Skip to content

Misconceptions about Being Filled with the Holy Spirit

Misconceptions about Being Filled with the Holy Spirit

What exactly does being “filled with the Holy Spirit” mean and how does it affect my everyday life? How do I know if I am filled or not? Can the Spirit be depleted within me so that I periodically need a refill, and how do I get it?

All these questions and more about the workings of the Holy Spirit swirled about my spiritual life for years. I eventually discovered that I harbored several misconceptions. 

Misconception #1 – Degrees of Fullness     

Some people imagine the in-filling of the Holy Spirit to be like filling up the gas tank of a car. For some followers of Christ the gauge reads “full.” For other less dedicated or less mature Christians, the needle only points half-way or less.

However, in Scripture, there are only two readings: either full or empty. That’s it. Once you invite Jesus into your life by faith you are immediately given the full presence of the Holy Spirit.  The apostle Paul writes, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (Eph 1:13 NIV)

Later in the book of Ephesians, Paul urges all believers to be “filled with the Spirit.” (Eph 5:18) He does not advocate for a partial filling. He doesn’t say that we should pray for more of the Spirit over time. Either you are filled, or you are not.

John MacArthur observes that Paul “…is not commanding empty Christians to acquire something they don't already have. Each of us possesses the entire Holy Spirit from the time we repent and believe.” [1]

Teaching pastor Scott LaPierre writes,

The Holy Spirit is not reserved for Christians who are more mature than others. God is pleased to seal each believer with His Spirit. As a result, you can never have more or less of the Holy Spirit than you have at the moment of conversion. When you’re saved the Holy Spirit indwells you and you receive all of Him.

John the Baptist said, “God does not give the Spirit by measure” (John 3:34).  God isn’t stingy with some and extra generous with others.

The real issue is the release of the already present Spirit to have free reign in our hearts. It isn’t about us having more of Him, but of Him having more of us. [2]

Rather than picturing an image of a gas tank, I prefer the analogy of being pregnant (even though I am a man). As far as I know, there are no degrees of pregnancy. No woman is half pregnant. You’re either fully pregnant or you are not pregnant at all. [3] The baby will certainly grow during the nine months, but the mother’s status doesn’t change during that time. So all Christians have the Spirit living in them fully from the day they accept Christ. Paul puts it this way, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” (Romans 8:9 NKJV)

Even though it is best not to think of the workings of the Spirit in terms of quantity, His influence can certainly vary in intensity. Compare, for instance, Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the Upper Room after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit on the very same disciples on the day of Pentecost. (John 20:22; Acts 2:1-4)

This understanding has significant implication for our prayer life. Instead of praying for more of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we need to pray that we will be more aware of his presence and learn how to listen more attentively to what He has to say. What we need more of is a better understanding of how to relate to Him more effectively so He can use us more completely.

Misconception #2 – Confusion Over What it Means to be “Filled”

Certain individuals are described in the New Testament as being filled with the Spirit not because it was unique to them or because they had more of the Spirit than other Christians but because Bible writers wanted to remind us that any genuine goodness in us comes 100% from the Spirit’s work.

One circumstance when individuals are described as being filled with the Spirit was when reference is made to their Christlike qualities. For instance, when it came time to select deacons who would oversee the distribution of food to the Greek widows, the job qualifications were defined as follows, “Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3 NKJV) After selecting Stephen, he is described as “…a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Good reputation, wisdom, faith, all were supernaturally generated.  

Another occasion when individuals are described as being filled with the Spirit is when they overcame particular challenges, be they physical, mental, or cultural. For example:

The Arrest of Peter and the Apostles – “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8)

The Stoning of Stephen – “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:55

Peter’s Awareness that God Blessed and Accepted Gentiles – “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Acts 10:44-45 NIV) This was a colossal spiritual and cultural leap for Peter, made possible by the Spirit.

Misconception #3 – Not Understanding How the Spirit Works

When the Holy Spirit comes into our life, what does He actually do? Rather than being something vague and mystical, the Holy Spirit, in fact, works by directly affecting the neural networks in the brain. The apostle Paul put his finger on this truth when he wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 2:12 NIV)

Who we are, our character, values, attitudes, motivations, all boil down to a complex, mind-boggling, series of electro-chemical reactions in our grey matter. Thoughts are synapsis firing in certain patterns and sequences. Habits are neural patterns that are repeated so frequently that they become habits. By affecting these patterns and sequences of the brain, the Holy Spirit can impact our lives in a powerful way.

When Jesus healed the woman with a bleeding disorder, He said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” (Luke 8:46 NIV) It is that same power/energy that emanates from the Holy Spirit and influences our thoughts and emotions.

In their book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman from the University of Pennsylvania write,

If you contemplate God long enough, something surprising happens in the brain. Neural functioning begins to change. Different circuits become activated, while others become deactivated. New dendrites are formed, new synaptic connections are made, and the brain becomes more sensitive to subtle realms of experience. Perceptions alter, beliefs begin to change.

