“The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).
If we are not disillusioned with how much we have allowed our talk to pass for our walk, discontented with the sparse amount of spiritual fruit we are truly bearing, and disappointed by the impotence of our own efforts, we will never be distressed enough to really plead with God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.
If we’re not disturbed by how little we can do in our own power, we’ll never be desperate enough to ask God for his.
What Is the Filling of the Holy Spirit?
But when we pray for this, what are we asking God for? In the words of Wayne Grudem, we are asking God for “an event subsequent to conversion in which a believer experiences a fresh infilling with the Holy Spirit that may result in a variety of consequences, including greater love for God, greater victory over sin, greater power for ministry, and sometimes the receiving of new spiritual gifts” (Grudem, 1,242).
Now, of course every Christian receives the Holy Spirit upon conversion. Being born again is the greatest miracle any human being can possibly experience, and it only happens by the omnipotent power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
But the reason we talk about the filling of the Holy Spirit as “an event subsequent to conversion” is because that’s how the New Testament usually talks about it. Paul was exhorting born-again Christians when he wrote, “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). And almost all of Luke’s description of Spirit-fillings occurred to people who were already born again (see Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9, 52). And we’re actually talking about events (plural) because, just like the same people received repeated fillings of the Spirit in the book of Acts, we also need to be filled repeatedly.
According to the New Testament, we need to be repeatedly filled with the Holy Spirit for two primary purposes: empowered worship and witness.
Intoxicated with God
When Paul told the Ephesian Christians to “be filled with the Spirit,” he was talking about Spirit-empowered worship:
And 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. (Ephesians 5:18–20)
Be careful as you read these verses. Don’t let your familiarity with it or your experience-based preconceptions about worship styles or other things cause you to dodge the punch the Holy Spirit intends to land here.
Paul is saying, don’t be intoxicated with alcohol, but be intoxicated with God! His words confront each of us with the penetrating question, “Are you intoxicated with God?” Does our heart so overflow with love for God that our heart, whether light or heavy, can’t help but sing, both to God and to one another? No matter what our circumstances, are we overflowing with thanks to God?
If not, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit because we are not worshipfully enjoying God according to the grace available to us. That means we are not glorifying God as we ought, and are we not experiencing satisfaction in God like we might.
Empowered by God
When Luke described this experience of Spirit-filling among Christians, its purpose was for Spirit-empowered witness:
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29–31)
Those early Christians were feeling fear from the threats of the religious authorities, the same ones who had crucified Jesus. But their response was to ask God for boldness to preach the gospel and supernatural power to minister to people. And God answered their prayer.
Don’t let yourself be immediately distracted by popular controversies, like whether all the miraculous gifts in the New Testament continue, or some have ceased. Those questions are important in their place. But there are more fundamental questions for us here. “Are you responding to your fears of real physical threats, disapproval, or scorn with desperate prayer for God to empower you to overcome?” Are we laying hold of God until he answers?
If not, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit because we are allowing fear and unbelief to gag or mute our witness to the reality and gospel of Jesus Christ. And because we are silent, people who need the gospel aren’t hearing it.
Whatever It Takes, Lord!
Here’s wonderful news: our heavenly Father loves to give his Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13)! “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:10).
Do you feel dry? Are you weary? Are you tired of talking so much about glorious theology, but not experiencing the reality of it? Does your worship feel distracted and hollow? Are you lacking in gratitude to God? Do you long for more fruit, both the internal fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) and the external fruit of empowered ministry?
Then you are a good candidate for the filling of the Holy Spirit. Your dryness and discouragement may, in fact, be invitations from God to press in to him. The desperation that comes from living with low-ebbing affections and spiritual impotence can itself be a gift from the Holy Spirit, because it’s when we become disillusioned enough with our mere talk, our anemic worship, and our weak selves that we really become prepared to pray:
Whatever it takes, Lord, fill me with the Holy Spirit and any gifting you would be pleased to give me.