What does it mean to “be filled with the Spirit”?

This is a controversial question. Ask one hundred people what it means to “be filled with the Spirit” and you’ll probably receive almost as many different answers. Unfortunately, for some people church background determines their answer more than Scripture. I include myself in this category, because for a period of time I believed being filled with the Spirit looked more like what I’d been told than what the Bible taught.

In explaining this phrase, first we’ll talk about what it’s not referring to, and then we’ll talk about what it means.

Outline for the post

Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to:

  1. Speaking in tongues
  2. Him indwelling us
  3. Having more of Him
  4. Being baptized by Him
  5. An emotional experience

Being filled with the Spirit means:

  1. He influences us
  2. Submitting to Him
  3. Exhibiting godly speech
  4. Producing the fruit of the Spirit
  5. Not producing the works of the flesh
  6. Looking like Jesus

1. Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to speaking in tongues

Consider the theme in Luke 1 of four different people being filled with the Spirit: (John the Baptist in v. 15, Mary in v. 35, Elizabeth in v. 41, and Zacharias in v. 67), but there’s no record of any of them speaking in tongues. Were they grieving or quenching the Holy Spirit? Of course not. Even though two of them were moved to make dramatic declarations (Mary’s Magnificat in vv. 46-55 and Zacharias’ prophecy in vv. 68-79), they weren’t spoken in tongues.

The fifth Person filled with the Spirit is Jesus Himself in Luke 4:1. While the previous four people were filled with the Spirit, Jesus was “FULL OF the Holy Spirit.” Colossians 1:19 & 2:9 says:

For it pleased the Father in [Jesus] all the fullness should dwell…in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.

Even though Jesus was the most Spirit-filled Person to walk the earth, there’s no instance of Him speaking in tongues. Some would say there’s no verse saying He didn’t speak in tongues, but that’s called “arguing from silence.” We stand on what God’s Word says, not on what it doesn’t say.

2. Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to Him indwelling us

The Holy Spirit indwells us a the moment of conversion. It is a one-time, instantaneous event when we put our faith in Christ and are regenerated, born again, brought to life spiritually, etc.

3. Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to having more of Him

In Luke 11:13 Jesus said:

“How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.”

This looked forward to the availability of the Holy Spirit at conversion. The Holy Spirit is not reserved for Christians who are more mature than others. God is pleased to seal each believer with His Spirit (Ephesians 1:13, 4:30, 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5). As a result, you can never have more or less of the Holy Spirit than you have at the moment of conversion. When you’re saved the Holy Spirit indwells you and you receive all of Him:

1 Corinthians 6:19 Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you.

John the Baptist said, “God does not give the Spirit by measure” (John 3:34).  God isn’t stingy with some and extra generous with others. When people claim to have more of the Holy Spirit than others they’re showing a pride and ignorance of Scripture. You either have the Holy Spirit or you don’t. Eddie Rasnake says:

There is no place in Scripture that indicates we can receive more of the Holy Spirit. The real issue is the release of the already present Spirit to have free reign in our hearts. It isn’t about us having more of Him, but of Him having more of us.

4. Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to being baptized by Him

Some teach that there’s a supposed experience that takes place with the Holy Spirit after conversion. The idea is you’re indwelt by the Spirit when you’re saved, but baptized with Him later. While the word baptism makes us think of water, it means “immerse” It can refer to baptism in water, but it can also refer to:

  • Immersion in suffering: Mark 10:39 They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39).
  • Immersion in Moses,  because of Israel’s unity with him in the wilderness: All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:2).

Paul’s crucial words are found in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

Paul isn’t referring to being baptized – or immersed – in water, but being baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ – or the church – at the moment of conversion.

Paul’s favorite way of referring to believers’ relationships with Jesus is that we’re “in Christ.” When Paul says we’re “baptized into Christ Jesus” in Romans 6:1-4 he means we’re spiritually immersed in Him. Galatians 3:27 says:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

This should make sense because we don’t become part of the body of Christ through water baptism, but through faith in Christ. Water baptism is simply a physical demonstration of what has taken place spiritually as we identify with Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection when we go under the water and come back up.

