Acts 2:38

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

One of the most frequently expressed concepts in our society today is captured in the word “spirituality.”

How often have you heard it used? This notion of “spirituality” is seen as most positive. One of the highest accolades that can be given to a person is to refer to him or her as living a life marked by “great spirituality.”

But just what does that word mean?

It can mean just about anything, can’t it?

This was driven home to me back in January when I was in Washington, D.C. I was engaged in an extremely intense conversation with a woman who prides herself in being one of the most liberal members of the United States Senate. She told how she had been raised in Roman Catholic background and had been taught Roman Catholic theology by Jesuit scholars. Throughout the years, she had noted some needs in her own life and, much to her amazement, had been fascinated by two of her Republican Senate colleagues, with whom she had very little in common ideologically, whose lives conveyed to her a kind of deep “spirituality and serenity” for which she wistfully aspired. She said, “I wondered if they practiced yoga, deep breathing or something like that. I went to each of them and asked about the source of their spirituality, their serenity. Each of them quite frankly shared that it came from their personal, daily relationship with Jesus Christ. They invited me to the Bible study led by then Chaplain of the Senate, Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie. I discovered what the nuns had hinted about in my Catholic childhood and only recently have I come to understand more fully.”

The fact of life today is that many people talk about spirituality. Many people yearn for spirituality. But the definition of that concept can range all the way from the historic Christian understanding of what it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, that is nurtured in the present tense by the power of the Person of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, to some kind of vague Oriental mysticism, some New-Age yoga phenomenon.

Eugene Peterson, who has given us that wonderful paraphrase of the Bible, which we know as The Message, addresses the possibility of an empty spirituality in the March 22, 2003 issue of The Christian Century in an article titled “Missing Ingredient.” He writes:

The missing component in today’s pervasive spirituality is often one word – Jesus.

Today’s concept of spirituality is that of a mostly abstract and often trivialized commodity in which God is reduced to an object, idea, or project useful to man. Without the involvement of Jesus, that spirituality communicates little of the sense of life and breath implicit in God and His Spirit. Jesus gives God-breathed life, muscle, sinews, shape, and form to spirituality because His name means “God saves.”

Jesus gives definition to our spirituality and keeps us focused on what’s important in everyday life. It is Jesus the Christ who was born, died, resurrected, and rose again to be God among us, our salvation. In Jesus, we live out God’s presence and our salvation within the confines of our ordinary, day-to-day humanity with so much familiarity and few fireworks that non-Christians have difficulty believing Christ’s reality.

Those who follow Christ must understand that we cannot make Him and His work into an image of our choosing. We must accept the way He works out our salvation and allow Jesus to be God. In true Christianity, spirituality and Jesus must be conjoined, for spirituality without Jesus is subject to our own meanings, inspirations, and aspirations – without the necessity of morals or personal sacrifice. Certainly, “a commitment to Jesus keeps spirituality in touch with God. And a concern for spirituality keeps Jesus in touch with us.”

If we are going to take seriously this notion of spirituality, we are forced to confront the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, one of the most important biblical and theological topics. Practically every theological discussion ultimately turns to this topic, whether or not we realize it. Although there are some potential controversies that can emerge in discussing this topic, it is essential that it not be avoided. The Holy Spirit is all-important in determining your spiritual health and even the future viability of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

Today, and for the next two Sundays, I would like to share with you regarding the theme The Three-fold Secret of the Holy Spirit. I am indebted for this topic and some of this material to James H. McConkey who, in 1897, wrote what has become a classic on this subject. Today’s topic is “The Incoming of the Holy Spirit.” Next Sunday I will speak on “The Fullness of the Holy Spirit.” The final topic will be “The Continuing Fullness of the Holy Spirit.”


Let’s briefly look at the historic doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Reformed theology has always stressed three great divisions of Christian doctrine. The first article is the doctrine of God the Father. The second article is the doctrine of God the Son – Jesus Christ. The third article is the doctrine of God the Holy Spirit. At times, this third doctrine is the most neglected of all biblical truths. At other times, the pendulum swings the other way. What once seemed to be the private theological domain of the Pentecostal and Holiness groups receives the attention it rightly should have, making a significant impact. Today, in some ways, it has become homogenized into the life of general society as this vague notion of spirituality to which we have already referred, a spirituality disconnected from strong biblical and doctrinal roots.

