What Is the “Gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38?
To a multitude assembled on the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter declared:
“Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, ASV).
The identity of “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” as that expression is used in Acts 2:38, has long been a matter of interesting discussion among Christians. Good and respected brothers hold differing viewpoints as to the meaning of the terminology employed in this passage.
Aside from the radical notion that this verse asserts the perpetuity of miraculous gifts throughout the Christian age — an allegation that would conflict with information elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8ff; Eph. 4:8ff) — there is room for honest disagreement among the Lord’s people on this matter, without there being a breach of fellowship.
At the outset, I would like to briefly discuss several concepts that brethren entertain regarding this matter, that I personally believe to be incorrect.
Some argue that the “gift” of the Holy Spirit mentioned in this passage is a reference to salvation from past sins. But this theory appears to gloss the very language of the verse. It seems very clear to this writer that “the gift of the Holy Spirit” is something different from and in consequence of the reception of the forgiveness of sins.
Note the dual use of the conjunction “and” in this context:
“Repent ye, and be baptized … unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
If baptism is different from repentance, should not a similar recognition be given to the distinction between salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Moreover, other passages also suggest that the reception of the Holy Spirit is a blessing given in consequence of salvation.
“And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6).
Some contend that the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38 was the reception of supernatural signs, as bestowed by the apostles’ hands. If such a view is correct, it would seem that a reasonable approach to the passage would suggest that all who were baptized that day (cf. 2:41) received not only forgiveness of sins, but also supernatural gifts, so that literally hundreds of disciples were performing miracles subsequently in the city of Jerusalem.
This view, however, suffers from the lack of any supporting evidence in the book of Acts. There is absolutely no indication, from Acts 2 through chapter 5, that anyone other than the apostles possessed miraculous gifts. Note the following:
“and fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles” (Acts 2:43).
The miracle performed by Peter and John in Acts 3 seems to have been an unusual event; the Jewish leaders commented:
“for that indeed a notable miracle hath been wrought through them, is manifest to all that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it” (Acts 4:16).
There is no hint that multitudes of Christians were duplicating such signs in the city. Again:
“And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. But of the rest durst no man join himself to them; howbeit the people magnified them …” (Acts 5:12-13).
The religious awe with which the multitudes held the apostles suggests they were doing signs not characteristic of the saints generally.
It is only when one comes to Acts 6:6ff that mention is made of the imposition of the apostles’ hands, and the subsequent exercise of miraculous gifts by others (cf. Acts 6:8).
It has been suggested that the terms “gift” (
dorea) and the verb “receive” (
lambano) in Acts 2:38 indicate a miraculous phenomenon, and thus in this context denote the supernatural gifts made available through the laying on of the apostles’ hands.
That such is not a valid observation can be verified easily by the consultation of a Greek concordance. Compare, for example,
dorea in John 4:10 and Romans 5:15,17, and
lambano in John 12:48 and Mark 10:30.
Moreover, the fact is, the most common Greek term for those gifts conveyed by the imposition of apostolic hands is the word
charisma (cf. Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:4,9,28,30,31; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).
It is alleged that Acts 2:38 is parallel with Mark 16:16ff, in that both sections promise salvation and the reception of signs. I personally do not believe that the passages are grammatically or contextually parallel in all respects. Mark 16:16ff contains a general declaration that miraculous gifts would accompany the body of believers, confirming their divinely given testimony.
On the other hand, the persons directly addressed in Acts 2:38 individually were promised both remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It does not seem reasonable that they would have understood the promise to have been unlimited with reference to forgiveness, but limited in regard to the gift of the Spirit.
The Word Only
Other good brethren hold that “the gift of the Holy Spirit” is merely a metaphorical expression suggesting that only the Spirit’s influence, by means of the inspired Word, indwells the Christian. In my opinion, this concept does not adequately explain all of the biblical data on this theme.
A frequent line of argument in support of this position is to assemble two lists of passages that show common effects produced by both the Spirit and the Word. This is, however, the fallacy of analogy. (Compare the typical Oneness Pentecostal argument whereby lists of similar traits relative to the Father and the Son are assembled in an attempt to prove that the two are the same Person.)
