Biblical Ethics in Acts: A Pentecostal Perspective

Introduction32165 Holy Spirit

         Much has been written on the subject of biblical ethics, even as it pertains to the book of Acts.  Is another article really necessary?  This author would argue the affirmative!  In spite of the abundance of excellent information available, there is a noticeable dearth of understanding as to how the Holy Spirit enables one to live daily in accordance with solid, biblical principals. 

This article seeks to examine how the Acts account of the working of the Holy Spirit plays out in the Christian ethics of the modern-day believer; that is, how the Holy Spirit's influence can lead to ethical conduct.  The premise is, of course, that the Acts account provides the basis and proves the need for a Pentecostal experience in our times.  Consideration will be given to the indwelling, baptism, fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit as they relate to ethical living today--a level of moral conduct not only desirable but fully possible.  Scriptures cited are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated.

The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit:  Does it make one morally perfect? 

            God, in His infinite mercy, has created humankind to enjoy a unique relationship with Him.  He chose to bestow on humanity His Divine image (Imago Dei), thus establishing a singular distinction.  Amidst all other creation, only humans were made to enter into a personal relationship with Him and to reflect his ethical nature.  Humankind was given the awesome responsibility to imitate God (Imitatio Dei).  As the Old Testament accounts bear out, God initiated covenant after covenant with humans with the same repeated results--failure on the part of sinful humanity to live up to the divine standard.

Redemption, with its accompanying indwelling of the Holy Spirit, marks the turning point in humankind's striving to fulfill God's command to be holy as He is Holy (Lev. 11:44).  Although human weaknesses continue to surface at times, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit gives believers another comforter (Paracletos) to come alongside (John 14:16, 17).  The perfect Holy Spirit can now be in communion with imperfect humanity.  To the degree that redeemed humankind is willing to submit to the Holy Spirit, ever-greater moral and ethical perfection becomes possible.

 The Baptism in the Holy Spirit:  What is the ethical significance of speaking in tongues? 

    Beyond the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes with receiving Jesus Christ as Savior, there is another experience called the infilling or baptism in the Holy Spirit  (Acts 19:2).  The book of Acts cites five instances where converts received the baptism in the Holy Spirit--2:4; 4:31; 8:17; 10:44; and 19:6.  In three of these accounts, Luke clearly states that this experience was evidenced by speaking in tongues.

The remaining two occasions lead one to believe something extraordinary occurred.  The Pentecostal assumption is that those believers, too, spoke in tongues as the initial physical evidence of having received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

     The book of Acts makes it very clear that the primary purpose of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is to empower believers to become worldwide witnesses (Acts 1:8).  This witness entails ethical example as well as verbal proclamation (kerygma).  The empowerment by the Holy Spirit to become witnesses includes a supernatural enablement to live a life that exemplifies Jesus Christ.  Does this mean all Pentecostals are perfect examples of ethical living? 
Unfortunately it does not.  The reality, however, is that the divine resources are available to believers. Thankfully, many do seek to allow the Holy Spirit to work through their lives in order that they may become examples of Christ to a world so in need of ethical purity. 

            Speaking in tongues is, in itself, a purifying experience.  Subsequent to tongues as the initial physical evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, there is an ongoing personal experience of praying to and worshiping God in tongues.  The Apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthian church to correct the misuse of tongues went on to say, "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all" (1 Cor. 14:18).  Praying to God in tongues allows one total freedom from vocabulary restrictions as the Holy Spirit prays in a language, sometimes heavenly, but always unknown to the speaker.

This draws one closer to Holy God, resulting in a cleansing effect on the believer.  Personal pride is set-aside as one experiences more of God's presence and less of self.  Needless to say, this humbling yet uplifting experience affects every aspect of one's life and character.  God's command to be holy now includes the power to do so!

 The Fruit of the Holy Spirit:  What is the ethical significance? 

            The baptism in the Holy Spirit encompasses much more than speaking in tongues. Having one's spiritual roots firmly in Christ, the Pentecostal believer is expected to bear fruit (John 15:5).  Paul's writing to the Galatian church states, "This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).   He goes on to list the acts of the sinful nature as " . . .sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like" (Gal. 5:19-21 NIV).   In contrast to such unethical living, the baptism in the Holy Spirit manifests itself in moral and ethical integrity:  "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV).  Paul challenges the believer, "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25).          

