Filled with the Spirit
But be filled with the Spirit. Eph. 5:18
What does being filled with the Spirit look like? Well, notice that in these verses, the apostle has been contrasting two types of people: don’t be fools but be wise (16); don’t be unwise but understand God’s will (17); here, don’t be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit (18). What we shouldn’t take from this is that being Spirit-filled and being drunk are similar. They are as similar as wisdom and folly. They are very different, not only in their effects but also in their very nature. Lloyd-Jones, speaking both as a pastor and a physician, reminds us that “wine . . . pharmacologically speaking is not a stimulant; it is a depressant. Take up any book on pharmacology and look up ‘alcohol’, and you will find, always, that it is classified among the depressants. It is not a stimulus. . . . What alcohol does is this; it knocks out those higher centres, and so the more primitive elements in the brain come up and take control; and a man feels better temporarily. He has lost his sense of fear, and he has lost his discrimination, he has lost his power to assess.” He goes on to say, “That is exactly the opposite of being filled with the Spirit; for what the Spirit does is truly to stimulate. If it were possible to put the Spirit into a text-book of Pharmacology I would put Him under the stimulants, for that is where He belongs.”
What does the Spirit stimulate us towards? Well, notice the contrast the apostle has set up. Drunkenness leads to “excess.” Now the apostle is not here referring merely to the amount of wine in the body. “Excess” is derived from a word which meant “what cannot be saved” and came to refer to debauchery and dissipation. A similar and related word is used with reference to the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, where we read that he “wasted his substance with riotous living” (the word “riotous” is the word which is related to “excess” in Ephesians 5:18). You might say that drunkenness leads to the lifestyle of the Prodigal Son.
It is this to which being filled with the Spirit is contrasted. A Spirit-filled person does not lead a life of debauchery; instead, he or she lives a life of devotion to God. Thus, when the apostle speaks of those who are led by the Spirit, he speaks in terms of mortifying the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13). To the Galatians, he writes, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). To be Spirit-filled, then, is not to be determined by an experience of supernatural ecstasy but rather by the measure to which a person has put to death the old lifestyle of sin. After all, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance . . . And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-25). Biblical spirituality is not measured by gifts so much as by godliness. Here we see why being filled with the Spirit is connected to wisdom, for as we have already noted, there is a moral dimension to wisdom. Sin blinds our eyes to truth and to wisdom. It is only as we pursue holiness that we will grow in wisdom, but we can only grow in holiness as we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul says that we are to be filled with the Spirit, rather than being filled by wine and therefore drunk. Hodge notes that we “are said to be filled with wine when completely under its influence; so they are said to be filled with the Spirit when he controls all their thoughts, feelings, words, and actions.” But we should not mistake this with a lack of self-control; after all, the fruit of the Spirit is temperance, or self-control! The Spirit-filled person ought to be the most self-controlled person out there. Rather, being under the influence of the Spirit means that we share his aims and goals and desires, so that God’s glory becomes our aim and supreme desire. It is the exact opposite of the life of the Prodigal Son, who went and wasted his life on profligate and riotous living, who gave his flesh full reign and let his passions rule. The Christian ought never to be like that. That is part of the past; we have not so learned Christ.
We should not pass on this point without noting the element of mystery that is essential to the life of every Christian. What do I mean? Here the apostle has given a command: be filled with the Spirit. This is something we are to do. And yet it has to do with the sovereign Spirit. He is not talking about harnessing some impersonal force, but rather being filled by the blessed influence of that Divine Person who is the Holy Spirit. But he is not a dog to be put on a leash; he is God to be worshiped and feared and loved and obeyed. So then how is it appropriate to be told to go out and be filled with the Spirit?
It is appropriate because it is simply a consequence of walking by faith in Christ. Our Lord is the preeminent example of one who was filled with the Spirit (cf. Luke 4:1). The Spirit that we receive is the Spirit of Christ (Jn. 14-16), and as we live by faith we walk by the Spirit. Notice that in the Galatians passage the apostle passes without even pausing between walking in the Spirit to “they that are Christ’s” back to walking in the Spirit. Belonging to Christ manifests itself in walking in the Spirit. We therefore are filled by the Spirit as we most fully abide in Christ (cf. John 15:1-5).
But even though this is a command that we are to obey, we should not miss the important implication that we cannot take one step spiritually apart from the Holy Spirit. That is why we must be filled with the Spirit. It is as the Spirit fills us and rules us that we are empowered to live a life of obedience and fruitfulness. We must be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man (Eph. 3:16). This should remind us of two things: first, that we are helpless without the Spirit and therefore to recognize that there is no room for pride in the Christian life; and second, that we who belong to Christ are never powerless in the face of the remaining corruption that lies within because we can be filled with the Spirit who empowers us to conquer the sin that so easily besets us. The believer is not fighting sin in his or her own strength; they fight in the strength that God provides, and that ought to give us great encouragement. In other words, we believe a lie when we are led to think that sin can have dominion over those who are in Christ. As the apostle John put it, we have the victory: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:4-5).
This is why it is folly to equate Christianity with some ethical system or to think that we win the world by making them do the right things. No one can live the kind of life the apostle is setting before us apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. And we cannot have the Spirit apart from Christ. That is why, if your heart is drawn towards what the apostle is describing here, the first thing you need to do is not to clean yourself up, but to believe on Christ, to trust in him and to commit yourself to him fully as your Savior and your King.