What is the Gift of the Holy Spirit?

by Bill Boyd

My preacher friends do not agree on the meaning of “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is frustrating because this expression is at the end of the oft-quoted Acts 2:38. The passage is clear that baptism is “for the remission of sins,” but what does the baptized person receive? Whatever it is, it follows baptism, and this has major theological implications. Calvinist-influenced preachers teach that we can do nothing toward our own salvation until the Holy Spirit does a direct operation on our totally depraved hearts, and only then we can believe and be baptized because we are saved. Acts 2:38 is a big problem for them. Most of my preacher friends are not Calvinists, but they still struggle with what this gift is. Several explanations are offered, and I am OK with explanations that are consistent with what the Bible otherwise teaches.

Some contend that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit himself. They associate this with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:9 says, “…ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.” However, those who think the gift of Acts 2:38 is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit do not always agree on what the indwelling of the Spirit is all about. Some think the Spirit literally dwells in our flesh, but they do not know why and they do not know what he does in there; they just like the idea that he is there. Others think this indwelling Spirit is putting things in their minds that they are not getting from the Bible, and that is a problem. Some suggest that the language of Romans 8:9 is the language of fellowship because it also speaks of us being “in the Spirit.” They compare this with the fellowship language Jesus used in reference to his Father in John 17:21. I am content with this being a spiritual indwelling that is accomplished by the word of the Spirit dwelling in our minds (See Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:17-19, and Romans 12:2). However, when it comes to Acts 2:38, these indwelling ideas seem out of context.

When the apostles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, they were able to speak in tongues. Later we learn that the apostles could impart spiritual gifts to others through the laying on of hands. Some think this “gift of the Holy Spirit” is referring to these miraculous gifts. To their credit, the only other place where we read the words “gift of the Holy Spirit” is in Acts 10:45 where it refers to a miraculous gift. However, in Acts 2 the next verse says, “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all them that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). That sounds like “the gift” is “the promise,” and that the promise was to be general and enduring. Miraculous gifts were not general and enduring; so that is a problem.

The simplicity of the next explanation intrigues me. Peter began his sermon with a promise: “…whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). “Whosoever” (Acts 2:21) describes “…you, and your children, and all them that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). That ties the promise at the beginning of the promise at the end of the sermon. Now if “the promise” is salvation, and if “the gift” is the promise, then “the gift” is salvation. That fits the context, it is simple, and it teaches nothing that is not elsewhere taught in the New Testament. An objection is that this makes Peter redundant. Peter had just said to be baptized “for the remission of sins,” so why would he tell them that they would be given the gift of salvation? In response, I suggest that this is not fully redundant; it is expressing different aspects of salvation in different terms. Even if it seems somewhat redundant, such redundancy can add to the force of a teaching. Peter is telling them that if they are baptized for something (the remission of sins), they will receive it (salvation). Besides, salvation is a gift of the Holy Spirit, for by the Spirit we are born again, renewed, sanctified, washed, and justified (John 3:5, Titus 3:5, Romans 15:17, II Thessalonians 2:13, I Corinthians 6:11), and it is in response to the teachings of the Spirit that we are baptized (I Corinthians 12:13).

We may not all be fully settled on what the gift of the Holy Spirit is, but we know that if we are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of our sins then we will be counted among the saved (Acts 2:41, 47), and we are sure that all the spiritual blessings that come with this will be ours (Ephesians 1:3).

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