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.

Dividing Lines 1: The Charismatic Gifts

Some people divide evangelicals into two groups – the charismatics and the noncharismatics over the issue of “spiritual gifts”. This is probably over-simplistic and three groups would be a bit more representative (as Jeremy Pierce pointed out responding to my rather vague description of charismatic in an earlier post).

The name charismatic comes from a Greek word used in 1 Cor 12 to describe “spiritual gifts”. Of course, a large number of spiritual gifts are non-contentious (such as teaching, administration etc) and are often referred to as “natural”. However, there are a number that are patently supernatural such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, healings and miracles. The first of our three groups are known as cessationists – they believe that the general availability of these gifts has ceased. They have various biblical and historical arguments for this, and therefore view any claims to modern day manifestations of these gifts as spurious.

Then we have the charismatics, who have existed in small numbers throughout church history, but exploded onto the scene in the last 100 years or so with the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. They actively seek God for more manifestations of these supernatural gifts, especially prophecy, tongues and healing. It would be considered somewhat disappointing for a few meetings to go by without these gifts being evidenced. Tongues speaking in private is also stressed as an important spiritual discipline.

Finally there are the noncharismatics, who are the hardest to define. They sometimes call themselves “open but cautious” with regards to these spiritual gifts. They consider the charismatics to be right in saying that the gifts are available, but wrong in the way they emphasise them and make them so important. Many are deeply concerned about some of the practises and attitudes in charismatic churches, even doubting whether the Spirit of God is truly at work, but they do not attempt to argue a cessationist stance, and are theoretically willing to welcome these gifts in their own churches should God so desire to bestow them. But the onus is most definitely on God to give – they have no plans to ask. So the difference between a charismatic and a noncharismatic is not so much about doctrine but emphasis and a debate between the two rarely has them completely disagreeing but repeatedly saying “Yes, but…”.

Don Carson, who would probably classify himself a “noncharismatic”, writes of the suspicion with which the noncharismatics (including the cessationists here) view the charismatics, and vice versa:

It is probably fair to say that both charismatics and noncharismatics (if I may continue to use those terms in nonbiblical ways) often cherish neat stereotypes of the other party. As judged by the charismatics, noncharismatics tend to be stodgy traditionalists who do not really believe the Bible and who are not really hungry for the Lord. They are afraid of profound spiritual experience, too proud to give themselves wholeheartedly to God, more concerned for ritual than for reality and more in love with propositional truth than truth incarnate. They are better at writing theological tomes than at evangelism; they are defeatist in outlook, defensive in stance, dull in worship, and devoid of the Spirit’s power in their personal experience. The noncharismatics themselves, of course, tend to see things a little differently. The charismatics, they think, have succumbed to the modern love of “experience”, even at the expense of truth. Charismatics are thought to be profoundly unbiblical, especially when they elevate their experience of tongues to the level of theological and spiritual shibboleth. If they are growing, no small part of their strength can be ascribed to their raw triumphalism, their populist elitism, their promise of shortcuts to holiness and power. They are better at splitting churches and stealing sheep than they are at evangelism, more accomplished in spiritual one-upmanship before other believers than in faithful, humble service. They are imperialistic in outlook (only they have the “full gospel”), abrasive in stance, uncontrolled in worship, and devoid of any real grasp of the Bible that goes beyond mere proof-texting.

I can testify that Carson’s portrayal of the attitudes of these groups towards each other is all too often accurate. What is more sad is that also in many cases the substance of the allegations is fairly accurate as well. But I do not believe that these weaknesses on each side should cause us to simply choose which group’s failings we feel most comfortable with and decide whether we are more comfortable being in a “Word-based” noncharismatic church or a “Spirit-led” charismatic church. As I discussed in my previous post, I am convinced that an evangelical appreciation of the Word is not incompatible with a charismatic experience of the Spirit. This, I know is the goal of many churches, including those in New Frontiers, which the church I belong to is part of. There are other groups too, like Sovereign Grace who have a similar passion, as well as growing numbers of churches within the established denominations. My prayer is that they will achieve this right balance of emphasis and which will move us some way to a point where the labels “charismatic” and “noncharismatic” will no longer be necessary.