Sealed with the Holy Spirit
The apostle Paul speaks in three places in his letters about being sealed with the Holy Spirit: 2 Cor. 1:22, Eph. 1:13, and 4:30. When we take a closer look at the first and the last text we see how the apostle makes a clear connection between the Spirit as “arrabon,” that is, as earnest or pledge, and the Spirit as “seal.” The term “pledge” is put on one and the same level as “seal.” The Spirit seals the believers who have received the Holy Spirit as pledge, as an earnest deposit, as first payment. What does that mean?
When we compare the texts that speak about being sealed with the Spirit, two things come to our attention.
In the first place, Paul makes a very close connection between the sealing with the Spirit and Jesus Christ. He writes in Eph. 1:13, “In him [i.e., in Christ] you also, when you … believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” This points us again to the close bond between the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. There is no power from the Holy Spirit except through Jesus Christ, and likewise you have no part in Jesus Christ but through the Holy Spirit. This holds true also for being sealed with the Spirit. We may not separate this seal from Christ.
In the second place, this seal cannot be disconnected from faith. The sealing happened, writes Paul to the Ephesians, when you believed. From an objective point of view, this seal cannot be disengaged from Christ, and from a subjective angle, neither can it be separated from faith.
Many Bible commentators have made a connection between the seal of the Spirit and baptism. In the early church, Christian baptism was described as a seal (cf. 2 Clem. 7, 8; Herm. Sim. VII, 63; IX, 16.3; 17.4). It is clear that behind the metaphoric use of the words “seal” and “sealing” lies a representation of an identification mark, a brand, stamp, or carving that slaves received to mark them as property (Fitzer, 1964:947). Such a seal was meant as protection against theft or misappropriation. J.C. Coetzee also adds the idea of safety and protection. In this connection he points to the verb “to seal” in Rom. 15:28, where Paul writes about the material goods, the collection that had been gathered (or, “sealed to them this fruit”; see ESV footnote) and that now needed to be brought safely to its destination (Coetzee, 1984:250). H.N. Ridderbos adds yet another element to the concept of sealing when he points out that this also deals with the power of the Holy Spirit (1966:466). The fact that the Holy Spirit is himself the seal becomes apparent in the life of Jesus. The Father has set his seal on him (John 6:27). This happened at the baptism with the Spirit at the Jordan (John 1:33). Precisely this seal of the Spirit is the hallmark that Jesus is the one who is sent by the Father. Jesus as the Bearer of the Spirit also seals all those who are his with the same Spirit. The possession of the Spirit as a seal is for the believers the pledge, the guarantee, the certainty that they are God’s children.
A question that has generated much discussion concerns the timing of this sealing. There were already different opinions about this at the time of the “Nadere Reformation”. [Trl. note: a period of Dutch church history in the 17th century that saw more emphasis being placed on experiences of the soul.] Theologians of the Nadere Reformation made a distinction between regeneration and the sealing with the Holy Spirit. The latter is seen as a separate act of God beside regeneration and faith. A further differentiation was even made between a direct and an indirect sealing by the Holy Spirit (cf. de Boer, 1968:24, 25). In Pentecostal circles as well as in the Charismatic movement, the sealing of the Spirit, as a second act of God after repentance, is equated with the baptism with the Holy Spirit. Also with the Puritans we find the notion that the sealing with the Spirit occurs as a new act of God following regeneration (cf. Lloyd-Jones, 1978:243–300; 1984:146ff.).
So when does the sealing with the Holy Spirit happen? In order to answer this question we need to go back to the Bible. When are the believers sealed? Paul answers: when you believed in him (Eph. 1:13). However, we can translate the apostle’s words in two ways: “while you became a believer” and “after you believed.”
The big question that requires an answer is: what is the meaning of the aorist verb tense that is being used here? What kind of participle is actually used in the Greek text? There are two possibilities. What we have here is either an antecedent participle that is used to indicate progression, or we have a coincidental participle where the idea of concurrence is expressed. There is much difference of opinion about these two possibilities (cf. Dunn. 1970:159; Anglada, 1987:29-51, which presents much grammatical information). We need to keep in mind here that in the Greek the tense of a participle is particularly relevant (cf. Dana, Mantey, 1955:229, 230; Burton, 1898:61). Although in Greek an antecedent action in relation to the main verb is generally expressed by means of an aorist or perfect, the aorist tense is employed mostly to express concurrence, simultaneity (cf. Matt. 22:1; Heb. 9:12; Acts 1:1). Ultimately, the context is needed to come to a decision, and Eph. 1:13 makes it clear that both verbs, “believing” and “sealing,” indicate two aspects of the same matter, similar to Gal. 3:3 where “the step of faith is met by the gift of the Spirit” (Dunn, 1970:159).
Based on grammatical considerations our choice here is for the translation of S. Greijdanus: “in whom also you … having become believers, are sealed with the Holy Spirit of the promise” (1949:34). The seal is the Holy Spirit and this seal is received when someone comes to faith. The sealing with the Holy Spirit is not an additional experience, but it is the delightful portion of every believer. Receiving the seal is not something that occurs outside of the experience of the believer. S. Greijdanus has pointed out that the sealing with the Holy Spirit is also an experienced reality, an encounter that coincides with faith. The sealing with the Spirit is essentially no different from the baptism with the Holy Spirit or the regeneration through the Spirit. We might ask the question: but why then does Paul call the baptism with the Holy Spirit a sealing? Paul here uses the image of the seal, and he speaks of “sealing” to focus our attention on a specific characteristic in the work of the Holy Spirit. The sealing with the Spirit is a matter that is closely tied to the certainty of believers regarding the coming salvation. God’s children are sealed with the Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30). They wear the sign and seal that they will certainly reach that day. The Holy Spirit is himself this seal. The Holy Spirit is here meant as a person, which shows clearly also from the fact that he can be grieved.
What constitutes the work of the Holy Spirit that can be described as sealing? The aim of his work is to bring certainty in the heart of man. The Word of God is in itself firm and secure. But if it is to be sure for us as well, then the work of the Holy Spirit is needed. Sealing accomplishes for us that the Holy Spirit makes sure on our side that which is already certain from God’s side. We must discern a twofold work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enlightens our understanding, and he strengthens the heart. Through the Spirit’s work in us we are led to two things: to insight into God’s work of salvation in Christ, but also to the acceptance of it. What an unbeliever cannot fathom is made transparent for us through the Holy Spirit. But at the same time the Spirit also teaches us to trust unconditionally in what Christ has accomplished. The Spirit is the Giver of the inner strengthening (Roberts, 1975:20). It will be clear that this sealing work of the Spirit does not happen outside of the Word. For faith is grounded, as Paul says in Eph. 1:13, in the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. The Spirit makes this gospel clear and transparent, and he teaches us to trust this gospel with all of our heart. In this way the Spirit’s sealing is an experienced reality. It is not a separate second action of the Spirit, but it does pass through all the experiential phases of man’s life.
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.