
Were it not for the fact that no less than the Apostle Paul himself commanded us not to quench the Spirit, who among us would ever have suggested that this is even within the realm of possibility? To suggest that the omnipotent Spirit of God, the third person of the Godhead, could ever be quenched and thus limited or hindered or in some manner restricted in what he might do in our lives and in the life of the local church is to tread on thin theological ice.
Yet in 1 Thessalonians 5 we are told that the Spirit has, in some sense, granted to the Christian the power and authority either to restrict or release what he does in the life of the local church. What are we to do with this? Certainly the Holy Spirit can accomplish all that he wills to accomplish. But it is no less true that in certain instances, especially when it comes to spiritual gifts, he will rarely, if ever, force himself upon us against our will or judgment.
To use Paul’s metaphor or analogy, the Spirit is like a fire whose flame we must be careful not to quench or extinguish. He is not literally or metaphysically a fire, but what he does in us and through us, says Paul, is analogous to the effect fire has on dry wood or hay or dead grass. The Holy Spirit wants to intensify the heat of his presence among us, to inflame our hearts and fill us with the warmth of his indwelling power. And Paul’s exhortation is a warning to all of us lest we be part of the contemporary bucket brigade that stands ready to douse his activity with the water of legalism and fear and extra-biblical rules and a flawed theology that without biblical warrant claims that his gifts have ceased and been withdrawn.
Sadly, there are people who, as soon as they feel the slightest tinge of warmth from the Spirit’s supernatural work, quickly grab their theological, confessional, and denominational fire hose and douse his flame! So let’s turn our attention to some ten ways this is done.
(1) We quench the Spirit anytime we rely on any resource other than the Holy Spirit for anything we do in life and ministry. Any attempt to conjure up “hope” apart from that power which is the Spirit (Rom. 15:13) is to quench him. Any attempt to persevere in ministry and remain patient with joy by any other means than the Spirit is to quench him (Col. 1:11). Any effort or strategy to carry out pastoral ministry other than through “his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29) is to quench the Spirit. Any attempt to resolve to carry out some good work of faith through a “power” other than the Spirit is to quench him (2 Thess. 1:11).
Any time we find ourselves mired in doubt and even depression and strive to convince ourselves that God really loves us, and we don’t cry out to be strengthened with the power of the Spirit in our inner being so that we might relish the reality of God’s affection for us (Eph. 3:14-21), we are quenching the Holy Spirit.
(2) We quench the Spirit whenever we diminish his personality and speak of him as if he were only an abstract power or a source of divine energy.
There are times when the precious Spirit of God is treated as if he were no more than an ethereal energy, the divine equivalent to an electric current: stick your finger of faith into the socket of his “anointing presence” and you’ll experience a spiritual shock of biblical proportions! The shameless mechanical manipulation and virtual de-personalizing of the Spirit has frightened many evangelicals and made them understandably skeptical of any claims to miraculous activity. In view of such patterns of “ministry,” any talk of experiencing the Spirit is summarily dismissed as dishonoring to his exalted status as God and a failure to embrace his sovereignty over us rather than ours over him.
(3) We quench the Spirit whenever we neglect or overlook or worse still deny some feature of his multi-faceted ministry.
The Holy Spirit makes himself known through a variety of spiritual and physical manifestations. People often could see the presence of the Spirit (cf. Acts 8 and 10). Consider his descent on Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism, or his appearance with rushing wind and tongues of fire at Pentecost.
In Acts 13:1-2, it is the Holy Spirit who gives direction in response to fasting and worship. Acts 15:28 suggests that the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church sought the Spirit in their decisions to find out what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit also bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16), and cries, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). He provides a guarantee or a down payment of our future fellowship with him in heaven (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5) and reveals his desires to us so that we can be led by those desires and follow them (Rom. 8:4-16; Gal. 5:16-25). He gives gifts that manifest his presence (1 Cor. 12:7-11). And from time to time he works miraculous signs and wonders and miracles that strongly attest to the presence of God in the preaching of the gospel (Heb. 2:4; compare 1 Cor. 2:4; Rom. 15:19).
