"...be filled with the Spirit..."

(Ephesians 5:18 ESV)

The celebration of Pentecost is nearly upon us. As we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit in power on that day 2000 years ago, let’s talk about what it means to be filled with the Spirit.

Baptism vs. Filling

To be clear, I’m not talking about what many in the Pentecostal tradition would call “baptism of the Spirit.” What is usually meant by this is a second experience post-conversion, with the required “evidence” of speaking in tongues and the result of a “higher” sort of Christian life.

I think this is problematic on a couple of fronts. First, it implies that one is not baptized in the Spirit at the time of conversion. 1 Corinthians 12:13 clearly links the baptism of the Spirit with incorporation in to Christ and his Body on Earth.  So, if you are not baptized in the Spirit at the moment of conversion/baptism, you probably aren’t really part of the Church.

This line of thought is contrary to the general thrust of the relevant passages (which celebrate many gifts over and above the so-called “sign-gifts”), and it leads to an easily abused “class system” within the Body of Christ, where you have those have “gotten the Spirit” and those haven’t.

No, one is baptized (cleaned, washed, immersed) in the Spirit by Jesus (Luke 3:16) at the moment of conversion. Conversion is “signed and sealed,” confirmed and expressed, in the gift of water baptism. I agree with Pentecostal theologian Simon Chan who said in his book Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community,

"...the water ritual can be understood only in relation to the gift of the Spirit...the gift of the Spirit is an essential component of the rite of initiation. Theologically, this means that in cannot be understood as a "second work of grace" distinct from initiation, but must be understood as part of conversion-initiation." (p. 119)

The normal Christian life

Of course, the work the Spirit in your life isn’t finished at this moment of conversion and baptism. Far from it! It’s because this work is ongoing that we speak of being continually filled with the Spirit.

The filling of the Holy Spirit is a normal part of the Christian life. For most, it is an ongoing process of yielding more and more of your heart to him over time.

Many Christians also experience definitive “breakthrough” moments (sometimes more than one of the course of their lifetime). Everyone responds differently–some weep, some laugh, some fall down or faint, some become very quiet, some burst out in ecstatic speech, some make no outward indication of what has just occurred in their hearts. No matter what it looks like, the point is that God wants to be continually at work in your life and in your heart in powerful ways.

Here’s the thing: while subjective responses to being filled with the Spirit vary widely from person to person, the objective fruit is always the same:  “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…"(Galatians 5:22-23 ESV).

How to be filled with the Holy Spirit

Do you see the fruit of the Spirit in your life? If you have truly accepted Jesus as the lord of your life, it’s inevitable that you will, because you will be open to his gifts. But do you want to see more? There’s always room to grow, room to be filled even more, even to overflowing. A. W. Tozer suggests a four step framework for cultivating a deeper relationship with God the Holy Spirit and receiving him more fully into your life.

  1. Present your body (that is, be willing to give up your whole self)
  2. Ask (God doesn't force you into relationship with him)
  3. Obey (live according to Scriptures--"simple, but revolutionary,"  Tozer says)
  4. Have faith (Jesus has promised us his Spirit. We can have confidence we will receive him fully).

Brothers and sisters, do not quench the Spirit (1 Thes. 5:19). Be filled!