Bible & Theology

When Do Christians Receive the Holy Spirit? Indwelling vs. Filling

When Wesleyans teach that Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit in the work of entire sanctification, it is understandable why some conclude that Christians must not receive the Holy Spirit in their hearts when they are saved. After all, until a cup is filled with water, it is empty. But this is a misunderstanding of the Biblical metaphor.

There are, in fact, many kinds of filling. Spackling paste fills holes in a wall, but not in the same way that perfume fills a room. Feathers fill a pillow, but not in the same way that wind fills the sails of a ship. It is filling in this second sense—that of a pervading, permeating, dominating influence—that the Biblical metaphor intends. To suggest that filling in reference to the Spirit means putting something into an empty container flatly contradicts Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 2 Corinthians 1:22, Galatians 4:6, and so on.

Indwelled at the New Birth

In Romans 8, Paul addresses all those who are in Christ Jesus and therefore free from condemnation (Ro. 8:1). He explains that all Christians are in the Spirit, and not in the flesh, since those who are in the flesh will die:

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

9a — “the Spirit of God dwells in you
9b — “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
11a — “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you
11b — “life to your mortal bodies through his spirit who dwells in you

John Wesley notes that Romans 8:11 is “A plain, express declaration, which admits of no exception.” He expounds, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ – Dwelling and governing in him. He is none of his – He is not a member of Christ; not a Christian; not in a state of salvation.”

The one who is not indwelled by the Spirit is not a Christian (Ro. 8:11).

Paul does not mince words: if we are not indwelled by the Spirit, we do not belong to God. The only reason that anyone is saved is because he is joined to Jesus through his Spirit. Union with Christ is the basis of our acceptance by the Father. The mystery of the gospel is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Spiritual life is not something that God gives us separate from Jesus and his Spirit. In salvation, God gives us himself and becomes our salvation. Since union with Jesus and the impartation of spiritual life come through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for anyone to be saved who does not experience this indwelling.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, who he identified as carnal (1 Cor. 3:3), “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Cor. 6:17). Moreover, “[God] has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (1 Cor. 1:22). No argument can be made that the Corinthians were entirely sanctified; rather, the basis of Paul’s instruction to them is that since every Christian is the temple (home, place of residence) of the Spirit who indwells him, every Christian should flee immorality.

Paul asked the carnal Corinthians, “Do you not know that…God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)

Galatians 3:2 affirms that the Spirit is received by faith when the believer is justified. Galatians 4:6 confirms, “because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Who are they that have the Holy Spirit in their hearts? All who are sons. Who are sons? John answers, “all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born…of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). The new birth is the moment when the Holy Spirit indwells the believer and regenerates his heart, making him a son of God. The indwelling Spirit is the seal that marks every believer as God’s precious possession (Eph. 1:13, 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:21, 5:5).

Filled Subsequent to Salvation

The opposite of filled with the Spirit is not empty (void) of the Spirit. It is more like a ship that is plodding along in the breeze, but needs its sails to be pervaded by the wind. The initial gust has a powerful effect. Once the ship’s sails are filled, the ship will go wherever the wind blows. In this sense, filling is about control. We do not receive more of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit receives more of us (that is, our full consecration). This initial filling, in which the Spirit assumes full control and corrects our self-centered bent, is also called the baptism of the Spirit (Acts 2:4, cf. Mt. 3:11).

The opposite of filled with the Spirit is not empty (void) of the Spirit.

Wesleyan-Arminians differentiate the indwelling of the Spirit and the filling of the Spirit. But all agree that the indwelling of the Spirit occurs at the new birth. Apart from Christ’s indwelling presence through his Spirit, no one is saved.