In my early years of ministry, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a lot of talk about the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, some of it in a controversial form. There was a lot of discussion about speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy. There was much talk about “a second work of grace,” and the “baptism of the Spirit,” “sanctification,” “a second blessing,” “a second baptism of the Spirit.” Back in 1975, I was part of a group of 20 American Protestant leaders who were guests of the Vatican in Rome for 15 days of conversations. I was quite struck by how many of the Cardinals made mention of what for them was a new emphasis on the Holy Spirit.

The Bible has much to say about the work of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. Four specific functions are mentioned among others.

First, the Holy Spirit is a person. He has intelligence, feeling and will. The Bible shows the Holy Spirit as speaking, testifying, searching, commanding, revealing, striving and making intercession.

Theologian Louis Berkhof writes, “In general it may be said that it is His task to bring things to completion both in creation and redemption.”

The Westminster Confession states: “He is the Lord and Giver of life, everywhere present, and is the source of all good thoughts, pure desires, and holy counsels in men.”

Second, the Holy Spirit was active in the creation of the world. You see that in Genesis 1:2, which describes that “. . . the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (NIV).

Third, the Holy Spirit moved the prophets and apostles to the writing of the Holy Scriptures. All Scripture is “God-breathed,” inspired by the Holy Spirit, as well as preserved, illumined and applied to the hearts of men and women by the Holy Spirit through reading, teaching and preaching of the Bible.

Fourth, the Holy Spirit is the only efficient agent in the application of redemption.

The Westminster Confession states: “He regenerates men by His grace, convicts them of sin, moves them to repentance, and persuades and enables them to embrace Jesus Christ by faith. He unites all believers to Christ, dwells in them as their Comforter and Sanctifier, gives them the spirit of Adoption and Prayer, and performs all those gracious offices by which they are sanctified and sealed unto the day of redemption.”

Our Confession of 1967 states: “God the Holy Spirit fulfills the work of reconciliation in man. The Holy Spirit creates and renews the church as the community in which men are reconciled to God and to one another. He enables them to receive forgiveness as they forgive one another and to enjoy the peace of God as they make peace among themselves. In spite of their sin, He gives them power to become representatives of Jesus Christ and His gospel of reconciliation to all men.”

It is easy to shy away from discussions of this topic because of the controversy it can provoke. There is always the danger of exclusivism. It is easy to place one’s own experience on a pedestal as the ultimate of spirituality. When we discover the deeper dimension of life in the Holy Spirit, we can so easily look down on someone else who has not had our same experience.

One man who helped me early in my ministry to come to a reasonably balanced understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life was Dr. David M. Howard, a missionary statesman who served in ministries such as the Latin-American Mission and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. He described his own experience as a freshman in college who desired to delve more deeply into the things of God. He was pliable and open to any help that others wanted to give.

He accepted an invitation from several friends to take a walk a mile or two into an open field beyond town. They sat down and entered into a deep conversation centering on the Holy Spirit. He related how his friends obviously knew more about the Spirit than did he. They were anxious to lead him into a deeper understanding. Their sincerity and love impressed him. Their personal touch with God was real. They spoke at length about the immediate leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives – a concept which was new and exciting to him. They spoke of death to self, of rebuking Satan and asking guidance of the Holy Spirit for every detail of life. His longings for a closer walk with God increased. The next day, another friend, several years older, took him aside and warned him not be become too involved with these people who were putting such an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. This friend then opened the Scriptures and explained in clear and decisive terms the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer. He pointed out that much of what the other group had said was true, but it was being carried to an extreme, which made it warp the truth.

