What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? Receiving Assurance

What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? Receiving Assurance May 2, 2024

The Holy Spirit depicted as a dove flying
Image by Kiều Trường from Pixabay

Can a Christian experience God’s love in such a way that they feel sure they are going to heaven? Can we receive supernatural joy and peace? Receiving the Holy Spirit is Luke’s preferred term for baptism in the Holy Spirit in Acts.  This is mostly about us being assured that we are Christians by the love of God being poured out into our hearts.  I realise it is a controversial subject, but I hope I have handled it in a balanced way.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. PHILIPPIANS 1:6

Assurance of salvation is an inner certainty that we are indeed Christians who are destined for heaven. At times many Christians feel uneasy about this. Feelings of guilt and condemnation may give rise to serious doubts about whether they are really Christians.

The Bible tells us, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

This verse suggests a straightforward way to answer the question, am I saved? The problem is that simply mouthing the words cannot be enough. John Piper makes this point by asking if a computer could become a Christian. He cites 1 Corinthians 12:3, which says that no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the help of the Holy Spirit, and says,

Now a computer can say it. It must say it and mean it, that is, have an experiential sense that he is worthy of such an ascription, and heartfelt allegiance to his lordship that is different from the Devil’s belief that Jesus is Lord.[1]

Clearly a computer could not become a Christian and therefore, by extension, if someone merely mouths these words without really meaning them, they will not be saved either.

James challenges us that “even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). So how can we know if our faith is genuine? First, the words must not be mindlessly repeated. We must be convinced in our mind and heart that Jesus is divine, that he has risen and is now ruling. We must determine that Jesus is our Lord and begin to follow him.

Our lives must also begin to change. Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). Thus, when we see that we are growing in the fruit of the Spirit recorded in Galatians 5—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”—our confidence can grow. As is often said, it is faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.

We must also learn to value Jesus and to love him. This should affect our emotions and give rise to at least some level of experience. This might be very limited, however, and if we claim that everybody has received everything that is available at conversion, we will usually settle for a very meager experience indeed.

This evidence does assure us that we are genuine Christians. But there is an even greater source of assurance to be found in the deeper experiences made available for us through the resurrection. What we need is an inner assurance of the heart—that deep-rooted confidence that comes when the Spirit confirms to us that we belong to Jesus. I like to call this direct assurance. Paul describes this:

You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15–16)

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

These verses best explain the personal accounts describing experiences of Jesus written in the previous chapter. Each person received a new confidence, which was the direct product of a personal encounter with God. The Puritans and others of the past emphasized the importance of what they called “full assurance”.  They said that this is a work of the Holy Spirit meeting our spirit and telling us that we are God’s children. Douglas Moo explains:

The confidence we have for the day of judgment is not based only on our intellectual recognition of the fact of God’s love, or even only on the demonstration of God’s love on the cross . . . but on the inner, subjective certainty that God does love us . . . and it is this internal, subjective, yes, even emotional, sensation within the believer that God does indeed love us—love expressed and made vital in real, concrete actions on our behalf—that gives to us the assurance that “hope will not disappoint us.[2]

John Piper clarifies this with a helpful example:

Let me use an illustration from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. . . . He says it is like a child walking along holding his father’s hand. All is well. The child is happy. He feels secure. His father loves him. He believes that his father loves him but there is no unusual urge to talk about this or sing about it. It is true and it is pleasant.

Then suddenly the father startles the child by reaching down and sweeping him up into his arms and hugging him tightly and kissing him on the neck and whispering, “I love you so much!” And then holding the stunned child back so that he can look into his face and saying with all his heart, “I am so glad you are mine.” Then hugging him once more with unspeakable warmth and affection. Then he puts the child down and they continue their walk . . .

The child is simply stunned. He doesn’t know whether to cry or shout or fall down or run, he is so happy. The fuses of love are so overloaded they almost blow out. The subconscious doubts—that he wasn’t thinking about at the time, but that pop up every now and then—are gone! And in their place is utter and indestructible assurance, so that you know that you know that you know that God is real and that Jesus lives and that you are loved, and that to be saved is the greatest thing in the world. And as you walk on down the street you can scarcely contain yourself, and you want to cry out, “My father loves me! My father loves me! O, what a great father I have! What a father! What a father!”

I think this is basically what happened at Pentecost. And has happened again and again in the life of the church.[3]

We will see in this chapter that these kinds of experiences are strongly linked in the Bible to the resurrection of Jesus. As one popular Reformed Bible encyclopedia claims, “Resurrection is not only a future hope, but a present experience.”[4]

THE RISEN JESUS—SENDER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:32–33).

