What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

All Bible-loving Christians must believe in something commonly referred to as baptism in the Holy Spirit,[1] 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

[1]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.

 

Bibliography

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.

 

Strength to Strength in times of Suffering

In his devotional “Mornings and Evenings,” Charles Spurgeon wrote his own commentary on the passing of Christians from security and strength to further stability and power. This progression is contrary to much of our natural experience, and Spurgeon acknowledges the same. A runner, for instance, begins with full energy and ends with none; and the wrestler finishes his long match with much less vigor than he had at the start. But Christians are anchored and empowered by someone who is unnatural, and their advancement from strength to strength is observable as well as biblical.

The Bible speaks of a God who is not merely a passive all-observing eye. No, the biblical God is the creator and sustainer of every aspect of His creation; He is the ever-active, sovereign king of the universe (Acts 17:24-25).

This brings great comfort to the humble Christian. Spurgeon says, “Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace.”[1] This means that there is no amount of suffering, no tumultuous season of life, no seemingly unrewarded effort expended that is completely in vain. The Bible never calls evil by the name of good, but all things are by God’s design and for the ultimate good of His children (Rom. 8:28; Lam. 3:37-38).

Much more could be said on this biblical assertion of God’s sovereign work to bring about the sanctification of His children, but Christians may be observed as having lived out this surprising experience as well. While not all churchgoers exhibit this same development, the mark of mature Christianity is finding secure refuge in Christ.

Consider the believer who receives a terrible diagnosis from the doctor. She may recoil and feel distress just as much as anyone, but her soul is eventually steadied and the Commander of the storm calms the gales of her mind.

Think also of the young Christian couple that rushes their newborn to the emergency room only to learn that their child’s mortal life has ended much too soon. Their pain and anguish is beyond words, but the light of life somehow invades their dark night of the soul.

Christ is their portion, and He is enough.

Once, Christians were commonly noticed as experiencing joy in the face of their own sorrow. In our day of commonplace denial and distraction, it is not so normal to see anyone bear the load of suffering well. Yet, when the Christian does it is a bittersweet site indeed.

What a peculiar beauty it is to see the Christian rejoice in the Lord while they are enduring significant pain. Others may even become irrationally envious of the agony of these exemplary saints when that agony is born steadily by the grace of God.

Spurgeon is also quoted as having said, I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.

The counter-intuitive destination of a Christian’s suffering is safe in the arms of Christ. Isn’t it a wonder that Christians will often find themselves crawling out of Christ’s bosom and onto the floor of life until they encounter some strange pain or confusing fear? Upon such an encounter, they cry out for the embrace of the Father’s care and find Him worthy of their full trust and reliance.

Only in this light may we perceive suffering as a gift.

Oh, that you and I would know the strength of God’s abiding Spirit – with or without the common suffering of life under the curse of sin. May the Lord bless us with His caring allotment of energy and affliction, for His glory and for our greatest joy.

“[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2]

“God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.”[3]

Should a person ‘receive Christ’?

Is “receive Christ” terminology proper to use in presenting the gospel?

It is of paramount importance that anyone who seeks to articulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ does so in terms that are understandable to the one or ones with whom the evangelist is attempting to communicate.  This means that the evangelist will need to take several things into his or her consideration, and defining or explaining terms that may be unclear is a great way to ensure that the desired message is being heard.  Therefore, concerning the two-word phrase in focus here, “receive Christ,” an explanation of both may make the phrase not only proper but desirable in evangelistic encounters.

The phrases “I received” or “You received” as they are attached to “mercy,” “grace,” “gift,” “salvation,” or even “Christ” are found in more New Testament passages than I could count in a short time.  For the sake of our discussion, let us examine a few.  The Apostle Paul says, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain [or receive (NIV)] salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9)[1].  So, those of whom Paul speaks – those who are not destined for wrath, but instead for salvation – are recipients of their destiny through the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is certainly much more that could be said here, but it is no tangential matter that salvation comes through the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the mediator of such salvation; He is the provider of the saving work; He is the bringer of the gift. It is clear that salvation is through the Lord Jesus Christ, and anyone who receives this great salvation has no less received the embodiment of it.

Elsewhere Paul says, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).  Again Paul speaks of recipients of salvation, but this time in terms of grace and the gift of righteousness.  Though the details of this saving work are described distinctly here, Paul remains sure that these gifts come through Jesus Christ.  Here, however, we are given a bit more information as to the specifics of what exactly Christ brings to those who are beneficiaries of His salvation, namely abundant grace and foreign righteousness.  We may find a better explanation of just how abundant this grace is in the context of the passage, but the righteousness of which Paul speaks we know is foreign precisely because it is a gift.  If the righteousness were inherent in the recipient, it may have been said to be enabled, reinforced, or motivated by Christ.  Yet this righteousness is a gift brought to the hopelessly unrighteous inheritor to be received from another who does inherently possess such virtue.

On a separate occasion Paul chastised the Galatian Christians for their ridiculous posture of false human holiness before the judgment of God.  Paul points out the definition of grace as unmerited favor in his question posed to them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2).  The thing being received in this passage is ‘the Spirit.’  Paul is reminding the Galatian believers that God is the giver of His Spirit and all Christians are receivers of the Holy Spirit, not because of their meritorious effort, but ‘by faith.’  There is not the space necessary here to expound on a theological statement concerning the biblical doctrine of the Godhead as Trinity, but it is pertinent to note that the Spirit of God is one in the same as the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9).  Therefore, it is not wrong to say that Paul’s explicit statement here is that all those who hear the Gospel with faith in the person and work of that good message are also recipients of the Spirit of Christ – they have received Christ by His Spirit, the Spirit of God.

