The Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit
by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - Marks of the Lordship of the Spirit

"Ye are an epistle of Christ... written... with the Spirit of the living God" (2 Cor. 3:3).

"Who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life" (2 Cor. 3:6).

"But their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:14-18).

We were being led by the Lord in our previous meditation [this previous message is missing] to consider anew the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.

We come now to look at one or two of the features of a truly Holy Spirit [led] life and movement, those things which will obtain when the Holy Spirit is really Lord. The chapter which we have read, and there is very much more like it in the New Testament, brings some of these things before us. Let us note again that in three distinct clauses the Lordship of the Spirit is stated and presented: "The Lord is the Spirit" (v. 17). "Where the Spirit is Lord..." (v. 17). "Even as by the Lord the Spirit (or 'the Spirit who is Lord')" (v. 18).

Where the Spirit is really Lord, certain other things in the chapter will be the nature and characteristics.


The first of these is Life. You notice what place in this chapter Life has. "Written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God." "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."

So here we have a contrast and, mark you, it is a contrast in things relating to God. That letter referred to is the letter of the Old Testament Scriptures, the law and the revelation given through Moses and through angels; so the letter to the Hebrews tells us. It is something which came from heaven from God, something which is recorded in the Scriptures of truth, which the Lord bound upon His people for a long time, and yet with all that, it is said to be dead, as a letter it killeth. The New Testament was not written when those words were penned by Paul; he could only refer to the Old Testament. Shall we be untrue if we suggest that if Paul wrote today, he could and might say exactly the same thing about the New Testament? Whether he did it or not, the truth remains as a fact that the New Testament, just as much as the Old, as a letter may mean death, may be dead, and may kill; and it is true. It is proving true, it has proved true all along that to just take the letter of the Word of God, whether in the Old or the New Testament, and use it as the letter, means death, brings death.

A mark, therefore, of a Holy Spirit committal, of the Spirit's presence, is not that you have and hold to the Scriptures. It is not that you stand by the written Word of God; it is not that you adhere to the truths of the Bible; it is not that you are all the time fighting for the place of the Bible and the Scriptures as such. That is no guarantee of Life. You may do that and still be ministering death. Fundamentalism, as it is called; orthodoxy, as it is called, is not necessarily a ministration of Life. It may still be dead and ministering death.

A mark of the Holy Spirit's presence is not that you depart from the Scriptures or that you hold them lightly, nor that you have something extra to the Scriptures, nor that we are independent of them or superior to them. The mark of the Holy Spirit's presence is that the Word of the Lord is in our case personally, individually, as well as collectively - living; it is throbbing with Life. The very first movement of the Spirit of God is that of Life.

Let no one think for one moment, and far be it from anybody to go away from here and say that I have been making light of the Word of God. What I am saying is this: that, while that Word remains the Word of God, and while it is a very sacred trust given to us for real purposes of going on into all the fulness of Christ, it has got to be something more than the Word of God as written in a book. It has got to be the Word of God to us. Until that is so, you will be all at sea and you will get into a great deal of confusion and trouble. I know of some people, I know them personally now, who, when the air raids started and came into their neighbourhood, went to the Bible and picked out some parts of the Scripture and, appropriating them, made them to govern this situation in the expectation that they would be absolutely immune from any hurt or harm or approach of evil - Psalm 91, for instance, and other Scriptures. But their homes have been wrecked and they have lost everything, and today they are in darkness because they believed that the Word of God was true and could be taken for their protection and it has not worked.

I believe that this Word as it is contained in the book is the Word of God. Do not misunderstand me. But for us in experience it is not the Word of God until the Spirit of God has said it to us and we know it. If the Spirit of God comes to you and takes some portion of the Word and says it to you, then that is the Word of God in a fuller, deeper sense than it is as written in the Book. Do not misunderstand that. It is capable of misconstruction, I know. Unfortunately, some of us have to walk round almost every step we take to make sure we have said it correctly! However, with all the care and caution, I suppose we shall not escape. You know what I mean. The thing has got to live by the Holy Spirit in us if we are coming into the fulness of God. We are not going to get into it by studying, by reading, by memorising, or by saying, "That is the Word of God, that is the Bible, that is the Scripture!" No, and in many different ways this applies.