Paul’s emphasis in 1 Corinthians 12:12 and 13 is on oneness (the word “one” occurs six times). There can be “one body” because we’re all baptized by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion and placed into the body of Christ. If there was a later baptism that some received, but others didn’t, there would have to be two bodies: one for believers who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and one for those who haven’t received that baptism. Ephesians 4:4-5 says:

There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Paul couldn’t say this if some believers were baptized at conversion, but others were baptized later. The clear understanding is all believers receive one baptism by the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion.

The big problem with this view

When I believed the baptism with the Holy Spirit was an experience taking place after conversion I prayed for it numerous times, had people lay hands on me to receive it, and was left asking, “How do I know if I received it? Have I really received it? If not, why not?”

People feel like they aren’t receiving something that God supposedly has for others. This can be very discouraging. They’re left asking, “Is something wrong with me? Do I not have enough faith? Have I done something wrong? Does God not love me ? Maybe I’m not really saved?”

5. Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to an emotional experience

Jesus is the actual baptizer with the Holy Spirit: In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist said:

“I indeed baptize you with water…but He who is coming after me…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

At Pentecost the people were confused asking, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Peter explained Jesus ascended to heaven and “poured” out the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:33 records his words:

“[Jesus] being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.”

Some people believe being filled with the Holy Spirit refers to an emotional or mountaintop experience that takes place at some point in time, or that comes-and-goes throughout the Christian life. You might feel it one day but not the next. This false belief leads to serious problems. First, it encourages people to pursue something that isn’t biblical. John Napier said:

The goal of the Christian life is not to gain the Spirit-filled experience; rather, the goal is to remain Spirit-filled. That should be the normal Christian life.

Second, when people’s beliefs are based on feelings and emotions more than the truth of Scripture it can lead to discouragement. People can be left asking: “Why don’t I feel like I did previously?” They might even conclude Christianity isn’t real, since they think it’s made up of supposed feelings and emotions that they aren’t experiencing.

1. Being filled with the Spirit means He influences us

Ephesians 5:18 says:

Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.

It might sound odd to compare drunkenness with being filled with the Spirit, but we can sum up Paul’s point with the word “influence.” People driving drunk are “driving under the influence.” Being filled with the Spirit is compared with wine, not because it feels like being intoxicated, but because wine has the potential to influence. Just as alcohol has the potential to influence, so does the Holy Spirit.

The Greek word for “be filled” is pleroo, which means “keep on being filled” or “stay filled” with the Spirit. Paul is talking about something that should be ongoing in the lives of believers. John MacArthur said:

The filling of the Spirit is not some ecstatic or emotional experience, but a steady controlling of the life by obedience to the truth of God’s Word.

As already stated, you can’t have more or less of the Holy Spirit.  But you can have more or less of His influence over you.

2. Being filled with the Spirit means submitting to Him

How are we filled with, or influenced by, the Spirit? The answer is simple to understand, but difficult to live out: yield to Him. Obey Him. Then we won’t disobey these commands:

  • Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30)
  • Do not quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Being filled with the Spirit is a day-to-day, even moment-by-moment surrendering of our lives to Christ.

3. Being filled with the Spirit means exhibiting godly speech

The following verses, Ephesians 5:19-20, also reveal what Paul meant in verse 18:

Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Both verses are about our speech. And why is that? In Matthew 5:18 Jesus said:

Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart.

What we say is a reflection of our hearts. What could be a better indication of whether we’re filled with the Spirit than what comes out of our mouths.

James 3:1-12 discusses the tongue. It says we can tame everything in creation, but we can’t tame our tongues: they’re like wild fires burning out of control destroying everything in sight (vv. 6-8). This is why James says, “If someone could tame his tongue, he would be a perfect man” (v. 2).