Our research team at the University of Pennsylvania has consistently demonstrated that… the more you think about God, the more you will alter the neural circuitry in specific parts of your brain. That is why I say, with the utmost confidence, that God can change your brain. [4]

Ellen White anticipated this research when she wrote, “The brain nerves which communicate with the entire system are the only medium through which Heaven can communicate to man and affect his inmost life.” [5]

She goes on to write, “The divine Spirit works through the faculties and powers given to men.” [6]

I am reminded of a skilled neurosurgeon who carefully touches various areas of the brain with an electrical probe to discover the boundaries of a tumor. With a small current he/she can activate thoughts, muscles, memories, emotions, and other reactions. The Spirit works in a similar way to stimulate existing pathways and lay down new ones. Scripture tells us that His neurological work will:

Bring certain thoughts to remembrance. (John 14:26)  If the Spirit is bringing things to remembrance, they must already be recorded in our brain. The Holy Spirit simply activates that memory to bring it back to our consciousness.

Fill us with joy. (Acts 13:52)

Lead us into truth. (John 14:17)

Teach us. (John 14:26)

Activate hope and peace. (Romans 15:13)

Guide our prayers. (Roman 8:26)

Here is just a partial list of areas of the brain that the Holy Spirit can impact:

Hippocampus. The hippocampus helps preserve and retrieve memories.

Amygdala. The amygdala helps coordinate responses to things in your environment, especially those that trigger an emotional response. This structure plays an important role in fear and anger.

Limbic cortex.. This part impacts mood, motivation, and judgement. [7]

I am saddened when I hear people talk about the workings of the Spirit as if they were entirely mysterious. They point to texts like 2 Timothy 1:14 where we are told that the Spirit “lives in us.” They also talk about each of us being a temple for the Holy Spirit dwell in. (1Cor 3:16-17) Then they say, “No one can know how that happens.”

Just because we do not know everything about the Spirit’s working doesn’t mean we should ignore what we do know. The Bible writers didn’t understand about the human brain and neurons and synapsis but we do. Much is at stake because, the more clearly we understand the Spirit’s working, the better we can cooperate with what He is trying to accomplish.

Misconception #4 – Setting up False Barriers

I have often heard it said that in order for the Holy Spirit to have a greater influence on my life I need to do one or more of the following:

Repent more

Desire the Spirit more

Have more faith

Have a pure heart

The biblical reality is that all of these things are, in fact, gifts from the Holy Spirit Himself. Focusing on the supposed prerequisites only turns our minds inward upon ourselves which is just the opposite of what needs to occur. Instead we can thank the Spirit that He will actively work on our behalf to bestow these gifts upon us. Ellen White reminds us, “You cannot change your heart and make yourself holy. But God promises to all this for you through Christ.” SC 51

Of course, we have to ask and give our consent, but even the desire to submit, pray, and read our Bibles comes from the Spirit. The Spirit of Prophecy offers this wonderful statement:

“You are not able, of yourself, to bring your purposes and desires and inclinations into submission to the will of God, but if you are ‘willing to be made willing,” God will accomplish the work for you.” [8]

It’s all amazing grace ministered to us by the Holy Spirit.

Misconception #5 – What Kind of Power the Spirit Brings

Before His ascension, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIV)

My question is what kind of “power” is Christ talking about? I used to think that when the Holy Spirit came in power, He would turn introverts into extroverts so they could become good spiritual salesmen and frantically accost their neighbors with the gospel and the beasts.

I then thought about what the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: 2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” What matters most, then, is the power of love. That is the greatest gift the Spirit can bestow. He even gives us Spiritual Gifts so we can each love in our own way. (1Cor 12)

The apostle underscores the central focus on Christlike caring in his iconic passage: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23 NKJV)

With that verse and others in mind, I now think of believers as water pipes through which the love of Christ flows, as another alternative to the image of being containers. If we imagine ourselves to be containers for the Holy Spirit, then the focus is placed on purifying ourselves so we can be holy enough to pass muster in the end-time. But becoming a water pipe creates an entirely different mindset. No longer is it only about us but ultimately about uplifting and loving the people within our sphere of influence. Jesus made that clear when He taught,

“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” The verse goes on to say, “But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive.” (John 7:38-39)

Ellen White underscores this theme when she writes, “The indwelling of the Spirit will be shown by the outflowing of heavenly love. The divine fullness will flow through the consecrated human agent, to be given forth to others.” [9]

Misconception #6 – Learning Where to Put My Focus

I was taught that to have more of the Holy Spirit’s influence in my life I needed to think more about the Holy Spirit. I have since learned that that is incorrect. Biblically, in order to have more of the Spirit’s transformative power in my life I need to focus more on Jesus. The apostle Paul put it this way:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory [character], are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2Cor 3:18 NIV)

Paul is telling us that the more we study the life of Christ (His “glory”) the more the Spirit can transform us to be like the Savior. There is, therefore, a direct relationship between the Holy Spirit’s activity and (1) the clarity with which we understand the character of God and (2) the extent to which we let those perceptions flow into our daily lives.   