Now, our point is that a real mark of the Spirit's presence in an unhindered way is Life; Life in the Word, Life through the Word, but Life. I am not for the moment so particularly concerned about the Word, the Scriptures. I am only using this as Paul uses it, to indicate a difference - that you may have the Scriptures and be dead. You may have all the written Word of God and be prepared to lay down your life for it, and be spiritually dead and ministering death, or not ministering Life.

So then, when the Spirit gets His way, what you expect to find is not just truth as truth - the Word, the Scriptures, as such. You expect to find people living in that Word and that Word living in them. That is His work. So, out of the darkness of a judged creation, the brooding Spirit brings Light and Life. The Spirit of Life moves - that is the point.

Let me press that for a moment or two still more closely. We all believe that the unsaved are in darkness and in death, but do we all recognise that we still carry about with us a whole weight and bulk of that darkened and dead creation, and that that part of us is very often bigger than anything else about us, and it is always present and always weighing on us? Our minds naturally are still as incapable of seeing the thoughts of God as they were when we were unsaved. Our natural abilities in this matter are still as much under incapacitation as they were before we were born again. The difference is not there at all, and the trouble with so many of the Lord's people is that they will continually move on that old creation ground in themselves with regard to the Lord's things, bringing their natural judgment to bear upon the things of God, handling the things of God on the basis of their natural capacities. The result is that you only get something more or less clever, more or less shrewd. You do not get any more Life.

The Holy Spirit, in order to make everything living, has got to deal quite definitely and radically by the Cross with every encroachment of the old creation in us upon Divine things. That is a difficult lesson to learn; it is hard to be understood, but it is true.

Now, I come back to the Word. The illustration is very much simpler and more obvious than the enunciation of the law, the principle. Here are those disciples with the Lord Jesus for three or more years and they hear all that He has to say, and mark you, He says it very simply. You say, "A child can understand His illustrations, similes, parables, stories, incidents, all to get home His great spiritual truths." And the disciples had years of that and John says that there was so much of it that if it were all written I suppose the world would not hold the books! So evidently they heard a very great deal more than we have heard, and yet the fact remains for all to see who have eyes, that at the end of that time, they did not understand, they did not know what He had been saying. They did not perceive what He was driving at. They did not reach the conclusions that He was seeking all the time to register in them, and when He was crucified, they were simply in a state of bewilderment - stunned and dazed and in the primal chaos of the old creation. There is no doubt about it, they were in the chaos and darkness of Genesis 1:2; they could not see any distance. Death reigned with them as on the way to Emmaus. You see what a state they were in.

Here are men in personal association with the Lord Jesus, in closest touch, hearing all that put in that simple way, and yet after all, not understanding, not perceiving, nor discerning, having missed the point. The Cross has done something. It has exposed the incapacity of nature in closest proximity to the things of God. How helpless and hopeless and useless it is! If Jesus Christ of Nazareth were to come here and come up on to this platform and begin to speak to you as He spoke to His disciples of old, simply, directly, with the most helpful illustration, and if He were to continue with that for hours, there is no guarantee that even He being present and teaching would result in your understanding what He was talking about. The result might just be the same.

Well, the Cross first of all exposed that, showed how true that is in the case of the disciples, and what is true in their case is true in ours and in the case of everyone. But then that Cross did more than expose a hopeless and helpless state in relation to the things of God, it accomplished the removal of that state. It dealt with the causes of such a condition and, dealing with the causes, it made a way for a new condition. The Cross exposed, judged, and in Christ, removed that state. Then, that ground of condemnation, of judgment, of helplessness, all that which was the nature of that inability being removed, a way was made for the Spirit to come and start again, start from the bottom, and when the Spirit came, they could see, they could understand.

Do you notice that they had the Old Testament Scriptures? They knew them, but still they did not understand when He was speaking about them, but on the day of Pentecost, not only a marvellous survey of the Old Testament Scriptures, not only a marvellous citation of Old Testament Scriptures, but an altogether new insight was given them. Now the inner meaning has come to light, now they live. There is something altogether new here, and the mark of it is Life as from the dead, and that is a feature, a characteristic, of the Holy Spirit's presence in a life. It is Life, a thing you cannot explain, you can only know. It is that tremendous difference where at one time you are dealing with a written word, a letter, and your business is with a book, and it is a business, and then that thing happens where you are baptised into the despair of the Cross as to the things of God. Believe me, there is going to be no new order until that old one has been despaired of, and then by the surrendering up of all that incapacitated natural life, the Spirit comes and that book lives. Now the things of God are not just things written in a book. They are things written in your heart by the Spirit of the living God. All is alive.

