There is a lot said and a lot written about people having the Holy Spirit. I thought it would be worth clarifying what I think to be the fairly clear teaching of the Bible and the testimony of experience. I am writing this partly in reaction to reading Greg Haslam's essay “Be Filled with the Spirit”, which I refer to from time to time, but you don't need to have read it to understand what I'm saying.
One of the problems with incomplete teaching from the Bible is that when we have experiences which do not fit with that incomplete teaching, there is a danger of saying that the teaching we received was incorrect, even though it was actually incomplete. So it is with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
All Christians receive the Holy Spirit
This is very much the “traditional position”. All Christians receive the Holy Spirit when they become Christians.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Romans 8:9-11, ESV
There doesn't seem to be any way to deny this. If we don't have the Holy Spirit, we don't belong to Jesus, and we don't have new life. All Christians receive the Holy Spirit.
But just because we have the Holy Spirit, that does not mean that we have the fullness of experience of the Holy Spirit.
And if someone asks “Surely we got it all automatically when we believed?” Dr Lloyd-Jones replied “If you have got it all, why are you so unlike the New Testament Christians? Got it all? Got it all at your conversion? Well, where is it, I ask?”Filled with the Holy Spirit by Greg Haslam in Preach the Word
This having the Holy Spirit but not having a full experience of the Holy Spirit is commonly misinterpreted by Pentecostals as not having the Holy Spirit at all. But as we have seen, all Christians must be indwelt by the Spirit, otherwise they are not Christians. So what more is there?
Some Christians are sometimes filled with the Holy Spirit
It's important when we're talking about these things to use the same language as our translations of the Bible use. That is because otherwise we'll end up talking a different language to the Bible, and we'll misunderstand it.
The Bible does talk about a second-level experience of the Holy Spirit, called in most modern English translations “being filled with the Spirit”.
Being indwelt by the Holy Spirit isn't always obvious. Being filled with the Holy Spirit generally is, as a quick look through the New Testament shows.
Being filled with the Spirit is mentioned 10 times in the New Testament, 9 of them by Luke. In Luke 1, John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit even in the womb as part of his job of proclaiming Jesus. His parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are both filled with the Spirit and the result is that they praise God for what he is doing in Jesus. In Acts 2, the apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit, and speak in tongues, then preach about Jesus. In Acts 4, Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit and preaches, then later all the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit and preach. In Acts 9, Saul/Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit, his blindness is healed and immediately he begins preaching. In Acts 13, he is filled with the Spirit again, and confronts the false prophet Elymas. Again in Acts 13, the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit as they rejoice despite persecution. And in Ephesians 5:18, we are commanded to “be filled with the Holy Spirit”, which is a continuous imperative - “go on being filled in the Holy Spirit”. The consequences of being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18 are “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph 5:19-21, ESV)
From that, there are a few points we can make about being filled with the Holy Spirit.
- It is a repeatable experience – Peter and Paul are both recorded as being filled with the Spirit on separate occasions.
- It therefore follows that it is not a permanent state, which is also implied by the command to go on being filled with the Spirit.
- It leads to some kind of verbal proclamation, whether preaching, rejoicing, tongues or (in the case of Paul v Elymas) powerful cursing
- It can happen either at the first reception of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 2, 9) or subsequently (e.g. Acts 4, 13)
I strongly suspect that the programmatic reference for being filled with the Spirit is Micah 3:8
But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
Micah 3:8, ESV
Being filled with the Spirit is about being empowered to proclaim God's word.
Because being filled with the Spirit is much more obvious than just receiving the Spirit, it also seems to happen when some kind of external evidence that the Holy Spirit has come is needed. The classic example of this is in Acts 10-11, with the first Gentile converts. Peter is preaching at the house of a Roman centurion called Cornelius (though he has to be told specifically in a vision to go there), and Cornelius and co start “speaking in tongues and extolling God”, which is classic Acts behaviour for being filled with the Spirit. Peter sees this as evidence that they have received the Spirit, and hence that Gentiles can become Christians too, which seems to come as a surprise both to him and to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:18).
Reflecting on my own experience, it seems to me that my conservative background often but not always tends to downplay being filled with the Spirit, and play up receiving the Spirit. It wouldn't at all surprise me if that sort of emphasis was what led to the heresy which observed people being filled with the Spirit and concluded that they were receiving it for the first time.
One of the mistakes which most annoys me at times is in the language we use when talking about being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is not a case of us having more of the Spirit. The Spirit is not a liquid of whom we can receive more. The Spirit is a person. Being filled with the Spirit is not us having more of the Spirit, but the Spirit having more of us. It is being surrendered to the Spirit, so that we are not actively opposing what the Spirit is seeking to do in us.
Baptism in the Spirit
The other phrase used a fair bit in the Bible, is “baptism in the Holy Spirit”. In charismatic circles, I usually hear this used either (heretically) as referring to a reception of the Holy Spirit after conversion or as a synonym for being filled with the Spirit (so Greg Haslam). In conservative circles, I usually hear it as referring to initial reception of the Spirit.
Most of the New Testament references are unclear as to which they refer to. Jesus is said to baptise with the Holy Spirit. which is symbolised by the Holy Spirit visibly descending on him at his baptism. Pentecost is described as being baptism with the Holy Spirit, but as we have seen, Pentecost is both receiving the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit. Ditto with Cornelius receiving the Spirit in Acts 10-11.
But Paul helps us out. In 1 Corinthians 12, he wrote:
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:13, ESV
We were all baptised in one Spirit into one body. That makes it pretty clear it's something which affects all Christians and so is to do with reception of the Holy Spirit rather than filling with the Holy Spirit.