“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 8:11).

In Paul’s letters he often refers to what it is that enables him to keep going. Sometimes he attributes this to the Holy Spirit (e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:6), but on other occasions he credits it to Jesus. For example, in 1 Timothy 1:12 he says, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul says this because he understood that it is the risen Jesus who sends the Holy Spirit to do this work in us. Paul uses the terms “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” interchangeably. He uses the first of these much more frequently, and a search of the ESV text for “in Christ” giving a massive eighty three hits in Paul’s letters but “in the Spirit” gives seven hits. So we see that for Paul it is his sense of knowing Jesus and his power that is crucial.

Christians over the centuries have sometimes testified to a sense of peace and calm when facing immense challenges. This peace is a direct gift of the risen Christ. Jesus’ promise to his disciples is still true today for all believers:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27).

Jesus is introduced in each Gospel as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). The fact that this sending of the Spirit is the work of Jesus is confirmed by the words he spoke to his disciples:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16–17)

Jesus also said, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

Jesus was providing comfort and reassurance to his disciples, promising that when he left them, something would happen that would be to their advantage. The Holy Spirit was to be even better than if Jesus had remained with them. It must have been hard for the disciples to believe this at the time. Lloyd-Jones drives this point home:

How can it be expedient for the disciples that He should leave them in the flesh and go away from them in the body? How can that be true if it is not possible for the Christian to know him immediately and directly?

Obviously the supreme blessing is to be with Him, in His presence and in His company. What He is really saying is that after He has gone and has baptized them with the Holy Ghost, He will be more real to them than He was at that moment. And this is what actually happened. They knew Him much better after Pentecost than they knew Him before. He was more real to them, more living to them, more vital to them afterwards than He was in the days of His flesh. His promise was literally fulfilled and verified.[5]

Is Jesus more real to you now than he would be if you could see him and talk to him face-to-face? That perspective on this verse alone confirms to me that there has to be more to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit than I have experienced personally. Jesus himself calls us to actively receive the Spirit, described as “living water”:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37–39)

The risen Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit could only be poured out because of Jesus’ resurrection. Prior to the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, although at work in the world, had not yet been sent to do this special work. God’s active presence had been largely withdrawn ever since the Fall, with the occasional outbreak of his manifested presence.

Obviously Jesus could not be the one who pours out the Holy Spirit today if he had remained dead. The Spirit’s outpouring proves that Jesus is alive. As Bible teacher Terry Virgo often says, “Dead corpses aren’t too good at giving the Holy Spirit.”

If we neglect to emphasize the resurrection of Jesus, we may also miss out on knowing God in a more direct sense. This is because the experience of the Spirit referred to by Paul in Ephesians 1, Romans 5, and Romans 8 is strongly connected to his resurrection. We receive the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and this power seems to be more available when we talk about the empty tomb. Nothing is impossible for the same power that can bring a crucified corpse back to life.

Because of his resurrection, Jesus became a life-giving Spirit
(1 Corinthians 15:45) and pours out the Holy Spirit on his people to empower them for service and assure them of their own future resurrection. There is a mystery to this union between the Spirit and Jesus:

As resurrected, Christ is in such total and final possession of the Holy Spirit that the two, without confusion or the obliteration of personal Trinitarian distinction, are one (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17). In the work of communicating eschatological, resurrection life, the activity of the Spirit in the church is the activity of the resurrected Christ (Romans 8:9–10). Primarily with Pentecost in view, the resurrected Christ tells his disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).[6]

We have received the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead! The same power that conquered the grave is at work in us. Without the resurrection, there would be no sending of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, there would be no salvation, no power, and no victory in our struggle against sin. Paul illustrates this in a thrilling way:

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers . . . that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 1:16–20)

WHEN DO WE GAIN THE HOLY SPIRIT?

There is much debate about how and when this happens. Some believe that we receive everything the Spirit has to give us at the moment we become a Christian. But not every Christian has a powerful emotional encounter with Jesus when they are born again. Some argue, therefore, that receiving the Spirit is automatic to becoming a Christian and not something that is tangible or outwardly visible. They say that the Spirit is received by faith, and we know we have him because we have believed. Others, such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones, have argued strongly that it is essential that we allow room for a subsequent experience of the Holy Spirit. Lloyd-Jones argues this should be called baptism with the Spirit:

There is nothing, I am convinced, that so “quenches” the Spirit as the teaching which identifies the baptism of the Holy Ghost with regeneration. But it is a very commonly held teaching today, indeed it has been the popular view for many years. It is said that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is “non-experimental,” that it happens to everyone at regeneration. So we say, “Ah well, I am already baptized with the Spirit; it happened when I was born again, at my conversion; there is nothing for me to seek, I have got it all.” Got it all? Well, if you have “got it all,” I simply ask in the Name of God, why are you as you are? If you have “got it all,” why are you so unlike the Apostles, why are you so unlike the New Testament Christians?

