All Bible-loving Christians must believe in something commonly referred to as baptism in the Holy Spirit, but there are differences in various definitions and expectations of it. Charismatic Christians sometimes presume that non-Charismatic Christians do not believe in a Holy Spirit baptism, but this is not necessarily justified. I shall seek to explain the biblical meaning of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and I shall argue for the expected and universal experience of this baptism among Christians. I shall also consider and answer some common objections to my argument. Since this is not merely an academic essay, but a work of applied theology, I will begin with a little personal background.
As I was growing up, I experienced times of significant discomfort in church services. My strange feelings arose as a response to some odd sights and sounds. I remember my mother’s body bizarrely shaking, while she shrieked an incomprehensible and chaotic repetition. The image of a church leader spontaneously running across the stage or around the room is easily recalled in my mind. Various members of the congregation would each contribute to a cacophony of noises, which might be described as groaning, wailing, yelling and sometimes laughing. These were common among my childhood and teen experiences with Christianity.
Local churches who experience these kinds of things, and/or many similar experiences, are often called Charismatic. The term “charismata” means divine gifting or empowering, and the Christians who compose these Charismatic congregations affirm the present and ongoing expectation of a certain kind of divine gifts. A major expectation among Charismatic Christians is that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a distinct and subsequent event to Christian conversion. We will seek to understand what biblical relationship there is between Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion, so let us turn to the Scriptures.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit
Seven verses in the New Testament speak about someone being baptized in or by the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33 all record similar recitations of John the Baptizer’s words concerning Jesus and baptism in the Holy Spirit. John said, “I have baptized you with water; but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:8). Two more passages are found in the book of Acts. In Acts 1:5, Jesus reminds His followers about John’s prediction, and He tells them to expect to be baptized in the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” In Acts 11:16, Peter refers back to Jesus’ words in Acts 1:5, and he marvels at the reality that Gentiles have also received the same baptism as the Jewish believers did on the day of Pentecost (as recorded in Acts 2:1-4). All six of these passages refer to the occurrence of baptism, but – this is important – none of them explain what it is.
The seventh passage in the New Testament that mentions the baptism in the Holy Spirit is 1 Corinthians 12:13. The Apostle Paul says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (RSV). Here, the apostle Paul is talking about what makes all Christians part of the “one body,” namely union with Christ and with one another. He says that the defining moment, the transition from unbelief to belief, is that instant when the Christian is baptized by the Holy Spirit.
This transition is what Christians commonly refer to as conversion or (more theologically termed) regeneration. Allison says, “the conclusion to be drawn from these passages is that one of the aspects of God’s work of saving sinful human beings is Jesus Christ’s baptism of new converts with the Holy Spirit, by which they are incorporated into his body, the church” (Allison, 8). It seems clear from these biblical texts that Allison’s conclusion is accurate; baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs in the life of every Christian as a synchronized event with their conversion.
Some Objections Considered
Many who hold the Charismatic or Pentecostal position will object to such a conclusion, however. They claim that the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 is different from the other six, because the baptizing agent is different in this passage. One might argue that the Holy Spirit is the one doing the baptizing in 1 Corinthians, while Jesus is the one doing the baptizing in the other six verses. However, Grudem refers to this objection when he says,
“although the distinction seems to make sense from some English translations, it really cannot be supported by an examination of the Greek text, for there the expression is almost identical to the expressions we have seen in the other six versus” (Grudem, 1604).
Grudem also points out the translators’ possible goal of avoiding a confusing repetition in 1 Corinthians 12:13. For example, the ESV records, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” The baptism is in one Spirit and also into one body, but both of these together can elicit the question, “Is it a baptism in the Spirit, or into the body?” The only biblical answer is, “Yes… it is both.”
Another objection that is often cited is that of the subsequent occurrence of baptism in the Holy Spirit from the conversion of New Testament believers. There is a record of Christians who were baptized in the Holy Spirit after they believed the Gospel and trusted in Christ. On this basis, it is argued, the Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion are explicitly separate events. On the front end, this objection is quite warranted; but we must inevitably ask a big question about what is assumed in this objection: Are these chronologically delayed Holy Spirit baptisms normative or unique? First, let us look at the recorded events themselves.