That is very simple, very elementary, but it is a tremendous challenge to us. I am not just giving you the technique of Christian truth. If I did not know something about this, I would not talk to you about it.

I wonder what sort of position you have come to? Are you interested in Bible teaching, Bible truths, Bible doctrines, Bible books, Bible themes, the content of the Bible as such? Well, of course, it is a realm of tremendous interest and can become very fascinating, but how far does it get us? Some of us did that sort of thing for years - Bible lectures, Bible analysis, how to study the Bible as a book - all this may be very valuable. I am not saying that there is no value in having a knowledge of what is in the book, but what I am saying is that if you leave it there, you may just as well have never touched it, for all the Divine ends that may be reached. Something more is essential. Now, do you know that something more? Do you know Life in this matter, Life in the Spirit, that everything lives? Oh, the Lord save us, deliver us, from just being Bible students and those who have a lot of information about things in the Scriptures! The Lord make us those who live by His Word!

So you will come to a time - if you are going on with the Lord, that is, if you are going to come under the Holy Spirit's sovereign government - when you will say to yourself, "I am tired of subjects, themes, truths, doctrines, the Bible, the Bible as a book! I want to know the Lord, I must know the Lord!" You come to that place under the Holy Spirit's government where you must know the Lord. You are not going to know Him apart from His Word, but it is the Lord.

That is just the direction in which the Holy Spirit moves. Here is Paul or Saul of Tarsus. I doubt whether there were many in his day who knew the Old Testament better than he. He knew the Scriptures, but he did not know the Lord. He saw Moses and the prophets, but he did not see Christ, and the thing which made all the difference with him was - "It pleased God to reveal His Son in me" (Gal. 1:15,16). A revelation of the Lord Jesus will make the Word of God living throughout, but an assault upon the Scriptures is not necessarily going to lead you to the Lord Jesus. I know many have been led to the Lord through the Scriptures - that is not my point. I say not necessarily does it lead you to Him, the living Christ. What about that Ethiopian to whom Philip went? He was reading in the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53, as it is in our Bible. There it was, and he said to Philip, "Of whom speaketh the prophet this? Of himself, or of some other man?" Then Philip began to preach unto him Jesus, and the man could understand the passage he had been reading. Philip was a man filled with the Spirit and when he preached Jesus, it was not the technique about Jesus, it was the living revelation of Jesus. And the other man, seeing Jesus with his eyes opened by the Holy Spirit, saw what Isaiah was saying. A revelation of the Lord Jesus is the key to everything, it is Life.

We cling to the Word because this Word is going to be made to live in a new, wonderful way when once the Spirit has opened our eyes to see Jesus. I know that it works both ways, but the point is that the Spirit wants the testimony of Jesus in Life, not just in accuracy of doctrine, in Life. That is the mark of the Spirit's sovereignty among the Lord's people and in them. Everything lives. So you will find wherever you look in the Scriptures that Life is a great symbol of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is represented in terms of Life, whether it is fire or water or wind or whatever it may be, it is Life.


Another thing as a mark of the Spirit as here, is newness. A feature of the sovereignty of the Spirit is newness. Paul elsewhere makes this contrast - "not in oldness of the letter, but in newness of the Spirit" (Romans 7:6), and newness is a characteristic of the Spirit's presence. That is a challenge. Some of us can understand this and can appreciate it and we rejoice in it very greatly. When the Holy Spirit really does His work by the Cross, He makes all things new, but that newness is not something once and for all; it is continuous, it is always going on. The Holy Spirit's presence and free operation will always mean that you and I and the Lord's people can never become static, stale, fixed, or merely traditional as bound by past traditions.

We sing: "The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word". Are you afraid of that? Some people are afraid of that. Anything fresh is suspect at once; anything new will be immediately called into question, which means that there are certain settled and fixed lines which are recognised upon which the Lord must always move and any deviations from that cannot be of the Lord. The sovereignty of the Spirit means that there are going to be many surprises, overturnings, and upsettings, and will call for many adjustments. The Lord is going to keep things new when He has His way.