What does it look like practically to exhibit Spirit-filled speech? Ephesians 4:29 provides the answer. The Amplified Bible says:

Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word nor unwholesome or worthless talk [ever] come out of your mouth, but only such [speech] as is good and beneficial to the spiritual progress of others, as is fitting to the need and the occasion, that it may be a blessing and give grace (God’s favor) to those who hear it.

4. Being filled with the Spirit means producing the fruit of the Spirit

Think for a moment about the word fruit: it refers to something produced. We call apples and oranges fruit, because they’re produced from trees. We call children “fruit of the womb,” because they’re produced from pregnancy. If you work hard for something, it’s called the “fruit of your labor” because it’s produced from your effort.

When we talk about the fruit of the Spirit, we’re talking about what the Holy Spirit produces in our lives. People who are truly filled with the Spirit should produce an abundance of the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 says:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

This is what the Holy Spirit produces in a person’s life. If you want to know when you’re filled with the Spirit it’s when you’re producing the fruit of the Spirit. If people claim to be filled with the Spirit, there should be plenty of these fruit evident.

Unfortunately, some people claim to be filled with the Spirit, but there manifestations look more like the works of the flesh. Disorderly occurrences such as laughing in the Spirit, being slain or drunk in the Spirit, excessive crying, screaming, dancing, or violent shaking are a few of the supposed evidences of the Spirit’s work in a person’s life. What these demonstrations do is make people ask, “Are [they] out of [their] mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23).

5. Being filled with the Spirit means not producing the works of the flesh

Conversely, the flesh is the opposite of the Spirit. The HOLY Spirit allows us to live holy lives, and much of that means resisting sin. Galatians 5:16-17 says:

Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another.

If you’re walking in the Spirit you’re not walking in the flesh. Being filled with the Spirit means not producing the works of the flesh. If you meet people who say they’re filled with the Spirit, their lives should be largely absent of the works listed in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.

The opposite of exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit is exhibiting the works of the flesh. If you want to know when you’re not filled with the Spirit, it’s when you’re producing the works of the flesh.

6. Being filled with the Spirit means looking like Jesus

As already stated, Jesus possessed the fullness of the Holy Spirit. He reveals what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit. Conversely, it would be impossible for people to engage in behavior unseen in Christ’s life and claim it’s part of being filled with the Spirit.

Discussion  Questions:

  1. Do you agree or disagree with this post? Why or why not?
  2. What used to come to mind when you heard the words, “filled with the Spirit”” What comes to mind now?
  3. Have you heard teaching, or witnessed people’s actions that contradict what Scripture teaches about being filled with the Spirit?
  4. “Being filled with the Spirit isn’t referring to ____?” What would you put in the blank that wasn’t covered in the post?
  5. “Being filled with the Spirit does mean ____?” What would you put in the blank that wasn’t covered in the post?

19 thoughts on “What does it mean to “be filled with the Spirit”?

  1. Two things that you mentioned above are exactly what I needed to see (read). First, your scripture reference to Galatians 5:22-23, and second, the analogy of the “driving under the influence.” My husband and I both believe in God giving and people receiving the Spiritual Gifts that are mentioned in 1Corinthians 12. My husband, also a pastor, was “filled” with the Holy Spirit several years ago. Now, let me explain what he describes as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Just as you mentioned above, he thinks a person is NOT filled with the Holy Spirit unless they, as you also described above, performs the manifestations such as shaking, moving, or flopping around. He does know and preach that all saved Christians having the Holy Spirit living in them, but that they need to ask for the “Filling of the Holy Spirit” where they perform the shaking and moving acts. I was also praying for that, but about 6 months ago, I was led by the Holy Spirit that I AM FILLED with the Holy Spirit. I see not only my husband shake and move around, but others in the church as well. There was (died 3 months ago) an elderly lady in our church whom advised me to watch as some people are “filled” with the Holy Spirit are not praising God, but just outwardly performing. Recently, the Holy Spirit revealed to me the difference. My husband keeps telling me that I will be filled with the Holy Spirit when I do not care what others think. He, along with a few other men in our church, believe that a person is not truly filled with the Holy Spirit unless they “perform” the moving, shaking, or running. I believe those acts are real if truly led by the Holy Spirit and they are praising God.