Jewish believers, who were already Christians, gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. They believed in Christ as Lord and Savior, but they were not baptized in the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost, which was clearly after they had first believed (Acts 2:1-4). Furthermore, there are two other occurrences (later in Acts) where believers receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit after they have already believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Acts 8:14-17, we learn that Peter and John encountered some Samarian (half-Jew) Christians who had been “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (they had been water baptized as a sign of repentance and faith), but the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them” (Acts 8:16). After Peter and John “laid their hands on them,” the Samarian believers “received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).
A very similar description is given in Acts 19:1-7. However, in this case, we meet believers who are not even half-Jews; they are Ephesian Gentiles. Paul learns the same about these Christians as Peter and John learned about the Samarian ones. They had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, but they had not yet experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Paul, like Peter and John, laid his hands upon these believers, and they “began speaking in tongues” as the “Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:6).
A simple explanation can be offered for these delayed experiences, and I will use a three-premised syllogism to build it out.
First, Peter told his hearers that the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost, was the fulfillment of the prophecy Joel wrote many years before. Through the prophet Joel, God promised to “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), as opposed to only sending the Holy Spirit to select individuals and for certain tasks throughout the Old Testament. Grudem says, “the day of Pentecost was the point of transition between the Old Covenant work and the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant work in the ministry of the Holy Spirit” (Grudem, 1612). Pentecost, then, was that predicted outpouring, and it was a unique event in human history.
Second, the New Covenant in Christ Jesus brought the realization of that spiritual union that was promised, and it also brought about a highlighted ethnic expansion. The promise of God’s blessing was always for the offspring of Abraham and extending to the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3), but it was only after the coming of Christ this offspring blessing was emphasized as a spiritual lineage or heritage. The Apostle Paul says, for example, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal. 3:29). This was a fact in the Old Testament as well (Gen. 12:2-3), but its prominence is greater in New Testament.
Third, we see a progressive ethnic expansion of God baptizing believers in the Holy Spirit as a testimony of His blessing upon all peoples. Notice that all of the believers who were baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 were Jewish (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Acts 11:17-18). In Acts 8:14-17, Samarians (half-Jews) were baptized in the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10:1-48, we read of a God-fearing Gentile (an Italian centurion) and his family who received the Gospel, and “the Holy Spirit fell” upon them (Acts 10:44). Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, we read about Ephesian Gentiles who had believed the Gospel and experience water baptism, but when the Apostle Paul “laid hands on them” they too were baptized in the Holy Spirit. These demonstrate an intentional expansion, both on God’s working in human history and Luke’s record of these events.
Therefore, we are to understand that the application Peter made on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) is carried over to the subsequent experiences (Acts 8, 10, 19) of the same unique fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Peter tells us, I believe, that these occurrences are collectively that of which the prophet Joel spoke. God promised to pour out His Spirit upon all peoples, and that is exactly what He progressively did. Let me be clear; I do not merely tolerate these experiences of baptism in the Holy Spirit subsequent to Christian conversion during the time period of the early church. I celebrate these emphatic and unique baptisms in the Holy Spirit, for these are God’s own witness of His fulfilled promise of blessing to all peoples through Christ Jesus.
Far from believing that the baptism in the Holy Spirit has somehow stopped, I believe that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is essential to every Christian. The Holy Spirit baptism is not reserved for only a select few Christians or some elite spiritual group, but this baptism is the defining mark of every believer. God miraculously brings sinners into union with Christ by baptizing them in the Holy Spirit, and this life-giving event happens the very moment the Christian – every Christian – believes.
I understand an interchangeable use of the terms “in” and “with,” as they relate to Holy Spirit baptism, so I use “in” throughout this essay. For a more thorough examination, see Grudem’s Systematic Theology, especially chapter 39.
Gregg R. Allison, “Baptism with and Filling of the Holy Spirit,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 16, no. 4 (Winter 2012).
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.