What Does It Mean to Receive the Holy Spirit?

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

Were the Samaritans Already Converted? 

This passage raises the question of whether the Pentecostal understanding of the baptism in the Holy Spirit has a good basis here. What I mean by the Pentecostal understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is simply the view that there is a definite experience of the Holy Spirit to be sought and enjoyed after conversion that is different from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which starts when we first believe, and that this second experience is signified by speaking in tongues. There have been many non-Pentecostals who agree that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a distinct second experience but not necessarily accompanied by tongues. For example, A.J. Gordon, Reuben A. Torrey, Dwight L. Moody, Charles Finney, etc. 

Those who believe that there is a distinct second experience use this passage in Acts 8 to support their position. The Samaritans seem to be already converted—that's the first experience—and yet there is an experience of the Holy Spirit that they don't have—that's the second experience. Verse 15 says that Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and "prayed for [the Samaritans] that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." So it is obvious they are missing something. The Spirit has not "fallen on them." They have not "received" him.

But in spite of this lack, they seem to be genuine believers. Not everyone agrees with this. Since James Dunn's book, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, many now think that the Samaritans were not true believers before Peter and John came down to pray for them. There are good arguments on both sides, some suggesting that the Samaritans were not yet true believers, and some suggesting that they were.

Clues That They Were 

For example, here are some clues that make it look like they are indeed true believers.

  1. In verse 6 it says that they "gave heed to what was said by Philip." That same phrase is used in Acts 16:14 where it says about Lydia, "The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul." So giving heed to what a gospel preacher says seems to be something that is genuine because it is possible because the Lord opens the heart to make it happen. So it looks like the Samaritans really were giving heartfelt heed to the preaching of Philip.
  2. Verse 8 says they were experiencing much joy, like the Ethiopian eunuch after his conversion (8:39).
  3. Verse 12a says they "believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ."
  4. Verse 16 says that they were baptized in the name of Jesus. And when the apostles came down to lay hands on them, there is no mention that they baptized them again, even though Paul re-baptized the disciples who only knew the baptism of John in Acts 19:5.

All this suggests that the Samaritans were true believers when Peter and John came down to lay hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit. This was the view of John Calvin and Matthew Henry and Henry Alford and most commentators until recently.

Therefore many teachers conclude that this event here in Acts 8 is an illustration, just like Pentecost, that there is a definite receiving of the Holy Spirit to be experienced after conversion. And many identify this with the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16).

Clues That They Were Not

There are three reasons that other commentators think the Samaritans were not true believers when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem:

  1. Verse 12a says that the Samaritans "believed Philip" instead of believing the gospel or believing in Christ.
  2. Simon the sorcerer is also said to believe (v. 13) and yet we saw last week that he was not a true believer (v. 21—"you have neither part nor lot in this matter").
  3. If we assume the Samaritans do not have the Holy Spirit in any sense, then Romans 8:9 proves they are not Christians: "Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him."

If these arguments are compelling, then what Peter and John were praying for when they came down from Jerusalem was not a second work of the Holy Spirit, but the first work of converting grace. This is the view of Anthony Hoekema (Tongues and Spirit-Baptism) and James Dunn.

Some Suggest These Events Aren't Normative 

Many interpreters would say that even if the Samaritans were already true believers and the Holy Spirit was given in two stages, this was not meant to be normative for all Christians. Instead it was an exceptional pattern so that (for example) the Jewish apostles would come down to Samaria and signify by their laying on of hands that there is oneness between the Samaritan and Jewish church in spite of age old hostilities between Jews and Samaritans.

How Is Receiving the Holy Spirit Portrayed in Acts? 

Now what are we to make of all this? It can get very confusing. The approach I want to take this morning is this: I want to come at this issue of the baptism with the Holy Spirit indirectly by asking what we can say with a good deal of certainty about receiving the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts.

Experientially Not Just Inferentially Known

I would start by saying that in the book of Acts everywhere the receiving of the Holy Spirit is described, it is experiential. What I mean is that it's not just a logical inference that you know has happened to you only because something else has happened. Instead it has effects that are clearly discernible. In the book of Acts a person knows when he receives the Holy Spirit. It is an experience with effects you can point to.

Let me illustrate this from Acts 19:2. The situation is that Paul has come to Ephesus and found there some disciples who, as it turns out, only know the baptism of John the Baptist and have not been baptized into the name of Jesus. Paul detects something wrong and breaks the whole thing open by asking a key question in verse 2: "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?"

Now that is a remarkable question for contemporary American evangelicals who have been taught by and large that the way you know you have received the Holy Spirit is that you are a believer. We have been told that you can know that you have the Holy Spirit because all who believe have the Holy Spirit. It's a logical inference. So if we want to know if someone has received the Holy Spirit, we would ask, "Have you believed on Jesus?" If the answer is yes, then we know the person received the Holy Spirit. Receiving the Holy Spirit is a logical inference, not an experience to point to.

But Paul's question isn't like that, is it? Paul says, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" We scratch our heads and say, "I don't get it, Paul. If you assume we believed, why don't you assume we received the Holy Spirit? We've been taught that all who believe receive the Holy Spirit. We've been taught to just believe that the Spirit is there whether there are any effects or not. But you talk as if there is a way to know we've received the Holy Spirit different from believing. You talk as if we could point to an experience of the Spirit apart from believing in order to answer your question."