(4) We quench the Spirit whenever we suppress or legislate against his work of imparting spiritual gifts and ministering to the church through them.
Consider the word translated “manifestation” (phanerosis) in 1 Corinthians 12:7. Each and every gift of the Spirit is in its own way a “manifestation” of the Holy Spirit himself. The Spirit is himself made manifest or visibly evident in our midst whenever the gifts are in use. Spiritual gifts are concrete disclosures of divine activity and only secondarily human activity. Spiritual gifts are the presence of the Spirit himself coming to relatively clear, even dramatic, expression in the way we do ministry. Gifts are God going public among his people. To reject spiritual gifts, to turn from this immediate and gracious divine enabling, is, in a sense, to turn from God. It’s no small issue whether one affirms or denies these manifestations of the divine presence. In affirming them, we welcome him. In denying them, we deny him.
“Sam, are you saying that the doctrine of cessationism is a quenching of the Spirit?” Before I answer that question we need to understand the distinction between conscious intent and ultimate consequence. Whereas I don’t believe cessationists consciously intend to quench the Spirit, yes, I do believe that the ultimate consequence of that theological position quenches the Spirit. Most cessationists desire for the Spirit to work in whatever ways they believe are biblically justified. They simply don’t believe that the operation of miraculous gifts today is biblically justified. So I do think that the unintended, practical effect of cessationism is to quench the Spirit. By means of an unbiblical and misguided theology that restricts, inhibits, and often prohibits what the Spirit can and cannot do in our lives individually and in our churches corporately, the Spirit is quenched.
(5) We quench the Spirit whenever we create an inviolable and sanctimonious structure in our corporate gatherings and worship services and in our small groups that does not permit spontaneity or the special leading of the Spirit.
There is an important place in our worship services for the sovereign Spirit to break in and do something that isn’t written down in the bulletin or included in the liturgy. Think about the way we worship and especially the parameters we place on what is permitted in our corporate gatherings Let me draw your attention to Paul’s reference to “spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
I believe he describes these songs as spiritual because he intended to differentiate between those songs that are previously composed as over against those that are spontaneously evoked by the Spirit himself. “Spiritual songs” are most likely unrehearsed, unscripted, and improvised, perhaps short melodies or choruses extolling the beauty of Christ. They aren’t prepared in advance but are prompted by the Spirit and thus are uniquely and especially appropriate to the occasion or the emphasis of the moment.
Is there room given to this sort of “prophetic” singing? I call it prophetic because these are songs that often are the fruit of a revelatory impression or sense of guidance from the Spirit. They were not planned in advance. No one had any advanced sense that room should be given to their place in the corporate assembly. Could it be that we quench the Spirit’s work either by denying the possibility that he might move upon us in this way or by so rigidly structuring our services that there is virtually no time allowed for God’s sovereign interruption of our liturgy?
(6) We quench the Spirit whenever we despise prophetic utterances. Observe the parallel between 1 Thess. 5:19 and 5:20. Paul's exhortation in v. 19 not to quench the Spirit has to do with our response to prophecy in v. 20. It undoubtedly has application to the exercise of other spiritual gifts in the church, but its first and primary reference is to the gift of prophecy.
Perhaps most important of all is the word "but" with which v. 21 opens. Clearly Paul is setting up a contrast. Rather than quenching the Holy Spirit by despising prophetic utterances, examine everything. The word "everything" or "all things" in v. 21 is a reference to the prophetic utterances in v. 20.
The fact that Paul felt compelled to write this is itself remarkably instructive. For one thing, it tells us that not everyone in the early church was completely happy about the gift of prophecy. Some were clearly disenchanted with its use in the church and were actually taking steps to suppress its exercise. This is remarkable for no other reason than that it was happening in the church at Thessalonica, one of the most godly and mature early congregations (see Paul's praise of them in 1 Thess. 1:1-10).