Dave Howard described his confusion. Both sets of friends were so sincere. They seemed so right in what they had to say. One night, after tossing restlessly in bed for several hours, he rose, dressed and went out to walk the streets. Passing the home of a godly pastor, he decided to rouse him and share his struggles. The minister came downstairs in his bathrobe and invited him into the house. In a balanced and gracious way, he opened the Scriptures for this searching young man, helping him to see what they really say about the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. He said, “Dave, whenever you hear someone who talks constantly about the Holy Spirit, you have reason to doubt that he really knows the Lord the way he should.” Startled, the young man could scarcely believe his ears. How could anyone who talks about the Spirit be deficient or in error in his knowledge of God.

To back up his statement, the pastor turned to John 16:13-14 and read: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

With that, Dave Howard, as a young man, discovered a biblical principle which is helpful for you and me today. The work of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Jesus Christ, not himself. The spirit bears witness to the Savior. Jesus Christ is central. The ministry of the Holy Spirit, in its authentic expression, points to the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

Isn’t it interesting that what David Howard discovered over half a century ago is precisely what Eugene Peterson is emphasizing in the article published in The Christian Century several weeks ago? Contexts are quite different. The message is the same. On the one hand, beware of any discussion and emphasis on the Holy Spirit in which the Holy Spirit himself becomes primary emphasis. This speaks to the kind of super-spirituality of a distinctly Christian nature that can emerge when the person of Jesus Christ is de-emphasized and the person and work of the Holy Spirit becomes the end in itself . At the other extreme is the kind of vague spirituality that is so pervasive in our culture today that calls us to minimize the importance of Jesus Christ, seeing Him only as a transient, historical figure who, in His own way, followed God and had His own kind of spirituality. This kind of spirituality takes great offense at claims for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. It sees all roads that claim to be spiritual leading in the same direction. It attacks the claim that Jesus made for himself when He said, “‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him'” (John 14:6-7).

You see, when we discover this biblical principle, we have a corrective to our tendencies to over-emphasize the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, or go to the other extreme of never talking about this One who is the enabler of all spirituality and has as His primary function the task of pointing the way to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Some of us are old enough to remember Corrie ten Boom. This magnificent Christian woman, who rescued so many Jews from Nazi extermination, was herself sent to a concentration camp for her efforts. She watched her sister starve to death. It was only God’s miracle that saved her to, for so many decades, tell her story. This beautiful, Spirit-filled, Christian woman was illustrative of Dave Howard’s point. She, and so many others who have had the deepest experiences with the Holy Spirit, exudes a lifestyle and message that points to Jesus Christ – not to the Holy Spirit.


Every sincere Christian yearns for a deeper experience of Jesus Christ.

This inner yearning is healthy and good. It is a sign that one is desirous of growing in the faith.

The Bible promises abundant life.

Jesus declares that we can have abundant life. He puts it in these words: “‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly'” (John 10:10).

Some seem to have this life. Others of us find it eludes our grasp. Some of us seem to have a great reservoir of spiritual resource that floods through our life with energy. Some of us only experience a small trickle of this resource. We are like a faucet when the water pressure is low – and little comes out.

Tuesday night Anne and I were at home from work about nine o’clock only to discover that when we turned on the faucets, we had only a few drops of water. We could have spent the next several weeks lamenting the fact that what we yearned for simply wasn’t there. Instead, we called the City of Newport Beach, and within a half hour a technician was at our house, diagnosing the problem. He found that someone had inadvertently shut off our water supply. Very quickly, we were back in business.

The Bible describes the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

This fruit is available to every believer. Don’t ever forget that. Whereas the gifts of the Holy Spirit vary from one to another, all of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is available to each believer. Galatians 5:22-23 declares, “. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Several years ago, I did a whole series. Each sermon concentrated on one of these fruits. What a privilege it is to experience love – that deep, inner sensitivity to God and our fellow human beings. Another is joy – that upthrust of life that runs so counter to the periodic depressions of life. Another is peace – divinely produced inner serenity that is not the result of self struggle. The Bible declares that God will keep you in perfect peace as your mind is stayed on Him. The Apostle Paul writes, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

The Bible points to power.

Jesus addressed His disciples just before His ascension into heaven. He said, “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth'” (Acts 1:8).