The teaching that I have just mentioned is false. The apostles were regenerate before the day of Pentecost. The baptism of the Holy Ghost is not identical with regeneration; it is something separate. It matters not how long the interval between the two may be, there is a difference; there is an interval, they are not identical. But if you say that they are identical, you do not expect anything further. And if you do not believe that it is possible for you to experience the Spirit of God bearing direct witness with your own spirit that you are a child of God, obviously you are quenching the Spirit. That is why so many Christian people are miserable and unhappy; they do not know anything about crying out, “Abba, Father,” or about “the Spirit of adoption.” God is a Being away in the far distance; they do not know him as a loving Father.[7]

There is much debate about the correct terminology that we should use to define this experience of God mediated through the Holy Spirit. Some would agree with the concept of pursuing God for a relationship felt experientially but would disagree that one should use the term baptism with the Spirit for that relationship. We probably should not get too preoccupied with terminology here, but in the next section we will consider the biblical terms used to describe the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. I hope we can all agree that whatever we choose to call his work, the Spirit is clearly involved in every believer’s life but is also available to us in fuller measure and in ways that often represent sudden dramatic invasions of his activity into our lives.

BAPTISM WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT

For a phrase that has become so controversial in the church, there are remarkably few mentions of it in Scripture. It is mentioned once in each of the Gospels as a future act of Jesus (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33).

In Acts 1:5 Jesus tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem because “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” When Peter is explaining what has happened to the disciples at Pentecost, first he quotes the Old Testament, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). Later on he changes the phrase he uses to describe this experience, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

When Luke tells the story of the first Gentiles becoming Christians he reports that the Christians with Peter noticed that “the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).  Peter then says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Later on in Acts 11:16 Peter describes to the other Apostles what happened at Cornelius’ house:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

These verses seen together clearly tell us that baptism in the Spirit the same phenomenon as Luke’s preferred term “receiving the Spirit” as well the Spirit falling on people, or the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit being poured out on us. We will look at these other ways of describing this experience below.

The phrase is used just once by Paul:

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)

Much ink has been spilled on whether the verse is referring to the same thing as in Acts and the Gospels. In Acts it seems this experience is distinct from conversion but here the most natural reading is that every Christian is baptised in one Spirit. It is, however, debated whether every Christian or most of the Christians in the Corinthian church had been baptized in one Spirit. Alternatively, some argue that the first half of the verse must refer to what happens at conversion, but that this verse teaches a two-stage experience—baptism into Christ followed by a drinking of the Spirit. But however we understand this verse it does seem clear that the Spirit is at work in every believer even if they are not conscious of his work.

John Piper appeals to us to lay aside our arguments about what the words baptism with the Holy Spirit mean by focusing on the concept of an ever greater need we have to be overwhelmed by the Spirit:

Jesus immerses people in the Spirit. That’s what the word baptize means. There are pictures in the Bible of the Spirit being poured out. But when the idea of baptism (that is, dipping or immersion) is brought in, the point is that the Spirit is poured over us to such an extent that we are enveloped in him.

The point of this image is that the Spirit becomes profoundly and pervasively influential in our lives. When you are immersed in something, it touches you everywhere. So when John says that Jesus is going to baptize with the Spirit, he means that the day is coming when the lives of God’s people will be plunged into the life of the Spirit with profound and pervasive effects . .

As I have tried to let John define for us what he means by baptism with the Spirit, it seems to me that the term is a broad, overarching one that includes the whole great saving, sanctifying, and empowering work of the Spirit in this age. I don’t think it is a technical term that refers to one part of the Christian life—say conversion, or speaking in tongues, or a bold act of witness. It is the continual, and sometimes extraordinary, outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s people. It immerses them not just in one or two, but in hundreds of his powerful influences.

