The role the Holy Spirit plays in the process of sanctification and of becoming a disciple

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From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 17 – Step four in detail – receive the Holy Spirit

To receive the Holy Spirit means that He comes to live within you.  Then He is not merely alongside you, but inside you.  His help is needed to enable you to live the Christian life because it is so difficult.  However, the Holy Spirit’s help is also needed in our “sanctification”.  That means being made holy.  Sanctification is the second stage of the overall process that we call “salvation” or being “saved”

The Bible reveals that we are “deemed righteous” or “justified” in legal terms, at the moment when our sins are forgiven due to what Jesus did for us on the cross. However, from then on, we also need to keep growing in maturity, such that we actually become holy in our own thoughts, speech and actions. 

This life-long process of sanctification, or growing in holiness, is not what makes us justified or forgiven.  Only Jesus’ death on the cross in our place can achieve that.  What sanctification does do is to change us from the inside out, so that we gradually (and it is gradually) become more and more like Jesus Christ in the way we live. 

You could say that the words “saved” or “salvation” have three tenses in the Bible:

a)  “Justification” – This is salvation in the past tense.  Once it has happened it is complete and final.  It cannot be increased or improved upon.  It is something that Jesus has achieved for us and given to us.  We have been forgiven, justified,  and made righteous.  So, when speaking of justification, we can accurately say we “have been saved“, i.e. in the past tense.

b)  “Sanctification” is the ongoing process of salvation in the present tense.  We are meant to be continually being sanctified, from the moment we are justified, until the moment we die.  This life-long task of sanctification is what the Holy Spirit helps you with, so that you can   actually change, become holy and grow in the fruit of the Spirit.  So, sanctification is the present tense of salvation, i.e. we can say we “are being saved“.

c)  “Glorification” – this is the final stage of the process of salvation.  It only occurs when we   die.  At that point our very sin nature itself will be taken away from us. Then we will be fully saved.  We will be set free from the very presence of sin within us. So, at our conversion we were set free from the penalty of sin (by justification).  Later we are gradually set free from the power of sin, (by sanctification). It is when we refer to our future glorification that we can say “will be saved” 

 It is only at this final stage, i.e. when we die and are glorified and our sin nature is removed, that we can say we have been completely saved in every sense, and every tense, of that word. We are then set free even from the presence of sin.  It will be gone forever and sin will never again trouble us.  So, we can say that glorification reflects the future tense of the process of salvation, i.e. we will be glorified.

So, in summary, we might say:

a) we have been saved (justified – i.e. instantly deemed righteous in legal terms)

b) we are being saved (sanctified – i.e. gradually being made holy in our day to day lives)

c) we will be saved (glorified – i.e. instantly losing our sin nature after we die)

So, when we read in the Bible of “salvation”, or being “saved” we always need to be clear as to which of these three meanings, or tenses, is being referred to.  In the context of this chapter on the Holy Spirit, we are mainly looking at the second meaning, or present tense of salvation, i.e. sanctification.  Indeed, one of the main reasons why we all need to receive the Holy Spirit is so that He can help us to become sanctified or holy.  (For a fuller explanation of these three stages of salvation, please refer to chapter 22.)

However, there is another major reason why we need the Holy Spirit.  That is so that He can provide us with the “gifts of the Holy Spirit“.  There is a wide range of supernatural gifts which enable us to serve the Lord Jesus Christ more effectively.  Using the various gifts of the Holy Spirit helps us to do things we could never do by ourselves, through our own natural ability.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit

Let’s look at what apostle Paul has to say about the gifts of the Holy Spirit:

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.11But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. 

1 Corinthians 12:4-11 (NASB)

We shall look in closer detail below at the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  But before we do so, let us examine whether we are all meant to receive the Holy Spirit, or just some of us.  Also, are we all supposed to operate in spiritual gifts or just some of us?

Are we all supposed to receive the Holy Spirit and should we all operate in spiritual gifts?

We have seen earlier what happened to the apostles on the day of Pentecost when they first spoke in tongues.  They were the very first people to receive the Holy Spirit in the way the New Testament speaks of this.  Let’s now look at some other passages where many other people subsequently received the Holy Spirit and His gifts in the first 30 years of the Church.  This was seen then as an essential part of becoming a new Christian. Consider firstly how apostle Peter dealt with a very large crowd of about 3000 people who were all converted on the same day. Note the emphasis that Peter gives to them being about to receive the Holy Spirit:

37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Acts 2: 37-42 (NASB)

Then see how the need to receive the Holy Spirit is emphasised in this next passage from Acts chapter 8:

14 Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. 18Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.

Acts 8: 14-21 (NASB)

Look next at how apostle Paul dealt with a group of brand new converts in Ephesus, many years after the day of Pentecost. Paul realised they had not received the Holy Spirit:

1It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” 3And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, ” Into John’s baptism.” 4Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7There were in all about twelve men.

Acts 19:1-7 (NASB)

We see in the passage above that Paul met a group of people in Ephesus who had believed in Jesus Christ and had repented.  So, neither repentance nor faith were missing.  However, Paul could sense that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.  They had not yet been baptised in water either.

Most church leaders today would have accepted these men just as they were. They would not have intervened or advised them to do anything further.  However, not Paul.  He was concerned and was not satisfied with their situation.  He had them baptised in water straight away.  Then he laid his hands on them to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit.  As Paul did this, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues, just as had happened to the apostles in Acts chapter two, many years earlier.

