Few aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry have caused greater division in the church than those of Spirit baptism and spiritual fullness. Yet whenever the New Testament speaks of these things, it does so in terms of unity, not division. The baptism and filling with the Holy Spirit, rightly understood, should be sources of the church’s unity.
If they are uniting factors, then why are we so divided? A lot of the problem centers on how we define our terms. If we wish to embrace a biblical view, then we must understand these concepts’ biblical definitions. Looking at Paul’s letters will enable us to tackle the terminology and clarify the biblical position on two of the Spirit’s crucial ministries.
The First Term: Baptism
We cannot rightly understand the baptism of the Holy Spirit without first viewing it in relation to Christ. Early in John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus gives two gifts to His people: the removal of sin and the baptizing with the Holy Spirit (1:29, 33). These two gifts are interwoven all throughout Scripture and brought to their fulfillment in Christ (Ezek. 36:25–27). Forgiveness and Spirit baptism, in other words, go together.
The baptism of the Spirit at our conversion also has implications for the church. It’s in this context that Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians 12. Having highlighted what distinguishes one member from another in the Corinthian church, he then pinpoints the fundamental unity in their fellowship: “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” (v. 13). What unites the church? Our having been baptized into one body. It’s something over which we have no control—God does it—and it’s experiential in nature, something we enjoy by faith.
By implication, Paul says that if we are in Christ by faith, then we have experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This position differs from the groups and denominations that define the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a postconversion crisis experience evidenced by signs such as speaking in tongues. This experience, they maintain, is essential for spiritual fullness. While Christians can disagree on the matter and maintain a degree of fellowship, we must acknowledge that such a definition is inaccurate when measured against Scripture. All who truly believe are baptized into the Holy Spirit, Paul says.
If we are in Christ by faith, then we have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The fact of our being baptized in the Spirit raises a question with which we must reckon: Are we living as though that is true? Admittedly, most of us fall short. Despite the tools God has given us, our witness is often ineffectual, and our praise is frequently tainted with selfishness. Further, many of our churches are strong on doctrine but weak on charity. These things are incongruent with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23).
Is there a biblical corrective to these problems? And if so, what is it?
The Second Term: Fullness
Every Christian is baptized in the Holy Spirit, for no one can belong to Christ without also possessing the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 8:9). But not every Christian reading this right now is enjoying the fullness that the Spirit brings.
First Corinthians provides us with a case study on this phenomenon. When Paul addressed the church, what they needed wasn’t another Spirit baptism; they needed to rediscover spiritual fullness. We know from the issues Paul raised in his letter that the Corinthian believers were prideful, loveless, quarrelsome, and tolerant of sin. Their sin patterns caused their spiritual fullness to wane; they became unspiritual (1 Cor. 3:1–4). So the central concern for Paul was not to distinguish between those who had been baptized in the Spirit and those who hadn’t but to distinguish between the spiritual and unspiritual (v. 1).
Paul speaks to the issue of being filled with the Holy Spirit elsewhere as well, though. The plainest instruction is in Ephesians 5:
Do not get drunk with wine, 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, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (vv. 18–21)
As has often been noted, the command to “be filled with the Spirit” is in the present continuous tense, indicating ongoing action. “Go on being filled,” Paul says. That this filling is ongoing doesn’t negate our need to actively seek it out, however, nor does it mean that God won’t use particular means and moments in order to fill us with His Spirit. But there’s no getting around it: spiritual fullness is obligatory, not optional. The Holy Spirit is a vital necessity for every child of God.
If spiritual fullness is the corrective to carnal living, then how can we know whether we—and, by extension, our churches—are filled with the Spirit? It isn’t the gift of tongues that indicates a Spirit-filled life, as some suggest. In fact, it’s unhelpful to isolate any one spiritual gift from the others, propping it up as evidence for the spiritual life (1 Cor. 12:29–30). According to the New Testament, the chief evidences for the life of the Spirit are both moral and miraculous, not one or the other. Put another way, spiritual gifts are never isolated from spiritual truths. When we get this wrong, we end up like the Corinthians, bursting with spiritual gifts and bereft of spiritual fruit.
The Holy Spirit is a vital necessity for every child of God.
According to Ephesians 5, we should look for four rather ordinary marks that accompany a Spirit-filled fellowship:
- Speaking to one another. Spiritual fullness means not only deep communion with God but also basic communication with one another. The Spirit-filled Christian will meet fellow brothers and sisters face-to-face, embracing, rejoicing, seeking forgiveness when necessary, etc.
- Singing and making music. This is how God works in His people, releasing them in song and Spirit-filled praise.
- Thanksgiving. Spirit-filled living is characterized not by grumbling and groaning but by gratitude.
- Submitting to one another. Humble submission, and not self-assertion, is an essential part of Christian behavior—a hallmark of the spiritual life.
How to Attain Spiritual Fullness
With Spirit baptism and fullness defined, we’d do well to consider how we can attain this Spirit-filled life about which the New Testament speaks. We may identify three steps to spiritual fullness: repentance, obedience, and thirst.
When we look at our lives, we will doubtlessly find sin, which always requires repentance. There are areas that need our attention, whether that’s our worship, thanksgiving, or submission. We need God’s forgiveness for these things, for God has never filled a dirty life. We don’t put water into a dirty glass. Why then should we anticipate God’s Spirit filling dirty vessels? God will and does, however, fill the repentant heart—the heart cleansed from sin’s stain (1 John 1:9).
After repentance comes joyful obedience. “Be filled with the Spirit” isn’t a suggestion to consider; it’s a command to obey. Are we, as Jesus urged His followers, asking the Father to give us the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13)? Do we make it a part of our prayer routine to ask that God would fill us with all His fullness? We’ve all been baptized in the Spirit, but we are commanded also to be continually filled with the Spirit.
Finally, there needs to exist in us an unquenchable thirst for spiritual fullness (1 Thess. 5:19). If we have in our hearts an attitude that says, “I’m sure this spiritual filling business is fine for somebody else, but I’m content with what I have,” then we can’t expect to experience all of God. But if there is in our hearts a humble cry to know Him in all His glory, then He will no doubt fill us with His Spirit. God fills those who say, “Lord, I surrender all. Do with me what you choose.”
We may view Paul’s exhortation to be filled with the Spirit as a directive for Spirit-baptized Christians. Indeed, we’re all baptized into the same Spirit, but not all of us are filled to the same extent. As we thirst for more of God, we can look forward to Christ’s promise being realized in our lives. As our Lord Himself said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).