The Bible is full of descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s nature and works, from Genesis to Revelation, making it clear that the third person of the Trinity is active in the lives of Christians. Furthermore, some New Testament writers refer to people receiving the Spirit, and many readers wonder what this means.
Some Christians believe that “receiving the Holy Spirit” refers to a “second experience” of God that occurs after conversion to empower effective ministry and righteous living. Other Christians hold that the phrase describes what happens at conversion when God’s presence enters a person’s life.
What does the Greek word for “receive” mean? What New Testament verses refer to people receiving the Holy Spirit? How do many Pentecostals understand the phrase “receiving the Holy Spirit”? How do many non-Pentecostals interpret it? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see What Is Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit? to learn more.
What does “receive” mean in the New Testament?
To understand how New Testament writers use the description “receive” the Holy Spirit, readers must understand what the word means and the context in which writers use it. In fact, several Greek words are translated into English as “receive” (in its various forms) in the New Testament. The words have overlapping meanings, the core of which is accepting something someone offers.
|25x (e.g. Matt. 11:5)
|to receive sight
|10x (e.g. Luke 15:27)
|to receive back
|56x (e.g. Matt. 10:40)
|to receive (anything)
|10x (e.g. Matt. 25:27)
|to receive (back)
|258x (e.g. Acts 1:8)
|receive, acquire, obtain
|49x (e.g. Mark 7:4)
|to take, receive
|14x (e.g. Luke 15:2)
The Greek word translated as “receive” that appears in passages that describe a person’s interaction with the Holy Spirit is lambano. In the verses listed below, lambano is the root Greek word in every verse.
- Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
- Acts 2:38, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”
- Acts 8:14-15, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.” (Also see 8:17 and 8:19.)
- Acts 10:47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
- Acts 19:2, “And he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.'”
- Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”
- 1 Corinthians 2:2, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”
- Galatians 3:2, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”
- Galatians 3:14, “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Christians in different traditions disagree on the timing and nature of receiving the Holy Spirit. For example, the Pentecostal tradition, like the Assemblies of God denomination, may use the phrase “receive” to describe an event that happened at conversion and a post-conversion experience.
On the other hand, non-Pentecostals, such as most Reformed Christians, think the phrase describes conversion alone.
Also see What Are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit? to learn more.
How do Pentecostals interpret receiving the Holy Spirit?
Pentecostalism is the largest tradition that advocates for a “second experience” or “second blessing” of God in the lives of Christians, including its largest denomination, the Assemblies of God. Many Methodist and Holiness churches do, too, and some Baptists. Converting to being a follower of Jesus Christ and receiving the salvation he offers sinners through the cross is the “first” experience or blessing.
In Pentecostal theology and the common language of churches in the tradition, there are many ways to describe the unique, post-conversion work that the Holy Spirit does in the life of believers. This variety is partly due to the fact that there are many different phrases because New Testament writers use various descriptions.
- Baptism of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 1:5)
- Receiving the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 1:8)
- Being filled with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 2:4)
Some Pentecostal interpreters distinguish between these phrases, but others don’t. This fact is important because most non-Pentecostal interpreters see differences in how New Testament writers use them.
What is the purpose of a second experience? The purpose of a second experience isn’t for salvation but for empowerment in the Christian life. Examples of empowerment include fruitful evangelism, victory over sin, and loving and forgiving others. Furthermore, most Pentecostal theologians and pastors don’t teach that people who haven’t had a second experience aren’t saved or are less holy or mature Christians.
How do Pentecostal interpreters understand the stories in Acts? The Pentecostal interpretation of many those who receive the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts (see verses above) believe that the people were already Christians. This contention means they decided to follow Jesus at one point in their lives and, later, received the Holy Spirit in a separate experience for empowerment.
How do Pentecostal interpreters apply their interpretation of Acts? Pentecostal theology teaches that the experience that Christians had in acts should be the model for believers today. Therefore, after a person converts to Christianity, they should pursue and anticipate a second experience.
The #7 truth in the belief statement of the Assemblies of God, called The 16 Fundamental Truths, is an example of this. It reads:
- All believers are entitled to and should ardently expect and earnestly seek the promise of the Father, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the normal experience of all in the early Christian Church. With it comes the enduement of power for life and service, the bestowment of the gifts and their uses in the work of the ministry.
- This experience is distinct from and subsequent to the experience of the new birth.
- With the baptism in the Holy Spirit come such experiences as: an overflowing fullness of the Spirit, a deepened reverence for God, an intensified consecration to God and dedication to His work, and a more active love for Christ, for His Word and for the lost
Not surprisingly, non-Pentecostals have a different interpretation of receiving the Holy Spirit and the New Testament passages that refer to it, such as the verses in Acts.
Also see What Does the Holy Spirit Do? to learn more.
How do non-Pentecostals understand receiving the Holy Spirit?
Non-Pentecostals, including the majority of Reformed Christians, like Presbyterians and Calvinists, most Lutherans, and some Baptists, believe that receiving the Holy Spirit is another way to describe conversion or one aspect of it.
In their interpretation of the New Testament, they distinguish between being baptized with the Holy Spirit and being filled with him. The former describes one aspect of conversion, while the latter describes living as a Christian (e.g. Eph. 5:18).
Most non-Pentecostal interpreters believe that receiving the Holy Spirit is the same as being baptized with the Holy Spirit. This occurs when a person decides to repent of sin and trust Jesus for salvation.
- According to the Gospels, John the Baptist foretold, “I have baptized you with water, but [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). They believe this is a description of conversion, not a second experience.
- Similarly, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Likewise, they believe this is a description of conversion, not a second experience.
How do non-Pentecostals interpret the stories in Acts in which Christians receive the Holy Spirit? There are two common explanations. The first relates to the transition between the Old and New Covenant. The second is rooted in understanding the spiritual condition of those who received the Holy Spirit in Acts.
First, non-Pentecostal interpreters believe the relevant descriptions in Acts are the effects of a unique historical event, Pentecost, and the fresh and powerful presence of the Holy Spirit that marked it.
The Christians who lived at the time of Jesus’ ascension and the establishment of the Church had the blessing of living during the transition from the Old to New Covenant. However, believers who lived after them can’t have the same experience because they were born under the New Covenant.
To be clear, according to non-Pentecostal theology, all Christians born under the New Covenant and the establishment of the Church received the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit at conversion. Therefore, there is no need for a second experience because they already received the Holy Spirit.
Second, non-Pentecostal interpreters don’t believe that every example listed in Acts describes Christians receiving the Holy Spirit. For example, many think the people Luke describes in Acts 10 and 19 who receive the Holy Spirit didn’t have saving faith when they did. If this is the case, then what Luke records isn’t a “second experience” but their conversion.
Also see What Is A Familiar Spirit? to learn more.
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