Editor's Note: Dr. Kinghorn is Professor of Church History and Vice-President at large at Asbury Theological Seminary. In a question and answer column in the Asbury Herald, Summer 1992, Kinghorn was asked, "I know I am a Christian, but I'm not sure I have the Holy Spirit. What does it means to be "Spirit-filled," such as in Ephesians 5:18 where Paul wrote, "Be filled with the Spirit?" Kinghorn's classic reply is given in its entirety and reprinted with his permission.
In the biblical passage that you cite, Paul used the verb form that Greek grammarians call "present, imperative, passive." The present tense refers to action that is continuous or in progress; the imperative mood indicates a command; the passive voice means that the subject is being acted upon. Accordingly, this verse could be translated as Paul's apostolic charge to his readers: "Let God ever fill you with the Spirit."
From the beginning to the end of our Christian lives the Holy Spirit ministers at every point of our relationship with God, and the New Testament encourages us always to remain receptive to his working in our lives. Even prior to our becoming Christians, the Holy Spirit draws us to an encounter with God (prevenient grace). The Holy Spirit makes us Christians (conversion) and assists us in our growing in maturity and holiness (sanctification).
We "receive" the Holy Spirit when we become Christians: believers in Christ are born of the Spirit (John 3:5-6; Titus 3:5), sealed by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30), baptized in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13; Acts 11:15-18), and they can know the witness of the Spirit (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit dwells in all Christians (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19).
Scripture never contrasts the presence of Christ with the presence of the Holy Spirit or God the Father (John 15:26). To separate the members of the Trinity from each other would move us away from Trinitarian faith into Tritheism, a very misguided view of God.
For instance, we do not baptize in the name of Jesus only, but in the name of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19). Nor is it biblically correct to say, "I received Christ last week, and I hope to receive the Holy Spirit next week." If we have Christ, we have the Spirit of Christ. It is not appropriate for Christians to ask, "Do I have the Holy Spirit?" Rather a Christian does well to ponder, "Does the Holy Spirit have all of me?"
Growth in the Lord, for most Christians, involves both moments of crises and periods of process. By crises I mean those special times when we consciously make deeper commitments to Christ, as the Holy Spirit reveals personal needs and deeper possibilities. By process I mean the daily growth in grace that we undergo as we walk in faithful obedience to Christ.
We can often remember and point to our "mountaintop" experience of grace as distinctive occasions of our clear awareness of God's love, presence and favor. But often, we are not so keenly conscious of the Holy Spirit in our daily spiritual advancement during routine disciplines and duties. And sometimes we fail to recognize the presence of God's Spirit when we pass through "deep valleys" of difficulty, temptation and trial. Yet, both the mountain peaks and the valley help shape our growth in grace, and the Holy Spirit works in us in all times and circumstances.
While the new birth is a birth of the Holy Spirit, we need to grow spiritually as much as children need to grow mentally and physically. As we mature in the Lord our capacity for God enlarges. And we can move ever deeper into the experience of God's grace - both through deeply-felt peak experiences and through daily obedience in our work and struggles. Those who remain receptive to the Holy Spirit are continuously being filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus' promise remains ever with us: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (Matthew 5:6).