What Does It Mean To Be 'Filled With The Spirit'?

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What Does 'Baptism with the Holy Spirit' Mean?

The Following is the John Piper view on 'Baptism with the Spirit,' I have not always agreed with every single statement of John, but here I think he is correct.

The phrase "baptize in (or with) the Holy Spirit" was apparently coined by John the Baptist. All four of our gospels record that he said, "I have baptized you with water, but He (i.e., Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). The only two writers in the New Testament who refer elsewhere to the phrase, "baptize with the Spirit," are Luke in the book of Acts and Paul in 1 Corinthians. Luke refers to it twice, quoting John each time (Acts 1:5; 11:16) and Paul refers to it once (1 Corinthians 12:13). But I don't think Paul and Luke use this phrase to refer to the same thing. For Paul, it is virtually identical to regeneration or new birth (conversion). For Luke, it is essentially the same as being filled with the Spirit and refers to that first introductory experience of this fullness.

I'll try to show very briefly why I think this. First, we must never assume that a particular phrase means exactly the same thing every place it occurs in Scripture. Good interpretation lets a word or phrase mean whatever the immediate context demands. What really matters in Scripture is not that a phrase everywhere have the same meaning but that the reality which a phrase describes does not contradict other descriptions of reality in the Bible. So Paul and Luke need not use the phrase "baptized with the Spirit" in the very same sense.
Paul uses the phrase only once. He says in 1 Corinthians 12:12,13: Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

According to this one reference Paul conceived of Spirit-baptism as the act by which the Spirit made us members of Christ's body. Once we were alienated from God, cut off from Christ (Ephesians 2:12), but then the Holy Spirit swept over us and brought us to life by uniting us to the living Christ and thus to His people in one body. This is a once-for-all event. It is never repeated, and nowhere does Paul (or Luke) ever admonish a Christian to be baptized by the Spirit.
But Luke seems to mean something different by the phrase, namely, something essentially the same as being filled with the Spirit, which is not a once-for-all event (for Luke and for Paul) but an ongoing or repeated occurrence. The evidence for this comes from the book of Acts. In Acts 1:4,5 Luke reports that Jesus, just before He ascended to the Father, told His apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father which "you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit." This was a clear reference to Pentecost. But when Pentecost comes in chapter two, listen to how Luke describes it:
When the day of Pentecost had come , they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Jesus promises in chapter one that they will be baptized by the Spirit and Luke describes the fulfillment of that promise in chapter two in terms of the filling of the Holy Spirit. Yet we know from Acts 11:15-17 that Luke does see Pentecost as a baptism with the Spirit. He reports there how Peter described his preaching to the gentiles in 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 shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave the same gift to them as He gave to us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?

So this later outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles (in Acts 10:44ff) is equated with the first pentecostal outpouring and both are explained as a baptism with the Spirit. Therefore, Luke sees what happened at Pentecost as both a baptism with the Spirit and a filling with the Spirit. Since Luke refers later on to the disciples being filled again (Acts 4:8,31;13:4), but never refers to them as being baptized again with the Spirit, it seems to me that for Luke "baptism with the Spirit" refers to that initial filling by the Spirit after a person trusts in Christ. I don't think Luke equates "baptism by the Spirit" with regeneration like Paul does. That would mean that all the apostles, who, with God's help, had confessed Jesus to be the Christ (Luke 9:20; Matthew 16:17) and had seen Him alive after His resurrection and had their minds opened by Him to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45), were in fact dead in trespasses and sins and enslaved to the flesh during all their time with Jesus and up till Pentecost morning. If we asked Luke, "Is that what you mean?", I think he would say, "O no, they had already been born of the Spirit just like all the great saints of the Old Testament, but they hadn't yet experienced to the full what God could do through them by His Spirit. But now that Christ has come and through His death and resurrection purchased all the blessings of God, it is God's purpose to call all His people to experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit." When a person first experiences this fullness of the Spirit, that is what Luke means by being baptized with the Spirit. And that is different from Paul who, I think, uses the phrase to refer to regeneration (new birth or moment of conversion).

(Taken from 'Be Filled With the Spirit' by John Piper. COPYRIGHT 1980, 1997. John Piper).

The Interesting Thing About Being 'Filled With The Spirit' Is That You Can't Seem To Tie It Down Theologically, But Perhaps That Is What We Should Expect...

"Whilst preaching a sermon in the Welsh valleys about seven years ago I suddenly felt moved and stunned by an apparent closeness of God's Spirit; I suddenly felt bathed in warmth. I received the incredible impression that even if I had stopped speaking, the Spirit would have carried on with the sermon: the experience was stunning although over within about 3 minutes..."

S everal times the following question has been put to me: What does it mean to be 'Filled with the Spirit'?

On some occasions I think people have been a little surprised that I have not been able to give a dogmatic answer. I think we have to face the fact that sometimes Holy Scripture does not carefully explain and define a point which it has raised.

In the New Testament only about 5 Scriptures appear to refer to this. It is necessary to consult Acts 2:2-4 (with Acts 2:17-18 apparently describing the results of this filling), Acts 4:31, Acts 9:17, Acts 13:9 and finally, Ephesians 5:18.

