What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Are you a “Spirit-filled Christian”? Have you been “filled with the Holy Spirit”? How does one go about being “filled with the Spirit”?
In some Christian circles — for example, among charismatics and pentecostals — talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit is very common, but in Presbyterian circles we tend not to talk so much about it. However, if we seek to be biblical (and we should!), we should take this question seriously, for God’s Word commands us and all believers to be filled with the Spirit! For example, in Ephesians 5:18 the Apostle Paul writes: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (ESV). It is true that this could also be translated as “but be filled in spirit” (i.e., be filled in your human spirit), and some scholars defend that translation. However, I agree with those scholars and translators who understand Paul to be talking about being filled with the Holy Spirit, for that translation makes the best sense in the immediate context of this passage, and also makes sense in light of the numerous other passages in the New Testament which speak about being filled with the Holy Spirit.
So what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? In order to answer that question a number of things need to be said:
1. All true Christians have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and thus may receive the filling of the Holy Spirit.
“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.” (First Corinthians 12:13, ESV, emphasis added) All true believers in Christ have been born again by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8), have been baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ (First Corinthians 12:13), and thus we are all a temple of the Holy Spirit, a temple in which the Spirit dwells (First Corinthians 6:19). There is no such thing as a genuine Christian who is devoid of the Holy Spirit. All born again (“regenerated”) Christians have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This is a vitally important point to grasp, because it rules out all spiritual elitism within the Body of Christ. If all believers have received equally the gift of the Holy Spirit, then there is no room in the church for certain members boasting of their supposed spiritual superiority. There is no division of the church into “spiritual Christians” and “carnal Christians,” for while believers may have areas of carnality in their lives, equally true is the fact that all believers have received the Holy Spirit which Christ merited for His church, and which He poured out upon His church on the Day of Pentecost. Certainly there are differences in personality within the church, differences in terms of spiritual experiences, different levels of spiritual maturity among the members, and diversity of gifts within the Body of Christ; but all have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus all are to be valued as vital members of the Body. Wherever spiritual elitism exists in the church, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit has not inspired it.
2. The filling of the Holy Spirit is a continual reality, not a one-time event or powerful religious experience.
The command to be filled with the Spirit as found in Ephesians 5:18 is in the present tense and could be translated literally as “go on being filled with the Spirit” (see The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11, page 72). The filling of the Holy Spirit is to be an ongoing reality in the life of the believer, not a dramatic one-time event or experience.
This too is an important point to grasp, for it rules out all “second blessing” theology which teaches that there are, on the one hand, “ordinary” believers who have only received the initial blessing of salvation, but have not yet received the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit; and then, on the other hand, there are the “Spirit-filled” believers who have not only received the blessing of salvation, but have also received the additional blessing of the baptism/filling of the Holy Spirit. Beyond the blessing of salvation is believed to be a “second blessing,” often called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” and believed by some groups, such as Pentecostals, to be evidenced by speaking in other tongues. But, again, God’s Word stands squarely against such false teaching.
“Second Blessing” theology tends to foster spiritual elitism and spiritual pride within the church, and thus also tends to foster spiritual abuse, as powerful personalities who have supposedly gotten the second blessing and who have supposedly received powerful experiences from the Lord manipulate the lesser believers within their fellowship who have not yet attained to their spiritual heights. But this is not what it means to be filled with the Spirit.
3. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be under the continual influence of the Word and Spirit of Christ.
In Colossians 3:16, which is a parallel passage to Ephesians 5:18, the Apostle Paul writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (ESV) The language that Paul uses in this Colossians passage is almost exactly the same as the language he uses in Ephesians 5:18-20, except that in Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly”, whereas in Ephesians 5:18 he tells us to “be filled with the Spirit”. The point is that to be filled with the Spirit is to be indwelt by the Word of Christ. The “Word of Christ” is probably a reference to the gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in the crucified, risen, exalted Son of God! In Ephesians 5:18 Paul contrasts being filled with the Spirit to being drunk with wine. To be filled with wine (and thus drunk with it) is to be under its controlling influence. Therefore, to be filled with the Spirit is to be under the controlling influence of the Spirit and Word of Christ! It is to have your soul so saturated with the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in particular and the Word of God in general that it exerts a controlling influence upon your life.
In his commentary on Ephesians the great Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge puts it well: “Men are said to be filled with wine when completely under its influence; so they are said to be filled with the Spirit when he controls all their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.” (p. 220, A Commentary on Ephesians, The Banner of Truth Trust) This being the case, the evidence of being filled with the Spirit is not a powerful emotional or religious experience, nor mystical flights of fancy, nor speaking in tongues. Instead, the evidence of being filled with the Spirit is the ever-increasing presence of the fruit of the Spirit in your life — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV).
It is because our sanctification is imperfect and incomplete in this present life that we believers must continually be filled with the Spirit, for none of us can say that we are always and in every area of our lives constantly under the Spirit’s guiding influence. In order to do so we must be in the Word! Being continually filled with the Holy Spirit is impossible apart from the diligent use of the means of grace – the Word, sacraments and prayer. We must read our Bibles and pray. We must sit under the faithful teaching and preaching of the Word, and receive the sacraments as seals of the Word. As the Word of Christ – especially the glorious gospel of sovereign grace – continually saturates and controls our inner being, we will find ourselves being more and more “under the influence” of the Spirit, as He enables us to walk in obedience to the Word of God, out of gratitude for Christ’s gift of salvation, and in the fellowship of His visible church.
Dear reader, are you being constantly, continually filled with the Holy Spirit? Is the Word of Christ dwelling richly within your soul, and among the people of your church?