FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 4
This is the age of the Holy Spirit.” So says one prominent church growth expert. He is not alone in this optimistic assessment. Many leaders would agree that there is more interest in the Holy Spirit today than at any other time in the last two thousand years. There are many reasons for this conclusion, but the greatest has to do with the rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. It is no secret that many of the fastest-growing churches in the world are Pentecostal and Charismatic to one degree or another. It is, therefore, no surprise that more has been written on the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the last century than in the previous nineteen hundred years. One hundred years ago it was hard to find a book on the Holy Spirit. But times have changed. Every Christian bookstore carries several dozen titles relating to the Holy Spirit and his work in the world today. If you will pardon the image, the Holy Spirit has come out of the shadows and taken center stage in Christian theology.
Questions, Questions, Questions
There are many questions Christians ask about the Holy Spirit. Some are very basic, such as, Who is the Holy Spirit and how can he help me? Others are more controversial: What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Should all Christians speak in tongues? What is holy laughter?
In this chapter we want to focus on something very practical and personal: What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? I believe this is one of the most important principles of the spiritual life. Learn this and you will discover a source of supernatural power that can help you every single day. As far as possible, I would like to set all controversy aside and impress upon your heart your great need to be filled with the Spirit. This is our great need. Indeed, this is the need of the hour—for God’s people to discover what it means to be filled with the Spirit.
Some questions immediately rise to the surface: What does it mean to be filled with the Spirit? What difference does it make? How does it happen? But preeminent above all others is this question: Am I filled with the Spirit? What a question! What is your answer? Suppose someone asked, “Are you filled with the Spirit?” What would you say? It’s not easy to answer and therefore makes us uneasy as we think about it.
Three Common Misconceptions
Before you can accurately answer a question like that, we need to know what the filling of the Spirit is—and what it isn’t. Let me mention three common misconceptions.
1. It Is an Emotional Experience
This is probably the first thing that comes to mind for many of us. We hear of strange things happening in revival meetings. People begin to shake, tremble, fall on the floor, bark like a dog, laugh uncontrollably. Some weep, others shout, still others speak in strange tongues. All of this is done in the name of the Holy Spirit, and so many people assume that’s what the filling of the Spirit is all about.
Without stopping to pass judgment, let me say clearly that the filling of the Spirit is not primarily an emotional experience. Those things I mentioned are not necessarily the mark of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. This is not to say that some of those things might not be genuine. They might be, but what the Bible means by the “filling of the Spirit” is not primarily an emotional experience.
2. It Is Reserved for Special Christians
The second misconception flows from the first. Because we hear of these unusual things happening, and because they don’t happen to every Christian, it’s easy to think that the filling of the Holy Spirit is reserved for some special class of super-Christians. It’s not true. The Bible clearly commands every Christian to “be filled with the Spirit.”
3. It Is Controversial and Therefore Better Off Ignored
Again, this follows from the previous two misconceptions. Some people overreact to the excesses of others and dismiss the doctrine of the Spirit’s filling. Some even refuse to discuss the entire doctrine of the Spirit. That’s a huge mistake because the Holy Spirit is the One who brings the presence of Christ to our lives. Without going into controversy, may I simply say again that we desperately need the Holy Spirit today.
I remember some years ago hearing Dr. J. Vernon McGee give a commencement address at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was then in his eighties and near the end of a long and fruitful ministry. I’ve forgotten almost everything else he said that night, but one comment has stayed with me. He said that if he were starting his ministry over again, he would give much more attention to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He would preach on the Spirit more frequently and attempt to lead people to depend on his power every day. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the greatest preacher of the nineteenth century, said, “The grand thing the church wants in this time is God’s Holy Spirit.” More than anything else, we need to rediscover the Holy Spirit and learn anew to depend on him.
The Crucial Text: Ephesians 5:18
With that, we turn to the key text on this topic: Ephesians 5:18. Let me give it to you in several different translations: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (NIV). The New Living Translation gives a slightly different wording: “Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill and control you.” Finally, we have this paraphrase by Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Don’t drink too much wine. That cheapens your life. Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him.” I especially like the phrase: “Drink the Spirit of God.” That’s very picturesque, isn’t it?
In order that we might have the teaching clearly in front of us, here are four observations from the text.
