A couple years ago, I was finishing up a late evening hotel shift and caught a cab home. The gentleman driving the taxi turned out to be the pastor of a small church plant in town, and we got to talking. At one point in the conversation, he turned to me and asked me: “Are you Spirit-filled?”
Now, we had been talking about ministry and spiritual matters for a few minutes by this point. He was well aware that I was a believer by this point. So I answered the question: “I am. But I suspect that I mean something rather different when I say I am ‘spirit-filled’ than you would.”
What he meant, I think, was to ask me if I had received a “second blessing” type of experience, probably including some kind of charismatic manifestation. What I meant, though, was that as a believer in Christ, I am possessed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
It’s certainly possible for a Christian to have experiences in their Christian life, subsequent to their conversion, where the Spirit rests on them in an intensive and particularly powerful way. Yet I would disagree with my driver that one could ever categorize Christians into those who are “Spirit-filled” and those who are not, and I would disagree that such an indwelling must necessarily be marked by some kind of spectacular episode.
The idea of a Christian who does not have the Holy Spirit is the same kind of category error as talking about a wife who has never been married–the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a critical and non-negotiable aspect of becoming and being a Christian. This is because salvation is, at its theological root, inescapably a Trinitarian act of God.
In salvation, each of the three Persons of the Trinity fulfills a critical role. The Father ordains and decrees salvation, not only planning salvation out as a concept in the time before time, but foreordaining the whole process by writing the narrative of human history, including electing and predestining Christians for salvation and arranging the circumstances of their lives, and sending the Son and the Spirit at their proper times. The Son accomplishes salvation, by volunteering for the role of priest and sacrificial victim, becoming flesh in the Incarnation, living a perfect and sinless life as the True Israel, dying in our place as an atoning sacrifice to satisfy the Father’s wrath against our sin, and rising again from the dead as both a demonstration of death’s defeat and a guarantee of our own resurrection.
Just as the Father and the Son play critical roles in our salvation, so too does the Spirit. The Father ordains, the Son accomplishes, and the Spirit applies. Until the Spirit fulfills his part, salvation is, to the needy sinner, an abstract accomplishment that does not yet affect him personally. The Spirit is the one who convicts the sinner of their sin, showing them their need for forgiveness. The Spirit is the one who regenerates the sinner’s hardened and rebellious heart, giving him new birth and a new nature that longs to obey and please God. The Spirit, in this way, grants both repentance and faith to the sinner and moves him to believe and trust in Jesus Christ. And when a sinner trusts in Christ, they are possessed and filled with the Spirit as a down payment of the eternal life we have been given.
Paul sums up this process as follows in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22–“And it is God [referring here to the Father–J.] who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” And again, in Ephesians 1:13-14, he says: “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.”
The Spirit is our “guarantee,” or “earnest” or “down payment,” as it could also be rendered. Everyone who believes is, in this way, “sealed” upon our belief in Christ.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we cannot grieve the Spirit with our sin. There may well be times in our life where the Spirit seems absent because sin clouds our judgment and twists our perception. But since the possession of the Spirit is a mark of the believer and a non-negotiable component of our salvation, and since the true believer cannot be lost but will be preserved until the end (John 6:37-39, 44), it stands to reason that the Spirit will never depart the true believer. Even if God sees fit to leave us to our sin for a time, as a lesson and a warning to ourselves and others, he will not forever abandon us. He will keep his promise and bring us back. We have a guarantee, and that guarantee is the Spirit.
One warning, however, needs to be stated. The Bible repeatedly warns of the danger of false faith and false conversion (James 2:14; Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21; 1 John 2:19). The example of King Saul is a sobering one. This is a man who had an experience of the Spirit coming upon him and even moving him to prophesy (1 Samuel 10:9, 11:6), an experience described as being given a “new heart.” Yet Saul was no true convert, and eventually the Spirit left him (1 Samuel 16:14). How can this be? Clearly, the Spirit will sometimes come upon a person in a non-saving way, in order to accomplish God’s purpose. The promise to the Christian is that the gift of the Spirit is a guarantee of their salvation and that all who come to Christ will be kept safe. However, there is no promise that every person who thinks they are actually saved, really is–and there are many warnings against such presumption. This, then, is not just a warning for us to test ourselves to make sure we truly are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5), but it is also a warning to those who rely upon particular events or supernatural experiences for assurance of their standing with God. Saul had that kind of an experience, and yet was never truly saved.
But that’s an issue of whether one is actually saved or not. For those who are saved, for those who are believers, there are no “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to the Spirit. Every person who has been foreknown by the Father and bought with the blood of Christ has the Spirit. Salvation is Trinitarian, as I said. This means you can no more have a Christian who is not indwelt by the Spirit than you can have a Christian without the death and resurrection of Christ.
The consequences of such Trinitarian confusion are grave. This particular concept of what it means to be “Spirit-filled” (i.e., a necessary, post-conversion, spectacular experience of supernatural manifestations) has its roots in old-style Pentecostalism (modern Pentecostalism has, thankfully, been moderating its views of this experience). This traditional, old-fashioned Pentecostalism has been marked, especially in distinction to other charismatic movements, by its emphasis on this “second blessing,” which is itself, as we’ve seen, rooted in a Trinitarian misunderstanding. It’s no surprise, then, that in its early days, the Pentecostal movement was split between those who believed in the Trinity and those who did not (the modalists or Sabellians, today represented by groups like the United Pentecostal Church). In other words: the rise of the heresy of Sabellian modalism in Pentecostal circles is a direct result of their “second-blessing” theology and its underlying view of how God works in salvation. In turn, this has resulted in the excessive and Gospel-destroying legalism prevalent among Oneness believers. And even in orthodox Pentecostalism, the assumption of a distinction between believers who “have” the Spirit against those who allegedly do not has been damaging as well, resulting in frustration and discouragement for those Christians who have not had the prescribed spiritual experience, and in the temptation to pride for those who have.
That’s why I’m thankful that in the modern era, the charismatic movement has begun to move away from an undue emphasis on the necessity of such a subsequent experience. Yet there are a lot of the old-guard folks still out there, and even in good churches (and not just Pentecostal and charismatic churches, either) the troublesome terminology and assumptions remain, as my cab driver shows us.
This is not actually just a “Pentecostal” problem. My focus on Pentecostalism here is more by way of example than a focused criticism. It’s an evangelical problem, and the theological trends that led to this problem in Pentecostalism predate the Pentecostal movement and continued to exist outside it. In short, evangelicals of every denomination don’t pay attention to theology, especially the Trinity, as they should. We all need to recover a Trinitarian understanding of salvation, no matter our denomination. The Trinity is no dry, academic concept; it is the very nature of the God we worship. We were saved according to the order of the Father, through the work of the Son, by the intervention and indwelling of the Spirit. If we diminish and neglect any part of that process, we fail to give God the full glory he is owed for what he has done.