“And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19:1b-2).
Any preacher or missionary occasionally wonders, “How much good am I doing?” Is my ministry effective? How do I know?” We look at retention rates, church attendance, contribution records, and other objective signs as evidence that our work is successful.
When Paul found believers in Ephesus, he immediately investigated the authenticity of their faith. But he did not do so by interrogating them regarding doctrine or by inspecting their religious performance.
He simply asked them one question: “Is the Spirit of God in you?” That single query revealed their genuine state of affairs.
If the answer had been yes, he would have been confident of their sincere obedience to truth. When they answered “No, we have not even heard that there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit,” then a second question followed, “Into what then were you baptized?” (verse 3). In other words, “What then were you taught? What have you done to express your faith in Christ?”
If Paul’s test of Christian faith was valid for his day, is it not similarly valid today? Though objective measures have some application, they are far from the whole story. Any experienced reader of the Bible will recognize that the first-century Pharisees whom Jesus confronted would have passed those tests easily. Yet he calls them hypocrites and warns them of judgment (Matthew 23). One may come to church, know Biblical teaching, and even give generously without truly partaking of the spirit of Christ.
Some would equate receiving the Spirit exclusively with the possession of miraculous gifts. Undoubtedly, Paul expected Christians of that time to have some of those abilities. But his writings demonstrate that miraculous gifts were only part of the Spirit’s influence in the first century (Galatians 5:16ff; Romans 8:1-16).
Gifts such as speaking in tongues were of limited duration, ceasing soon after the deaths of the apostles (1 Corinthians 13:10). But the Holy Spirit was promised to every Christian, no matter when he or she might live (Acts 2:38-39; 5:32). Those who obey Christ have been given his Spirit.
Peter may be commenting upon this specific gift in the statement, “By which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:4).
One promise is that every obedient believer will receive the Holy Spirit. Peter says that through the promises we become partakers of the divine nature. That is, through the influence of the Spirit we take on the mind and character of God.
This is Paul’s emphasis as well: “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).
If the Holy Spirit dwells in us, the spirit (nature, character) of Jesus will also be in us. If we do not share in his character we do not belong to him — we are not truly Christian.
The fruit of ministry is most clearly seen in such life changes. As hearers are “transformed by the renewing of [their] minds” (Romans 8:2), they cease sinful behavior and take on the new person, “created in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
It is this transformation that is the proof of effective ministry, not mere numbers of baptisms or church plantings.