The fact that the Holy Spirit uses the Word as his instrument of instruction (Eph. 6:17), does not speak to the issue of whether or not he indwells the child of God.
The “Word only” view seems to fall under the weight of the context of Acts 2 as a whole. For example, in Acts 2:41 Luke records:
“They then that received his word were baptized …”
Peter’s auditors on the day of Pentecost “gladly received his word” (v. 41), hence, the influence of the Spirit through that word, before their baptism. This is evidenced by their question, “What shall we do?” (v. 37), as well as an implied penitent disposition.
Yet the promised gift of the Spirit was given after baptism. Since the Spirit operated on the Pentecostians through the Word prior to their baptism, just what did they receive as a “gift” after their baptism?
The Indwelling Spirit
It is my conviction, as well as that of numerous highly esteemed brethren, that the Holy Spirit, as a “gift,” is bestowed upon the obedient believer (Acts 2:38; 5:32; 1 Cor. 6:19), and is an abiding presence in his life.
Let us consider several facets of this matter.
According to Acts 2:38, the baptized believer is promised “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Is this a gift consisting of the Spirit, or a gift given by the Spirit?
Actually, from a strictly grammatical viewpoint, it could be either. Some, though, have suggested that grammatically the phrase cannot refer to the Spirit as a gift. That simply is not correct.
tou hagiou pneumatos in Greek is in the genitive case. Greek grammar books list more than a dozen uses for the genitive1. It is context, either in its narrower or broader sense, that will determine the thrust of the genitive case in a given circumstance.
The fact of the matter is, almost every Greek authority known to this writer contends that the genitive of Acts 2:38 is epexegetical (appositional), i.e., the Holy Spirit is the gift2. These sources are not cited as theological experts, but as language authorities; the authors obviously did not feel that it is grammatically impossible for the gift to consist of the Spirit himself, as some have alleged.
That “the gift of the Holy Spirit” can be the Spirit himself is demonstrated by a comparison of Acts 10:45 with 10:47, even though the respective contexts reveal that different endowments of the Spirit are under consideration in Acts 2 and 10.
It is probably safe to say that most of the scholars within the restoration heritage have also argued this interpretation of “the gift of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2:38, even when differing on the nature of receiving the Spirit.
J.W. McGarvey3 wrote:
“The expression means the Holy Spirit as a gift, and the reference is to that indwelling of the Holy Spirit by which we bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, and without which we are not of Christ.”
Moses Lard4 commented: “Certainly the gift of the Spirit is the Spirit itself given.”
For further reference we would suggest consulting Goebel Music’s massive work, A Resource and Reference Volume on the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit5. This is a study that no serious New Testament student can afford to ignore on this topic.
The most forceful argument for this view that the “gift” of the Spirit is the Spirit himself, is the subsequent testimony of the New Testament regarding the reception of the Holy Spirit by the believer. Note the following.
The Holy Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
Within the Roman letter, in a context which discusses the indwelling Spirit as a possession of the saints (cf. Rom. 8:9,11,16,26,27), the apostle Paul declares that the Holy Spirit and the human spirit bear dual witness to the fact that we are children of God (v. 16).
Does our spirit actually dwell within us?
Some would suggest that only the Holy Spirit’s influence through the Word is here considered. Notice, though, it is the indwelling Spirit himself who bears testimony with us (see also 8:26).
Compare the language of John 4:2 where it is stated that while the Lord representatively baptized disciples, he “himself baptized not.” There is a difference between what one does himself and what he accomplishes through an agent
Our body, the temple of the Holy Spirit
Paul inquired of the Corinthian saints:
“Or know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and ye are not your own; for ye were bought with a price: glorify God therefore in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19).
The Greek word for “temple” is
naos, and it is an allusion to that holy sanctuary of the Mosaic economy wherein God actually made his presence known (cf. Ex. 25:22).
Here is an interesting question. If the Holy Spirit bears a relationship to men today only “through the Word,” and yet, admittedly, he influences the alien sinner through the Word, would it be proper to suggest that the sinner’s body is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” to whatever extent he is affected by the Word?
