One time during the Apostle Paul’s missionary travel he came upon twelve “disciples” somewhere around Ephesus. We are not told what exactly precipitated Paul’s curiosity, but he asked these guys:
Did you receive the Spirit when you believed? (Acts 19:2)
They responded by telling that they had not heard anything about the Holy Spirit. Paul then asked another question:
Into what then were you baptized? (v.3)
The disciples said that they had received “John’s baptism”. Paul went on to explain that John’s baptism was related to repentance and preparation for something (Someone!) to come. He no doubt then preached the gospel of Jesus to them and they received another baptism in water – but this time “in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Then Paul prayed for them, with the laying on of hands, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. This was clearly evidenced by inspired utterances from their mouths, words of praise and prophecy that came spontaneously by the Spirit. This was the tangible reality that Paul had originally asked if they had experienced.
Years earlier, when Jesus spoke to His disciples about His impending return to the Father, He said that it was in their best interests. For He would send the Holy Spirit to them and the Spirit would be their teacher and lead them into all the truth. Jesus had already told them that those who were thirsty could come to Him and drink and that out of their innermost beings would flow new rivers of living water. John tells us that this referred to what would happen after Jesus was glorified (raised and ascended back to Heaven – see John 7:37-39).
Paul’s diagnostic questions to the Ephesian disciples is instructive to us today. His first question related to the tangible gift and presence of the Holy Spirit – and not to specifics of doctrine. Certainly doctrine is incredibly important, and Paul would get to that too. But if one’s doctrine, no matter how accurate and true, does not bring you into a tangible and overflowing experience with the Spirit of God, then something is missing.
Let’s say that Paul met with these twelve disciples again the following day and asked the same question:
Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?
What do you think their response would be? Certainly it would be, “Yes, we have received the Spirit.” But what if Paul asked this:
How do you know you received the Spirit?
What do you think would have been their answer? Do you think it would be a doctrinal one or an experiential one?
Most Evangelicals if asked Paul’s question would say, “Yes, I received the Spirit when I believed. Because the Bible says that every Christian has the Spirit of God in them.” Faith must rest upon the revealed Word of God – without a doubt. But the inspired Word says that if you properly believe and receive the gospel that there should be a corresponding experiential confirmation! Call it whatever you want to call it. But there’s no substitute for it.
Sadly, many professing Christians do not have an experience similar to the twelve at Ephesus. I am so glad some charismatic believers began asking me Paul’s diagnostic question many years ago. It made me realize that I was giving mental assent to many biblical doctrines without letting the reality of those beliefs powerfully manifest in my life and body. It created some tension and crisis in my faith. But it made me struggle into a fuller and more biblical dimension of Christian faith and experience.
What about you? Did you receive the Spirit when you believed? How do you know?