Dividing Lines 2: Baptism in the Holy Spirit

The subject of the baptism in the Holy Spirit comes up in a number of places in the New Testament. John the Baptist prophesied it (Matt 3:11), Jesus promised it (Acts 1:5), and Paul alludes to it (1 Cor 12:13). Luke records a number of instances of people receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit, but also shows a great freedom in his use of terminology (e.g. baptised, filled, received, poured out, gift), and not always including as much detail as we might like. This freedom of terminology that the New Testament exhibits means that there may also be other places that refer to it (Jn 7:37-39, Gal 3:14, Eph 1:13). But our questions are not always answered as explicitly as we would like.

The Big Question

Controversy over the baptism in the Holy Spirit boils down to one main question:
Is the baptism in the Holy Spirit automatic at conversion, or a definite experience separate from conversion accompanied with some form of vocal manifestation? There are quite a range of answers to this question and it doesn’t fall neatly into “charismatics say this, noncharismatics say that”.

Pentecostals say that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a separate experience (sometimes called a “second blessing”) always evidenced by speaking in tongues. Many charismatics follow suit, but relax the requirement for tongues somewhat. However, there is no shortage of charismatics who insist that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is automatic at conversion (Wimber, Grudem and Fee probably being the most respected and influential). This assertion almost inevitably leads to agreeing that the baptism in the Holy Spirit can be unconscious and non-experiential, as there are numerous believers (including charismatics and Pentecostals) whose conversion was not dramatic in terms of personal experience. These Christians are often indignant at the suggestion that they are missing some crucial component to the Christian life, which all members of Pentecostal churches possess.

But there is not complete agreement amongst noncharismatics either. For example, Lloyd-Jones argues forcefully for the baptism in the Spirit as a distinct experience from conversion, emphasising the assurance this brings and urged his hearers to seek God for it. He certainly didn’t link it directly with tongues although he believed that some might receive this gift during the experience (and then not speak in tongues again). And neither did he share the charismatics’ optimism about how easily it might be received.

Some charismatics prefer to talk of many “fillings of the Spirit”, which are power encounters with God and may be the occasion of that person receiving the gift of tongues. This has led some to suggest that all this is an argument about terminology – is what the Pentecostals call the baptism in the Spirit just a “filling of the Spirit”? But this simplistic solution does not address the issue of whether the baptism in the Spirit at conversion should be experiential or not.

Luke versus Paul

Arguments for a “second blessing” tend to centre on the book of Acts. It seems that everyone who was baptised in or received the Spirit certainly knew about it. Many spoke in tongues or prophesied. It often occurred close to the time of conversion but apparently not always (e.g. the Samaritans in Acts 8, and of course the disciples themselves). Acts 19:2 is crucial in the argument. Paul’s question “did you receive the Spirit when you believed?” is addressed to some “disciples” from Ephesus and seems to imply that first you can believe without receiving, and second that you would know if you had received.

Arguments against a second blessing tend to focus on the epistles. Why doesn’t Paul encourage people to seek this important experience? In 1 Cor 12:13, Paul talks as though every Christian has had this experience, and in Rom 8:9, although he doesn’t mention the baptism, he surely is affirming some kind of indwelling of the Spirit in every believer. Some expositors even turn the book of Colossians into anti-second blessing tract, where Paul warns against people who “add to the gospel” with their extra experiences beyond Christ.

A Harmonisation

Evangelicals believe that one part of Scripture does not contradict another, so the conflict between Luke and Paul is only apparent. They also believe that Scripture is true to life, and so will be able to make sense of the experiences of believers throughout the centuries.

Those who link the baptism in the Holy Spirit with conversion tend to find their harmonisation by arguing on a case by case basis that the episodes in Acts were somehow unique and therefore can be discounted from the discussion. Pentecostals offer alternative translations of 1 Cor 12:13 to suggest that it is not speaking of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

One of the most compelling harmonisations I have come across is in David Pawson’s book “Jesus baptises in one Holy Spirit” (which I lent to someone a couple of years ago and haven’t got it back so I’m afraid I can’t check my facts on the exact logic of his argument). He talks about a “normal Christian birth” in the early church. Everyone who got saved would not only believe in Jesus, but would be taught that they needed to seek to join a church, repent of their sin, get baptised in water and pray to receive the Spirit.

