Reflections by W. Edward Glenny
Professor of New Testament Studies and Greek

One of the gracious works of the Holy Spirit, referred to in our doctrinal statement is the sanctification of believers. There is a sense in which this sanctification takes place the moment we believe (1 Pet. 1:2), but there is also a sense in which this sanctifying work of the Spirit continues throughout our Christian lives, as we are progressively conformed to the image of Christ. Part of the Spirit's sanctifying work in our lives is what Ephesians 5:18 calls "Spirit-filling." Let's take a minute and consider the relationship of Spirit-filling and sanctification in the Christian experience.

Ephesians 5:18 reads, "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit" (NIV). The "Spirit" in this verse is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who was sent by the ascended Christ to indwell those who believe in Him in this age in a way never realized before (Isa. 32:15-17; Joel 2:28-29; Ezek. 36:25-27). Gordon Fee has aptly described the Holy Spirit as "God's empowering presence" in the lives of Christians. All Christians have the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-17), who is the down payment of our final salvation (Eph. 1:13-14). Furthermore, the Spirit's work is not to draw attention to himself, but to testify about Jesus (John 15:26) and bring glory to Him (John 16:14), and one way the Spirit does that is by His sanctifying work in believers.

A second point we should notice in this passage concerns the idea of being filled "with" the Spirit. "With" is the preposition used in most of our modern translations (NIV, ESV, NASB, NRSV), and it is commonly understood to mean that the Spirit is the content with which believers are to be filled. However, the grammatical construction that is used here with the verb "fill" never describes the content of filling elsewhere in the New Testament. It is much more likely that the "Spirit" is the means by which believers are to be filled, rather than the content with which they are to be filled. The parallel clause in the verse, "Be not drunk with wine," confirms this, because in that clause "wine" is the means by which a person gets drunk. Thus, the indwelling Holy Spirit, the empowering presence of God, is the means by which God commands believers in these last days to be filled, not the content of the filling.

What is the content of this Spirit-filling in Ephesians 5:18? The previous clause in Ephesians 5:17 tells us to "understand what the Lord's (i.e., Christ's) will is," connecting the Lord's will with Spirit-filling. However, the content of the filling is seen most clearly in Paul's prayer in Ephesians 3:19 where he prays that the Ephesian believers "be filled up to all the fullness of God." In that verse "the fullness of God" refers to His moral excellence. Believers are filled with God's moral excellence as the Spirit strengthens them in the inner being "so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith" (Eph. 3:16-17). Thus in the process of Spirit-filling the Spirit is the means God uses to make our inner beings a suitable residence for Jesus, so that Jesus might fill us with his will and the character of God. The three results of Spirit-filling, which follow in Ephesians 5:19-21 confirm that the moral excellence of God is the content of the filling ("addressing one another" with words of praise, 5:19; "giving thanks," 5:20; and "submitting to one another," 5:21). Thus the results of the Spirit-filling that Paul commands in Ephesians 5:18 are very similar to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Spirit-filling is not primarily an experience or a feeling. It is not meant to be a temporary occurrence in the life of a believer. It is one aspect of the progressive sanctification process involved in growing to Christian maturity, as God uses the Spirit to help us grow in His will toward godliness and Christ-likeness. It results in praise, thanks, and mutual submission, as well as the other fruit of the Spirit that reflect the fullness of God's character and His moral attributes. In Ephesians 5:18 it is something that is done to or in us by the Spirit ("be filled" is a passive voice verb), and yet we are commanded to allow it to be done. May God strengthen each of us so that we will allow the blessed Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity to have his way in our lives so that we might be filled by the Spirit with godly moral excellence.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16.