Tonight’s question is: “How do we become filled with the Holy Spirit in order to live a victorious life over sin?” The question was asked in response to a message heard on the radio, in which the speaker stated that we must ask God for this “filling” daily if we are to live victoriously as Christians.
I want to begin by commenting that in matters of theology we do well to avoid “container” views. We are not containers, like gas tanks, with a gauge on the side to tell us how full we are and when we need to fill-up. When the Bible speaks of us being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” the meaning is that our whole character – our mind, will, and affections – is to be animated and governed by God’s Spirit rather than by the sinful nature. So if you want your mind “filled with the Spirit,” you need to study Scripture, to learn to think biblically, since the Bible is God’s Word given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. If you want your heart to be filled with the Spirit, then you should worship God, you should gather with God’s people in church and in other fellowships, you should cultivate a godly character by working out what God is working in by his Spirit and through his Word. If you want your will to become spiritual, you need to bring your choices to God in prayer. What we are talking about is a spiritual and Christian lifestyle, rather than a fill-up we mechanically attain by some spiritual method. Paul summarizes in Galatians 5:16, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” In this sense, we certainly want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and should pray that God will send his Spirit. This is not accessing the Spirit by our ritualistic methods, but calling out to God with a heart dependent on his grace.
We always want to avoid any view that de-personalizes the Holy Spirit, or that separates his presence and work from faith in Jesus Christ. We should never think of the Holy Spirit as something we control or manipulate. That is the problem with approaches to spirituality that rely on methods, whether it is some form of meditation, or the working up of emotions, or even of prayer inasmuch as we think we are summoning the Spirit, plugging into the Spirit as if he were an electric current, or even being filled with the Spirit as if he were a tank of gasoline. The Holy Spirit is God, and he comes to us by faith, as God’s gift to the person who trusts in him. Paul asks in Galatians 3:2, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Like Abraham, Paul says in Galatians 3:14, “God redeemed us… so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
That leads to the matter of the victorious Christian life, as it is often called. First, we want to agree that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, none of us can escape from the clutches of sin. Jesus spoke of this in John 15, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” That means we cannot please God without the Spirit of Christ working in our lives.
The expression “victorious Christian life,” however, is one that is so misused, one that is so attached to unbiblical notions, that it is hard to appropriately use the term any longer. Most commonly, it speaks of spiritual perfectionism, and is often described in terms of the baptism of the Spirit or the second sanctification. According to such teaching, those who have learned the secret of being filled by the Spirit have total victory over sin. They no longer sin, they no longer want to sin, but are perfectly and wholly sanctified. This is grossly erroneous teaching. I am puzzled at how anyone can get such a view from the New Testament, but even more puzzled how anyone with real acquaintances – and especially with a wife and children – can hope to pass off this kind of teaching as true about themselves. Perhaps this is why many perfectionist teachers posit it as a desirable goal they have not yet fully attained.
Let me just point out that the Apostle Paul certainly didn’t think that he led such a victorious Christian life. He writes very candidly in Romans 7 about his on-going struggle with sin:
I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing… I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Romans 7:18-24
Some people argue that Paul is speaking of his pre-conversion past, despite the fact that he says many things here that can only be true of a believer – he desires to do good, he delights in God’s law. Paul cinches his self-assessment in Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” To this we might add the plain statement of 1 John 1:8, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Spiritual perfection is something we long for in heaven, but do not achieve here on earth.
There is, however, a sense in which we can and should speak of leading victorious lives as Christians, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. That is the despite our struggle with sin, despite all that the world and the devil throws at us, by God’s grace Christians will hold fast to the faith to the end. “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith,” says John in 1 John 5:4. It is by holding fast to the faith, in the midst of sin and weakness and trials, that the Christian is victorious over the world. It is not because of our prayers that this victory is gained – though certainly we should draw near to God and prayer and will spiritually benefit by doing so – but rather through the prayers of our Savior Jesus Christ, who even now intercedes in heaven for us, that our faith will not fail. This is what Jesus told Simon Peter, speaking of Peter’s greatest failure in denying our Lord – hardly a moment of spiritual victory for him. Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (Lk. 22:31, 32).
We have a great victory in this life, through faith, and that simply holding fast to Jesus. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says as the description of his spiritual life, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul lived all his days, he says, “in the flesh” – that is in contention with sin and every fleshly trouble – through faith in the one who loved him and secured his salvation with his own precious blood. That is how we, too, are to live. That is our victory, to be found in Christ, through whom we shall someday shall receive a crown of glory, to the praise of his name.
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