What does it really mean to be 'filled with the Spirit'?

The Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles.
The Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles. | The Bible Panorama/The Holy Scriptures in Picture and Story/Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons

The phrase "filled with the Spirit" is loaded with unfortunate connotations, but it need not be, according to a scholar of early Judaism and Christian origins at a Pentecostal seminary.

To bring clarity to the confusion as Christians observe Pentecost Sunday, The Christian Post interviewed Wave Nunnally, a professor at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.

Whereas Pentecostals and charismatic evangelical Christians have often spoken of this phenomenon which is spoken of in Scripture, the language spoken in some circles has become tribal in that it is frequently associated with assumptions about particular supernatural experiences with God, church traditions, or theological precepts that do not adequately explain the fullness of what it means.

CP: Why has the phrase "filled with the Spirit" become so associated with Pentecostal baggage?

Nunnally: I think all of those phrases that the Bible gives for this phenomenon, to be "filled with the Spirit" or baptized in the Spirit, to have the Holy Spirit come upon you are all synonymous and the scholarly literature will bear that out.

These phrases and this experience [of being filled with Holy Spirit] has suffered misunderstanding from two different directions. One is from within the Pentecostal and charismatic movement itself, a very uninformed position that this idea that if you're not charismatic or Pentecostal then you don't have the Holy Spirit.

I often point out to my students that Paul tells the church in Rome in Romans 8:9 that if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he doesn't belong to Him. If they don't have the Spirit, they are not a Christian, whatever the denomination.

For charismatics and Pentecostals to then say, "Well, we're more spiritual" or "we have more power" or, in other words, "we're better than" is a mistake human beings have made since the Garden [of Eden] which is "I'm better than you because."

But that's automatically unChristlike and unbiblical as well. It's not a matter of people who are Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopal, or Methodist not having the Spirit. I try to explain to people, our students, that the Holy Spirit is at work in people's lives even before they make a decision to be a follower of Jesus.

How can that be? Well, how about when the Holy Spirit is orchestrating circumstances like an event or someone crosses your path and then impacts you positively for the Good News. Or how about when you feel conviction for your sin? Is that just a natural biological event like food digestion or blood platelet creation? Absolutely not. That's a supernatural work that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is going to convinct you of sin.

Wave Nunnally, professor of Biblical Studies at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.
Wave Nunnally, professor of Biblical Studies at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. | (Photo: Courtesy of Evangel University)

And who is it that woos you toward Christ? It isn't your fallen nature. And who is it that enables you to repent? It's the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the active agent of regenerating us into new creatures and then after salvation in the transformation process. In the book of Acts, we find the Holy Spirit filling people and they become bold witnesses.

We've made a monolithic experience of the Holy Spirit. That's when we go down to the altar and someone lays hands on me, I speak in tongues, and then I'm in the club. And some from other denominations have made it monolithic in a different way, saying that you got the Holy Spirit when you got saved and that's the end of it.

Well, no and no. Both groups are wrong.

CP: What does the phrase "filled with the Spirit" convey in the Greek in Ephesians 5, when the Apostle Paul commands the Church not to be drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit? Is it true that the way it is conjugated indicates that the filling is more than a one-time occurrence?

Nunnally: The present-active indicative [tense] has the sense of an ongoing action whatever that verb happens to be. And there Paul has "be filled," meaning that you're not doing the filling. It's something that's outside of yourself; it's God doing the filling. You can't take credit for it anyway.

It's an act that only God can do. You can't fill yourself. That's the reason that you have a present-passive indicative. Indicative means ongoing action.

Having this treasure in earthen vessels, we get jostled, cracked and leaky. We get used up. And if you're going to go on one tank of gas for the life of the car, good luck with that. One filling until Jesus comes back or until you die, good luck with that too.

CP: Where are the other clear examples of this idea of "being filled" rather than Ephesians 5:18?

Nunnally: You also have it in the book of Acts, the Apostles being filled in Acts 2. You have at the beginning of Acts 4 Peter "being filled" with the Holy Spirit. And the Church being filled with the Holy Spirit. At the end of Acts 4 the whole Church is filled yet again with the Holy Spirit, it's a fresh filling. Kind of like a car. You've got a full tank of gas but after you've gone 300-400 miles you've got to stop and fill it up again because you've used it all.

Stephen is a man who, according to Acts 6, right before he was martyred it says "being filled with the Holy Spirit he says Father, don't count this against them and into your hands I commit my spirit." You've got it with Paul in Acts 9 and yet when he stands up to speak in the synagogue in chapter 13 at Antioch of Pisidia, it says "and being filled with the Holy Spirit." You've got half a dozen examples in the book of Acts, which is our crux text for Pentecostals and charismatics, and we seem to have ignored all of those re-fillings of these really important people.

So it's not a one size fits all or a one time makes you good for the duration [of your life]. It just doesn't work that way.

CP: What do you say specifically to Christians who said they got it all at baptism or when they received salvation? Or those who are hungry for more of God who know there is more?  

Nunnally: So when you answered the altar call, prayed the prayer [to receive Christ] that means you no longer sin? That means you are totally equipped for everything God's got for you for the rest of your life? That means that there is no transformation process that Romans 12 talks about? That you're a finished product? That's what you're telling me?

Then they say "Oh no, that's not what I'm telling you." And then I say "Exactly! Just follow through on that." Please be consistent in this. We need the regular empowerment of God in no way different than a car needs gas.

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