Working with college students for over 22 years affords frequent glimpses into the life of a person influenced by the overconsumption of alcohol. Indeed, interacting with wasted students has practically been the unwritten part of my job description since I began.
I see it all the time, and so do the students I work with. Therefore, it’s relatively easy to explain to someone in college what the apostle Paul means by being filled with the Spirit when he contrasts it with drunkenness. Regardless of whether you’re a student or have ever tasted a sip of alcohol, though, the metaphor shouldn’t be lost on you.
Here’s the command: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). If we’re careful to track what Paul is showing in this dichotomy, it gives us insight into the often-misunderstood meaning of the Spirit-filled life.
Three Steps of Drunkenness
When someone moves from being sober to being drunk, we see three steps: choice, control, and change.
A person makes a choice to consume alcohol. And as he does, he gives control of his life to the influence of the alcohol. Consequently, he is changed in his behavior, his speech, even his thoughts—which Paul tells us is debauchery, or immoral self-indulgence.
We’ve probably all seen the kind of life that flows from the controlling influence of alcohol intake. It usually isn’t pretty.
Paul makes a turn in the second half of verse 18: “but be filled with the Spirit.”
Why would he make this kind of comparison if not to help us understand how a believer can walk in the power of God’s Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit indwells us from the moment we are saved by the redeeming work of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.
A Christian makes a choice to follow the Holy Spirit. When she makes that choice, she submits control of her life to his direction, power, and authority. And as a result, her life is changed to the glory of God.
So instead of the works of the flesh coming to fruition in her life because of immoral self-indulgence (Gal. 5:19–21), we see a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23).
Paul wrote similarly to the Galatians: “Walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16; 5:25). It’s a command given to the church as both an initial instruction and concluding exhortation, highlighting the practicality of a Spirit-filled life amid the repeating encouragements.
The Spirit-filled life isn’t overly complicated or reserved for ‘special’ Christians.
The Spirit-filled life isn’t overly complicated or reserved for “special” Christians who have a secret knowledge of the Holy Spirit.
Rather, it’s a life yielded to the third person of the Trinity. The Spirit glorifies Jesus in our lives and produces in us the kind of fruit that points to him and his goodness. It’s the Spirit’s job to generate his fruit in our lives, and when we make the choice to submit and yield control to him, we are truly changed.
Shelby Abbott is an author, radio host, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with FamilyLife, a ministry of Cru. He has spoken on college campuses across the United States, and is the author of Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress, DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard, and What’s the Point?: Asking the Right Questions about Living Together and Marriage. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. You can find him at shelbyabbott.com or follow him on Twitter.