Baptism in the Holy Spirit Is for New Christians
One of the hallmarks of traditional Pentecostalism concerns the timing of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Traditional Pentecostals claim that it is normal for Christians not to be baptized in the Spirit until some time after their conversion. They agree with all other Christians that every believer is regenerated, i.e., born again, at conversion. But they claim that it is rare for Spirit baptism to take place at this time. Instead, they say that this usually happens later, when a Christian has reached a level of spirituality that makes them ready to be baptized in the Spirit.
By contrast, most Christians believe that every Christian is both regenerated and baptized in the Spirit when they first receive the Spirit at conversion. Most say that there is no need for a Christian to reach an advanced level of spirituality before receiving Spirit baptism. And I think it is true that those who define themselves as Pentecostal are increasingly abandoning the (unbiblical) view of traditional Pentecostalism on this point and siding with the majority.
In this article I will argue for this majority position. I am convinced, as most Christians are, that if someone has saving faith in Christ, then he or she is ready for Spirit baptism. And I will try to show this from Scripture.
To prevent this article from becoming too long, I won’t spend time discussing exactly what Spirit baptism is. Nor will I spend time defending the majority Christian view that regeneration and Spirit baptism are not distinct concepts. None of my arguments in what follows depends on how we understand the relationship between Spirit baptism and regeneration. Instead, I will simply be asking if the Bible teaches that Spirit baptism takes place when people become Christians.
Let’s turn, then, to the biblical evidence on this issue.
The events of the day of Pentecost
In Acts 1:1-11 Luke tells us that after Jesus had risen from the dead, but before He ascended to heaven, He said to the 11 remaining apostles:
‘. . . you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (v. 5)
There is no doubt that Jesus’ prophecy of Spirit baptism in Acts 1:5 is fulfilled in the events of the day of Pentecost, related in Acts 2:1-13, about 8 or 10 days after Jesus’ ascension (depending on which calendar was being followed). Not only do the events of Pentecost involve the Spirit in a powerful way. But the timing of these events fits perfectly with the ‘not many days from now’ in the prophecy. The events of the day of Pentecost, then, involved Spirit baptism.
In Acts 1:15 we are told that on one occasion between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost about 120 Christians were gathered together. Therefore, when Acts 2:1 tells us that on the day of Pentecost ‘they were all together in the same place’, it makes sense to think that there were probably about 120 believers present. The number is very unlikely to have been much less than that. The point I am making is that many Christians were present to experience what happened on that day.
In Acts 2:4 Luke tells us that on the day of Pentecost the Christians who were gathered ‘were all filled with the Holy Spirit’. There are two points to make about this:
First, we have already seen that the events on the day of Pentecost involved Spirit baptism. So the reference to being filled with the Spirit in this verse must therefore involve baptism in the Spirit.
Second, note how this verse tells us that ‘all’ the Christians present were filled with the Spirit.
Summing up all the above points, then, Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost all the many Christians who were present were baptized in the Spirit.
Importantly, this was the occasion on which baptism in the Spirit first became available to Christians. And we are told that all the 120 or so believers who were present were baptized in the Spirit at this time. There is not even a hint in the text that any of these Christians was not ready for Spirit baptism.
The events of the day of Pentecost, referred to in Acts 2:1-13, therefore count strongly against the view of those Pentecostals who say that today new converts are often not ready for Spirit baptism.
Comparison of John 20:22 and Acts 2:1-13
It is sometimes said that a comparison of John 20:22 and Acts 2:1-13 shows that we should expect many Christians today not to be baptized in the Spirit until some time after their conversion.
In John 20:22, which refers to a time before the risen Jesus’ ascension to heaven, we are told that He breathed on the 11 apostles and said:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’
And Acts 2:1-13, as we have seen, tells us how the 11, along with the other Christians present, were baptized in the Spirit.
Pentecostals often argue in this way:
The apostles received the Spirit for regeneration at the time referred to in John 20:22. They were then baptized in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Their experience of being regenerated and later baptized in the Spirit shows what is normal for Christians.
Comparing these two passages actually involves some quite complex interpretive issues. To cut a long story short, I believe we should reject the view that the apostles were regenerated before the day of Pentecost. However, for the sake of argument let’s assume that they were actually regenerated before Pentecost and that they were then baptized in the Spirit on that day.
Even if we assume this, however, it is crucial to understand that the situation of the 11 apostles was highly unusual and in no way parallel to the situation of someone who has become a Christian since Pentecost. Spirit baptism was not available before Pentecost. So it was impossible for any follower of Jesus to be baptized in the Spirit before then.