Christians made to drink of one Spirit
Consider 1 Corinthians 12:13.
“For in one Spirit [i.e., the Spirit’s operation by means of the gospel] were we all baptized into one body … and [an additional thought] were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
What is the difference in the Spirit’s relationship to us before baptism and after baptism? In Paul’s dual references to the Spirit in this passage, is he suggesting the identical concept in both statements?
The Holy Spirit sent into our hearts
In Galatians 4:6, the Spirit is said to be sent into our hearts because we are (i.e., in consequence of being) sons of God. Would not this suggest a relationship that is different from the mere influence of the Word, since the sinner has the leading of the Word before he becomes a child of God?
The “earnest” of the Spirit promised to Christians only
If the relationship of the Holy Spirit is exactly the same to both sinner and saint (i.e., only through the Word), can it be affirmed that the sinner, to whatever extent that he is influenced by the Word, has the “earnest of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; cf. Eph. 1:13,14)? Do not these passages, and those above, set forth a precious promise that is exclusively confined to the Christian?
Points to Consider
Sincere respected brethren believe that there are strong arguments that negate the idea that the Spirit personally indwells the child of God. We will consider several of these.
Is the Spirit divided?
It is argued that if the Holy Spirit actually dwelt in all Christians, he would be divided. If we may kindly say so, this constitutes a rather materialistic view of deity.
The fact of the matter is, the apostles of Christ were filled with the Spirit of God (Acts 2:4), and yet, the Spirit was still one (cf. 1 Cor. 12:9).
It is countered, though, that the Holy Spirit did not actually dwell in the apostles. Rather, it is alleged, the Spirit was only with them in the sense that they were miraculously endowed with divine power.
However, it must be noted that the apostles had the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit before the day of Pentecost (cf. Mt 10:8; 12:28). This is obviously what the Lord had in mind when he affirmed that the Spirit was “with” (
para) those disciples; yet additionally, the Savior promised, “he shall be in (
en) you” (Jn. 14:17).
In view of this passage, how can it possibly be argued that the Holy Spirit cannot be in a person?
Would the indwelling of the Spirit make one deity?
It has been suggested that if the Holy Spirit actually dwelt in someone that would be a form of “incarnation,” hence, the person would be deity. This is an erroneous assumption. The Spirit was in the apostles (Acts 2:4), but they were not deity. Peter refused to be worshipped as though he was a divine being (Acts 10:26).
In an incarnation, deity becomes flesh (cf. Jn. 1:14), but such is not the case when the Spirit simply indwells the believer’s body. When God called to Moses “out of the midst” of a bush (Ex. 3:4), that did not imply that the bush was divine.
Does the indwelling Spirit demand miraculous powers?
Others would contend that if the Holy Spirit personally dwells in the Christian then he would be able to perform miracles. The connection is unwarranted. John the Baptist performed no miracles (Jn. 10:41), and yet he was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Lk. 1:15).
Incidentally, the preposition “from” in this passage is the Greek term
ek meaning from the inside to the outside, thus suggesting that John was filled with the Spirit even while in his mother’s womb. This certainly excludes the notion that the Holy Spirit can dwell in one only through the agency of the Word.
What about the Samaritans?
It is further argued that even though the Samaritans had been baptized (Acts 8:12), they had not received the Holy Spirit (8:16), hence, there is no indwelling of the Spirit at the point of baptism.
This assertion, however, overlooks a very important phrase in verse 16. The text states:
“for as yet it was fallen upon none of them: only they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Why did not the sentence conclude with the words, “as yet it was fallen upon none of them” if absolutely no reception of the Spirit was being affirmed? Certainly such would have been sufficient to complete that thought.
Rather, a qualifying clause is added: “only (
monon de — literally, ‘but only’) they had been baptized …” Thus, the sense likely is: “for as yet it had fallen upon none of them: but only (in the manner bestowed when) they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.”
This compares well with the promise of the Spirit at the time of one’s baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38).
Concerning Acts 8:16, McGarvey6 notes:
“previous to the arrival of Peter and John the Holy Spirit had fallen with its miraculous powers on none of the Samaritans.”
