Is the Holy Spirit at Work Outside the Church?

Friday Monday is for Discussion

Over a year ago, Ed Stetzer asked me to jump into a discussion about the ministry of the Holy Spirit outside the Church (see here). Specifically, is the Holy Spirit at work in the world outside of the Church? At a number of levels, the question might at first sound silly. One, God may be doing all kinds of things that we are unaware about, and two, none of us have complete knowledge to answer such a question. On the other hand, we do have the Scripture which tells us much about the Holy Spirit’s activity in the world.

All that being said, I think God is at work in a variety of ways outside the church, just not salvifically. There is no salvation apart from Christ. But where cancer and AIDS and drought and oppression and crime and abuse are being beaten back into submission and removed from our midst, the prayers of the saints down through the centuries “that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven” are being answered. This is true even when the instruments of accomplishing these things are unbelieving doctors, scientists, politicians, lawyers, carpenters and activists as well as when Christians are engaged in alleviating these maladies.

But that, good as it is, is a far cry from the salvation of those who believe in the Risen One. The message of salvation alleviates eternal suffering.

The Savior came to seek and save the lost and he sends us to go on the same mission in much the same way. We are to sacrifice for others. We are to preach that the kingdom of God is at hand and call everyone (rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless) to repent and believe.

The effects of this message will be a total transformation of lives. We will no longer live for ourselves but for others. The effects will be a renewed desire to reach and serve the poor, to alleviate suffering where ever it is found. The church has largely failed in preaching the full implications of the gospel but the loadstone of its message is still the need for all men and women to repent and believe.

“Do believers have a larger role in society?” Yes. But it is never less than the preaching of the data points Christ–dead, buried, and risen, repentance from sin (cosmic rebellion against God), and belief in Christ as sin-bearer, redeemer, and coming King.

We (Christians) stand up to oppression every day. We care for widows every day. We pray for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven—perfectly. We defend the lives of the abused every day because Christ, our redeemer has called us to a new life. We are learning to live passionately for and like our Savior which means we are learning each day to pursue him rather than the American dream. And it means that every day we should be learning to live sacrificially for others as well.

Some will say “But the Bible contains more than 300 verses that address justice towards the poor. People are starving, desperate for asylum, isolated and oppressed. Shouldn’t that be our priority?”

These issues must be addressed. The poor and oppressed may need more than Good News and a church pew, but they don’t need less. If we love Jesus, we will love the poor AND work to bring justice to their lives but failure to proclaim the need for repentance and belief in Christ means we will have failed to heed Jesus’ warning:

“What does it profit a man,
if he gains the whole world but loses his soul.”

I’ve laid myself open for all kinds of blowback in this post, so let me give a brief bio. For 17 years I pastored a church that started a 1,800 square foot health clinic (over 7,000 patients), gave away 23 tons of food a year, housed a 900 sq. ft. clothing pantry, negotiated for a county housing coordinator’s office to be put in our church building, provided free counseling and financial assistance to the poor.

But if we had failed to proclaim the need for personal faith in Christ it would all be a waste because it would be less than the mission of Christ.

Tomorrow:  Do we do good as a means to preach the gospel?

6 thoughts on “Is the Holy Spirit at Work Outside the Church?

  1. This position statement is spot on and is exactly what I am struggling with at the depths of my soul. America in general out gives the world. It steps up to hurricanes, earthquakes, AIDS, etc. And the Church certainly is a part of that work. But the Bible and Jesus call us to treat the Whole Body. I envision genuine Christian faith as “The Hospital’ with the message of the cross driving the care we give and being verbalized to heal the dead forever. Faith comes by hearing. We can not be justice only. And we cannot be preach only. The Holy Spirit is in both AND must we be.


    1. Wonderful post Marty. Love the statement referring to “nothing less than the Cross.” And I strongly agree with Barry. I think of Jesus on the Cross speaking to his mother and John and saying to them, “Behold thy son” and “Behold thy mother.” (Jn.19:26-27) Here they were, seeing the cross and His death, and he was pointing them to take care of each other. Speaks volumes to me.

      If we seek physical needs we do not always find recipients of the Gospel (the tsunami in Sri Lanka proved that). But if we preach the gospel, we’ll always find physical needs. I’m not saying physical needs do not lead out the ‘contact points’ many times. Just that help ‘less than the Gospel’ does not fulfill the great commission.


  2. The wisdom of my readers is encouraging. The Holy Spirit is free. He moves where He wills. He does what He wills. But He saves by the message of the gospel being preached.

    Izzy, Barry, Terry, you encourage my heart and the heart of all who know you. Keep sharing the gospel and loving the least, the last and the lost.


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