1. Note the Contrast between Wine and the Spirit
This is the most basic point of the verse. There is a direct parallel drawn between being drunk with wine and being filled with the Spirit. What precisely is the point of comparison between wine and the Holy Spirit? Doubtless, the issue is influence or control. A person under the influence of wine experiences altered behavior. He or she may say or do things he would not ordinarily do. Emotions may be heightened for a brief period, causing the person to experience anger followed quickly by elation followed quickly by depression. If the person drinks enough wine, the mental processes will be affected and one’s decision-making ability will be radically altered—almost always with a negative result.
Likewise, the filling of the Holy Spirit produces a change in behavior. In the Book of Acts, once-timid disciples became flaming evangelists for Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 5:19-21 Paul mentions three practical results of the filling of the Spirit: singing, a thankful heart, and an attitude of mutual submission. The last result is most significant because true submission always involves giving up your right to be in control in every situation. When we submit from the heart, we are saying, “I don’t have to have my way all the time.” Only a heart touched by the Holy Spirit can maintain such an attitude in every relationship of life.
2. This Is a Command
In the Greek language this verb is in the imperative mode. This means the filling of the Spirit—whatever it is—isn’t an optional part of the Christian life. Every Christian is to be filled with the Spirit all the time. If you aren’t, you are out of God’s will.
3. It Is in the Present Tense
This insight is particularly helpful because the Greek present tense has the idea of continual action. It’s what happens when you tell your children to go out and rake the leaves before the snow comes. They go outside, rake for a few minutes, and then come back in. When you check their work, you see that most of the leaves haven’t been touched. So you say, “Why didn’t you rake the leaves?” “We did.” “Why didn’t you rake all the leaves?” “You didn’t tell us to.” What do you do? You tell them, “Go back, pick up the rake, and keep on raking until all the leaves are raked.” That’s the present tense. You keep on doing something. It’s not a one-time event.
We could legitimately translate this verse this way: “Be continually filled with the Holy Spirit.” That is why the filling of the Spirit is not primarily an experience. It’s supposed to be the normal way of life for the Christian.
4. It Is in the Passive Voice
This is a nuance many people would miss. In Greek as in English, commands can be either active or passive. However, we’re much more used to active commands: “Go to the store and pick up some milk, please.” That’s an active command. If I say, “Fill that hole with dirt,” that’s also in the active voice. But Ephesians 5:18 is in the passive voice. He doesn’t say, “Fill yourself with the Spirit” but rather “Be filled with the Spirit.” That’s a bit hard to understand. It’s like saying to someone, “Be loved.” How do you “be loved"? But this is the key to everything. To “be filled” means that the filling of the Spirit is a work of God, not man.
Let me illustrate. Suppose I command you to “be loved.” If there’s not someone who wants to love you, you can’t obey that command. Likewise, if there’s not someone who wants to fill you, you can’t “be filled” with the Spirit. He’s not saying “fill yourself” but rather “be filled.” It’s exactly like the difference between saying “love yourself” and “be loved.”
I draw two important implications from this truth:
1. The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to fill us at any moment.
2. The most important thing we can do is to make ourselves available to him.
That’s why the New Living Translation says, “Let the Holy Spirit fill and control you.” I cannot “be loved.” But I can make myself available to those who want to love me. That is, I can put myself in a position of loveability. I can do those things that make me easy to love, or I can be a blockhead and make myself hard to love.
Perhaps making up a word will help us understand the concept. The word is “fillability.” It’s what happens when you go to a full-service gas station and say, “Fill ’er up.” The person pumping the gas knows that the statement “Fill ’er up” means two things: (1) I’m empty, and (2) I want my car to be filled with gas. That’s fillability. It’s need plus desire. When your need to be filled with the Spirit becomes your great desire, you will be filled. Over and over again. Instantly. Every time.
Application to Life
This study of Ephesians 5:18 tells us what the filling of the Spirit is, but we still need to know how to make it a reality in our lives. There are three issues we need to think about relating to the filling of the Holy Spirit.
1. The Issue of Control
This is always the central issue of life. Who’s in control of your life? Either God is in control or you are in control. But if I’m in control, then God isn’t, and my life will be a mess. If God is in control, even if my circumstances seem out of control, I can still live in peaceful contentment. Either God is God or I am God. Everything else flows from that simple truth. Learn that and you’ve learned the central reality of life. Miss that and nothing else makes sense. Most of us need to relearn it a thousand times because it’s easy to forget.
Here’s a simple definition of the filling of the Spirit. It’s what happens when the Holy Spirit has the controlling interest in your life. Go back to the contrast between wine and the Spirit. Drunken and Spirit-filled people have this in common: They are both controlled people. Their lives and their behavior are radically changed by that which fills them.