Therefore, even if we were to assume that the apostles were regenerated before they were baptized in the Spirit at Pentecost, what happened to them would tell us nothing about what is normal for those who have become Christians since Pentecost.
In Acts 2:38, after the events surrounding the Spirit baptisms on the day of Pentecost, Peter says to the crowd:
‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
There are two good reasons for believing that receiving the Spirit in this verse involves baptism in the Spirit:
(1) The context of Acts 2:38 strongly suggests that receiving the Spirit in this verse involves Spirit baptism:
First, Peter’s words in 2:38 are spoken immediately after the events of 2:1-13, which involve Spirit baptism. Therefore, when he talks of receiving the Spirit in 2:38, we would most naturally expect him to be referring to something that is of the same general order as what has just happened in 2:1-13, i.e., as an experience that involves baptism in the Spirit.
Second, in Acts 2:17, 18, 33 Peter has explicitly referred to the Spirit in connection with the Spirit baptisms that take place in 2:1-13. Therefore, since nothing in the context suggests a change of focus, it makes sense to think that his next reference to the Spirit, in 2:38, also involves baptism in the Spirit.
(2) In Acts 8:15-19, as is widely agreed, receiving the Holy Spirit involves baptism in the Spirit. And Acts 10:47 refers to Cornelius and his relatives and friends receiving the Spirit, while the same event is referred to in Acts 11:16 as being baptized in the Spirit.
Given that in 8:15-19 and 10:47 receiving the Spirit involves baptism in the Spirit, it would be very surprising if receiving the Spirit in 2:38 did not involve baptism in the Spirit.
In view of (1) and (2), then, we should have no hesitation in saying that the receiving the Spirit that Peter refers to in Acts 2:38 involves baptism in the Spirit.
Importantly, Peter’s words in 2:38 strongly imply that receiving the Spirit (which involves baptism in the Spirit) is something that can be expected to happen in connection with the repentance and water baptism he refers to, i.e., at conversion. 2:38 cannot reasonably be interpreted in such a way that receiving the Spirit is something that often takes place some time after people become Christians.
Acts 2:38 is therefore a strong piece of evidence that Spirit baptism is something that we can expect to take place at conversion.
The apostle Paul
Pentecostals sometimes claim that the apostle Paul was not baptized in the Spirit until a few days after his conversion.
In Acts 9:3-8 Paul has his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. And then at least three days later (Acts 9:9) he is filled with the Spirit, i.e., baptized in the Spirit, after Ananias comes to visit him (Acts 9:17-18).
In v. 17 Ananias addresses Paul as ‘brother’. It is sometimes said that his use of this word, a word common in the New Testament to refer to fellow Christians, shows that Paul became a Christian at the time of his experience on the road to Damascus. Acts 9 therefore shows, the argument goes, an example of someone who is converted but not baptized in the Spirit until later.
This argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, however. In the repeat account of Paul’s time with Ananias in Acts 22, Ananias tells Paul:
‘Get up and be baptized, and have your sins washed away . . .’ (Acts 22:16)
This shows clearly that Paul is not portrayed being forgiven, i.e., becoming a Christian, until the time he is with Ananias.
The word ‘brother’, used by Ananias in Acts 9:17; 22:13, could be understood as an address by one Jew to another. Or it could anticipate Paul’s soon becoming a Christian. Either way, Acts portrays Paul becoming a Christian and being baptized in the Spirit at the same time.
In Acts 10:24-48 (also Acts 11:12-16) Cornelius and his relatives and friends are baptized in the Spirit at the time they become Christians.
Those who claim that Spirit baptism often takes place later than conversion frequently point to Acts 19:1-7. In this passage we read of a group of about 12 men who are baptized in the Spirit when Paul lays hands on them.
In v. 1 the men are described as ‘disciples’ at the time Paul meets them, using the Greek word mathetes, a word that is used elsewhere in Acts only to refer to Christians. Furthermore, in v. 2 Paul asks the men if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. These facts, it is argued, show that the men are already Christians when Paul meets them.
However, this seems very unlikely. In v. 4 Paul tells the men that John the Baptist told people to believe in Jesus. Then in v. 5 we learn that when they heard this they were baptized in water. This suggests that before speaking to Paul, they didn’t know they were supposed to believe in Jesus.