This power expresses itself in varying ways in each of our lives. This is the power of preaching. Some persons have the capacity to stand in front of others as the vehicle through whom the Holy Spirit of Christ moves to change lives. Not everybody can stand up in front of large groups of people. But every one of us can share a personal witness, empowered by the Holy Spirit, sharing with others the testimony of what God has done in our lives.

All of us are given the power of prayer. Every one of us can be a “prayer warrior,” the man or woman who has that special dynamic in life in which you take hold of God on behalf of the needs of others and your own needs.

Some have the power of music, that gift of God that touches the heartstrings of life.

Some have the power of suffering and affliction. These are the ones who are able to go through the most impossible circumstances of life, not somehow – but triumphantly, bearing witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Every single Christian is promised this abundant life, the fruit of the spirit, power to be effective witnesses for Jesus.


Why, if all this is true, do you and I not experience this kind of life to a greater degree?

Perhaps it is because some of us are not even aware of the potential that is ours to live a life in the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit.

Also, I am convinced that part of the reason some of us have not discovered the secret of the incoming of the Holy Spirit into our lives is that we think we have to live lives of waiting. Somehow, if we yearn enough and pray enough, God will enter our lives in the Person of His Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this tendency to wait for some kind of special blessing from God comes from the experience of the New Testament apostles. In the first two chapters, we read how the apostles went to an upper room. There they continued in one accord and prayer. Jesus had promised that His Holy Spirit would come upon them. They were waiting for this experience. For days, nothing happened. Then, on the Day of Pentecost, as they were all in one accord, Acts 2:2-4 says:

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

The reason that you are not experiencing the abundant life promised through the Holy Spirit of Jesus may be that you are trying to emulate the experience of the apostles. You are expecting a repeat of what happened to them. You and I must be careful not to expect that precise same experience. Instead, we are to be fully instructed in their teaching.

The apostles lived before the Holy Spirit came in all of His fullness at Pentecost. They lived before the work of Jesus Christ was fully finished. They were with Him in His incarnation. They walked with Him through His ministry. They were there at His crucifixion. They observed Him in His post-resurrection appearances. They stood with Him as He promised them the gift of His Holy Spirit. They observed Him as He ascended into heaven. They waited for the Holy Spirit to come at Pentecost, initiating a whole new era in which the Triune God, Creator-Sustainer, who had become flesh in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, would be present in the life of every believer through the power of His Holy Spirit. From the time that the Holy Spirit gripped their lives, they were catapulted into a whole new dynamic witness for Jesus. The work of Jesus Christ was building to this point when He gave the gift of His Spirit at Pentecost. Yet some of us are still waiting for His Spirit to come in power. I have been guilty of this. I have heard men and women talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. I have yearned for the same experiences as another. This is dangerous business. We try to duplicate the experience of another. God makes no carbon copies. God approaches each individual in a unique, special way. Some come to Jesus Christ gradually. Some come in a dynamic experience, filled with emotion and psychological ecstasy. We feel that we must wait in the upper room for Him to come in power. We feel that we must expose our lives, prostrate to God, waiting for the day that He may give His gift of the Holy Spirit. Waiting is part of the Christian life. We are to wait upon God for strength and guidance, but we need not wait for the Holy Spirit.

Norm and Muriel Cook are missionaries who are very special to Anne and me. It was through them that we met when Anne and I both happened to be in Taipei, Formosa, at the same time in the summer of 1963. Norm and Muriel tell the story of several young men they knew who yearned so much for the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They had heard others describe their baptism of the Spirit, and they had been informed if they would just lay prostrate on the floor, allowing all of their own human energies to drain, the Holy Spirit of God would take over. Norm relates the tragic results of this experience. One young man was spiritually broken, disillusioned by the failure of God’s Holy Spirit to anoint. There is no need to wait for God’s Spirit to come into your life. There is no need for some wild, spiritual orgy in which you are caught up in a hyper-emotional way. Not at all!


So, you ask, “What can I do to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life?”

All you have to do is remember the teachings of the Scriptures in regard to this great doctrine.

The Bible teaches that every single believer in Jesus Christ has already fulfilled the conditions for having the gift of the Holy Spirit. It does not for a moment teach that it has to be something that happens later on in life. It is not something that you have to seek after or wait for.