In other words, if you are not born again, one way to describe your need is that you need to be baptized with the Spirit. That is, you need to be plunged into God’s Spirit with the effect that you will be born again and come to faith in Christ. If you are born again, but you are languishing in a season of weakness and fear and defeat, one way to describe what you need is to be baptized in the Spirit. That is, you need a fresh outpouring of his Christ-revealing, heart-awakening, sin-defeating, boldness-producing power. Every spiritual need that we have before and after conversion is supplied by Christ immersing us in greater and lesser degrees in the Holy Spirit.[8]

THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Many Christians are surprised that in Luke as Jesus tells us a famous parable about parents giving good gifts to their children, the Holy Spirit is what our Father will give us if we ask him:

I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for[d] a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

This passage tells us that we must ask for the Spirit, which is something some Christians are afraid to do. This does rather go along with the image of receiving or welcoming the Holy Spirit which we will look at in a moment. We need ask for more of the Holy Spirit to come upon us. Lloyd-Jones elaborates upon this verse:

You notice that our Lord is referring only to children, the children who ask. Here is something interesting in and of itself. He seems to be taking it for granted that those who are going to ask the Father for the Holy Spirit are those who know that they are children and who address him as their heavenly Father. This suggests that here, once more, we are being told that it is only those who are children who ask for this. It is not something that happens automatically, therefore, at regeneration, but it is the regenerate, the “children,” who make this request; nobody else will do so.[9]

Perhaps one reason we are afraid of asking is that we may have been told that some Christians have asked for the Holy Spirit but instead received something harmful. Unfortunately, some Christians are too eager to condemn all charismatics for the excesses we do indeed see in some circles. In recent years, however, John MacArthur went so far as to claim that all charismatics are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit[10]. You do not have to become a charismatic. But this passage tells us that if we come to God with an open heart and ask him for the Holy Spirit, then God will give us the Holy Spirit himself not something fake or harmful.

Hebrews describes Christians as “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 6:4). This would support the idea that we are able to “taste” or experience something of the Holy Spirit.

THE POURING OUT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Paul says in Romans, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues that these words require an experience of God’s love:

Paul says that the love of God is “shed abroad” in great profusion, overwhelmingly, in our hearts. Now that is what we should seek. We believe in God, in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the doctrines of salvation. All right! But the question that confronts us at this particular point is not that of believing, but love! A belief that does not lead to love is a very doubtful belief, it may be nothing but intellectual assent . . .

Here, then, is the question—to what extent do we know this love of God to us and how do we love God? We are meant to love him with the whole of our being and there is nothing that can make us do so but the love of God shed abroad in our hearts . . .

New Testament Christianity is not just a formal, polite, correct, and orthodox kind of faith and belief. No! What characterizes it is this element of love and passion, this pneumatic element, this life, this vigor, this abandon, this exuberance—and, as I say, it has ever characterized the life of the church in all periods of revival and of reawakening.[11]

In Titus Paul again speaks of the Spirit being poured out:

When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour (Titus 3:4-6)

RECEIVING THE SPIRIT

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39).

The book of Acts frequently refers to receiving the Spirit. Here Peter promised that anyone who repents and is baptized can receive the Spirit, implying that this is a distinct event from coming to faith. This promise is available to everyone who repents and believes in Jesus and is baptized. It would surely be circular logic to interpret Peter’s words as meaning “repent and believe, be baptized, and you will receive a work of the Spirit automatically without you being aware of it, the main effect of which is to cause you to believe.”

There must be some kind of distinct effects of the Spirit in us so we can conclude we have received him. We are told that we can seek for and consciously receive the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is not to deny the activity of the same Spirit in causing the believer to come to faith in Christ; it is simply to say that we can become more aware of his activity.

In Acts 8, the Samaritans believed in the gospel and were baptized, but it was only when the apostles came from Jerusalem and laid hands on them that they received the Holy Spirit. What is astonishing is that the magician, Simon, had observed miraculous healings performed by Stephen, but it was only when he witnessed the apostles imparting the Holy Spirit that he offered money to be able to do the same. This experience was obviously tangible and powerful, with dramatic life-changing effects on people.

In Acts 9, Paul repented and believed when he met the risen Jesus. Yet Ananias tells Paul, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). This is another example that teaches believing and receiving the Holy Spirit occur as separate events.

Secondly, the specific instructions that are recorded as given to Ananias regarding Paul did not actually include praying for him to receive the Holy Spirit. And yet he goes ahead and prays for him for this.That could suggest this was so commonly part of the normal practice when helping new believers that when Jesus sent him to Paul, Ananias concluded he had also sent him to impart the Spirit.

In Acts 10, while Peter was proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles for the first time, the Spirit is described as “falling” and being “poured out.” Peter then proclaimed they had received the Spirit as a stamp of God’s approval of them as part of his saved people.

