How does one receive the Holy Spirit? This question has been a point of controversy on both theological and practical grounds for a long time, especially since the rise of Pentecostal and charismatic movements. How much effort must we put forth to receive this valuable gift?
This question was current in Paul's day, and he discussed it at length with the churches of Galatia. He wrote: "You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit 4 are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does He then who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" (Gal. 3:1- 5, N.A.S.B.).*
Paul confronts the Galatians—and all other believers in Christ—with a propositional truth. The either/or position of Paul's question shows the strength of his conviction on this issue. This text declares that any and all persons who receive the true Spirit receive it by hearing and believing the gospel. There are not alternative routes to obtaining the Spirit of Christ. As there is one and only one name under heaven whereby men are saved, so there is only one way by which men receive the gift of the Spirit. That way is not by imitating someone else, striving to gain some ecstatic experience after watching other people. The Spirit is not received as a result of the "works of the Law," in the broadest sense; not an outcome of something we do. It is not an earned reward. According to God's Word, we receive the Spirit as a gift when we accept the gospel of Christ.
The everlasting gospel was Paul's consuming message. It was the story of how Christ was treated as we deserve so that we might be treated as He deserves. On Calvary, God gave Himself as a sacrifice to satisfy the demands for justice. His treatment of us goes beyond merely canceling the record of evil deeds that we have done; He imputes to our names the holy, sinless, kind, and loving character that Jesus manifested among men. In God's sight we are without fault. How God can be this gracious is part of the ever lasting mystery of the gospel, but we are invited to accept it by faith.
When we perceive the logic of this truth and comprehend the significance of our new promotion in status as children of God, we will be ready to listen to whatever else God may have to say to us. How can we live up to God's expectations as His new children? Paul says that "the love of Christ constraineth us" (2 Cor. 5:14).
Here we see another facet of God's plan for us—He doesn't leave us to our own resources. He goes still further. Paul says, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32). One of those "things" is the Holy Spirit.
If we lack the Spirit in our life, can it be that we have not paid sufficient attention to the story of Christ, or accepted His offer of salvation? That we haven't really believed His offer? Perhaps the greatest sin we are capable of, because it keeps us from the peace of Christ, is cherishing "an evil heart of unbelief" (Heb. 3:12). Paul discusses this at considerable length in Hebrews 3 and 4.
If we have already received Christ's work for us and have accepted God's pardon, we can trust Him to clear our account and credit us with Jesus' character and record. We can also expect confidently that He will not withhold His Spirit, but will freely give Him to us. Paul wrote, "God . . . hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings" (Eph. 1:3).
How do we receive the Spirit? The Bible declares that we receive the Spirit not by our works but by the great work of Christ for us. This is the power of God unto salvation for all those who believe—there is no difference! (See Rom. 1:17; 1 Cor. 1:18, 24; 2:2.)
No gimmicks are necessary, no hard-to-comprehend message or method of worship—just a true trust in Jesus as the sin-pardoning Redeemer will bring the Holy Spirit and all other gifts in His train. It is sad that this simple course to receiving the source of power we so desperately need is laid aside for some other gospel, but let us never forget that Christ, the living water, never runs dry when all other sources do.
If, then, we are in pursuit of the Spirit, let us go back to the foundation for all things in the Christian economy, the cross of Christ.
* The Scripture quotation is credited to N.A.S.B. from the New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, and is used by permission.