What are these conditions? They are quite simple. They are two in number. We find them capsuled in our text for today. They are the words of Peter, addressing the throng at Pentecost. He declares, “‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 2:38).

There are two simple conditions which must be met before you can be converted and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The first is that you repent of your sins.

You admit the fact that you are a sinner. You acknowledge the fact that there are many things in your life that are wrong. You have a history of activities and attitudes that have resulted in a broken relationship with God. You need to be genuinely sorry for this, wanting a changed relationship with God.

The second is that you publicly express your faith in Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.

This simply means that you know there is nothing you can do that can restore your relationship with God. This means you acknowledge the fact that Jesus Christ has already paid the penalty for your sins. The Bible says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

This is what baptism is. It is a public declaration of the inner working of God’s grace in your life. If you were baptized as an infant and now, as an adult, you have come to faith in Jesus Christ, you do not have to be rebaptized. But you do need to step up and declare publicly your faith in Jesus Christ in a confirmation of the covenant vows taken for you by parents, congregation, pastor and God in your infant baptism.

In the Protestant tradition we have two sacraments. One is baptism. The other is the Lord’s Supper. In baptism we publicly declare our faith in Jesus Christ. This need only be done once. In the Lord’s Supper, we, with great frequency, stop and prayerfully reflect as we handle the elements. Then, as we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, we do show and tell, declare publicly to others, that we have repented of sin and put our trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

If you have repented of your sins and placed your trust in the name of Jesus Christ for forgiveness, then you are born again. You are converted. You have been given the free gift of salvation – eternal life, forgiveness of sins, the assurance of heaven and the life to come.

Not only have you been given salvation. You also, at that very instant of repentance and faith, have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let me read our text once again: “‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”

I ask you, have you met the conditions? Have you repented of sin? Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ? If so, you are a Christian. And if you have done this, you also already have the gift of the Holy Spirit in your life! It was the Holy Spirit that gave witness to the presence of God in your life by the peace that was yours when you were converted. The Bible constantly refers to the Holy Spirit being in the life of every believer in Christ.

The Bible says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

Even the carnal Christians of Corinth are reminded that they have the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ and His apostles always take this for granted in addressing the believer. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit does not depend on your emotions. It depends simply upon your union with Jesus Christ through repentance and faith. There is no instance in the Bible where the initial incoming of the Holy Spirit is a subsequent experience to salvation. It begins at the moment of conversion. Paul restates with power this fact that each believer has the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life. Romans 8:9 makes this definitive statement: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” He then continues in Romans 8:11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Once you discover this exciting fact, much of the confusion, much of the anxiety of spiritual living disappears. You have repented of sin. You have placed your trust in Jesus Christ. God’s Spirit is yours. No longer do you need to wait for Him. Call for His touch? Yes. Surrender increasing areas of your life? Yes. But thank God the Holy Spirit is with you to some extent from the moment you open your heart to the Savior to that moment in which you step into His eternal presence.

Again and again there is a fresh anointing of God’s Holy Spirit in your life, but never again does the Holy Spirit come in. He is always in you. Your prayer may echo the words of that wonderful hymn by Dr. Daniel Iverson:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me
Break me; melt me; mold me; fill me
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me

That will always be your prayer, for we all need the freshness of the Spirit of God. Yet He never leaves the life of the believer. You may quench His activity in your life. You may minimize His capacity to work as you try to handle your own life, guarding those precious sins and failing to trust in Jesus Christ. Yet, if, in repentance and faith, you have opened your life to God, His Spirit is with you.

This is the secret of the incoming of the Holy Spirit.

This is the starting point for any conversation on this topic. There is a fullness of the Holy Spirit that is greater than at conversion. There are conditions for this fullness that differ from those in which the Holy Spirit comes into your life. We will look next week at the topic “The Fullness of the Holy Spirit.”

But there is no sense in moving on unless you first have settled this question of repentance and faith. Have you met the conditions? If so, be prepared to experience the rest of the privileges of life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit of God. That is true spirituality!


John A. Huffman, Jr., is Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Contributing Editor to Preaching.

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