Holy Spirit Terminology

Scott Crocker

Much of the confusion that results when referring to issues regarding the Holy Spirit could be eliminated if we all had a correct, workable understanding of biblical terms pertaining to the Holy Spirit. Some of the terms frequently misunderstood are: the “baptism of the Spirit” — or “Holy Spirit baptism” — “filling of the Spirit” and “gifts of the Spirit.” An improper understanding of these terms can lead to confusion, misunderstandings and misrepresentations.


The baptism of the Holy Spirit is the act by which the Holy Spirit places someone into the body of Christ.

Though oftentimes confused with the filling of the Spirit, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is an occurrence that has happened in the life of every believer at the point of salvation (1 Corinthians 12:13, Romans 8:9,11). There are some who would argue that salvation and the baptism of the Spirit do not happen simultaneously. At first glance, the argument has some credibility because there are several instances within the book of Acts where that happens. This may lead some to believe that a separate baptism of the Spirit is normative for all Christians today.

However, the book of Acts is more descriptive of a unique time in redemptive history than prescriptive for our Christian experience today. It was written during the transitory period of the early church. Followers of God were transitioning from the Old Testament law to the New Testament commands of Jesus. To assume that everything that happened in the book of Acts is normative for Christians now is not consistent with the teachings of the letters in the New Testament, called “Epistles.” Rather than being a historical account, like the book of Acts, the Epistles deal specifically with doctrine.

The cases in which the Holy Spirit “came upon” individuals, separate from the individuals having received Christ, appear to have occurred among people who had not yet received the full gospel message. It is also notable that each of these instances happened among four distinct groups of people — Jews (Acts 2:1-5), Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48) and John’s disciples (Acts 19:1-7). Respected theologian Millard Erickson explains these instances:

“It is my interpretation that these cases did indeed involve people who were regenerated before they received the Holy Spirit. They were the last of the Old Testament believers. They were regenerate because they believed in the revelation they had received and feared God. They had not received the Spirit, however, for the promise of His coming could not be fulfilled until Jesus had ascended.”4

Furthermore, it is not biblically accurate to use the terms “filling” and “baptism” interchangeably. For instance, 1 Corinthians 12:13 says: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (New American Standard Bible). The word baptized (baptizo) is in the “aorist indicative passive” Greek grammatical construction. It is emphasizing something that has already happened and is a single statement of fact. We are never commanded to be baptized in the Spirit or to seek a baptism in the Spirit, because Scripture tells us we have already been baptized in the Spirit. However, we are commanded to be “filled” with the Spirit.


In Ephesians 5:18 (NIV), we are commanded to “be filled (pleroo) with the Spirit.” Unlike baptism, which is a one-time occurrence (Ephesians 4:5), filling is something that can happen over and over, time and time again. In the Greek language, it is in the present imperative passive tense. This emphasizes a continuous action and is a command. It literally means to keep on being filled.

Unlike the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the filling of the Spirit is not something that is a current reality for all believers in Christ. Though the Spirit of God lives within us, many of us still rely on our own strength to live the Christian life. Being filled with the Spirit means being directed and empowered by Him, not ourselves. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to serve Christ and He produces spiritual fruit in and through us. Just as we become Christians by faith, we are filled with the Spirit by faith.

Subsequent to receiving Christ, an individual may have a very dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit which could be accompanied by a certain spiritual gift manifesting itself. To avoid confusion, though, it is more biblically appropriate to refer to this as a dramatic filling of the Spirit rather than a baptism of the Spirit.

In addition, whether or not one is filled with the Spirit should not be determined based on whether one has spoken in tongues or “felt something.” The filling of the Spirit is not to be validated by an outward display of emotion or certain spiritual gifts, or invalidated by a lack thereof.

We have two reasons to be confident that we are filled with the Spirit — God has commanded it in His Word (Ephesians 5:18) and He has promised to answer anything we ask that is in accordance with His will (1 John 5:14,15). So, in obedience to His command we simply ask Him to fill us with the Holy Spirit and by faith trust that He has granted our request.

In one of the most beautiful chapters in Holy Scripture, the apostle Paul shares important evidence of being filled with the Spirit. After writing about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul begins to transition in 1 Corinthians 12:31 (NIV) by stating, “But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.” He then goes on to explain that we can possess any kind of miraculous gift there is, but if we do not have love, then the gift does not matter (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). He proceeds to talk about the attributes of love and concludes chapter 13 (NIV) with: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” After explaining what true love looks like, Paul then picks up his discussion of spiritual gifts, specifically the gift of speaking in tongues.


Author William McRae defines a spiritual gift as an “ability to function effectively and significantly in a particular service as a member of Christ’s body, the Church.”5

Spiritual gifts are the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in which God demonstrates His power through an individual. In addition, spiritual gifts are for the common good of the body of Christ — they are not for self-gratification (1 Corinthians 12:7). Gifts of the Spirit are given to us so that we can be effective in service to others as we play the unique role within the body of Christ that God has for us (Hebrews 2:4). There are three specific places in Scripture where spiritual gifts are listed: Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, and Ephesians 4. Among the gifts listed in these passages are three distinct groupings of gifts:

  1. Equipping gifts: prophecy, evangelism, pastoring, teaching
  2. Service gifts: administration, exhortation, faith, giving, service, mercy, leadership
  3. Sign gifts: miracles, healing, tongues, interpretation of tongues

Typically, when there are disagreements over spiritual gifts, it involves the sign gifts. There are those that claim that the sign gifts are more important than some of the other gifts. Some even go so far as to claim that if you don’t possess these gifts, then you aren’t a real Christian. Apparently the church at Corinth dealt with this very issue because Paul addresses it in his letter.

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable are treated with special modesty.” (1 Corinthians 12:21-23, NIV).

Paul is saying that we all need each other and that none of the gifts are more important than the others (1 Corinthians 12:4-6) and that we don’t all possess all of the gifts (1 Corinthians 12:27-30). He even claims that God has brought us together so that there would be no division among us, that we would all share concern for one another (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). Isn’t it sad that the very reason that God gave us spiritual gifts is oftentimes neglected because we get caught up with focusing on the gifts themselves?


Galatians 5:22-23 (English Standard Version) says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Just as a branch on an apple tree receives its nourishment from the roots of the tree in order to produce apples, we cannot produce fruit on our own. The fruit of the Spirit is produced in our lives when we abide in Christ (John 15:5).

Frankly, it is impossible to have the fruit of the Spirit produced in our lives when we rely on our own efforts to do it. Things like patience, self-control and kindness do not come naturally to us as sinful human beings. It is by the fruit of the Spirit that Jesus said His followers will be recognized — not whether people display a specific spiritual gift. Jesus even went so far as to say that there will be some who will perform great works in His name, even when they do not know Him personally. Christ emphasized the aspect of a personal relationship with Him — not the outward gifts. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 7:15-23 (NIV):

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

It is clear from Scripture that God desires each fruit of the Spirit to be displayed in our lives. However, this cannot necessarily be said about each of the gifts of the Spirit. First Corinthians 12:11 (NASB) says that the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts “as He wills.” So the true indicator of one’s spiritual maturity is not whether one has a gift of tongues, interpretation or prophecy, but whether that person possesses love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

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