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Direct Operation of the Holy Spirit

Acts 16:13-15

by Bryan Sharp

In Acts 16, Luke relates what happened when he, Paul, and Silas arrived at Philippi on Paul's second preaching trip. Beginning in verse 13 he writes:

"And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us" (Acts 16:13-15).

It is common to encounter this passage in a discussion of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. A belief in the direct operation of the Holy Spirit is a belief that the Holy Spirit influences people apart from the gospel in order to save them. With Calvinism, it is a belief that the Holy Spirit must miraculously enable a person to do what is right, and without this influence, a person can neither understand nor obey the gospel. At first glance it is easy to see why some could conclude this from our text. The opening of Lydia's heart in Acts 16:14 is assumed to be the Holy Spirit's miraculous transformation of Lydia's heart from evil to good so that she could understand and obey the gospel Paul preached. So this story and this doctrine are the topics of our lesson. First we will consider the ramifications of the doctrine and then we will discuss the true meaning of the story.

Consider the implications of this doctrine. Aside from implying the gospel is incapable of saving souls (Cp. Romans 1:16; II Timothy 3:15-17), the idea that the Holy Spirit must miraculously change our hearts before we can obey God makes God a sinner. After all, if the Holy Spirit must change our nature and our will so that we are capable of obedience, then whose fault is it if our nature and will are never changed? The logical implication is that our refusal to do what is right becomes God's fault because He refused to change our wills by giving us the Holy Spirit. If God is responsible for our sins, then God is a sinner.

So what really happened in Philippi? To understand this we must first understand Luke's terminology. Specifically, we must understand the phrases "opened her heart" and "pay attention to." To open the mind is to expand the ideas of the mind or broaden its conceptions. The heart is the mind and therefore when the Lord opened Lydia's heart, He expanded the ideas of her mind and broadened its conceptions. God presented Lydia with new thoughts and ideas. "Pay attention to" implies more than just listening or even believing. It includes action. The New King James translates the phrase as "heed" and the New American Standard translates it "to respond to." It is the same word translated "devote" in I Timothy 4:13, where Timothy is commanded to "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching." In Hebrews 7:13 this word is rendered "officiated" in the phrase "no man has officiated at the altar." So when the Lord opened Lydia's heart "to pay attention to what was said" God presented Lydia new ideas upon which to act.

Whatever else we get out of this passage, we need to understand that God did what He did by allowing Lydia to hear the gospel.

In other words, this passage does not say Lydia could not understand or obey Paul without the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. It says she did not know what to do until Paul told her. The Calvinistic position is that the Holy Spirit acted upon Lydia's heart apart from the gospel, in order to allow her to be obedient. The truth is that the gospel opened Lydia's heart to obey God. Rather than limiting the power of the gospel, this passage illustrates it power. The gospel shows one what to do to be saved. It is then up to each individual to decide whether or not he will accept and obey the gospel.

The Spirit is involved in our salvation. However, rather than miraculously changing our hearts from evil to good without the gospel, if we study carefully, we will find the Spirit acts through the gospel. Growing up, I helped cut firewood for our home. Even though I say I cut it, everyone understands I used a tool, an ax, to perform the work. Even so, the Spirit is said to save us, Titus 3:5, but we must understand He uses a tool, the gospel, to perform that work, James 1:21. The Spirit guided Christ and the Apostles in their preaching (Acts 10:38; John 12:49; 16:13), and directed the Biblical writers to the point of choosing the very words they wrote. By giving us the Father's will in a written word, the Spirit appeals to man's reasoning abilities and then lets each person determine for himself whether or not he will obey and be saved. This is why it is so dangerous for a person to become calloused to the gospel. Once a person has learned to ignore the gospel, nothing will save him. Let us therefore follow the example of Lydia, heed the gospel, and save ourselves.