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Pilgrim’s Process by Peter Sanlon

Spirit & Word

By the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon

God looks after us on our journey to heaven. As pilgrims who need God’s strength, we must ensure we understand the nature of assistance God grants us.

A vital insight that alerts us to the way God helps pilgrims is that He has united the Holy Spirit to Scripture. The Spirit and Word are inseparably joined such that they work in us, together and not apart from one another.

This is why Hebrews 3:7 tells us the Spirit speaks — and quotes an Old Testament passage to let us hear His voice. Prov. 1:23 equates the Spirit to the Word —’I will pour out my Spirit; I will make my words known to you.’ The New Covenant was promised in Isa. 59:21 as a new work of God wherein He says, ‘My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth.’

Pilgrims wander off the straight and narrow path when they divide Spirit from Word. We do this if we tend towards rationalism — wrongly thinking that all we need to do with the Word is understand, parse and distil its content by means of effort and technique. Preachers who fall into this error tend to overvalue clarity (something Jesus often declined to offer in his preaching!). 

On the other hand we leave the narrow path when we imagine the Spirit will work apart from His Word. The Spirit inspired the Bible. Scripture is his sword (Ephesians 6:17). When we seek the Spirit in ecstatic experiences, prophecies or visions part from the Word he deigns to use — we lose sight of the nature of the help God grants pilgrims.

Suffused through the writings of John Calvin was an awareness that union between Spirit and Word is vital for pilgrims. So debating against Sadoleto Calvin said, ‘Seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit, but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, He annexed it to the Word.’

Relying on the Spirit and Word means more than caring about both Spirit and Word. It means more than being passionate for the Bible or reading the Word as well as seeking the work of the Spirit. Pilgrims who embrace the Spirit and Word find their attitude to God and his people changed at a fundamental level. A warmhearted piety and sense of God that transcends reason forms them to keep in step with the Spirit and treasure the Word. And with God’s help – they carry on. May it be so for us.

The Revd Dr Peter Sanlon is the Rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church in Tunbridge Wells.