In Acts 19, Paul asked a group of people about their experience of the Holy Spirit. He assumed that it is possible for someone to believe without receiving the Spirit. Also, as Paul asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit its clear this must be the kind of experience that you know whether you have received it or not rather than something you believe you have received purely by faith.

The fact that these disciples may well not have believed or received the Spirit is immaterial to the argument. John Piper explains this:

Paul says, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” We scratch our heads and say, “I don’t get it, Paul. If you assume we believed, why don’t you assume we received the Holy Spirit? We’ve been taught that all who believe receive the Holy Spirit. We’ve been taught to just believe that the Spirit is there whether there are any effects or not. But you talk as if there is a way to know we’ve received the Holy Spirit different from believing. You talk as if we could point to an experience of the Spirit apart from believing in order to answer your question.” And that is in fact the way Paul talks. When he asks, “Did you receive the Spirit when you believed,” he expects that a person who has “received the Holy Spirit” knows it, not just because it’s an inference from his faith in Christ, but because it is an experience with effects that we can point to. That is what runs all the way through this book of Acts. All the explicit descriptions of receiving the Holy Spirit are experiential (not inferential).[12]

In the book of Acts, receiving the Holy Spirit is not something that we can infer or assume has happened to us. Rather, it is a conscious, real experience that, at least in Acts, is usually accompanied by tongues and/or prophecy. At its core, however, it would seem from the rest of the New Testament that it is an experience of the love of God poured out into the believer’s heart by the resurrected Jesus, giving tangible, visible effects.

If we were to ask Paul what the purpose of the gospel is for us in this present world, we might be surprised by his answer. In an often-overlooked phrase he says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us . . . so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13–14).

Here the Spirit is received by faith. Therefore, Paul can’t simply be referring to the Spirit’s role in bringing us to faith. This extraordinary statement means the goal of the gospel is that we become aware of the Spirit’s work in our lives. It only makes sense when we remember what the Holy Spirit is primarily meant to do for us. He is to restore something of the same relational intimacy with God that was enjoyed in the Garden of Eden and that we will share more perfectly in heaven.

When we receive the Spirit, we are restored to a conscious fellowship with God, and with even this imperfect knowledge, our love and worship for him can only increase. The meaning of this astonishing emphasis on the pouring out of the Spirit is this: Jesus died so we can taste heaven even here on earth. That is the role of the Spirit when we are aware of him at work in our lives. He is a gift, or foretaste, given to believers until the day comes when we are finally reunited fully with Christ. Such knowledge of God brings great peace and settles in our hearts the question of whether we are children of God. We now know clearly. It is analogous to falling in love in that mere words become inadequate when attempting to describe the experience.

Elsewhere Paul also tells us that the mystery he has unveiled is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This indwelling by Christ through the Spirit must be consciously experienced for it to produce glorious hope. Piper elaborates:

It is right to stress the experiential reality of receiving the Spirit. When you read the New Testament honestly you can’t help but get the impression of a big difference from a lot of contemporary Christian experience. For them, the Holy Spirit was a fact of experience. For many Christians today it is a fact of doctrine. Surely the Charismatic renewal has something to teach us here. In sacramental churches the gift of the Holy Spirit is virtually equated with the event of water baptism. In Protestant evangelicalism it is equated with a subconscious work of God in regeneration which you only know you have because the Bible says you do if you believe. It is easy to imagine a spiritual counselor saying to a new convert today, “Don’t expect to notice any difference: just believe you have received the Spirit.” But that is far from what we see in the New Testament. The Pentecostals are right to stress the experience of being baptized in the Spirit . . . If the Spirit overwhelms you like a baptism you can’t imagine him merely sneaking in quietly while you are asleep and taking up inconspicuous residence . . . In Acts the Holy Spirit is not a silent influence but an experienced power . . . Christianity is not merely an array of glorious ideas. It is not merely the performance of rituals and sacraments. It is the life-changing experience of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe. We could talk for hours about what that experience is. In fact, most of my messages are just that—descriptions of the experience of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer.[13]

John Piper argues here that receiving the Holy Spirit is indeed an experience. In the rest of this sermon, he explains why he believes this is something that is distinct from conversion. Piper does not often talk explicitly about the baptism with the Spirit, nor receiving the Spirit; therefore the final sentence of the quote is most illuminating.

