The Holy Spirit: Go On Being Filled

One of my mentors is a British clergyman who was one of the pastors at my church when I was hired. He’s a man of God who loves the Bible and loves the Holy Spirit.

When he would teach on the Holy Spirit at our Alpha courses he would tell the story of when, on rare occasions, living in England and not making very much as a Vicar, he would take his children out to eat. He would tell his children in no uncertain terms that they could get one soda and one soda only. After that it was water. This is because, as you may know, in England there are no free refills. Then when they would come to the United States on vacation he would tell them they could order all the sodas they wanted!

His point and his punch line was that in this respect, and in this respect only, God is more of an American than an Englishman. God is the God of free refills.

First things first: you don’t come to Jesus apart from the Holy Spirit. In Titus 3:4-6, we’re told that God “saved us, not because of works done by us… but by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ…” You can’t become a Christian without the Holy Spirit.

And when you become a Christian you don’t receive 2/3 of God, as if the Holy Spirit comes later. 2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13 tell us that the Holy Spirit seals us and guarantees that we belong to Jesus. When you put your trust in Jesus Christ, the Spirit seals you.

But in Ephesians 5:18, Paul commands the church to “be filled with the Holy Spirit”. The English language doesn’t quite do justice to Paul’s intent here. In the Greek, this command is a present imperative, indicating that this isn’t speaking of a onetime filling, but rather a regular pattern of being filled. So “go on being filled with the Holy Spirit” is more like it.

This makes some of us nervous, but it was normal language in the New Testament. In Luke 4:1, Jesus is described as being “full of the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 4:8, Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit”. In Acts 9:17, Ananias lays his hands on Saul so that he can be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. Barnabas is described as being “full of the Holy Spirit and faith” in Acts 11:24.

And lest you point out that all these references just mention one person one single time, look at the three separate instances in Acts when the disciples are said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit”. First, in Acts 2:4 they’re “filled…” and begin to speak in tongues. Second, in Acts 4:31 they’re “filled…” again. And then in Acts 13:52 they’re again “filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy”.

Why else would Jesus describe the Holy Spirit as “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and not a pool? A river is a constant flow whereas a pool is a dormant supply. God reconciles us to himself through Jesus, and by the work of the Holy Spirit, and then longs to continue to fill us and fill us and fill us again. He really is the God of free refills!

Resistance to this comes from a number of different places, of course.

Maybe we’ve seen abuses of this and we’ve experienced churches where it’s either implied or explicitly stated that people who have been converted still need to “receive” the Holy Spirit. This isn’t biblical and it leads to confusion and abuse.

Or maybe we’ve seen the excesses of this and we’ve experienced churches where the Holy Spirit is used to give license to chaos or disorder or shaky theology derived from a pastor’s “revelation”. This is contrary to scripture and leads believers and non-believers alike to the opposite excess of, in essence, turning the spigot of the Holy Spirit off.

The norm in the New Testament and the clear encouragement from Paul’s letters to the early church is a regular, ongoing, filling of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t wacky charismania, it’s biblical and good and exciting.

Worship leaders need to understand this for the sake of their ministry. Leading from a place of dormancy or burn-out isn’t what God intends. Leading from a place of being filled and being flowed through with “rivers of living water” is.

I think Bach understood this. At the top of all of his sacred works are the initials “J.J.” for “Jesu Juva”, or “Jesus help”. And at the bottom were the initials “S.D.G.” for “Soli Deo Gloria”, or “glory to God alone”.

God has given us a helper – his Holy Spirit – for every minute, every day, every service, every rehearsal, and every time we lead worship. So we shouldn’t feel selfish or embarrassed to pray the ancient prayer of Christians through the ages: “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, or “come Holy Spirit”. Fill us afresh, help us and empower us, for the glory of God alone.

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