One April day a few years ago, a couple in northern California went for a walk on their property of a few acres—they were looking for a little outside air, exercise, and conversation. They found something more. Buried by a tree on their property were old cans full of mint-condition gold coins dating from 1847-1894. The total value of the coins was around $10 million.¹
Can you imagine? How often did the couple walk near that tree, perhaps appreciating its beauty as a tree not realizing the worth that was hiding beneath the surface of the ground?
There are believers who live the same way. They have been provided treasures so they might live godly and holy lives, but they just wander aimlessly through life, struggling and not knowing what has been made available to them—what a rich treasure there is for living in Christ and for Christ. Having been given the immense treasures of Heaven, too many of us are living like paupers. And too many of us are counseling as spiritual paupers as well. There’s a reason for that.
I submit to you that if we will be wise and effective counselors, it is crucial that we be filled by the Spirit of God. We may have many other attributes as counselors, but if we are not being filled by the Spirit of God, our counsel will be deficient, and ultimately, ineffective.
This topic is essential for biblical counselors because we are not the agents of change for our counselees. That’s the Spirit’s work (and you know that). We are only instruments that the Spirit uses to help our counselees in their need. As is commonly said, biblical counselors are sinners in need of help, helping other sinners who also need help, by pointing them to our great Helpers: Christ, the Spirit, and the Word.
The Spirit does many things for the believer; part of His ministry is to fill us. What does that mean?
What the Filling of the Holy Spirit is Not
As we think about the Spirit’s filling of believers, it is worth noting first of all what the filling of the Holy Spirit is not, because the filling of the Spirit has been often confused with other activities of the Holy Spirit.
Filling is not a second act of blessing after salvation that produces advanced spirituality. Some have mistaken the filling of the Spirit as a spiritual magic pill that produces unique and complete sanctification. Such a pill doesn’t exist; God’s plan is that each day we exercise our dependence on Him to grow in Him and be changed by Him. So just as a child grows daily into full maturity, so a believer grows daily, incrementally, (and sometimes slowly) into Christlikeness (1 Peter 2:1-3).
Filling is not a reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, because He indwells every believer at the moment of salvation (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19).
Filling is not a process of progressively receiving Him by degrees or in doses. When one receives the Holy Spirit, he receives all the Holy Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34).
Filling is not the same as the baptism of the Spirit. Baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit to unite the believer to Christ and place him in Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 6:3ff). That relationship is secured at salvation and is never repeated again.
Filling is not the same as being sealed, or secured, by Him (Ephesians 1:13). Sealing and security in our salvation by the Spirit is an accomplished fact.
Filling is not a reference to spiritual sign gifts, since even when those gifts existed, not everyone had them, while all believers are commanded to be filled by the Spirit.
The filling of the Spirit is not to be confused with the singular works of the Spirit in producing the believer’s salvation. It is not some means of grace by which the believer can bypass regular, disciplined obedience and submission to God and His Word to become sanctified. The Spirit’s filling is not a divine shortcut to spiritual maturity.
What the Filling of the Holy Spirit Is
So what is the filling of the Holy Spirit? Paul gives a picture of Spirit-filling in Ephesians 5:18, when he writes, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.”
Paul emphasizes two realities with the picture of drunkenness. First, wine controls the activity of the one who is drunk. Because the drinker is controlled by the wine, he is unable to control his own actions and thoughts and words. Because he is controlled by the drink, he is in fact, out of control of himself. Similarly, the believer who is filled by the Spirit is “out of control” of himself because he is under the control of the Spirit of God.
Paul is also emphasizing that drunkenness is a waste of what has been given. There was an appropriate use for wine in ancient days—for water purification and for medicinal reasons. To use it to become drunk was to waste its best-intended use. In a like manner, the believer can “waste” the Spirit’s filling work.