It is not new to turn to Romans chapter 3 for the purpose of evangelizing.  The oft-memorized “Romans Road”[2] begins right on this terrain.  While verses 23 through 25 of Romans chapter 3 may or may not be familiar, they lend a great deal of help to our discussion here.  Again we read the words of the Apostle Paul, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25).  If one unpacks the meaning of this text, the substance of it carries tremendous power.

First, it is clearly stated that ‘all’ are sinners who have failed to live up to the holy demands of God.  This is especially disheartening when one considers the absolute power, perfect justice, and unique eternality of God.  He has enough power to do whatever He desires to do, always justly punishes sin, and He will never ever cease to be exactly what He is now.  This is not good news to the sinner, who finds him or herself under the righteous judgment of that same God.

Second, those sinners to whom Paul referred are also said to be ‘justified’ by a gift of grace.  To be justified means to be made or proven right, righteous, or commendable.  This is almost too incredible to be true!  The same person who is clearly guilty and sinful may be proven to be righteous and commendable?!  Wait… If we pause for a moment and consider the logic of such a statement, it doesn’t make sense.  Either a person is sinful and guilty or one is righteous and commendable, but he or she cannot be both at the same time and in the same way.  How can Paul say that God proves sinners commendable?  Has God forgotten about their sin?  Is He no longer concerned with His righteous demands?  Is God no longer just?  Has He lost His power to condemn?  No!  God remains just, sin remains abhorrent to Him, and He is always utterly resolute in His judgment against it.

Third, the reason that sinners may be proven righteous is explained in the statement that this justification comes ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.’  Two demonstrative terms are used in the Romans passage that point to the work performed by Christ on behalf of sinners.  (1) Redemption is a monetary term, carrying the idea of buying back, or exchanging something for an award or something else of monetary value.  (2) Propitiation is a term of satisfaction, carrying the idea of a gift given to a conquering king in order to appease his anger towards the offending or rebellious king who has been overcome.  When we see these terms in the light of what Christ has done for sinners, then the justification spoken of earlier becomes clearer.

Jesus Christ offers His own life as a substitute for the sinner before God’s bar of justice.  This accomplishes two things.  One, Christ propitiates or appeases God wrath against sin by absorbing the wrath due sin on the sinner’s behalf.  Jesus redirects God judgment from the sinner and towards Himself.  This is why it is rightly said that God made Christ to be sin even though Jesus had not sinned Himself (2 Cor. 5:21).  Two, Jesus redeems sinners by offering His own righteousness, obedience and goodness to all those who trust Him for it.  God requires a life of holiness from all humans.  Jesus Christ lived the life of obedient righteousness before God that is required of all humanity, and He offers His earned righteousness to sinners as a gift to be received (Rom. 5:19).

Fourth and finally, this gift of justification (proven right and commendable) is to be received by faith.  That is, one must put down all his or her own effort to achieve a goodness of their own, and he or she must simply trust in the effort of another – namely in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  When we visualize this transaction as a dirty-clothed sinner exchanging his guilt-stained garb for the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness, it would not be hard at all to see why one might describe it as “putting on” a “new self” (Eph. 4:24).

Therefore, we are to understand that sinful humans are ‘proven righteous’ because of the righteousness of Christ.  Furthermore, we may also consider that Christ is not merely the ticket to an eternal reward greater than Himself.  Certainly this is not the case at all!  In spite of contemporary jargon that might suggest, or explicitly claim, otherwise (which is often just a recapitulation of past error), Christ is Himself the prize.  He is the destination!  His presence, His glory, His eminent majesty is what we long to behold!  If we are looking for Christ to take us to a reward that is something other than Himself, then we have set our aim far too low.  He is both our transport and our station, and there is no greater reward than the triune God of our salvation.

Praise be to God!  If we have received Christ’s righteousness, then we have most certainly received Him.  If we are heirs to Christ’s sonship, then we share in His loving relationship with God our Father.  If we are beneficiaries of Christ’s redeeming and propitiating work, then we have exchanged ourselves for Him, our sorrow for His joy, our sin for His obedience, our idolatry for His genuine worship, and our deserved penalty for His earned reward!  With the Apostle Paul, we may indeed say to one another “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) by receiving Christ – all that He is and all that He has done for you – and “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6).

All terms may be used erroneously or mischievously.  The terms used in articulating the Gospel are most important because of the message they communicate; therefore to twist and mangle them is supremely egregious regardless of intent.  This should drive us to a reverent and diligent commitment to communicate this message and its implications as accurately as we are capable.  So, is it proper to use the phrase “receive Christ” in an evangelistic exchange?  Yes.  If it is explained well then it is not merely proper, it can be wholly advantageous.


[1] All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.

[2] The Romans Road refers to several passages in the book of Romans that may be sited for evangelistic purposes.  Seeking to present the Gospel in biblical terms, the evangelist would begin with chapter 3 and verse 23, then move to chapter 6 and verse 23, then cite chapter 5 and verse 8, and finally land in chapter 10 and verse 13.