At conversion, every single Christian receives that portion of the Holy Spirit which they need to function as true believers. This is the Holy Spirit who - when He becomes joined to our human soul - enables our whole way of thinking to change; we change from being man-centred to being God-centred. It is quite a profound change, but the experience is more intense in some believers than others. I have no idea why; literally, God alone knows. But the whole experience is fairly quiet in most believers, yet much more dramatic in some others. Some of those 'others' have the profound experience of what I can only describe as a 'filling of the Holy Spirit' at conversion. Most of the Acts Scriptures which I quoted earlier seem to refer to such an experience and, without question, the First Christian Pentecost was accompanied by a filling of the Spirit by just about all who were added to the Church that day. But did all of those new believers continue with being filled with the Spirit? No, I would tend to think not.

The interesting thing about being 'Filled With The Spirit' is that you can't seem to tie it down theologically. The Pentecostal movement did, of course, attempt to tie down this Spirit-filled phenomenon theologically, but I think entirely unsuccessfully. But it should not surprise us that the behaviour of the Holy Spirit cannot so easily be tied down and, if you will, domesticated, for Jesus said,

'"You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."' (John 3:7-8, NIV).

In my 2002 article, The Truth About Speaking in Tongues At Last, I wrote this,

"But don't many - if not all - Christians have occasional incredible experiences of a sudden deep closeness to God, perhaps accompanied by an incredible feeling of peace and assurance, in short, do not many Christians have ecstatic experiences? Yes. They surely do. Even in his prison cell, Richard Wurmbrand the Lutheran Pastor imprisoned for his Christian beliefs in iron-curtain Rumania, shouted and jumped for joy and sang hymns when he realised that an angel was with him! These experiences of a sudden ecstasy of God's closeness are, in the light of the New Testament, best described as being 'filled' with the Spirit. We cannot legislate for such occasions. Sometimes they come suddenly and unexpectedly. Those present at Pentecost in Acts 2, were filled with the Spirit (Acts 2:4), Peter was filled with the Spirit as he began addressing the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:8, the apostles were filled with the Spirit when they prayed for boldness in the face of persecution in Acts 4:31, Ananias prayed for Saul to be filled with the Spirit at the beginning of his work for God in Acts 9:17, and Paul was suddenly filled with the Spirit when he confronted Elymas the sorcerer in Acts 13:9. And Paul certainly encourages us to seek to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18."

So since it is probably unwise to attempt a theological prescription in this area, the following is not meant to be a precise theological explanation of this mysterious area of the Holy Spirit's activities, but I would tend to explain it this way:

As already stated, at conversion every believer receives that portion of the Holy Spirit which is needed for the Christian to function as a true believer. That portion of divine Spirit which is needed for the believer to function remains more or less constant, although believers need to remain on course and to avoid 'quenching' that Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). But at that same initial conversion, some - perhaps many - new believers also experience a 'filling' of the Spirit. This is an exhilarating and exciting sense of the closeness of God; at such times God seems so close that one could almost touch Him. This is accompanied with amazing joy and perhaps even dramatic signs. But this sensational aspect does not last. God alone decides where His people receive a filling of the Spirit - you cannot legislate for the work of the Holy Spirit, it may come dramatically but disappear just as quickly. Whilst 'fillings of the Spirit' can occur at any time in one's Christian life, our Lord does seem more inclined to grant these occurrences to new believers. During some of the great Revivals of Christian history, fillings of the Spirit became common in certain areas at certain times, certainly the Welsh Revival of 1904 contained many examples of this phenomenon, yet every one of those dramatic revivals came to an end. Why? Well one may venture certain possibilities but I think that all we can say is that - in this present life - God does not guarantee to always fill us with His Spirit; surely if we were always abundantly 'filled with the Spirit' we would already be in that life which is yet to come!

All one can do is to strive for humility, obedience, witness, faith, regular Bible study and a strong prayer life; yet even there, one may find many Christians who are very devout and faithful over many years yet claim never to have experienced a 'filling.' I myself have experienced two occasions of what appeared to be fillings with the Spirit - both occasions in my youth during intensive periods of Bible study. Even since then, on a small number of occasions, I have experienced brief periods of spiritual elation although possibly not 'fillings with the Spirit.' Whilst preaching a sermon in the Welsh valleys about seven years ago I suddenly felt moved and stunned by an apparent closeness of God's Spirit; I suddenly felt bathed in warmth. I received the incredible impression that even if I had stopped speaking, the Spirit would have carried on with the sermon: the experience was stunning although over within about 3 minutes. I would describe that as a brief period of spiritual elation due to the working, and possibly closeness, of the Holy Spirit.

Picture of Richard Wurmbrand

Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001)

Richard Wurmbrand, the Lutheran pastor who courageously underwent 14 years of persecution for his Christian beliefs in iron curtain Rumania. Even while imprisoned, this worthy man experienced 'fillings of the Spirit.'

What is certainly an error is to insist that, if one has never had such experiences, then one cannot be 'born again' - this is a most marked and divisive error which seems to come from people who are afflicted with a degree of spiritual vanity.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.