Eph. 1:13

In [Christ] you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in Him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13).

Here I would like to comment briefly on the question of the reception of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle says here that the Ephesians received the Holy Spirit, with which they were “marked” as with a seal, when they believed. What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? How does one know that it has happened?

In the Pentecostal circles in which I grew up, one might be asked, “Do you have the Holy Spirit?” Having the Holy Spirit meant having experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a powerful spiritual experience the evidence of which is having spoken in tongues. The implication is that if a person has not had this experience, then she does not have the Holy Spirit. In light of what Paul says in Rom. 8:9 — “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” — this would imply that others who have not had this experience are not (really) Christians. It is also worth noting that Pentecostal experience, although not unheard of throughout the ages, was not characteristic of the lives of most Christians.

In the sacramental traditions of Christianity, such as Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the reception of the Holy Spirit occurs through the mediation of the Church’s sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. There is a reliable system of mediation of the Holy Spirit in place, although this mediation may not always be accompanied by some impressive spiritual experience. But this invites the question of whether the encounter with the Holy Spirit can be so impersonal and mechanical.

Does faith precede the reception of the Holy Spirit or does it follow upon it? One might be inclined to think that the reception of the Holy Spirit must come before faith, in that the Holy Spirit creates faith in the person who receives Him. This might seem to be a necessary consequence of the doctrine of original sin and the fall of humankind as a result of Adam’s sin. On the other hand, Paul’s language here suggests that the reception of the Holy Spirit follows upon faith. The same idea appears, or so it seems, in his Epistle to the Galatians as well (Gal. 3:2).

Is the reception of the Holy Spirit always marked by a profound experience of conversion? Is it necessary to speak in tongues? What of persons who have experienced the conversion but not the tongues? What of persons who have never in their life had a single experience of conversion, but rather have always lived in the struggles of faith, the ups and downs of the spiritual life?

Even more questions can be asked. How does one know what is the Holy Spirit and what is one’s own conscience? Does the Spirit have a unique “voice” which distinguishes Him from the other ideas and voices and impulses which may arise in one’s consciousness? How does one “discern the spirits,” if it should come to that? Why would it come to that, if every Christian has the Spirit and the Spirit teaches them all things, as Christ says (John 14:26)?