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How do I know whether or not i’ve received the Holy Spirit? That question troubled me a lot when I was young. Many of my junior high classmates were involved in the charismatic movement, and they had stories about signs and wonders that made me question whether my own experience of faith was really complete. After all, the New Testament often talks about baptism in the Holy Spirit as a specific event.
How was I supposed to know if it had happened to me? I prayed that God would give me the sort of experience my friends talked of having, and I tried in vain to think of some emotional encounter that I could claim was my moment of being filled with the Spirit, but I never succeeded in convincing myself that it had happened.
When Jesus talks to his disciples about the Holy Spirit in the gospel of John, he speaks of different sorts of evidence for the Spirit’s presence. He says that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). This teaching role of the Spirit recurs throughout the next few chapters. The Spirit will testify to Jesus (15:26). He will correct the world about “sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8). He will guide us “into all the truth” (16:13). Always, the Spirit is working to direct our attention back to Jesus, to strengthen our abiding relationship with Jesus.
By binding us to Jesus, the Spirit makes the work of Jesus come to life in each of us. The redemption won for us in Jesus can only be ours if we are sharing in the life of Jesus, and that is accomplished by the work of the Spirit. Our Scots Confession summarizes His work beautifully:
For by nature we are so dead, blind, and perverse, that neither can we feel when we are pricked, see the light when it shines, nor assent to the will of God when it is revealed, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus quicken that which is dead, remove the darkness from our minds, and bow our stubborn hearts to the obedience of his blessed will. And so, as we confess that God the Father created us when we were not, as his Son our Lord Jesus redeemed us when we were enemies to him, so also do we confess that the Holy Ghost does sanctify and regenerate us, without respect to any merit proceeding from us, be it before or be it after our regeneration.
The question that troubled me when I was young no longer troubles me. I am confident that I have received the Holy Spirit, because I could not have faith in Jesus without the Spirit’s help. I could not even long for the Spirit to be with me unless He had already begun His work of quickening what was dead and removing what was dark.
There is something enticing about having a dramatic experience of being overtaken by the Spirit, but those of us who have not had such experiences don’t need to be worried. Ultimately the question is not what I have experienced but what He has begun to do in me. And now I can identify the moment when that work began: at my baptism.