What does it mean to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”? Today, Barry Cooper turns to Scripture to help us grasp the truth behind this often-misunderstood question.
What does it mean to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”?
“Do not get drunk with wine”, says Paul in Ephesians chapter 5,
for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…
This image of “being filled with Spirit” has led some believers to imagine themselves as cars with spiritual gas tanks that constantly need topping up. There is this popular view that a Christian needs to be “filled” from time to time, as if the presence of the Holy Spirit is something that somehow gets depleted as we live the Christian life. Or we somehow need more of the Holy Spirit than we currently have.
But that’s not what Paul teaches. Actually, earlier in that same book of Ephesians, Paul is clear that a believer receives the Holy Spirit when they first believe, and He remains with them (without any depletion) for the rest of their lives:
when you heard the word of truth [Paul says], the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it...
So there’s no sense here in which the Holy Spirit comes and goes in the life of a believer, and, it ought to be said, no sense in which we need to look for some kind of “second blessing” of the Holy Spirit.
In some circles, people have taught that there are two or more spiritual stages in a believer’s life. The first stage is the moment when a person is born again, the moment they first believe. The second stage is sometimes described as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”, and is usually connected with the appearance of particular gifts of the Spirit — for example, speaking in other tongues, prophecy, healing, singing in the Spirit, and the other gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.
But again, this isn’t the picture painted here in Ephesians. There’s no “two-stage” arrival of the Spirit in a believer’s life. We receive the Spirit when we first believe, and after that, He never leaves us.
So what does Paul mean when he says, “Be filled with the Spirit” - if you already have the Spirit?
He means “be increasingly conformed to the Spirit.” Live a life that is more and more in keeping with the character of God.
Imagine you want every room in your home painted white. And imagine that you already have a painter standing in the living room, ready to paint. The problem is that some of the rooms are locked. The solution is not to invite the painter in a second time, or perhaps invite him to somehow be even more present than he currently is - whatever that means. What is needed is for the doors to be unlocked so that the painter can work.
Although the Holy Spirit comes to live in us when we first believe, most of us have (if I can put it this way) “locked rooms”: parts of our character that are not immediately changed by his presence. When Paul calls us to “be filled with the Holy Spirit”, then, he is calling us to unlock the doors, and joyfully submit every aspect of our character and life to Him. To be increasingly conformed to the character of Christ, who lives in you.
So, the call to “be filled with the Spirit” doesn’t imply that you somehow don’t have enough of Him. You do, if you’re a believer. But it does imply that there will be parts of your character where you’ve not yet fully yielded to his sanctifying work. Where is that true for you? What doors do you need to unlock in order to be “filled with the Spirit”?