How to Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit

The two questions I want to try to answer today are: (1) What does it mean to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? (2) How do we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? Our focus will be on the book of Acts and on Luke’s intention as he wrote it.

1. What Is Receiving the Gift of the Holy Spirit?

One of the most widely used books in contemporary charismatic renewal is The Holy Spirit and You by Dennis and Rita Bennet, an Episcopal priest and his wife. On pages 64–65 the question is posed, “What if I don’t speak in tongues? Can I receive the Holy Spirit without speaking in tongues?” Answer:

“It comes with the package!” Speaking in tongues is not the baptism in the Holy Spirit, but it is what happens when and as you are baptized in the Spirit and it becomes an important resource to help you continue, as Paul says, to . . . “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). You don’t have to speak in tongues in order to be saved. You don’t have to speak in tongues in order to have the Holy Spirit in you. You don’t have to speak in tongues to have times of feeling filled with the Holy Spirit, but if you want the free and full outpouring that is the baptism in the Holy Spirit, you must expect it to happen as in Scripture. . . . If you want to understand the New Testament you need the same experience that all its writers had.

They sum up the classical two-stage Pentecostal teaching:

The first experience of the Christian life, salvation, is the incoming of the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ, to give us new life, God’s life, eternal life. The second experience is the receiving, or making welcome of the Holy Spirit so that Jesus can cause Him to pour out this new life from our spirits, to baptize our souls and bodies and then our world around, with his refreshing and renewing power. (275)

They call this “the scriptural pattern of the ‘doctrine of baptisms.’”

Tongues and Baptism in the Spirit in Acts

I have two things to say about this, one negative and one positive. I’ll take the negative first so I can end with the positive. The negative thing is that I think the Bennets are probably wrong in making tongues a necessary part of the baptism in the Spirit.

“A Christian without power is a Christian who needs a baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

Let’s walk with them through the book of Acts to see where they get their evidence. It begins in Acts 1:5 where Jesus says to his disciples, “John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then in verse 8, he says, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses.” The fulfillment of these two promises came on the day of Pentecost.

Acts 2:2–4 says, “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributed and resting on each one of them and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

The next time tongues is mentioned in Acts is when Peter went to preach at Cornelius’s house in Acts 10:44–46. “While Peter was still saying this the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”

The only other place tongues is referred to in Acts is 19:6. Paul finds in Ephesus some disciples of John the Baptist who had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul explains to them that John pointed people forward to Jesus, and so verse 5 says, “On hearing this they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” There is one other instance in chapter 8 where the apostles go to Samaria and lay their hands on some believers so that they can receive the Holy Spirit. Tongues is not mentioned, but since the language is the same as at Cornelius’s house (fallen Acts 8:16; fell Acts 10:44), it’s likely the Samaritans spoke in tongues, too.

Pentecostals argue that since baptism in the Spirit happened these four times with speaking in tongues, we should regard this as normative. First, the word of the gospel is received by faith. Christ comes into your life by the Spirit. Then, you are baptized in water. And, generally, following water-baptism at some later point, you pray for the baptism in the Spirit and are overwhelmed with a new fullness and freedom and power accompanied by speaking in tongues.

Tongues Are Not Necessary to Being Baptized in the Spirit

There are five reasons why I am not as confident as the Pentecostals are that speaking in tongues is a necessary part of being baptized in the Spirit:

1. It is not taught anywhere in the New Testament. It seems risky to me to say, since it happened this way four times it must happen this way all the time.

2. What Jesus does teach in Acts 1:5, 8 is that the experience of baptism in the Spirit will bring power to witness into the Christian life. In the terminology of Acts we could say, what a powerless Christian needs is a baptism in the Holy Spirit. And that’s a lot of us!

3. Acts records at least nine other conversion stories, but never again mentions a two-step sequence with tongues (Acts 8:36; 9:17–19; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 16:14; 17:4, 34). This shows how difficult it is to establish a norm from the way things happened back then.

4. It could be that there were special circumstances in Jerusalem, Samaria, Cornelius’s house, and Ephesus that made speaking in tongues especially helpful in communicating the truth that the Holy Spirit was creating a new unified body of Jew and Samaritan and Gentile.

5. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:30 that “not all speak in tongues” and the words he uses are for general tongues speaking, not merely for a special “gift of tongues” used in church. He seems to have in view the person who feels ostracized without tongues and says (verse 16), “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.” Paul responds, “Not everybody speaks in tongues!”