• If a person is filled with anger, than anger controls his life.
• If a person is filled with greed, then greed dominates his life.
• If a person is filled with love, then love influences all he does.
When the Holy Spirit fills you, he will have the controlling interest in your life. It is “control by consent.”
At this point we need to make a critical distinction: Being filled with the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean I have more of the Spirit; it means the Spirit has more of me. It doesn’t happen all at once any more than you get drunk all at once. Being filled with the Spirit happens as you continually choose to live under his influence.
2. The Issue of Cooperation
While discussing this issue, a friend made an observation I had never heard before. He believes that every Christian is filled with the Spirit from the moment of the new birth. After I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Since the Holy Spirit indwells us from the moment we are saved, it follows that new believers are filled with that same Spirit, which is why new believers often have so much joy and walk so closely with the Lord. For them, it’s the natural thing to do. They haven’t learned to be boring and backslidden yet.
My friend then made a further very helpful comment. He said that over the years he has come to realize that for him the central issue is one of cooperation. Am I going to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and let him lead me, or I am going to keep on trying to do things my own way? So many of us struggle at precisely this point. We fight the Lord because we want to do things our way. And God says, “Okay, we can do it your way for a while, but it’s not going to work.” In that sense, if we won’t cooperate with God, he’ll cooperate with us by letting us do things in our own strength and by our own will. But then we fail and cry out to the Lord and he says, “Are you willing to cooperate with me now?”
3. The Issue of Contact
Finally, there is the issue of contact. In one of his books F. B. Meyer explained the Spirit’s filling this way: Most people think of the Spirit as a substance to fill us, like gas filling up a tank. So we run out of the Spirit and God fills us again. But that’s not the best image to use. In Chicago we have elevated trains that carry thousands of people to and from work each day. Those trains run on three rails—two for the wheels and one for the electricity. The electricity is always there, but the train doesn’t move unless there is contact with the third rail. Touch that rail and the train moves; pull away from the rail and it stops.
The third rail is like the Holy Spirit. His power is always available—and unlike the electric company, there’s never a power shortage and never a brownout. But sometimes we live out of contact with his power. When that happens, our lives simply stop working the way God intended.
Our Greatest Need
Let me end where I began. I started by saying that the filling of the Spirit is the most important doctrine of the spiritual life. It is foundational to everything else. There is nothing we need more. Here is my final definition of the filling of the Spirit: It is that state in which the Holy Spirit is free to do all that he came into my life to do. The key word is state. The filling of the Spirit is not primarily an emotional experience and it’s certainly not reserved for a few super-Christians. It’s nothing more than the normal Christian life when the Holy Spirit is in control. That is why the command is in the present tense:
We are to continually be
• controlled by the Spirit,
• cooperating with the Spirit, and
• in contact with the Spirit.
This, then, is God’s moment-by-moment provision for vitality, strength, courage, boldness, victory, and the abundant life. It’s for you, it’s a command, and it’s God’s plan for your life.
Emptiness and Openness
Here is some good news. God is ready, willing, and able to fill you right now. He’s more willing to fill you than you are to be filled. If for some reason you aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s not because of God’s reluctance. We do not have to beg God to do what he has already promised to do. Rather, he is begging us to make the way clear so he can do what he promised to do!
In a sense, being filled with the Spirit is an impossibility—at least as far as it depends on us. Only God’s Spirit can fill us. We need two things—emptiness and openness. You can’t fill a jar that’s already full, and you can’t fill a jar that is not open. There must be a sense of need: “Lord, I’m empty and I need to be filled by your Spirit.” There must be a willingness: “Lord, I’m open to you. Let your Spirit fill me now.”
The filling of the Spirit is really as simple as that. As long as we are conscious of our need and as long as we are willing to yield to the Lord, we can be filled with the Spirit all day long. This power is available to us twenty-four hours a day.
Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, says that unconfessed sin grieves the Holy Spirit and that Christians can never experience the Spirit’s blessing until they have dealt with sin in their lives. He suggests taking a piece of paper and writing down the sins that the Lord brings to mind, listing each one individually. Then sit in silence for a period of time, asking God to show you anything else that displeases him. Whatever the Lord shows you, write it down. It takes courage to do this, but God will always answer the sincere prayer of a penitent child of God. When you are finished, write the words of 1 John 1:7 across the sheet of paper: “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Then take the paper and destroy it.