And that is in fact the way Paul talks. When he asks, "Did you receive the Spirit when you believed," he expects that a person who has "received the Holy Spirit" knows it, not just because it's an inference from his faith in Christ, but because it is an experience with effects that we can point to.

That is what runs all the way through this book of Acts. All the explicit descriptions of receiving the Holy Spirit are experiential (not inferential).

Luke's Ways of Describing the Coming of the Spirit

It's possible to sum up all Luke's ways of describing the coming of the Holy Spirit. There are seven words or phrases. He speaks of

  1. the Holy Spirit being given to people (as a gift)—8:18; 5:32; 15:8 (as we); 11:17 (gift: 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17);
  2. the Holy Spirit falling upon people—8:16; 10:44; 11:15 (as we, pointing back to Pentecost);
  3. the Holy Spirit coming upon people—1:8; 19:6;
  4. the Holy Spirit being poured out on people—2:17f.; 10:45;
  5. people receiving the Holy Spirit—2:38; 8:15,17; 10:47 (as we, pointing back to Pentecost);
  6. being baptized in the Holy Spirit—1:5; 11:16 (as we);
  7. being filled with the Holy Spirit—2:4; 9:17.

All these ways of describing the coming of the Holy Spirit are found in six stories or instances in the book of Acts and in every one the coming of the Spirit is with experienced effects.

  1. At Pentecost there was speaking in tongues and praising the mighty works of God and power to witness (1:8; 2:4, 11);
  2. in Samaria there is something so obvious in experience that Simon saw it and is amazed and wants to buy the power to make it happen (8:18);
  3. in Caesarea at the house of Cornelius there was speaking in tongues and praising God (10:46);
  4. in Ephesus where Paul found the disciples of John the Baptist there was speaking in tongues and prophesying (19:6);
  5. at Paul's conversion there is extraordinary boldness and empowering to witness (9:17, 22);
  6. and in Acts 5:32 Luke says that God "gave the Holy Spirit to everyone who is obeying him." So obedience to God is a mark of his presence.

Luke Expects a Real, Identifiable Experience

So in every case of the Holy Spirit's coming or being received in the book of Acts there are definite effects that one can point to as evidence that the Spirit has been received. The ones mentioned are speaking in tongues, prophesying, freely praising the great things of God, boldness and power in witness, and obedience to God. And if we take the subsequent empowering of the Spirit into account after the initial one, the list would, of course, include the working of miracles, signs, and wonders (Acts 6:8, 13:9–11).

The point is this: whether Luke expects these kinds of effects to happen in one initiatory receiving of the Holy Spirit or in a two step process with "baptism in the Holy Spirit" after conversion, or in an ongoing sequence of fillings (or some combination of these three), one thing is clear: Luke expects the receiving of the Holy Spirit (however we receive him) to be a real, identifiable experience of the living God, not just a logical inference from a human act of will.

Power for Evangelizing the World

And we can say more about this experience. There is no promise in the book of Acts that everyone who receives the Spirit will speak in tongues or prophesy. But there is the promise in Acts 1:8 that when the Spirit comes upon us, we will receive power; and in this power we will be able to evangelize the whole world. That promise is made to everybody on whom the Holy Spirit comes, not just a few.

Then what we see in the book of Acts are illustrations of what this power looks like as it comes on different groups. It comes with speaking in tongues for some (2:4; 10:46; 19:6). It comes with the gift of prophecy for some (2:17; 19:6; cf. 10:46). It comes with free and overflowing praise of God's greatness (2:11; 10:46). It comes with obedience to the commands of God (5:32). It comes with courage and boldness of witness (2:14–36; 9:17–22). And it brings the working of various gifts (Hebrews 2:4), and miracles (Galatians 3:5), and signs and wonders (Acts 6:8).

Did You Receive the Holy Spirit When You Believed? 

But however it comes, it is an experience of divine reality. It is not just an idea about our spiritual condition that we infer from a decision we have made. It is supernatural. You can use it to answer the question, "Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?"

You can say,

  • Yes, I have seen the Spirit of obedience at work in my life subduing sin and inclining me to acts of love.
  • Yes, I have seen the Spirit of praise in my life filling my heart and mouth with worship to Jesus and God the Father.
  • Yes, I have seen the Spirit of courage at work in my life overcoming fear and giving me a will to risk things for the cause of Christ.
  • And yes, even though I know that speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy are no sure sign of God's grace, yet together with other evidences they too are a precious evidence that the power of God is on me.

But if you can't answer the question this morning, "Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?" then it may be that you have not believed and need to as we close this service. Or it may be that for some reason there has been a delay or a blockage in the manifestation of God's power in your life, and you need to seek his fullness in prayer. Or it may be that he is doing more in your life than you realize because you have never been taught how to recognize what is the work of God.

In any of these three cases, I urge you to pray as this service closes. Declare your faith to the Lord; ask for the release and outpouring of the Holy Spirit in your life; ask for the ability to discern his work. Amen.

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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