To Piper, what we call this experience of God is perhaps not the most crucial question. He claims that most of his sermons are all about the experiential relationship that is possible with God’s Spirit through Jesus. Piper’s preaching is well respected and is seen as having something unique about it. Surely this is the result of a specific and unusual empowering by the Holy Spirit. When Piper encourages us to desire God and savor him, which is what characterizes his preaching more than anything, this quote demonstrates that he is speaking about the vital effects of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

BEING FILLED WITH THE SPIRIT

The concept of being “filled” with the Spirit is probably the biblical term that most strongly implies that an encounter with God’s Spirit is not an all-or-nothing event. Paul challenges us to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and Greek scholars explain that the tense used here is present continuous.[14] This means the verse would better be translated, “be being filled.” The implication is that continual filling is available that can be experienced to greater or lesser degrees. For example, in a church where thousands were Spirit-filled, Philip and Stephen and five others could still be selected as especially full of the Spirit (Acts 6:1–6).

Thus, experiences of Christ mediated by the Spirit can differ in intensity and frequency at different points in a believer’s life. The direct knowledge of God appears to be more frequent and dramatic during times of general revival, but times of personal refreshing are also available to individuals even outside of a more general move of God’s Spirit.

The concept of fullness is related to that of a liquid. We are told to “drink” of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), who has been “poured out” (Acts 10:45). Thus fullness of the Spirit is something that we should be able to recognize when it happens and for which we are to keep coming back for more. We are to desire and savor the Spirit and yearn for a more conscious awareness of him as a person who is living and active in our lives.

What is the difference between the Spirit-filled believer and the one who has not yet consciously received him? Is it that the Spirit is not working in the latter? Absolutely not. The Spirit is at work in every believer. It is just that when Christians are “full” of the Spirit, have “drunk” of the Spirit, have “received” the Spirit, they have been given a tangible awareness of God’s love and empowering presence as a reality in their lives.

Spurgeon also advocated that believers should earnestly seek a clear experience of becoming more full of the Holy Spirit:

Have ye then received the Spirit since you believed? Beloved, are you now receiving the Spirit? Are you living under his divine influence? Are you filled with his power? Put the question personally. I am afraid some professors [i.e., professing Christians] will have to admit that they hardly know whether there be any Holy Ghost; and others will have to confess that though they have enjoyed a little of his saving work, yet they do not know much of his ennobling and sanctifying influence. We have none of us participated in his operations as we might have done: we have sipped where we might have drunk; we have drunk where we might have bathed; we have bathed up to the ankles where we might have found rivers to swim in. Alas, of many Christians it must be affirmed that they have been naked, and poor, and miserable, when they might in the power of the Holy Spirit have been clad in golden garments, and have been rich and increased in goods. He waiteth to be gracious, but we linger in indifference . . .

Does any man know what the Spirit of God can make of him? I believe the greatest, ablest, most faithful, most holy man of God might have been greater, and abler, and more faithful, and more holy, if he had put himself more completely at the Spirit’s disposal. Wherever God has done great things by a man he has had power to do more had the man been fit for it. We are straitened in ourselves, not in God. O brothers, the church is weak today because the Holy Spirit is not upon her members as we could desire him to be. You and I are tottering along like feeble babes, whereas, had we more of the Spirit, we might walk without fainting, run without weariness, and even mount up with wings as eagles. Oh, for more of the anointing of the Holy Ghost whom Christ is prepared to give immeasurably unto us if we will but receive him![15]

The most crucial question is not, did I receive the Holy Spirit when I was saved? Nor is it have I consciously received the Holy Spirit in a special way at some point in the past after first getting saved? What we should be asking, more importantly, is, am I being consciously filled by the Spirit today? Am I seeking more of his influences right now?

Many believers report that their experience of the Spirit comes intermittently and is not constant. This seems to be consistent with Acts 3:20, which speaks of “times of refreshing [that] come from the presence of the Lord.” Christians may, however, ask God for more of these outpourings in their own experience. Jesus makes a clear invitation to his followers to actively seek the Holy Spirit when he says, “Come to me and drink” (John 7:37–39).

We are not to underestimate the power of God that has been poured out in us. It is, after all, the very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead! As the Christian walks with God, he can become increasingly aware (even during all his troubles) that he is receiving foretastes of God’s ultimate promise to us of eternal life. God’s Spirit is not inactive—he demonstrated that in raising Jesus to life. Surely, we should expect some clear demonstration of the reality of his work in us. How could the same power that raised Jesus from the dead not make a massive tangible difference if living inside us?

