Spirit Baptism





Every Christian believes in the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  The disagreements that Christians have regarding the baptism in the Spirit concern two particular aspects of this baptism:  when is it administered and who receives it?  I will demonstrate that the bible teaches all believers in Christ are baptized into the Holy Spirit at the time of their conversion.  To do this, all of the relevant scriptures must be examined and explained together in a way that makes them cohere, and I will also interact with the differing opinions on these texts.  The texts include the references of baptism with the Spirit in the Gospels, the ensuing baptisms in Acts, and Paul’s teaching on the Spirit in his letters.

Texts that use the terms baptized in the Spirit

       I’ll begin where the gospels do.  All four of the gospels record John the Baptist’s words that the coming Messiah would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit, and Matthew and Luke record that “The Coming One” also baptizes believers with fire.[1]  What is noteworthy here is the accent the Apostles put on the fact that it is Jesus who will do the baptizing.  Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and the ones who will be baptized in this passage are the believers who are present.  Luke also records in Acts 2:5 that the apostles were told by Jesus that they would soon be baptized in the Holy Spirit. 


With this background in mind, we now turn to the instances in Acts where the baptisms in the Spirit occur.  Acts 2 records the first Spirit baptism.  While the Apostles were all together, the tongues of fire fell on them and they were filled with the Spirit, and each of them miraculously started telling the mighty works of God in other tongues.  Strikingly, Peter, who was the first to deny Christ, becomes the first one to preach Christ out loud. 

The second occurrence where baptism in the Spirit is mentioned is Acts 11:16.  Here Peter is recounting to the Jerusalem believers what happened when he went to visit Cornelius, a gentile centurion.  Peter tells them that while he was speaking the Spirit fell on Cornelius and the rest of the gentiles.  Peter says that this immediately brought to his mind what Jesus had told the apostles that they will be baptized with the Spirit.  Here Peter recognizes that the gentile believers received the same gift that the Apostles did originally and identifies this as the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  One other piece of crucial information is that in verse 17, Peter continues the narrative by saying that they received the gift just like the apostles when they believed.

The only other time the language of baptism in the Spirit is used is in 1 Corinthians 12:13 where Paul tells the believers that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”  The body that believers are baptized into is the body of Christ, and so it is clear that this baptism in the Spirit coincides with union with Christ.  This means that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is something experienced at conversion.

Scriptures that Recount a Delayed Reception of the Spirit

If, as the passages reviewed suggest, the baptism in the Holy Spirit takes place at conversion, then how do we explain some texts of scripture that reveal a delayed falling of the Spirit?  J. Rodman Williams explains, “Three days after Saul’s encounter with the glorified Jesus, Ananias went to the blinded Saul…So did Saul, later to be called Paul, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[2]  The narrative of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 seems to suggest to Williams that Paul received the Spirit after receiving salvation.  Williams argues that this is analogous to other places in acts where “the occurrence of salvation was the background for their receiving the Holy Spirit.”[3]  These seemingly unusual passages need to be looked at in some detail in order to find whether the baptism in the Spirit can occur days—even years—after conversion.

The three passages in question are Acts 8:14-17 where Philip preaches in Samaria, Acts 9:17-19 where Paul is converted, and Acts 19:1-7 where Paul confronts some disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus.  First in Acts 8, Philip preached the gospel and many Samaritans believed and were baptized.  Upon hearing this, Peter and John were sent, and, upon arriving, they prayed and laid hands on the believers so that they might receive the Holy Spirit.  The passage is clear in that the reception of the Holy Spirit in this instance was delayed and subsequent to their conversion.  However, does the passage teach that this is the normal way that baptism in the Spirit occurs?  Dr. Gregg Allison notes that there are clues in the passage showing that this is a peculiar event and is not normative.[4]  Verse 16 indicates that what is happening is by no means the normal way believers receive the Spirit because it begins with “for he had not yet fallen on any of them.”  Luke has to add a parenthetical explanation of the situation because the Spirit does normally baptize converts when they believe.  However, since it didn’t happen in this instance, Luke needed to explain by parenthesis why two Apostles had to be sent into this abnormal situation.

Next is Paul’s conversion, and the first question that must be asked is this:  Was Paul a Christian for the three days before Ananias came to him?  I don’t think so.  Acts 22 sheds some light on Paul’s conversion.  Here Paul narrates his conversion experience and states that when Ananias came to him he said to Paul, “What are you waiting for now? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away as you call on his name.”[5]  We see here, clearly, that it wasn’t until Ananias came and told Paul to call upon the name of Jesus that Paul became a Christian and this would coincide with the exact time that Paul would have received the Spirit.

The final incident that needs to be discussed is the conversion of the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus.  In Acts 19 Paul comes to Ephesus and asks the disciples of John, “Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?”  The very question itself indicates that Paul thought that the Spirit is received upon conversion.  However, the Ephesian disciples reply that they have never heard of the Spirit.  Paul, probably puzzled, told the Ephesians that John’s baptism was pointing forward to the one who was to come, but now Jesus has already come, died, resurrected, and ascended.  It was upon hearing about Jesus that the Ephesian disciples were baptized.  Paul then laid his hands on them and the Holy Spirit fell upon them.  Here, again, we see the normal order of Spirit baptism.  You hear the word, you believe, and you are baptized into the Spirit and into water.

Conclusion and Application

Looking at the relevant texts of scripture that teach us about baptism in the Holy Spirit, we can see that the normative way this baptism is applied is immediately upon believing in Christ for the remission of sins.  Although there are texts of scripture that illustrate a delay, these texts themselves point out that such occasions were not normal and are not the way we would experience baptism in the Spirit today.  But what are we to make of all of the people who say they have experienced this delayed baptism?

This is a sensitive issue, but it needs to be addressed because I agree with Grudem that this delayed view of Spirit baptism can teach two-tier Christianity.[6]  At the same time, though, these Christians must have experienced something.  Grudem explains what this experience is convincingly in a lecture on Spirit baptism at his church.[7]  He argues that typically the charismatic Christian, in order to receive the baptism of the Spirit, typically sanctify themselves by fasting, bible reading, and dedicating many hours in prayer.  Grudem then asks the question, “What do you think happens to believers when they do this?”  The answer is that God does indeed show up in a special way; that is, it makes sense that Christians are blessed after dedicating hours and hours of their time to seeking God. 

Although this experience of God’s blessing and sanctification should not be confused with baptism in the Spirit, it is still a powerful working of God in their lives and that should always be encouraged.  What is important here is that this attitude of seeking hard after God is encouraged while also encouraging Christians to use better terminology like Grudem suggests.  Terms like “a large step of growth” or “a new empowerment for ministry” are terms that are true to the experience these believers and also refrain from accidentally teaching a two-class Christianity.[8]  If both of these are encouraged then it can produce continued holiness because people will keep seeking after God, and it will promote union in the body of Christ because all believers have been baptized in the one Spirit.  And these two things, holiness and unity, are things worth seeking in our churches.

[1] Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33.

[2] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Salvation, The Holy Spirit, and Christian living (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990),  201.

[3] Ibid, 188.

[4] Gregg R. Allison, Class Lecture: Systematic Theology III, Spring 2012, Spoken.

[5] International standard version New Testament : Version 1.1. 2000 (Print on Demand ed.) (Ac 22:16). Yorba Linda, CA: The Learning Foundation.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 775-776.

[7]Wayne Grudem, Baptism in and Filling with the Holy Spirit, [on-line], accessed 29 February 2012, http://scottsdalebible.com/assets/audio/christian-essentials/20080420WGrudem.mp3; internet.

[8] Grudem, 781.


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