For these five reasons I cannot say with the Pentecostals that no Christian has been baptized in the Holy Spirit unless he has spoken in tongues. It seems to me that Luke leaves wide open the possibility that the Holy Spirit might fall upon a person with revolutionizing power over sin and power for witnessing and power in worship and yet not with tongues. To say this person is not the beneficiary of Jesus’s promise to baptize us in the Holy Spirit goes beyond Scripture. “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit . . . and you shall receive power” (Acts 1:5, 8). That is the biblical sign. (Whether or not a Christian should seek to speak in tongues is another issue that we are working on in the evening. See 1 Corinthians 14:5, 18, 39.)

Stressing the Experience of Baptism in the Spirit

Now the positive thing I want to say about the moderate Pentecostal teaching (represented by the Bennets) is that it is right to stress the experiential reality of receiving the Spirit. When you read the New Testament honestly, you can’t help but get the impression of a big difference from a lot of contemporary Christian experience. For them the Holy Spirit was a fact of experience. For many Christians today it is a fact of doctrine.

Surely the Charismatic renewal has something to teach us here. In sacramental churches the gift of the Holy Spirit is virtually equated with the event of water baptism. In Protestant evangelicalism it is equated with a subconscious work of God in regeneration which you only know you have because the Bible says you do if you believe. It is easy to imagine a spiritual counselor saying to a new convert today, “Don’t expect to notice any difference. Just believe you have received the Spirit.” But that is far from what we see in the New Testament. The Pentecostals are right to stress the experience of being baptized in the Spirit.

Four Reasons Why It Is Right to Do So

Here are four reasons from Acts:

1. Terminology: The very term “baptized in the Holy Spirit” (1:5; 11:16) implies an immersion in the life of the Spirit. “John immersed in water; you will be immersed in the Spirit.” If the Spirit overwhelms you like a baptism, you can’t imagine him merely sneaking in quietly while you are asleep and taking up inconspicuous residence. That may be the way it starts (Paul may have this early movement in mind in 1 Corinthians 12:13), but if it ends there, Jesus and Luke would not call it a baptism in the Spirit.

“Christianity is not merely an array of glorious ideas.”

2. Power, boldness, and confidence: Jesus says in Acts 1:5, 8 that baptism in the Spirit means, “You shall receive power . . . and you shall be my witnesses.” This is an experience of boldness and confidence and victory over sin. A Christian without power is a Christian who needs a baptism in the Holy Spirit. I am aware that in 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul says that baptism in the Spirit is an act of God by which we become a part of the body of Christ at conversion, so that in his terminology all genuine converts have been baptized in the Spirit.

But we have done wrong in limiting Paul’s understanding of the baptism in the Holy Spirit to this initial, subconscious divine act in conversion and then forcing all of Luke’s theology in Acts into that little mold. There is no reason to think that even for Paul the baptism in the Holy Spirit was limited to the initial moment of conversion. And for sure in the book of Acts the baptism in the Holy Spirit is more than a subconscious divine act of regeneration — it is a conscious experience of power (Acts 1:8).

3. The testimony of acts: In fact, the third reason I think so is that, when you take your concordance and look up every text in Acts where the Holy Spirit works in believers, it is never subconscious. In Acts, the Holy Spirit is not a silent influence but an experienced power. Believers experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. They didn’t just believe it happened because an apostle said so.

4. The consequence of faith: The fourth reason we should stress the experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is that in Acts the apostles teach that it is a consequence of faith not a subconscious cause of faith. As a convinced Calvinist, I believe with all my heart that the grace of God precedes and enables saving faith. We do not initiate our salvation by believing. God initiates it by enabling us to believe (Ephesians 2:8–9; 2 Timothy 2:25; John 1:13).

But this regenerating work of God’s Spirit is not the limit of what Peter means by baptism in the Spirit. In Acts 11:15–17, Peter reports how the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius just as on the disciples at Pentecost.

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized in water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should withstand God?”

Notice that the gift of the Spirit, or baptism in the Spirit, is preceded by faith. The NASB correctly says in verse 17 that God gave the Holy Spirit after they believed. So the baptism of the Spirit (verse 16) or the receiving of the gift of the Spirit (verse 17) cannot be the same as the work of God before faith which enables faith (which Luke speaks of in Acts 2:39; 5:31; 16:14; 11:18; 15:10; 14:27). The baptism in the Spirit is an experience of the Spirit given after faith to faith.