So, this experience of receiving the Holy Spirit and of immediately speaking in tongues and prophesying was not restricted just to the 12 apostles or even to the 120 disciples on the day of Pentecost.  I would suggest to you that it happened consistently to most people, though not to absolutely everybody, for the first 30 years of the church, which the book of Acts covers.  If so, that means it would have happened to hundreds of thousands of believers, given how fast the church grew.

And it carried on long after that as well.  It was a normal part of the process of becoming a Christian until the fourth century when the churches were taken over by the Emperor Constantine and began to degenerate into what we now know as the Roman Catholic church. However, outside of the Roman Catholic church, the experience of being baptised in the Holy Spirit continued, and has done so until this day.

The experience of Cornelius the Gentile

Let’s look now at a more unusual situation where apostle Peter dealt with Cornelius, a Gentile, (non Jewish) believer.  He believed in God and had repented, even though he was not a Jew.  Peter then explains the gospel to Cornelius and others with him.  Peter tells them who Jesus is and what He did.  As he spoke, the men repented and believed his message.  Then the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke in tongues, even without Peter asking for any of that, or laying hands on them:

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.  46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47“Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he? 48And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days. 

Acts 10:44-48(NASB)

This episode in Acts chapter 10 is an unusual situation because Cornelius, and those with him, received the Holy Spirit before being baptised in water.  That is not the usual biblical order.  Baptism in water almost always came before receiving the Holy Spirit.  It was different on this occasion. Peter had only just realised that the gospel was supposed to be preached to Gentiles as well as to Jews, and that they no longer needed to become Jews, as they always had to up to that time. 

If Peter and the others had realised all of that previously they would have had Cornelius baptised already.  It had never occurred to Peter to baptise these Gentile believers in water because, up to this point, he didn’t even consider Gentiles to be eligible to become Christians at all.  That is an example of how a fixed mindset can cause a man to miss what God is saying.  Remember that Peter had got this blind spot despite the fact that he had heard Jesus say, prior to His ascension, that He wanted the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, not just among the Jews:

19“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,  20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

Matthew 28:19-20 (NASB)

Peter had still not realised that Jesus really meant what He had said and that the gospel was also to be preached to the Gentiles.  That shows how we can so easily miss things if we get our ideas from what we are used to, rather than from what the Bible actually says.

At any rate, each of these men with Cornelius in Acts 10 received the Holy Spirit. They then began to speak in tongues, just as the apostles had done, and just as Paul’s converts did later.  My main point is that I would suggest that this pattern of receiving the Holy Spirit, and then operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, was the norm.  It was intended for almost everybody.  In the passages above they all received the Holy Spirit and it would appear that they all spoke in tongues and/or prophesied as a result.  That is the clear impression and nothing is stated to the contrary.  

Receiving the Holy Spirit was not just for the apostles.  Nor was it restricted to any other particular group or class of people or for any limited period of time.  Therefore I suggest that we are all meant to receive the Holy Spirit and that we are all meant to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  However, I would freely concede that we are not all going to receive the same gifts.  We will inevitably differ in what specific gifts we are given, just as we all differ in our natural gifts and talents.

The day of Pentecost was only about seven weeks after the resurrection.  The incidents with Peter and Cornelius and then with Paul at Ephesus, were much later, many years after the resurrection.  Yet it would appear that they all still received the Holy Spirit and that most of them spoke in tongues and/or prophesied.  Nothing had changed and nothing had been abandoned during these years.

That said, the Bible does not say that we must all operate in any particular gift of the Holy Spirit.  For example, we cannot say that we must all speak in tongues.  Apostle Paul specifically says that we do not all do so:

27Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31 (NASB)

Nevertheless, it seems to be clear from the above passage that Paul does still expect and assume that we will all operate in some gift of the Holy Spirit, even if not tongues or any other particular gift.  Therefore the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 cannot be used as a basis for arguing that we don’t need to, or aren’t meant to, operate in any of the spiritual gifts.  That does not follow at all.

Neither can what Paul says be taken to mean that we do not need to receive the Holy Spirit, or that receiving the Holy Spirit is automatic or inevitable, or that it happens without us being aware of it.

Note also this next passage from Acts chapter 15 concerning the Council meeting which took place in Jerusalem several years after the resurrection.  At this meeting the status of Gentile believers was discussed and the question of whether they can become Christians without first becoming Jewish as an intermediate step.  In that meeting the question of receiving the Holy Spirit was also addressed:

6The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.  7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.  8“And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;  9and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 

Acts 15:6-9 (NASB)

The key point from the above passage, for our purposes in this chapter, is that apostle Peter is telling the Council that not just the apostles and not just the Jews, but also the Gentiles, were to receive the Holy Spirit.  And they were to do so in the same way as the apostles and all other Jewish believers had done. 

I suggest to you therefore that receiving the Holy Spirit or “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” is intended to be for every believer, not just a select few. It also seems clear that it is meant for us today, not just for people in the past.  At any rate, there is no biblical reason to think otherwise.

Whilst we have seen above that not everybody spoke in tongues, the strong implication is that most, or at least many, of them did.  If not, it surely would not have been emphasised as it was.  At the very least, the clear impression given is that speaking in tongues, and the other gifts too, were a normal part of church life.  They were by no means limited to a minority of people, or just in exceptional cases.

In any case, the real burden of proof must be on those who assume that the gifts as a whole do not apply any longer to explain why any of the people in these passages spoke in tongues or prophesied.  We can see that some of them clearly did.  The real question therefore is did any of them do so. Instead of asking that, too many of us are focusing on whether or not all of them did so. Then people are saying “If they didn’t all operate in spiritual gifts, then that justifies me in not doing so“.  But why would we want to look for reasons or excuses not to operate in the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

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