It is a newness of this kind: I have seen in relation to that part of the Word of God firstly something which was wonderful to me and then in relation to the same thing later, something which was more wonderful still, and then again that was transcended and all the time the oldest, most well-worn fragments of the Word are taking on new glories and new meanings and I am seeing more today in them than ever. The Word of God never becomes exhausted. No fragment of the Word is something the meaning and value and depth of which you have plumbed and that is the end of it and you never get beyond it. No, it is new. But there are those who will not leave room for that, "Someone said a certain thing about that Scripture so many years ago and no one can improve on that. That was taught by So-and-so and you dare not add to that or go beyond that!" Oh, you will find death there. No, newness is a wonderful mark of the Holy Spirit's presence and we have got to leave room for that, for the Lord to do things that we have never heard of and never seen.

I do feel this Word about the sovereignty of the Spirit is so necessary, because apart from it, there is a terrible limitation. You see, if the Lord lays His hand upon someone or some company of His children and leads them by some way that is not usually the recognised, established, conventional, traditional way, then they must have gone wrong! That is the conclusion; therefore beware of them! Is that right? Before Almighty God, is that right? The Bible is strewn with this sort of thing, the Lord taking hold of a people and causing them to move in a way that has never been done before; extraordinary, there is no convention for it. The Lord has a right to do that and, mark you, never has the Lord done that without there being those who have taken up a very strong attitude and position and have interpreted that as a departure from the Lord. You find it in the New Testament, but the truth is this, that whenever God has a new order in view, He usually does it in a new way or does what is new to those people who know all about it.

Who will say today that what the Lord did through John Wesley, for example, was not a necessary thing? Oh, the state of things in Wesley's time - and the Lord is going to move in a new way and He lays hold of John Wesley and leads him in a way that is altogether contrary to the accepted way of the religious people of his time, and therefore John Wesley must be wrong and must be doing the devil's work! That is the verdict. And you cannot put your hand upon any instrumentality which the Lord has taken up to use for a new movement into His fulness, without there being those who say, "That is not of the Lord!" Why? Because they have never seen it done like that before, or because they had their rails laid down for the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit must keep on those rails and so the Lord is limited and the Lord's people are held in that limited straitness of spiritual life and the measure of Christ.

The Holy Spirit breaks through our conventions, traditions, and takes things into His own hands and does a new thing. "I will do a new thing" (Isa. 43:19). The challenge to us is, are we ready to let the Holy Spirit do something we have never heard of and about which everybody who knows all about it will say, "Be careful, that is dangerous, that is not how it has been done before, that is something new!" Are you ready for all that? Are you ready for the sovereignty of the Spirit to do a new thing with you, not just an extra thing, but a different kind of thing from what He has been doing, or what you have been accustomed to?


One final word is that a mark of the Spirit is liberty. The sovereignty of the Spirit demands liberty, "Where the Spirit is Lord there is liberty." In order to bring us into all the fulness of the Divine thought, we shall have to be brought to a place where we are absolutely free from all the binding systems of our Christianity and free to go on with the Lord. It is a liberty which, on the one hand, is very costly, but on the other hand it is a glorious thing when you know it.

How can I illustrate it? Well, if I may speak out of my own experience in this connection very briefly it is this. Time was when, in the things of the Lord, one was bound because one was man's servant. So many sermons had to be preached every week, so many addresses had to be prepared and given. You were paid for it, you had got to do it. It was your business, business for God, but there it was. There was the fixed course of things and the soul chafed against it, and the longing was, oh, to be in a place where one could speak only when there is a message from God, and if there was not a message from God, to keep out of the way, hidden. The day came when the Lord made that actual, where He brought that old thing so much under death that it had to be, and I came out and said, "I am never going to preach again unless the Lord gives me a living message! I am not going to be bound by this religious system!" Well, what might it have meant? It might have meant starvation, the cutting off of material things, salary and all the rest. You cannot do that sort of thing nowadays in the present system. Nevertheless it had got to be; the Lord had brought that crisis. Well, whatever it meant, the step was taken with God.

What has it meant? I can tell you it has not meant bondage, limitation or straitness. It has meant emancipation, liberty. It was out from a thing, into the Spirit. That is an imperfect illustration of what I mean. It is just that - that the Spirit must have us free. A mark of the Spirit's sovereignty is that He is free and we are free. We are out with Him and He can do as He likes, take His own course, and when He does that, it is Life, it is liberty, and it is glory.

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