Do Not Quench the Spirit!
Were it not for the fact that no less than the Apostle Paul himself commanded us not to quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19-22), who among us would ever have suggested that this is even within the realm of possibility? To suggest that the omnipotent Spirit of God 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.
Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5 that God has granted to the Christian the power and authority either to restrict or release what the Spirit does in the life of the local church. The Spirit comes to us as a fire, either to be fanned into full flame and given the freedom to accomplish his will, or to be doused and extinguished by the water of human fear, control, and flawed theology.
How many of us pause to consider the ways in which we are inadvertently quenching the Spirit’s work in our lives individually and in our churches corporately. Do we speak and preach and lead in such a way that we instill fear in the hearts of people? Or after listening to us or observing how we conduct ourselves in Christian ministry, do they find themselves encouraged, courageous, and confident to step out and take risks they otherwise might not take? Do we so repeatedly pepper our sermons and small group bible studies or even our personal conversations with such dire warnings of charismatic excess that we effectively quench the Spirit’s work in their lives?
The Spirit obviously desires to work in your life and in your church. To use Paul’s metaphor or analogy, the Spirit is like a fire whose flame we must be careful not to quench or extinguish. 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, fear, extra-biblical rules, and a flawed theology that without biblical warrant claims that his gifts have ceased and been withdrawn.
Seven Ways by which we Quench the Holy Spirit
(1) We quench the Holy Spirit when 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) or any effort 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 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).
(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. Some envision the Spirit 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 result is that 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 suppress or legislate against his work of imparting spiritual gifts and ministering to the church through them.
Every gift of the Spirit is in its own way a “manifestation” (1 Cor. 12:7) of the Holy Spirit himself. The Spirit is made manifest or visibly evident in our midst whenever the gifts are in use. Spiritual gifts are the presence of the Spirit himself coming to relatively clear, even dramatic, expression in the way we do ministry.
Does this mean that the doctrine of cessationism is a quenching of the Spirit? Whereas I don’t believe cessationists consciously intend to quench the Spirit, I do believe 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 warranted. Thus, 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.
(4) 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.
Twice (in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16) Paul refers to “spiritual songs,” most likely to differentiate between songs that are previously composed (“psalms” and “hymns”) as over against those that are spontaneously evoked by the Spirit himself. I believe the best explanation of what Paul meant by “spiritual songs” are 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.
Could it be that we quench the Spirit’s work either by denying the possibility that he might move upon us in spontaneous ways like this by so rigidly structuring our services that there is virtually no allowance for the Spirit’s interruption of our liturgy?
In addition, we read in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 that the Spirit may well reveal something to a person at the same time another is speaking. This spontaneity is not to be despised or scorned but embraced, as Paul counsels the person speaking to “be silent” and give room for the other to communicate whatever the Spirit has made known.
(5) We quench the Spirit whenever we despise prophetic utterances. Although Paul’s exhortation primarily refers to our response to prophecy, it undoubtedly has application to the exercise of other spiritual gifts in the church.
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.
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.
The alternative to not quenching the Holy Spirit isn't “anything goes.” 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.
(6) The Holy Spirit also alerts and awakens us to the glorious and majestic truth that we are truly the children of God (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:4-7). In both of these 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.
(7) 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.
I find it instructive that Jesus, as he extolled the Father, is described as rejoicing “in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21). Affections for God such as joy, peace, love, zeal, desire, and reverential fear are an essential dimension in Christ-exalting worship. How often do we orchestrate our corporate gatherings and issue strict guidelines as to what is “proper” in times of worship and in doing so inadvertently quench the Spirit in people’s lives?
John Piper put it best when he said that “the vibrant fullness of the Spirit overflows in appropriate expressions like singing and making melody from the heart to the Lord [see Eph. 5:18-19]. 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.”
In conclusion, may I urge you to carefully search your own heart and assess the possible ways in which you may have quenched the Spirit in your own life and in the experience of your local church? Yielding to and making room for the Spirit’s work in our midst is not to be feared, but fostered. May God grant us both the wisdom and confidence in his goodness to facilitate a greater and more life-changing experience of the Spirit’s transforming power.
[This article originally appeared in a slightly shorter version at www.desiringgod.org on Sunday, April 29, 2018]