Receiving the Spirit Is a Life-Changing Experience

This is why Paul can say in Acts 19:2 when he meets the confused disciples of John the Baptist, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” What would a contemporary Protestant evangelical say in response to that question? I think we would say something like, “I thought we automatically received the Holy Spirit when we believed. I don’t understand how you can even ask the question.” How could Paul ask that question? He could ask it, I think, because receiving the Holy Spirit is a real experience. There are marks of it in your life. And the best way to test the faith of these so-called disciples is to ask them about their experience of the Spirit.

“Heartfelt praise and worship is the mark of a real experience of the Holy Spirit.”

This is no different than what Paul said in Romans 8:14, “All who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God” (see 2 Corinthians 13:5 and 1 John 3:24; 4:12–13). I sometimes fear that we have so redefined conversion in terms of human decisions and have so removed any necessity of the experience of God’s Spirit, that many people think they are saved when in fact they only have Christian ideas in their head not spiritual power in their heart.

So you see, the real issue the Charismatics raise for us is not the issue of tongues. In itself that is relatively unimportant. The really valuable contribution of the Charismatic renewal is their relentless emphasis on the truth that receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is a real, life-changing experience. Christianity is not merely an array of glorious ideas. It is not merely the performance of rituals and sacraments. It is the life-changing experience of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ the Lord of the universe.

Two Things That Characterize This Experience

We could talk for hours about what that experience is. In fact, most of my messages are just that — descriptions of the experience of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer. But I’ll mention two things from the book of Acts — things that mark the experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit or of receiving the gift of the Spirit.

1. A heart of praise: One is a heart of praise. In Acts 10:46 the disciples knew the Holy Spirit had fallen because “they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling (or magnifying) God.” Speaking in tongues is one particular way of releasing the heart of praise. It may be present or may not. But one thing is sure: the heart in which the Holy Spirit has been poured out will stop magnifying self and start magnifying God. Heartfelt praise and worship is the mark of a real experience of the Holy Spirit.

2. Obedience: The other mark I’ll mention is obedience. In Acts 5:29 Peter and the apostles say to the Sadducees who had arrested them, “We must obey God rather than men.” Then in verse 32 he says, “We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God gave to those who are obeying him.” (“Gave” is past tense; “obey” is present, ongoing tense.)

It is inevitable that when the object of your heart’s worship changes, your obedience changes. When Jesus baptizes you in the Holy Spirit, and infuses you with a new sense of the glory of God, you have a new desire and a new power (Acts 1:8) to obey. Whether or not you speak in tongues, these two things will be your experience if you have been baptized in the Holy Spirit — a new desire to magnify God in worship and a powerful disposition to obey God in everyday life.

2. How to Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit

I close by pointing you to Peter’s instructions for how to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38–41:

1. The word of God must be heard. Peter has preached that in God’s plan Jesus was crucified, raised, and exalted as Lord over all the universe and that forgiveness of sin and spiritual renewal can be had from him. The Word has been heard.

2. The sovereign God must call men and women to himself, or they will never come. Verse 39 says, “The promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone to whom the Lord our God calls to him.” No one comes to faith in Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44, 65). The preached word is heard with conviction and power only when the effectual call of God lays hold on the hearers.

3. We must “receive the word.” Verse 41: “So those who received his word were baptized.” Receiving the Word means that it becomes part of you so that you trust the Christ it presents. You trust his provision for your forgiveness. You trust his path for your life. You trust his power to help you obey. And you trust his promises for your future. And that radical commitment to Christ always involves repentance — a turning away from your own self-wrought provisions and paths and powers and promises. And when you really turn to Christ for new paths and new power, you open yourself to the Holy Spirit, because it is by his Spirit that Christ guides and empowers.

4. We must give an open expression of faith in the act of water baptism in obedience to Jesus Christ. Baptism was the universal experience of all Christians in the New Testament. There were no unbaptized Christians after Pentecost. Christ had commanded it (Matthew 28:18–20) and the church practiced it. So we do today.

Therefore, I invite you to experience the greatest thing in the world: Repent, trust Christ, open yourself to the power of his Spirit, be baptized in his name, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.