If one or more of those teachings was not present, it may be possible that they were in some sense a Christian, but they need to be encouraged to put what was deficient right. If Pawson is right, then the situation in Acts 19 is an example of a problem case, but the rest of Acts just shows the normal situation for new believers – they receive the Spirit close to conversion. It also makes good sense of the way that Paul takes it for granted in his letters that all Christians have been filled with the Spirit and doesn’t appeal for people to seek another experience as such (and doesn’t require a special reading of 1 Cor 12:13).

The remaining problem issue is what we are to make of the many committed Christians who do not claim to have received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Is it true (or fair) to say that they have had a defective Christian birth? Perhaps we could suggest that there are many who do not fall under the label Pentecostal who have experienced God in significant ways in their lives, resulting in greater assurance, love for him, and boldness in witness. Although they don’t speak in tongues, who is to say that they have not received the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? The testimonies of many remarkable men and women of God have often included significant encounters with God.

In short, the issue of the baptism in the Spirit remains one of the biggest obstacles to greater unity between charismatics and noncharismatics. I hope soon to make a final post in this series indicating my own current opinions on the charismatic gifts and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, along with some personal testimony of how I came to that point.

8 thoughts on “Dividing Lines 2: Baptism in the Holy Spirit

  1. Hi Mark,

    I don’t call myself “reformed” but when Jesus Christ said “it is finished”, I believe He meant it. In fact, anyone who says that the elect sinner has to meet a condition in order to be saved should take note of these biblical propositions:

    1.The righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel is His salvation of sinners based on the propitiatory sacrifice and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone (Rms 3:21-4:8; 10:4; 2 Cor 5:21).

    2.Those who are ignorant of the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel are going about to establish a righteousness of their own and are thus lost, no matter how zealous they are for God (Romans 10:1-3).

    3.Anyone who does not abide in the doctrine of Christ is lost (2 Jn 9).

    4.Anyone who speaks peace to one who brings a false gospel is lost (2 Jn 11)

    Mark, I’d be interested to know what you think of our website.


  2. David Pawson follows a similar theme in his book entitled “The Normal Christian Birth”. This is a study of initiation in the New Testament, which attempts to reveal a synthesis of the “liberal” emphasis on repentance, the “evangelical” emphasis on faith, the “sacramental” on Baptism and the “pentecostal” on the Spirit. These “four spiritual doors” are then related to conversion and regeneration. The first two to conversion and the second two to regeneration with all four forming part of the ‘Normal Christian Birth’. He argues that although God has a usual order for these four (that order being the one above) it is not always followed

  3. I think that “Jesus Baptises in One Holy Spirit” is the updated and revised version of “The Normal Christian Birth”. I seem to remember hearing him say that “The Normal Christian Birth” had been classified by the British Library under gynaecology, which may indicate why he changed the title.

  4. Andrew, I have a few points to make
    1. It is not clear to me how your comments or site relate to my post on the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Are you simply trying to advertise your site?
    2. The web site you pointed me at has far too much material for me to read all of it. I have contented myself with a sample.
    3. The articles on the site seem to be one extended rant against people who do not exactly agree with you (including relegating a number of outstanding Christian leaders into your ‘hall of shame’). If your intention is to win people over, a more polite approach would be advisable.
    4. I do not agree that when we come to faith we will have a prefect theology. In fact, there are repeated examples in the New Testament of believers needing teaching and correction.
    5. I do believe that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1). There are of course plenty of other Scriptures I could add to this to properly nuance it. After all, John has warned in this letter against heretical views of Christ. I have been working recently on an article for my website on Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ in Mark 8, so you can find out more of my opinions then.

  5. Love the blogs bro! So helpful. I’ve made a similar journey toward the charismatic as a reformed peson. It is has been difficult, but clearly what the text teaches. Check out my April 18, 2005 blog at http://mymiscellanies.blogspot.com. I also would like to commend you on the content. I loved it so much that I have linked to it and posted it as my #2 favorite pick, which means I’ll be reading it regularly. Thanks so much for your efforts and thoughts.

  6. “The Normal Chrsitian Birth” is different from “Jesus baptises in one Holy Spirit”. I’ve got both books.

  7. Pingback: Baptism in the Holy Spirit Redux

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