Christ Himself declared, “He [the Spirit] will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” (John 16:14 NIV) The Spirit’s primary work is to help us understand Christ’s ministry and teachings and change us so we can love like He loved.

That vital truth becomes clear when we compare the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and the New. The Holy Spirit is certainly present in the Old Testament, but those appearances can’t hold a candle to His numerous, high-profile, manifestations in the New Testament. The difference? The life of Christ. The Old Testament understanding of God was like looking at the Grand Canyon through a hole in a wall. In the New Testament, the wall is removed. The more brightly the character God shown upon this world the more active the Spirit could be in opening minds and changing hearts.

The same concept can be seen in what happened during Pentecost in Acts 2. After Christ’s ascension, the disciples and other believers waited ten days for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit. During that time they worshipped, confessed sins, repented, prayed, and put aside differences. [10] When the day of Pentecost finally arrived, the Spirit came upon the 120 gathered in the Upper Room in a profound, and unprecedented way.

Several years ago, I remember at least one seminar that taught that, if modern day disciples would simply gather together for several days and do what the 120 did in the upper room, we too could receive a similar outpouring of the Spirit. I strongly disagree.

There are two things that made Pentecost possible:

(1)  Christ’s sacrifice was accepted by the Father. (Acts 2:33)

(2)  The disciple’s hearts were prepared because of the time they had spent with the Savior. For them, walking with Jesus for over three years was the essential precursor. Seeing Him up close and personal, hearing His teachings, contemplating their puzzling meanings, being blown away by His compassion and grace, having Him rescue them from more than one near-death experience, chatting with the Lord around campfires and during walks from town to town, putting concerns over their own reputations in the trash, being stunned by eye-popping miracles, hugging healed lepers, making friends with people they had been taught to hate, staring up at a horrible cross, feeling like their hopes had been crushed, and being overwhelmed with joy at the impossible sight of the Resurrector raising Himself. All this was a prerequisite, an essential preparation, for the Upper Room and Pentecost. No shortcuts. No programmatic substitutes. No abbreviation of the journey.

No amount of time in prayer will substitute for immersing ourselves in the life of the Savior and learning to be like Him. We should not engage in spiritual practices in order to bring about another Pentecost. It is up to the Spirit how He acts, when He acts, who He acts upon. That needs to be left to Him.

Ellen White writes,

(1)  “There are some who, instead of wisely improving present opportunities, are idly waiting for some special season of spiritual refreshing by which their ability to enlighten others will be greatly increased. They neglect present duties and privileges, and allow their light to burn dim.” [11]

Considering this perspective, it is especially inappropriate for our denomination to pin its hopes on a future outpouring of the Spirit, the latter rain, as an excuse for current ineffectiveness, irrelevance, and neglect.

It is important to note that the conversion of 3,000 people on the day of Pentecost was not primarily the result of evangelistic preaching. It happened because of the countless seeds of caring and kindness that Christ had sown all over the region for 3 ½ years. [12]

Because of the direct relationship between knowing Christ and the activity of the Spirit, I spend most of my study time in the Gospels. I am not a fan of reading the scriptures through each year. I would rather allocate my time according to what I know will impact me and those around me the most. Therefore I spend about 60% of my time studying Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, 20% in the New Testament, and 20% in the Old Testament. That’s just me. Choose your own allocation of study time. But do it for a well thought out reason, not simply force of habit.  

When I was a pastor, I used to preach from the Gospels much of the time. I remember one frustrated member approaching me after the worship service and saying, “Why do you keep focusing on the easy stuff? Don’t you know we’re living in the end-time! You should be talking to us about “meaty” topics like prophecy, and the book of Revelation with its’ time periods, and seals, and trumpets, and beasts, and all that!”

I wondered how he had gotten so mixed up. There is nothing as “meaty” in the Bible as the life of the Savior.

The apostle Paul summarizes what this article is about so well:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:16-19 NIV)

Notes and References:

[1] John MacArthur, “What Does It Mean to be Filled With the Spirit,” Grace to You, 2003.

[2] Scott LaPierre, “What Does (and Doesn’t) Mean to be “Filled With the Spirit?” September 15, 2016,

[3] Elder’s Digest, “Be Filled With the Holy Spirit,” Quarter 1, 2015,

[4] Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain:Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, Ballantine Books, March 29, 2008

[5] Ellen G. White, Counsels to the Church, p. 101

[6] Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1956) 142

[8] Ibid, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, 142  

[9] Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1941) 419

[10] Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911) 35-38

[11] Ibid, 54

[12] Ellen G. White, MS, 1903

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.


Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.