We saw on Sunday that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:24) and I said that every Christian needs to be “full of the Holy Spirit”. Someone, helpfully, asked me afterwards what that means. In Pentecostal churches, the sign of being filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues and having a dramatic experience (based on verses like Acts 10:45-46; 19:6). However, the description of Barnabas as “full of the Holy Spirit” isn’t describing a single experience, but an ongoing, characteristic of his life. Stephen is also described as “a man full… of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 6:5. Clearly, this was something that marked Barnabas and Stephen out; both men oozed with a sense of the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? Isn’t this an idea that Reformed churches are a little uncomfortable with?
Absolutely not! The New Testament is crystal clear that every Christian has the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9b) and has been baptized in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). The Spirit and Christ go together and cannot be divided up. They are indivisible. The danger in Pentecostalism is that it creates two classes of Christians: the haves and the have-nots. It can end up saying: there are ordinary Christians, who’ve been forgiven by Jesus; then there are Spirit-filled Christians, who have moved up to a higher level of Christian experience, when they received the Holy Spirit. Reformed Christians want to abolish any sense of two classes of Christian. We grasp that the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit go hand in hand and cannot be divided up.
But, the fact that Barnabas and Stephen are singled out as “full of the Holy Spirit” shows that this description isn’t true of every Christian. We make a big mistake if we see the Christian life as flat. If you picture the Christian life as a graph, showing a horizontal line from start to finish, or even an ascending straight line at a 45-degree angle, something’s wrong. The Christian life changes and fluctuates. It doesn’t stay the same. Once you’re “in Christ”, there’s a security, but there isn’t a “flat-ness”. There are degrees of closeness to God. There are times when God hides his face (Psalm 13:1; 88:14), or when we experience his fatherly anger (Psalm 6:1). There are times we’re in a spiritual pit (Psalm 130:1) or when unconfessed sin means our bones waste away (Psalm 32:3). But at other times we “feast on the abundance of… [God’s] house” and “drink from the river of… delights” (Psalm 36:8). There are mornings when we wake up and say: “I will sing and make melody!… I will awake the dawn!” (Psalm 57:7-8).
The job of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is to bring Jesus Christ close. Far from being an irrelevance to your Christian life, the Holy Spirit is its key. There is simply no Christianity without his presence in our lives. This is why the gospel is called “the ministry of the Spirit” in 2 Cor 3:8. This is what John Calvin saw so clearly in his book the Christian Institutes and led to him being called the “theologian of the Holy Spirit”. You can’t be a Christian for a nano-second without the Spirit underpinning everything. So, a “Spirit-filled” Christian is a Christian who is believing Jesus Christ and having his saving grace applied to their lives by God the Holy Spirit.
This means: Don’t be shy of experience, but don’t equate your experiences with the Holy Spirit either. There might be times when you “feel” good, but the Spirit is grieved, and times you “feel” bad, when the Spirit is at work. The Holy Spirit’s work shows up in our experiences, but isn’t reducible to or directly equivalent to experience. We cannot read the Holy Spirit’s work straight off our feelings, but nor should we disconnect them either. In fact, if you study Ephesians 5 where we’re commanded to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18), what that looks like is spelt out in the rest of chapter 5 and 6. Spirit-filled Christians sing (v.19), give thanks (v.20), and submit to others (v.21). Spirit-filled wives submit. Spirit-filled husbands love sacrificially (v.22-33). Spirit-filled children obey and Spirit-filled fathers are gentle and bring their children up to know Jesus (6:1-4). Spirit-filled slaves work hard for their masters; Spirit-filled masters treat their slaves humanely (6:5-9).
So, Christian, are you full of the Holy Spirit?
If that question exposes our spiritual emptiness and weakness, don’t fear! Instead let it drive us to our generous heavenly Father, who promises to give us more of his Son Jesus (John 1:17; Eph 1:3), by his Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13; Eph 3:19). Oh, that we’d lead Christians lives where people can say of us: “he or she is full of the Holy Spirit”!