    1. Hi Melissa,
      Thank you for reading my post and then sharing your thoughts. Also, I want to let you know I truly appreciate the way you expressed yourself. It’s clear you disagree with me on some points, and it blesses me that you didn’t come across contentiously. As you probably know, this is a topic that – unfortunately and unnecessarily – often leads to heated arguments.

      You mentioned the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 that the God gives through the Holy Spirit. We can definitely agree on those gifts, and I’d say we agree because they are in Scripture. So that leads me to the question I have for you: what verses support the behavior you’re describing, i.e. the shaking and similar movements?

      If your response is that we don’t need verses to support that behavior, then my next question would be: how do you argue against a person like Todd Bentley who “was known to forcefully kick, hit, smack, or knock over participants“? When Todd claims, “the Holy Spirit led him to such actions,” how would you respond?

    2. Scott,

      To my knowledge there are no scriptures to back up the sporadic movements such as kicking, flipping and flopping of arms and legs, and shaking. In the book of Acts, Paul writes about the Day of Pentecost when the people were filled with the Holy Ghost, but I do not recall the movements. I am not sure what we disagree on, but I am just trying to get further insight on the receiving of the Holy Spirit (being filled with the Holy Ghost). So, I guess I have a question… Must a person be slain in spirit, have the movements as we both have mentioned in order to be “Filled with the Holy Spirit? The reason I ask is because my husband claims those things must happen in order to say a person has been filled with the Holy Spirit.

    3. Hi Melissa,
      I appreciate your sincerity in trying to learn the truth. I was raised Catholic, then I became a Christian in a Calvary Chapel, then I went into ministry as a youth pastor at a Baptist church, and finally I moved on to WCC, a non-denominational conservative, Bible-teaching church. The point in mentioning this is I’ve learned we don’t often see the errors of our churches and their theology while we’re in those churches…or at least it’s very difficult to see!

      I suspect if you were outside the culture you’re in you’d more readily see the unbiblical nature of these beliefs and practices. I’m sorry to have to say that, but it’s true. Can we agree Jesus was the most Spirit-filled Man to walk the earth? So can we agree that what we see from Him would most clearly demonstrate what it looks like to be Spirit-filled? Do we ever see Him act like that (kicking, flipping, flopping, etc)? Do we see that behavior from any other godly men? Paul, Peter, etc?

      There’s no verse describing behavior like that at Pentecost. If we were expected to act like that wouldn’t we see it prescribed in the epistles, which are the letters of instruction for New Testament living?

      You asked:

      Must a person be slain in spirit, have the movements as we both have mentioned in order to be “Filled with the Holy Spirit?

      In answer to your question I would definitely say no! In fact, I think that type of behavior seems more influenced by a demon than the Holy Spirit. When you see people acting this way it looks like the descriptions in Scripture of people who are possessed by demons…as opposed to influenced by – or filled with – the Holy Spirit.

      If you want to know what it looks like to be filled with the Spirit, read about the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit is what the Holy Spirit produces in a Spirit-filled person.

      Thank you for your learning attitude!

    4. It’s not very often that you come across two people discussing such a controversial issue in such a cordial and hospitable way! Thank you, Melissa and Scott, for your example!

      If I may, I would like to offer an answer to the question, “how are filled with the Spirit?”

      It is clear from Scripture that all believers have the Holy Spirit, but how do we follow the command in Ephesians 5:18 to “be filled with the Spirit”? I think Colossians 3:16 provides some interesting insight

      It has been said by scholars that Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16 are “sister passages.” In other words, Paul is trying to say the same thing. In Ephesians 5:18, the command is to “be filled with the Spirit.” In Colossians 3:16, the command is to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” In both passages, the result of obeying this command is identical: teaching, admonishing, singing and thankfulness.

