Receiving the Holy Spirit: Crisis Event or Ongoing Process?

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One of the ways the church has spoken of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives subsequent to our conversion is the phrase “a second blessing.” It is a way of setting forth the distinction between the first blessing we receive when we come to Christ and the second blessing we receive when we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I am calling this Blessing 2.0. We can see this twofold blessing unfolding in Acts chapter 8. The apostles in Jerusalem hear about the Samaritans receiving the gospel and getting baptized. In verse 14 it says that many people in Samaria had “received the word of God.” This phrase is shorthand for them receiving the message about Christ, which Philip had been proclaiming to them. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Peter and John down to see it firsthand. When they arrive, they pray that they might receive the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them. They had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 8:15–16).

This is a second work of grace. They have already been baptized in water, but here we have a laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit. These are two separate works of God, and there is time and space—and also ­planning—between the two blessings. Now we have already seen several times in Acts where the Holy Spirit seems to come down spontaneously on new believers. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down in this way. We see this kind of spontaneous outpouring in Acts 2, 8, and 10, where the Holy Spirit comes with no apparent human instrumentality. There was no gap in time. People come to the Lord and they are immediately filled with the Holy Spirit.

At other times there is a clear gap between the two blessings of God. In fact, right in the book of Acts the church develops two separates liturgies, or formal actions, which distinguish these two works of grace. The entrance into the faith is marked by baptism with water. The second work of grace is marked by the laying on of hands. Repeatedly in the book of Acts, the apostles or Paul or other leaders lay hands on people to receive the Holy Spirit.

We have largely lost this wonderful heritage from the New Testament. We have retained the baptism of water, but we have not always retained the practice of the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit. The closest we see this today is when people lay hands on someone to be healed, or to be commissioned for special service. In Acts 8, Philip evangelizes the people of Samaria and baptizes them in water. Later on, Peter and John come down and lay hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit. This is a very important sequence which we should not forget. My point is that receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit sometimes happens spontaneously according to God’s work. Other times, it happens later after some planning and further instruction.

I have gently chided those parts of the church who deny that there even is a second work of grace, but let me also chide our own tradition a bit. One of our problems is that we sometimes think that the only way the Holy Spirit comes upon us is at a “crisis” event when we come to the altar. We might think that if we have a problem in our lives, or some bondage, or a sin, then at some point we need to come forward and have people pray for us.

Now, as we have said, we all need those moments at the altar where God moves in a powerful way in our lives. But, that should never be confused with a process whereby you submit to an accountability group and you commit that particular problem to God over time. Sometimes God delivers us dramatically and powerfully through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At other times, he works his grace in us by the Holy Spirit over a period of time as we consecrate ourselves to him and learn to submit to him daily in the area where we are struggling. Sometimes our problems are resolved at the altar; sometimes we have struggles which last for decades and we have to continually submit them to the Lord on a daily basis. There is an important role for Christian counselors. And it is certainly advisable for all Christians to be part of some kind of accountability group. You might even consider the counseling session, or the accountability group as another kind of altar. It is not the “crisis” altar, but the “process” altar, and God honors both of them.

Christians love to recount the story of Moses at the burning bush. Now that is a crisis event. We all want this, but Moses also spent forty years in the desert of Sinai being purged and prepared for his ministry. We don’t talk about that very much. The apostle Paul had a crisis event on the road to Damascus. We have all heard sermons on that. But, rarely do we talk about Paul spending three years in Arabia in the desert before he came back and began his apostolic ministry.

You see, we have to understand that crisis and process are both important for good Christian maturity. We need both the crisis events and the ongoing process. This is why the Holy Spirit is compared to both fire and water. Fire is often used to symbolize quick and dramatic action. Water often symbolizes the slow moving, but powerful force of the Holy Spirit over a long time as he courses his way through our lives. Never confuse the road to Damascus with the deserts of Arabia, or the burning bush with the deserts of Sinai. Jesus Christ had a crisis experience, if there ever was one, at the Jordan River where the Father himself spoke from the sky, and the Spirit himself descended upon him. But then he was sent out into the wilderness to be tempted and prepared for ministry.

After Peter and John encounter the revival breaking out in Samaria, they return to Jerusalem as changed people. This is one of the consistent themes in the book of Acts. God keeps surprising us with his work. Here are the very people that had walked with Jesus, and seen the resurrection and the ascension of Christ. Yet, even they probably felt that they were now seeing the world in color, not just black and white. They left Jerusalem thinking that the gospel was only for the Jews, but they are beginning to realize that God is doing a work far wider and broader than they could have imagined. They are realizing that Jesus is the Lord of the whole world, the desire of every nation.

Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, The Spirit-Filled Life. In its pages, Tennent studies acts of the Spirit in the Old and New Testament, historic conversion stories, as well as modern examples from around the world, exploring the three great channels through which the Holy Spirit works in our lives:

  • power for global witness
  • holiness for sanctified purity
  • discernment for faithful living

Are you ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Pentecost wasn’t just a one-time event but is an ongoing process—the knot that ties the church to its holy, empowered mission in the world.

Are you looking for the fire of God to fall upon your life? Be ready. You, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit, and it will change your life and the life of your church forever.

Get it from our store here.

[WATCH] What Happened at Pentecost Must Always Happen in the Church by Steve Seamands; [WATCH] The Meaning of Acts 2 and Pentecost by Craig Keener; [WATCH] John Wesley and Spirit Baptism by Laurence Wood.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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