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Tozer: Why Does the Holy Spirit Not Fill The Church?

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) was the author of more than a handful of books, but is probably best known for The Knowledge of the Holy (1961) and The Pursuit of God (1957). He was also the pastor of several churches, including Southside Alliance (1928-1959) in Chicago and Avenue Road in Toronto. Several hundred of his sermons have been archived at SermonIndex.net [link] and are available for free download, including this sermon [mp3] titled “Why Does the Holy Spirit Not Fill the Church.”

If you haven’t heard Tozer’s voice before and you’re not familiar with preaching from fifty years ago his delivery — a little sing-songy and whiney — can be off-putting, but if you can get past it this sermon isn’t difficult to follow. He reads much of the story of Noah’s Flood, but takes as his primary text Genesis 8:9 “But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot” [link].

Tozer says right off the top that he will be “illustrating” rather than “exegeting” the text, and that’s pretty much what he does. He takes the image of the dove returning to the ark after the raven has not returned (presumably finding something among the flotsam and jetsam to eat) as an illustration of the Holy Spirit not being able to cohabit with various kinds of sins. He says the world today (1960 or so) is under God’s judgment because of sin, and as a result the Holy Spirit is not at home here. He singles out homosexuality for special consideration, as well as people who suggest that homosexuality is natural or normal. Later in the book he lists a bunch of sins, including

  • “Plain sins that nobody can deny”
  • Sins of act and habit
  • Selfishness
  • Sins of the heart, including lust, spite, and resentment
  • Pride

And for some reason singles out Elvis Presley for special mention as a pitiful hillbilly who doesn’t know any better.

I surmise from his presentation that he’s implying that church people need to clean up their act if they want some kind of visitation of the Holy Spirit. He never really calls people to repent; he mostly just declares that people who sin are under judgment. And he defines visitations of the Holy Spirit late in the sermon, and only by example.

He tells the story of a missions conference where when a bunch of religious professionals were gathered for prayer and were visited by “a wave of love and light” after which they asked one another for forgiveness for various things, and one of the preachers there present asked Tozer how to shake the residual feeling he had. The man had a generally softened and broken spirit, was more soft-hearted and more prone to tears after the experience. Tozer encouraged him not to try to overcome the feeling, but to embrace it.

I really have no idea if this is typical of Tozer’s sermons, or even representative of a kind of sermon he delivered. I have to admit that it sounds decidedly odd to my modern ears: it rests not on Scripture, but on Tozer’s own pneumatology, and it flows more thematically or as a series of linked images than as an argument or an exposition. Still, this basic idea — that people need to clean up their act to be visited by the Holy Spirit — does seem to be typical of a kind of thinking within evangelicalism.

I guess I would contrast it with the more cessationist view that some fundamentalists and evangelicals take — that in the present day the Holy Spirit interprets Scripture and nothing else — and the more charismatic views that the Holy Spirit is continually distributing signs and wonders. I wouldn’t suggest that Tozer is right, necessarily; it’s probably telling that he doesn’t use any other Scripture. But that doesn’t mean that he’s entirely wrong, or that any of the other views are entirely right.

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  1. November 23, 2010 at 2:59 am

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