God designed us for a relationship with him. Today spiritualism and other forms of experiential religions are attractive to many people because they are looking for “gods” who are “real” and who can communicate with them and do things. What a shame that deception can lead many astray and yet we have a genuine connection with the one Living God. We worship an active, living Jesus who desires to relate to his people and to do things for us.

Do you feel him? Does your heart tremble with awe? We should seek an experience of God that is Bible-based. Through the Spirit we can have communion with the entire Trinity. He is with us. He wants us to be in relationship with the whole fullness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is only as we know him that we can fulfill our chief purpose, which is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.[16]

A DEPOSIT GUARANTEEING OUR INHERITANCE

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13–14).

Some argue that faith in God (which from Ephesians 2 we know is itself a work of the Spirit) is a distinct experience from a sealing with the Spirit. Lloyd-Jones spends several chapters on this concept, defining sealing as “God’s action, in which He bears witness that we are His children. . . . It is God’s authentication of the fact that we really belong to him.”[17]

Lloyd-Jones cites John Wesley’s definition of this: “It is something immediate and direct, not the result of reflection or argumentation.”[18] He also quotes Thomas Goodwin: “There is a light that cometh and overpowereth a man’s soul and assureth him that God is his and he is God’s, and that God loveth him from everlasting. . . . It is a light beyond the light of ordinary faith. . . . It is the next thing to heaven; you have no more, you can have no more, until you come thither.”[19]

Other commentators conclude instead that this sealing happens at conversion, is something more visible to God than to us, and is a definite mark that we are Christians analogous to the mark of blood placed above the doorposts during the Passover (Exodus 12). According to this argument we are either Christians or we are not, and so we either have the seal or we do not, irrespective of whether we know we have it.

Paul also describes the Spirit as a down payment on our future, which is to spend eternity in a perfect relationship with Jesus. The deposit is a person. This foretaste or appetizer must include a relationship with Christ by the Spirit, preparing us for the main course, which will be ours when Jesus returns. For the Spirit to function as a deposit or guarantee, we must know that we have him. We cannot be expected to simply conclude that because we have believed, we have the whole benefit of the Spirit’s work. If a man wanted to buy my house and simply told me he had given me a deposit, I would not believe him until I knew that the money was in my bank account and available for me to use.

Through the conscious reality of the Spirit’s work in our hearts, we experience some of our future benefits right now in the present. The Holy Spirit is a foretaste of heaven (see also 2 Corinthians 5:4–5 and Romans 8:23, which speak of “the firstfruits of the Spirit”). This can only make sense if his work is something we are aware of in our lives. The Spirit’s desire is to bring glory to Jesus (John 16:14). So we can judge whether an experience is from the Spirit in part on the basis of whether it causes us to desire to worship Jesus more.

We are right to eagerly await pie in the sky when we die, but we can also have cake on our plate while we wait! The psalmist says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). God is to be enjoyed and adored in this life.

CONCLUSION

The key question is not so much what we should call the various actions of the Holy Spirit in us. What is more important is that we agree that the Spirit is at work in every believer, but that subsequent experiences of the Spirit, which can be sudden and dramatic, are available to believers today.

Becoming a Christian is a secret act of the Spirit in regenerating us and joining us to Christ and imparting faith to us. This is something of which we may not be aware, apart from its effects in us. Many believers feel that the faith they have in Jesus is their own. They may not realize that it has been produced in them by the Spirit, that a rebirth has happened. Some argue that this acquisition of faith should be called “the baptism with the Spirit.” However, whatever we call conversion, it would be wrong for us to insist that we have experienced the Spirit in all his fullness automatically. Both biblically and in the experiences of believers down through the centuries, there has been a conscious and tangible outpouring of the Spirit that is often distinct from conversion.

Even here we have a danger, however. Many Christians do not pursue an experience of God because they believe they “got it all” at conversion. But there are also many who have settled into the same attitude because they look back to a “second blessing” and believe that it was then that they “got it all.” This attitude means that we miss out on the repeated times of blessing and refreshing that God wants to pour out on us. We won’t receive from the Spirit unless we eagerly seek him and ask for his outpourings.

Lloyd-Jones delivers a strong challenge: “Has your heart been ravished? Have you known this overwhelming experience of the love of God? Let every man examine himself.”[20]

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. Let’s resist becoming side-tracked by our differences over these matters and instead simply cry out to God for more awareness and evidence in our lives of the power that raised Christ from the dead. Then we will know the joy of living our lives not in our own strength but in God’s enabling.