Although it is not entirely clear, it seems much better to think that these men are not portrayed becoming Christians until they meet Paul. In this case, their baptism in the Spirit (v. 6) happens at the time of their conversion.
The events in Samaria
The discussion so far has provided us with strong biblical evidence that we should expect Christians to be baptized in the Spirit at conversion. However, there is one other passage we need to look at, Acts 8:5-17.
Pentecostals rightly point out that in this passage new Christian converts in Samaria are not baptized in the Spirit until a few days or weeks after their conversion. So what are we to make of this? Does it disprove my contention that baptism in the Spirit is for new Christians? Actually it doesn’t, for two reasons.
First, this is the only narrative in Scripture where we read about people who are not baptized in the Spirit on the day they become Christians (other than those who become Christians before the day of Pentecost, who are not comparable to those who have become believers on or after that day, because Spirit baptism was not available before Pentecost). Nor does any other scriptural passage teach or imply that we can expect Spirit baptism to happen after the time of a Christian’s conversion. Given all the passages that we looked at above, which connect Spirit baptism and conversion, my contention that baptism in the Spirit is for new Christians therefore stands at least as a general principle of Scripture.
Second, there is no suggestion in Acts 8:5-17 that the Christians in Samaria had to wait until they reached a certain level of spirituality that qualified them for Spirit baptism. 8:14-17 says simply that when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God they sent Peter and John to them, who laid hands on them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit (which involved baptism in the Spirit). The text implies that becoming a Christian is the only qualification necessary for Spirit baptism.
It seems that Peter and John needed to lay hands on these Christians in Samaria for them to be baptized in the Spirit. But essentially they can be regarded as new Christians at the time this happened. And we can be confident that they were eligible for Spirit baptism simply because they had become Christians.
If there was at least one occasion in the first century when there was a delay in new Christians being baptized in the Spirit, then it is just possible that similar situations might very occasionally be unavoidable today. But according to Scripture the general pattern is for believers to receive Spirit baptism at the time of conversion. And the Bible nowhere even hints that Christians need to reach any sort of advanced spiritual status before they can be baptized in the Spirit. Being a genuine Christian is all that is needed.
Traditional Pentecostals, who think it is normal for Christians not to be baptized in the Spirit until some time after conversion, should therefore reconsider their theology. In fact, according to the Bible, this is very abnormal. Spirit baptism is for new Christians.
How did Pentecostal theology arise?
As far as I am aware, before Pentecostalism came on the scene at the start of the 20th century, no one previously had said that Christians should often not expect to be baptized in the Spirit until some time after their conversion. So why was it that the first Pentecostals made this claim?
I think this idea arose when Pentecostals misinterpreted their (genuine) experiences of the Spirit:
Many Christians had sudden advances in their experiences of the Spirit at some point after conversion. They knew that they had received the Spirit for regeneration when they were converted. They understood too that their new experiences involved things, like speaking in tongues, that are sometimes connected with Spirit baptism in the Bible. And so they interpreted the new experiences as baptism in the Spirit.
However, the Bible never refers to Spirit baptism as something that takes place later than when Christians first receive the Spirit in regeneration. According to Scripture, everyone who has received the Spirit has been both regenerated and baptized in the Spirit. So it seems better not to describe any post-conversion experience of the Spirit as baptism in the Spirit. Instead, post-conversion advances in the Spirit are probably best described as a greater filling with the Spirit or something like that.
Reasons for sudden advances in the Spirit
I think sometimes when Christians have sudden advances in their experience of the Spirit, this is because something has been wrong that is now being corrected.
One example of this is when Christians mistakenly believe that today God has no desire to give the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Then, later, when they are open to being given these gifts, they often take a big step forward in their experience of the Spirit.
Something else that can go wrong is when God wants hands to be laid on new Christians for them to receive the Spirit (Acts 8:17-19; 19:6; Hebrews 6:2), but this doesn’t happen. Then, later, when they have hands laid on them, they take a step forward in their experience of the Spirit.
This is not to say that when God wants hands to be used but none are, it always causes a problem. And I think too that there may well be times – perhaps many times – when it is not God’s will for hands to be laid on new Christians at all.
Nevertheless, I do think that sometimes the reason for a sudden advance in the Spirit is that hands were wrongly omitted at conversion and now that is being put right.
It is surely true that often when a Christian takes a leap forward in the Spirit, it is not because anything has been wrong. It is just that they are having a spiritual growth spurt. But sometimes I think it is because a problem is being corrected.
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