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A Righteousness by Faith #15: Are you being confidently misguided?

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Ephesians 5:15-18

The speaker was confident. All we, who filled the college chapel that morning, needed to do was confess all the sins that we were committing. A lengthy list of sin actions was handed out. When we finished checking off whatever we needed to confess, we would be filled with the Spirit. It could be only briefly, the speaker warned. Being Spirit-filled depended on our continually confessing sin.

That day is forever linked in my mind to Ephesians 5:18. “Be filled with the Spirit” Sitting with my fellow college students, I felt more than a little hopeless. How was I ever going to maintain such a level of confessional life? Moreover, what did I really know about my soul’s condition? What if I had sin in my life that I was not fully aware of as sin? I wasn’t thinking of the gray areas such as attending movies, dancing or playing cards, which my Christian culture had taught me were on the no-no list. I was in the dark about where the lines were for goodness and evil, integrity and deceitfulness, the knowable and unknowable parts of my soul.

I am pretty sure that I did not end up filled with the Spirit that day, in spite of a heroic effort to confess everything I could name that was wrong within me. And now I know why. Being filled with the Spirit is not about me—about my sins and my confession. It is about surrender.

This is not a chicken-or-the-egg kind of pursuit. Something does have to come first. That speaker was making a case for human effort, for us to do something—for me to do something! He was saying that cleaning up our act by making a complete confession first is the avenue by which God consents to fill us. God cannot be where sin is, the preacher thunders. And so we must dutifully track down and declare our sorrow over every spot of sin before we can be a place the Spirit can inhabit.

Except . . . that is just not humanly possible. True confession is led by the Spirit and not self-led. None of us know how messed up we are. What we do know—and Paul is making this point—is that we choose. We choose to surrender to the filling of the Spirit over surrendering to destructive behavior.

This is what wise people do. They know that they have no idea what is really wrong with them and that they cannot confess their way into Spirit filling. Instead, they see the damage their choices are doing to them, so they turn to God and surrender. “Fill me! Take charge of me!” This is a faith moment, when we recognize we will never be able to maneuver our way into a Spirit-filled life

And this is precisely what Paul prayed for his audience earlier in chapter 3: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. Paul is not praying about taking your spiritual pulse to see if you are ready to be filled with the Spirit. He is praying about believing that God is faithful and will shape our hearts into a fitting place for Jesus to live.

The Spirit will point out the garbage. Our confession will follow. We will be given insight by the Spirit concerning what needs to be purged. But we will also receive the power to do that as well. As we choose to surrender, he will empty the trash that has its clutches on us. This submission to the Spirit is the critical difference between our working hard to be Spirit-filled, and humbly being Spirit-filled.

Keeping on being filled with the Spirit is about grace. Grace is God’s empowering action in us to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Nail that to your flag post and do not forget it. The failure to understand grace is one of the main reasons believers today are led astray by well-meaning but misguiding speakers like the one I heard that day in chapel.

More to come…

-Steve Smith