If we are convinced that we need a more conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and that we long to go on receiving the Spirit and being refreshed by him, what should we do? The answer is that we should pray and ask God to pour out the Spirit on us. As we quoted earlier in this chapter, Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

Having examined the biblical evidence, I hope you agree that the experiences described are indeed both valid and available for us today. God wants us to be personally refreshed and to have our own times of individual revival when his presence is especially sweet to us. Jesus is not a dead god made of wood that we must carry. He is a living God who carries us. He wants us to experience his love.

How easy it is to become reticent about seeking God for such experiences! Why would we not want to connect fully to the reviving power of God’s Holy Spirit, which the resurrected Jesus has made available to us? The Spirit can assure us of salvation, empower us to live godly lives, embolden us to be more evangelistic, and remove our guilt and condemnation. This infilling is certainly not seen as an optional extra by the Bible. We are commanded to be filled, which suggests there is something we do to connect to the Spirit. To attempt to soldier on without all the equipping power of the Spirit that Jesus is only too willing to supply is like an army trying to fight without asking headquarters for new supplies of equipment and food!

Having prayed, we can read the Bible, listen to sermons, read Christian books, and continue to trust in God irrespective of what we feel while continuing to earnestly seek the God who loved us so much that he came and died for us and rose again to give us the Spirit. There is a need to receive the Spirit by faith. It is also often very helpful to find someone who has already received a touch from the Spirit to pray for you.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said so much that promoted an interest in the work of the Holy Spirit, it seems appropriate to allow him to ask these questions:

Has He whispered to you, has He spoken to you? Pray for His blessing, seek it, be desperate for it, hunger and thirst for it. Keep on praying until your prayer is answered. . . . Be satisfied with nothing less. Has God ever told you that you are His child? Has He spoken to you, not with an audible voice, but, in a sense, in a more real way? Have you known this illumination, this melting quality? Have you known what it is to be lifted up above and beyond yourself? If not, seek it; cry out to him, saying, “Speak, I pray Thee, gentle Jesus,” and “Sue him for it.”[21]

The Spirit is eager to tell us specifically that we are indeed children of God because of what Jesus has done for us. This will bring us great joy and increased motivation to worship God. The only question is, are we listening? Or do we drown out his still, small voice by a theology that minimizes the importance of experiencing a filling with the Holy Spirit? It is only through the Spirit’s work in our hearts that we will be changed in response to the resurrection. As Edwards said:

Christ is not in the heart of a saint, as in a sepulcher, or as a dead Saviour, that does nothing; but as in his temple, and as one that is alive from the dead. For in the heart where Christ savingly is, there he lives, and exerts himself after the power of that endless life, that he received at his resurrection. Thus every saint that is the subject of the benefit of Christ’s sufferings, is made to know and experience the power of his resurrection. The spirit of Christ, which is the immediate spring of grace in the heart, is all life, all power, all act.[22]


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REFERENCES

[1]John Piper, personal communication, 2009.

 

[2]Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 304–305.

 

[3] John Piper, “You Shall Receive Power Till Jesus Comes”; http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1990/727_You_Shall_Receive_Power_Till_Jesus_Comes/.

 

[4] Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st edition (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 320.

 

[5] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, An Exposition of Ephesians 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 247–253.

 

[6]McKim and Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 320.

 

[7] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10 to 13 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 280.

 

[8] John Piper, “This Is He Who Baptized with the Holy Spirit”; http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/2008/3418_This_Is_He_Who_Baptizes_with_the_Holy_Spirit/.

 

[9] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable (Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway, 1995), 320–325.

 

[10] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock/2013/09/john-macarthur-accuses-half-a-billion-christians-of-blasphemy-against-the-holy-spirit/

[11] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable (Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway, 1995), 360–361.

 

[12] John Piper, “What Does It Mean to Receive the Holy Spirit?”; http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1991/758_What_Does_It_Mean_to_Receive_the_Holy_Spirit/.

 

[13]John Piper, “How to Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” emphasis mine; http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1984/437_How_to_Receive_the_Gift_of_the_Holy_Spirit/.

 

[14]See Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word, 2002), 344 and Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett Falconer Harrison, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), on Ephesians 5:18.

 

[15] C. H Spurgeon, Sermon No 1790, “Receiving the Holy Ghost,” 1884; quoted at http://www.pilgrim
publications.com/intrview.htm.

 

[16]See John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 17.

 

[17] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1, 1 to 23 (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 255–256.

 

[18] Ibid., 275.

 

[19] Ibid.

 

[20] Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1, 266–278.

 

[21]Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1, 289–300.

 

[22]Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, WJE Online, Vol. 2, 392–393; http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4xOjY6MTIud2plbw==.

 

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