So using that image, we can say that the believer (and the biblical counselor) has been re-created in Christ to be controlled by the Spirit of God so that the Spirit would produce His fruit and exercise His gifts through him. The believer is created to be used by God for godly purposes and anything else is a terrible and tragic waste. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is—in part—to live for the God-ordained purposes of our lives. That’s what makes being Spirit-filled crucial for the counselor. To attempt to counsel in any other way is folly and waste.
So what does it mean to be filled by the Spirit? Filling by the Spirit means the believer is controlled by the Spirit.
Additionally, to be filled contains the idea of pressure. Like wind filling a ship’s sail, the ship can only travel according to the strength of the wind’s pressure. Similarly, the Spirit moves and directs believer’s life. The Spirit serves as the guide and director of the believer’s life.
Further, to be filled contains the idea of permeation. The Holy Spirit saturates the believer’s life so that throughout the believer’s life there are evidences of the influence of the Spirit. The sponge offered to Christ on the cross was said to be filled with vinegar (Matthew 27:48) and boats were filled with fish (Luke 5:7) and individuals filled with awe (Acts 13:45); all these were saturated with what was filling them.
To be filled contains the idea of domination and control (which seems to be the prominent idea in this verse). Some people were said to be filled with fear (Luke 5:26) and rage (Luke 6:11). They were under such domination and control of those fears and anger that virtually nothing else could be expressed. This is what happens when the Spirit fills a believer—the Christ-follower is so dominated by the Spirit that only Spirit-produced fruit is able to be evidenced (Galatians 5:22ff).
As we think about filling, what we mean is that the Spirit controls and directs the believer. He is under the domination, control, and authority of the Spirit so the Spirit does in his life what only the Spirit can do.
Notice also what Paul specifically says about the circumstances of Spirit-filling.
Filling is a command. It is something we are required to do. To be filled then is a matter of obedience to the Lord. This is why filling is different than the Spirit’s indwelling and baptism; those activities are never commanded, they are gifts from the Spirit to all believers. And that is why some believers are filled and others are not; it’s a matter of whether or not they are obedient. That also means that we do not have to pray or ask for the filling—to be filled is simply a matter of obedience.
Filling is not done by the believer. While this is a command, it is also a “passive.” That is, the filling is done to us and not by us— the text says, “be filled” and not “fill up” or “fill yourself.” Someone else (God, the Spirit) is doing the filling on our behalf. But notice also that we not only are filled by the Spirit, but we are also filled with the Spirit. He is the One who fills us with Himself. We don’t act on Him, but He acts on us as we are obedient to Him. When we obey, He fills, and He fills us with Himself and His divine power. So, as many have noted, this is not a matter of us getting more of the Spirit, but the Spirit getting more of us.
Filling is done repeatedly. This filling is to be constantly taking place—the verb fill is a present tense. Filling is the regular pattern of life for the believer. But that also means that it is entirely possible to be filled on a Sunday, and not on Tuesday. We need constantly to be asking, “Am I at this moment spiritually clean and submissive to the leadership of the Spirit?”
Filling is conditional. Every believer can be filled, but not every believer is always filled. Scripture tells us at least two ways the believer won’t be filled by the Spirit. We won’t be filled by the Spirit when we intentionally engage in sin (Ephesians 4:30). In these moments, we aren’t filled and controlled by the Spirit—we grieve Him instead. We also won’t be filled by the Spirit when we intentionally quench His work (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Being filled by the Spirit is conditioned on our obedience to the Spirit. If we want His power to be evidenced in our lives, it will only happen as we willingly submit to His work.
The filling of the Holy Spirit refers to the ongoing submission of the believer to the Holy Spirit so all the Spirit’s work and activity can be accomplished through the believer. This filling work is fundamental to the life of every believer and also essential to the life of every effective biblical counselor. Without the Spirit’s filling, we are incapable of changing ourselves or helping our counselees to change. With the Spirit, the riches of God’s Word and power are made available for the sanctification process of both us and our counselees.
1 “Saddle Ridge Hoard: Buried gold coin stash ‘worth $10m’” accessed 2/26/14.