God and Christ indwelling the Christian
It is contended that both God and Christ are said to dwell in us, though they do not actually inhabit our bodies. So, similarly, is the case with the Spirit.
However, we are expressly told that God dwells in us by means of the Spirit. Paul says the Ephesians were “a habitation of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22), and John affirms, “we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us” (1 Jn. 3:24; cf. 4:13).
Benefits of the Spirit’s Indwelling
There are residual benefits to acknowledging the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. Let us consider a couple of these.
The Confident Life
Every child of God is painfully aware of his inability to live perfectly before his Creator (cf. Rom. 7:14ff). Frequently, we have deep spiritual needs of which we are not even aware. We ought not to despair, however, for:
“the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought, but the SpirIt himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26).
There are several important truths affirmed in this passage:
- We have needs which we do not adequately know how to address.
- In this regard, the Spirit continually helps us (literally, constantly bears the load with us).
- This assistance he “himself” (personally) provides.
- He takes our unutterable groanings and, by his ongoing intercessory activity, conveys our needs to the Father.
- God, who searches the hearts (where the Spirit abides — Gal. 4:6), perceives the “mind of the Spirit’” — and responds to our needs consistent with his own will (cf. Rom. 8:27).
What a thrilling concept of the Spirit’s activity in our lives. Moses Lard has a wonderful discussion on this passage in his Commentary on Romans7.
The Greek world into which Christianity was born tended to deprecate the human body. There was a proverbial saying, “The body is a tomb.” Epictetus said, “I am a poor soul shackled to a corpse.”
That concept accommodated a fleshly mode of living. Since only the soul was important, and not the body, one could give himself wantonly to the indulgences of the flesh.
It is this factor that certainly lies behind Paul’s rebuke of carnal indulgence in the church at Corinth. The body is not to be given over to fornication (1 Cor. 6:13ff). One of the apostle’s effective arguments for the sanctity of the Christian’s body is that the Holy Spirit indwells that body as the temple of God, hence, those saints were to glorify the Father in their bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
We are confident that an awareness of the Spirit’s abiding presence can be a powerful motivation to godly living. J.D. Thomas8 has noted that the doctrine
“of the personal indwelling of the Spirit and a strong providential activity aids our own spiritual development towards its highest potential. Though the age of miracles is over, spiritual relationships and spiritual activities are not over! The awareness that the third member of the Godhead personally and actually dwells within us is a tremendous incentive to holiness.”
In affirming that the Holy SpirIt dwells within the child of God, one need not suggest
- that miracles are performed today,
- that the Spirit “guides” or “illuminates” us in some way apart
from the Scriptures,
- that he operates directly upon the saint’s heart.
The fact of the Spirit’s indwelling is a different issue altogether from the various modes of his operation as such were effected in the apostolic age.
A word of caution would appear to be in order as to the manner in which this controversy is addressed in our speaking and writing. Though most Christians acknowledge that this particular issue is not a matter of “fellowship,” some, when addressing viewpoints that differ from their own, do so in a very condescending and caustic fashion. We do not believe that such a disposition is in the interest of candid investigation. Let us approach subjects of this type with a spirit of mutual respect and kindly accord.
1 J. Harold Greenlee, A Concise Exegetical Grammar of New Testament Greek, Eerdmans, 1963, pp. 28-31.
2 Cf. the lexicons of: Arndt & Gingrich, 209; Thayer, 161; Robinson, 196; also the works of Kittel, II, 167; Vine, 147; Robertson, Word Pictures, III, 36; Moulton, Howard, Turner, Grammar, III, 214; Expositor’s Greek Testament II, 91.
3 McGarvey, J.W., New Commentary on Acts, I, p. 39.
4 Lard’s Quarterly, II, p. 104; cf. also Lipscomb and Sewell, Questions Answered, p. 318.
5 Colleyville, TX: Gobel Music Publications, 2000.
6 Ibid. p. 142, emphasis added.
7 pp. 276-278.
8 The Spirit and Spirituallty, Biblical Research Press, 1962, p. 52.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.