Why were some in Thessalonica "despising" (ESV and NASB) or treating "with contempt" (NIV) prophetic words? Probably for the same reason that people (even some of you) do so today! But remember: it doesn't matter how badly people may have abused this gift. It is a sin to despise prophecy. This is a divine command. Don't treat prophecy with contempt; don't treat it as if it were unimportant; don't trivialize it. In other words, there is a real, live baby in that murky, distasteful bath water. So be careful that when you throw out the latter you don't dispense with the former!
So, what is the alternative to not quenching the Holy Spirit when he speaks prophetically through someone? It isn't "anything goes". It isn’t carte blanche. Rather, we are to test, judge, or examine, every word. Paul doesn't correct abuse by commanding disuse (as is the practice of many today). We are neither to gullibly believe every word that is spoken nor cynically reject them altogether as if they have no spiritual benefit. Paul's remedy for sinful despising isn't unqualified openness. His remedy is biblically informed discernment.
(7) One of the more important operations of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen us in our inner being so that we might overcome the doubts we have about Christ’s love for us. But he does more than simply overcome the doubts we have. He also wants to awaken and intensify in our hearts the joy of feeling loved by God.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-21).
If this inner strengthening comes only to the extent that we, like Paul, bow our knees before the Father and ask him for it, anything that might hinder such prayer or make people hesitant to pray or that might in any way create doubt in their hearts rather than faith, is equivalent to quenching the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is directly responsible for making possible our experience of feeling and rejoicing in the love God has for us in Christ.
(8) The Holy Spirit also works within us to alert and awaken us to the glorious and majestic truth that we are truly the children of God.
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7).
Notice that in both texts the experiential, felt assurance of our adoption as the children of God is the direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. To whatever extent we diminish this experiential dimension of the Spirit’s work, we have quenched him. To whatever extent we fail to lead people into the conscious, felt awareness of our adoption as God’s children, we quench the Spirit.
(9) We are guilty of quenching the Holy Spirit whenever we suppress or legislate against or instill fear in the hearts of people regarding the legitimate experience of heart-felt emotions and affections in worship.
John Piper once said that “quenching the Spirit means shutting down your emotions when joyful, spiritual expressions are called for. I get that from Ephesians 5:18-19, ‘Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.’” So, says Piper, “the vibrant fullness of the Spirit overflows in appropriate expressions like singing and making melody from the heart to the Lord. And if you don’t like those expressions and you resist it, fold your arms — ‘I am not going to do that sort of thing; I am not going to sing’ — you are quenching the Holy Spirit.”
No one wants emotion for its own sake. But when the Spirit ignites our passion for the Son of God and fills us with joy inexpressible and full of glory, it is hard to sit quietly and feel nothing. To do so, I suggest, may at times be a way in which the Spirit is being quenched. To that end, may I simply remind you that Jesus himself is described as having “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21).
(10) Allowing your life and ministry to be dictated or governed by the fear of guilt by association can easily degenerate into a quenching of the Holy Spirit. By this I mean the tendency to shut ourselves off from the work of the Spirit for fear of being linked too closely with people who we believe are an embarrassment to the cause of Christ. When this happens, we can find ourselves resisting what God is doing, not so much because we have explicit biblical warrant for doing so, but because people we regard as “weird” are actively involved in its promotion. Our prideful reasoning is both simple and sinful: “There is no way on earth this movement can be of God. After all, look at the kind of people who are associated with it.”
I am not at all suggesting that we try to be weird or that we go out of our way to be offensive to the viewing public. The Bible calls us to be sober-minded, above reproach, and clear-headed in our obedience to God. But if the fear of rejection is quenching our willingness to embrace a move of the Holy Spirit, we must embrace the stigma of appearing foolish in the eyes of men.