One Sunday morning I went to church early, determined to follow that advice. As I sat down at my desk, I pulled out a sheet of white paper and began to write down my sins, faults, shortcomings— listing every area of life that I knew to be displeasing to the Lord. I opened my heart before the Lord and wrote down everything he brought to mind. My pen flew across the paper as the Lord showed me many things in my life that displeased him. Some were sins of omission, things I should have done that I neglected to do. Others were wrong attitudes, hasty words, a tendency toward thoughtless chatter, and a streak of unkindnesses toward those I love the most.
Within thirty-six minutes, I had filled an entire page in two and a half columns. I discovered that I had written down eighty-six specific areas of my life that needed change. As I studied the list, I found that these were not eighty-six independent sins, but rather many were variations on a theme, most of them related in one way or another to the classic seven deadly sins of pride, greed, sloth, gluttony, envy, anger, and lust. It wasn’t a pretty list, but I didn’t feel depressed when I read it. Instead, I felt liberated and almost exhilarated, as if an enormous load had been lifted from my shoulders.
So this is the truth about Ray Pritchard! Indeed it is. And I say with the saints of all ages that in me—that is, in my flesh—dwells no good thing. Apart from the grace of God at work in my life, I am a sinner lost and undone. My heart is deceitful and wicked (Jer. 17:9). I do not know the half of my sinfulness. When the list was complete, I wrote across it in big red letters the word FORGIVEN!!! Underneath I wrote 1 John 1:7. After sharing this story with my congregation, I destroyed the list that afternoon without showing it to anyone else.
But once having done that exercise, I found it very easy to pray in faith for the filling of the Holy Spirit. I also found it easy to believe that God had answered my prayer. If you have never made such a moral inventory of your life, I encourage you to do so as soon as you finish reading this chapter.
Christ at Home in My Heart
As I think about the filling of the Spirit and the need to be open to the Lord, my mind is drawn to the familiar picture of the heart as a beautiful house with many rooms. All of us have special rooms that we reserve for entertaining our guests. Most of us also have closets, basements, and attics that we try to keep out of public view because they are messy or contain items we don’t want others to see. The same is true in the spiritual realm. Many of us have welcomed Christ into a large part of our hearts. But there are areas of life where he is not welcome to enter. We have rooms in our hearts that are marked “Off Limits.” It might be the kitchen or the bedroom or the recreation room that we keep locked from public view. Usually there is some hidden sin—anger or bitterness or greed or lust or theft or jealousy or promiscuous behavior—that we would be ashamed for the Lord Jesus to see. Perhaps we don’t want him rearranging that part of our lives. Perhaps we like things as they are. But we will never be happy and Christ will never be fully at home until every door is opened to him.
If you want to know the power of the Spirit, the price is simple but not easy to pay. You must open those hidden doors and allow the Lord Jesus to come in and make all things new. Will it be painful? Perhaps, but the hardest part is opening the doors one by one. If you have the courage to let Christ into every part of your life, he will come in and redecorate your life into something more beautiful than you ever imagined possible.
But you’ll never experience that for yourself until you start opening those doors one by one. May God help us to unlock every door and open every hidden closet until Christ is fully at home in our hearts.
If we live another day without the Holy Spirit’s control in our lives, we have only ourselves to blame. God has made himself fully available to us. Have we made ourselves fully available to him?
A Truth to Remember:
If for some reason you aren’t filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s not because of God’s reluctance.
1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (lowest to highest), how would you rank your own knowledge of the Holy Spirit? On a similar scale, how would you rank your church’s knowledge of the Holy Spirit?
2. Many people believe that we are living in a day when the Holy Spirit has been “rediscovered” by the church. What signs do you see that suggest this might be true? What would a “Spirit-filled church” look like?
3. Do you agree that being filled with the Spirit should be the normal experience of every Christian? If it’s true, why aren’t more Christians filled with the Spirit?
4. In what ways have you experienced the Holy Spirit’s work in your life in the last seven days?
5. Read the list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Which qualities are most evident in your life? Which ones are least evident?
6. Name three ways your life would change if you were truly filled with and controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Set aside time to take the kind of moral and spiritual inventory mentioned in this chapter. List your sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings as God brings them to mind. When you are finished, write over the list “Forgiven!” and “1 John 1:7.” Then destroy or discard the list. Ask God to fill you with his Holy Spirit so that he might be in control of your life.
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