      If you harmonize these two passages, they seem to say that “being filled with the Spirit” is synonymous with letting “the Word of Christ dwell in your richly,” since they both produce identical results. I believe that to be Spirit-filled is to be Word-filled. The more we live in God’s Word, the more God’s Spirit will influence our lives.

      Thought, Scott or Melissa?

    5. Hi Aaron,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, Colossians 3:16 looks like a great complement to Ephesians 5:18-19.

      Along with the fruit the Holy Spirit produces in our lives, it looks like those verses reveal other behaviors a Spirit-filled person will exhibit! I also agree with you that being Spirit-filled is synonymous with being Word-filled. You harmonized those verses and summarized the question very well.

  2. This is good! I love the point about being influenced. I often times tell people the reason I don’t drink is because I don’t want anything in my spirit that would interfere with the Holy Spirit. This includes what I watch, listen to and the conversations I entertain. They have the potential if not checked to interfere with my witness.

    1. Great thoughts Tiffani. Yes, most of what we introduce into our lives – whether through our mouths or eyes – is going to influence our relationships with the Lord.

      By the way, the reason I said “most” instead of all, is Paul discussed some things being permissible, but not beneficial; therefore, they might not influence negatively, but they also don’t influence negatively.

  3. I LOVE THIS POST! I always enjoy reading your posts because it is from such a different perspective than most of the blogs I read. I had a similar conversation with my father when I was younger. See, I was told at a young age that I wasn’t reverent enough when I prayed, didn’t show enough passion when I worshipped, and didn’t know how to “act” in church. I remember being in a theological class with my dad (I was homeschooled, and I got to go to class with him every Tuesday). Anyway, they were discussing this very same idea and how people worship so differently in various denominations but are in the same religion. So, because it was a great class and an amazing doctor teaching, I got to answer. I remember saying that it seemed like an over-complicated question because we are told to live like Christ, and he worshipped among others, sometimes alone, never boastfully, and he used his gifts to glorify God. Musicians can worship through music, dancers through dance, speakers through preaching, and so on… but my point was with your thoughts. Being filled with the spirit should look like Christ, and I don’t remember him handling a snake, or in my case, I was always called out for not participating in holding my hands to heaven and swaying to worship music. And as far as bearing fruit… I think loving all people, showing kindness, and helping the down-trodden is bearing the fruit… I don’t think you have to manifest anything in the flesh as prove for others to see. Sorry for the long reply! I just really like your content! Great post!!!

    1. Thank you Rachael!

      It’s interesting (and sad) that you were told that at a young age for a number of reasons.

      First, worship takes place in the heart. Plenty of people can look outwardly like they’re worshiping when their hearts are elsewhere. Conversely, others might look like they’re not worshiping and who knows the great work God might be doing in their hearts.

      Second, young people should be encouraged, not criticized.

      Yes, snake handling could’ve been added to the list; doing some foolish in the name of the Lord isn’t evidence of being Spirit filled.

  4. Scott, good points, but you forgot to mentioned among the “manifestations” to “surf in the spirit” 😉. Not to be prideful, but from the beginning of my encounter with The Lord, I knew that this was real, and I never fell for all the fake stuff that people were doing including speaking in tongues(languages). The gift was given for a purpose and for a period of time that The Lord used in a mighty way among His people. Praise God that there aren’t these so called “super saints”. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Gal.5:16.

    1. Thanks Ricardo :).

      Yes, I felt like tongues (known languages) went outside the scope of this post.

      I wasn’t as discerning early on, believing in a charismatic view that wasn’t biblical.

  5. Filled with the spirit is one of those terms veiled with mystery – only so because such diverse teachings permeate the Church. I tend to land where you do, the Spirit fills us with inner renewal, prompts toward growth and wisdom, and gives us power. I don’t believe that miraculous signs and wonders, like tongues, are the only way to know if someone is filled with the Spirit. In my opinion, heart renewal is an even more astounding miracle!

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please share!