Here is a question that came out from my sermon this past Sunday.
Question: If all believers have the Holy Spirit at conversion, then what does that mean about the baptism of the Holy Spirit? That was clearly a post conversion experience for the disciples at Pentecost, shouldn’t we look for that post conversion experience as well?
Before I answer this question, I want to state upfront that while my answer will be loaded with scripture, I recognize that there are many within orthodox Christianity who will disagree with me (mainly my Pentecostal friends). I want to be clear that I don’t feel this is an issue to split over and that we have way more in common than we do that separates us.
We have to understand the context of Pentecost.The Holy Spirit was not a novel idea to the New Testament authors, but something they expected from God’s revelation made to his people of old. Thus, the New Testament refers to the Holy Spirit as the one whom God promised (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4-5, Acts 2:38-39, Galatians 3:14). In the majority of the Old Testament incidents involving the Holy Spirit, the Spirit acts as a channel of communication between God and man, usually through a prophet’s speech. The prophets were the ones who made God’s will and wisdom known to his people through the revelation brought to them by the Spirit. Yet, the prophets pointed to a future time when God’s Spirit would rest upon all his people and no longer needed to be mediated through the prophetic office (Joel 2:28, Isaiah 32:15, 44:3, Ezekiel 39:29). Each person will come to know the Lord for themselves (Jeremiah 31:34) and through this knowledge become transformed into people of true obedience (Jeremiah 31:31, Ezekiel 36:24-29, Isaiah 44:3-5). Thus, Ezekiel writes, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live” (Ezekiel 37:14). The people of God would have their very lives intimately connected to this indwelling of the Spirit. And this coming outpouring of the Holy Spirit would be brought by the Messiah. He would be both filled with the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:1-4, 42:1-2, 61:1-2) and inaugurate the Spirit age for his people (Joel 2:28).
Now, it could be argued that this filling and indwelling of the Spirit that the prophets referred to is not meant to be interpretative for the New Testament idea of being “baptized in the Holy Spirit”, but rather limited to describing the experience of every Christian coming to faith through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit in converting their hearts. However, it is important to note that the most common metaphor used to describe this coming experience of the Holy Spirit is that of “pouring” or “outpouring” and is usually coupled with images of water (Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 39:29, Joel 2:28). Thus, this coming of the Holy Spirit was always associated with an immersion like experience analogous to baptism of John and Jesus’ day. The OT anticipated a day when the Spirit would come and pour over God’s people like water, a day when they, all of them, would be baptized in the Spirit.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit is one of only a handful of subjects that are discussed in all four gospel narratives (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33). While these texts do not allow for definitive conclusions about the nature of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, second experience baptism versus conversion baptism, they do point to the fact that baptizing his people in the Holy Spirit was of paramount importance to Jesus’ redemptive mission. In each of these four texts, John is comparing and contrasting his baptism with Jesus, stressing the point that just as John’s ministry was marked by water baptism, so will Jesus’ ministry be marked by this baptism of the Holy Spirit. Through these recorded words of John, this baptism of the Holy Spirit is shown to be not just an experience that Jesus’ followers will have, but part of the unfolding of salvation history. In each passage John states that Jesus’ baptizing with the Holy Spirit would take place in the future. There is a sequence that is being stressed about the progressive nature of Jesus’ redemptive work. Jesus is born, he lives, he dies, he is resurrected and then he sends the Spirit. As Richard Gaffin concisely writes in his book Baptism and the Holy Spirit, “Baptism with the Holy Spirit was nothing less then the culmination of the Messiah’s ministry.” This is because it is through the Spirit that the Christian acquires all the benefits of Christ’ works (1 Corinthians 12:3). The baptism of the Holy Spirit was the final act of Jesus’ redemptive work for without this baptism everything else that he had accomplished would have been for naught. Therefore, although these Gospel texts do not definitively indicate the nature of this baptism of the Holy Spirit, they do sow the seed for the coming baptism to be seen as a redemptive-historical event. Thus, when Pentecost occurs it is first and foremost to be interpreted as a redemptive-historical act, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy kept through Jesus Christ. I think to read Acts 2 as an argument for a second baptism of the Holy Spirit that is meant to continue on to today misses out on the rich promises of God that were being kept in that unique moment of history. The purpose of its inclusion in Holy Scripture was not primarily to be illustrative of a second experience that modern Christians should expect, but rather the historic event of the outpouring of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets spoke about and which John the Baptist said Jesus would bring. Pentecost is part of the once and for all work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, just as his death is never to be repeated and his resurrection is never to be repeated, so too is this act of his work never be repeated. The gospels set us up for Pentecost as a non-repeatable redemptive historical event of inauguration into the Spirit-filled age.
1 Corinthians 12:13 is the only epistle that explicitly uses the phrase, “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” Paul writes, ““For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” In order to interpret this text the context of this letter must be taken into account. Paul was writing to a church that was rife with division. Spiritual elitism had run rampant through the congregation. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is building an argument for unity in the church through the unity that they share in Christ. He grounds their unity in their shared belief in Jesus as the Lord, a belief that they did not come to in their own wisdom, but in the Holy Spirit (12:3). This point reaches its climatic conclusion when in verse 13 Paul writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” With this context in view, it makes no sense for Paul to be making a distinction between those who have received the baptism of Holy Spirit in some lesser form, simply by being converted, and those who have received a more powerful filling of the Holy Spirit through a second baptism. This would effectively create two separate categories for Christians which is the exact opposite of what Paul is trying to do.
How then are the other second experiences recorded in Acts meant to be interpreted? First, it is important to recognize that there is not really a plethora of examples, but only one. Acts 8 is the only text that clearly describes a situation where some people became Christians, but were not immediately baptized with the Holy Spirit. From this record of the baptism of the Holy Spirit upon Samaritans, Pentecostals argue that this is strong evidence that Pentecost is not just a redemptive historical event, but an ongoing experience that Christians should anticipate. However, this argument fails to take into consideration the cultural context of the significance of the Samaritans being saved. There was a history of animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. Thus, if the Samaritans were to be included in the church of Jesus Christ it was important that the highest level of leadership in the church testified to the fact that they were to be treated as full members, not second class citizens. The events in Acts 8 should be read as a “Samaritan” Pentecost, a unique redemptive historical event through the Apostles as a demonstration that being a member of Jesus’ church was not to be limited to people only of Jewish ancestry.
What about people today who have an experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit that is separate from their conversion?
The final argument that Pentecostals will make for a second experience baptism of the Holy Spirit is that similar experiences to those recorded in Acts still occur today. On this final point, I agree wholeheartedly, but would challenge the word that is being used to describe these experiences. I believe scripture is clear that baptism of the Holy Spirit happens immediately upon conversion. However, this does not deny that there can be ongoing experiences of the Holy Spirit coming upon Christians in a distinctive way. These experiences are not to be understood as “baptisms of the Holy Spirit”, but rather “fillings of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4, 4:8, 4:31, 9:17, 13:9, Eph 5:18). These instances are situations that call for an immediate and special endowment for a particular task or spiritual emergency. Thus, all Christians should expect, and in fact are commanded to desire (Eph 5:18), ongoing fillings of the Holy Spirit.
This blog post was way too long, but if it makes you feel better this is a cliff notes version of an academic paper I wrote at the Pastor’s College. If you are interested in this subject more and have an affinity for Greek grammar, church history, etc… I’d be happy to provide you with the full version. Just hit me up on Facebook, twitter, instagram, email, or carrier pigeon.