More and more people are waking up to the truth that a change needs to take place within our society—not necessarily a political change, as offered in the United States four years ago, but a spiritual change. Hearts need to be changed. There can be no genuine change in the heart without the Holy Spirit.
I never cease to be amazed at the people I meet who claim to be Christians. Yes, they believe in God. Yes, they acknowledge the Bible as truth. They will even declare that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again from the dead.
Yet they live as if there were no God to whom they are accountable. More and more the question that Paul asked in Ephesus seems relevant for our day: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
Today that same question can be phrased, “Is your religion genuine? Have you experienced a true conversion? Is your religion only a matter of tradition and the result of certain customs, forms, or ideas? Do you have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit or a mere external religious profession?”
So many churchgoers fail to submit themselves completely to Jesus Christ and, in turn, fail to understand the comfort of belonging to Him in both life and death. For them the question asked by Paul might also mean: “Even though you say you are a Christian, do you possess the power of the Holy Spirit, the fervor and enthusiasm of the Spirit, and the assurance and the joy of the Spirit?”
Is it possible to have the Spirit and yet not be filled with the Spirit? It would be like having a couple of dollars in your pocket as opposed to having a wallet full of money. With a couple of dollars, you can buy a loaf of bread and have something meager to eat. With a pocket full of money, you can buy a whole stack of groceries and have the finest of meals.
It would be like having a flashlight with either fully charged batteries or batteries with only a little current left in them. Either way you have the batteries, but with a little current in them, you have only a little light; whereas with new batteries the light can shine brightly. So also there are many Christians who seem to have just enough current in them to get by, while others seem to abound in the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul’s Question in Ephesus
When Paul was in Ephesus he met twelve disciples who were not very far along in understanding of religious matters. They apparently understood the need for proclaiming repentance but could take that need no further than had their teacher, John the Baptist. This prompted Paul to ask them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
Their answer to his question was startling. They said, “No.” Then they added and even stranger comment, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Paul was astonished. He could hardly understand how this was possible, so he asked them, “Then what baptism did you receive?” to which they replied, “John’s baptism.”
That explained it all. They had been baptized into the baptism of the last of the prophets from the old dispensation. He had baptized with water. He prophesied the coming of the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). He had pointed Jesus out as the Lamb of God (John 1:36). The disciples of John the Baptist were, no doubt, believers in the teachings of John. They had most likely known of the One whom John had pointed out as the Lamb of God and may have believed Jesus to be the promised Messiah. Paul seems to consider them as believers, but as believers who lacked the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The significance is in the baptism they received. John the Baptist baptized with the baptism of repentance. These men understood and proclaimed the need for people to turn away from their sin. They understood the holiness of God and the need for people to be cleansed. Like many people today, they understood the evils of their generation and called for change.
But change to what? John’s baptism was a preliminary and preparatory, pre-Christian baptism that emphasized repentance. It is not enough, however, simply to repent. That is why Paul adds, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” Christian baptism emphasizes faith in Christ. It presupposes knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice and acceptance of Him as Savior and Lord. Such knowledge and acceptance come by faith, and faith comes from the Spirit.
When the disciples of John heard about the Christian baptism, they immediately wanted to be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Their desire was granted and they received the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s Question Today
If the same question asked of the followers of John the Baptist were asked of us, how would we respond? Not one reader of The Outlook would be able to say that he did not know that the Holy Spirit had been given. The church has celebrated Pentecost for longer than this magazine has been in print—much longer. The Bible clearly tells us who the Holy Spirit is and that He has come to dwell in the church and in the hearts of God’s people.
If we were asked, as were John’s disciples, “Did you receive the Holy spirit?” we would respond by saying, “Of course I received the Holy Spirit when I believed. If I believe at all, it is because of the Spirit’s operation in my heart.”
And that is true. Most Reformed people would get an A on their knowledge of the Holy Spirit. If we are believers at all, it is because the Holy Spirit has planted that knowledge and understanding in our hearts. Faith is the fruit of the Spirit. Yet all who believe are not equal. The Bible distinguishes between a living faith and a dead faith, a faith that saves and a faith that does not save, a faith that secures Christ’s benefits and a faith that does not receive them.
In some churches young people are expected to make a confession of their faith, in which they acknowledge that they believe the truth of the Bible. In other words, they have a historic faith but may never have wrestled with the promises that God brings to those who acknowledge Christ as their Savior. Many Reformed churches examine their young people based on an intellectual faith where the young people, like parrots, can recite the confessions word for word but have very little knowledge of the Bible or the comfort that Christ alone can provide. The glorious truths of the Reformed faith have been taught to our children, but they remain like the blind man who never saw a blade of grass. He can tell you it is green only because others have told him, not because he has seen it himself. Such a faith is insufficient for salvation. It offers no comfort, no assurance of salvation.
Even when we assume that we are Christians, Paul’s question is very appropriate. The twelve disciples of John the Baptist lacked something. Paul noticed that they lacked something. Would Paul notice a similar lack in us? To be sure, we must make a distinction between temporary gifts and permanent gifts of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues and prophesying, as the twelve apostles did, were temporary gifts. They were intended to remain during the apostolic age as the church was being established. Such gifts of the Spirit we need not desire. Jesus was not impressed with the miracles his own disciples performed. Rather, he said, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). The greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is that of salvation.
Have you received the gift of salvation that the Holy Spirit brings? If so, there should be great joy in the assurance that you are a child of the living God through faith in Jesus Christ. Such joy should fill you with a grand delight in the things of the Spirit rather than the things of the world. Instead of shallow emotionalism, there is spiritual enthusiasm and fervor that comes from above. There are the gifts of satisfaction, contentment, and the graces and virtues of the Christian life.
Such gifts of the Holy Spirit we must have so that our battery may be fully charged, making us a true light to this world.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.