    Although Luke's writing in Acts was more general in its treatment of the fruit of the Spirit, he did give examples of how the Pentecostal experience manifests itself in ethical conduct.  Three thousand new converts responded to Peter's message on the day of Pentecost and then demonstrated uncommon faith and goodness by selling their possessions and sharing with those in need (2:41-47).  After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in chapter 4, verse 31, the fruit of the Spirit was seen as the believers "had all things in common" (verse 32).  Stephen, "a man full of faith and the Holy Ghost, . . ." died a martyr's death in such a way that those present "saw his face as it had been the face of an angel" (6:5, 15), thus demonstrating faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  The church at Antioch expressed godly love (agape) by sending relief to the poor in Jerusalem (11:27-30).  Last but not least, Paul, the persecutor of the Christians, was miraculously converted and exemplified the fruit of the Holy Spirit through his loving, caring missionary outreach, second only to that of Jesus Christ (9:1-31; 20:24).  Further in-depth study of the book of Acts will reveal an abundance of examples of the fruit of the Spirit operating in the lives of Pentecostal believers who fleshed out their beliefs through ethical behavior.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit:  What is their ethical significance?

        Not to be confused with the gift (infilling) of the Holy Spirit, the gifts (plural) of the Holy Spirit have been given to the church body for ethical and spiritual edification (1 Cor. 14:12, 26).  There are nine gifts listed in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:  (1) word of wisdom, (2) word of knowledge, (3) faith, (4) gifts of healing, (5) working of miracles, (6) prophecy, (7) discerning of spirits, (8) divers kinds of tongues, and (9) interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10).  The ethical significance of these gifts is evident throughout the book of Acts.  Some examples are as follows:
 
Word of Wisdom

    Acts 20:23-24 – Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to continue on to Jerusalem, in spite of the personal suffering he knew it would bring.  He acted out of a desire to please God and fulfill His plan for his life in order that others might know Christ as Savior and experience a changed life. 

Word of Knowledge

    Acts 17:16-34 – The Holy Spirit gave Paul supernatural understanding of the spiritual condition and needs of the people at Athens, guiding him to contextualize the message of salvation by relating it to their unknown god.  Some believed and experienced life-changing results.

Faith

    Acts 10:9-48 – Peter received a vision from God that caused him to act by faith and preach to Gentiles.  Contrary to popular belief by the Jews that they had exclusive rights to God's blessings, Gentiles were converted and baptized in the Holy Spirit.  Their lives often became examples of ethical purity.                                                            

Gifts Of Healing

    Acts 3:6 – Peter and John were instruments of the Holy Spirit in the healing of the lame beggar at the gate of the temple.  Many who witnessed this event were converted to Christ, and their lives were transformed. 

Working Of Miracles

    Acts 5:12-14 – "And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; . . ."  Verse 14 says, "And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women."

Prophecy

    Acts 1:8 – The power of Pentecost was foretold, and lives around the world have continually been transformed ever since.

Discerning of Spirits

    Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter about money received from the sale of property, but Peter knew an evil spirit had entered them.  They both died immediately according to Peter's prophetic word.  As a result, multitudes accepted Christ as their savior and became ethical citizens.  

 Diverse Kinds of Tongues & Interpretation of Tongues

    Acts 2 – The one hundred and twenty believers Interpretation of tongues gathered in the upper room were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, in this case understood by many nationalities (at least 15 different language groups present).  Peter interpreted what had happened, and three thousand turned from their wicked ways, were baptized, and continued in their newly found, ethical way of life.            

    Many other examples of supernatural power and gifts of the Holy Spirit are evident in the book of Acts.  The previous examples are just a few which serve to illustrate the relationship between the gifts of the Holy Spirit in human hearts and ethical living.

Conclusion

       In the book of Acts, we have seen examples of how the biblical ethics effected change in humankind.  Through the indwelling, baptism, fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit, lives were transformed, and the ungodly society of that day got to see firsthand evidence of genuinely ethical conduct.  This same power that was at work in the First Century Church continues to enable Pentecostal believers today to rise to their spiritual and ethical potential.  To the extent that we allow Him, the Holy Spirit is empowering Pentecostal believers to imitate God the Father and God the Son before an unholy world!

About the Author

         R. Eugene Hunt is a full-time professor with Facultad de Teologia (Assemblies of God Latin America Theological Seminary) and teaches biblical ethics.  He and his wife, Carolyn, have served more than 30 years as Assemblies of God foreign missionary educators in Spanish-speaking Latin America and the Caribbean.