There is a common teaching in evangelical circles that a person receives the Holy Spirit the very first moment they believe in Christ. Many have never questioned this belief. But when asked for a verse that teaches such a doctrine, Ephesians 1:13 is usually the first mentioned. I am sure there are others, but this verse is the strongest proof text I know of for the doctrine. So let’s briefly consider what it is teaching.
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,
Many think that this verse teaches that the moment one believes they automatically receive the Holy Spirit. But actually it does not, as other verses show.
If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
In this verse Peter says the Apostles received the Holy Spirit “when they believed.” But we know that though they believed in the Gospels, they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost. So the term “when we believe” does not mean the moment we believed, but as a result of our faith.
Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Jesus taught that the disciples believed in John 7, but did not yet have the Spirit. Let’s consider this example. If I said my father gave me a car when I got married, it probably doesn’t mean that the moment the pastor declared me and my wife married, my dad handed me keys to a car. It just means the gift was connected to my wedding. It doesn’t even have to mean on that same day. Could be after the honeymoon or any time directly connected with the season of my getting married.
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inlanda country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
We first quoted Ephesians 1:13. Now we look at the beginning of the Ephesian church and we see that Paul did not assume the “disciples” had received the Spirit “when they believed.” And not until after baptism did they receive the Spirit.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke and Acts were both written by Luke. He testifies that he attempted to be historically accurate. We can assume that the inspiration of the Spirit ensured that his doctrine is accurate. I mention this because some say that we cannot learn theology from Luke because he was just describing what happened. But under inspiration he says he wrote accurately, so we can trust that what he wrote happened. It should also be mentioned that he travelled with Paul and would not be unaware of Paul’s theology. So when he shares theological comments by Paul or others, we can also trust it accurately describes what they said.
So, what is the conclusion? Ephesians 1:13 cannot be used to conclusively teach the doctrine that people automatically receive the Holy Spirit the exact moment they first believe. To be sure, it could be read that way, but it can also be read to mean the gift of the Holy Spirit was given as a result of their faith. This would fit well with Paul’s argument throughout the first few chapters of Ephesians that we are reconciled to God through faith, not by the works of Moses’ Law. We see Peter talk about the Apostles receiving the Spirit “when” they believed, and know for sure it did not mean the very first moment they believed. We also see that Paul did not assume someone who believed has received the Spirit automatically (in Acts 19). And since he was the one writing the letter to the Ephesians and Acts 19 is about the first Ephesian disciples, we must conclude that Ephesian 1:13 means they received the Spirit as a result of their faith, unless we find other passages clearly teaching the automatic reception of the Holy Spirit at the first moment of faith. I am not aware of any such verses.