“Have you received the baptism of the Holy Spirit?” A person in our day who becomes a Christian will sooner or later be asked this question. The question is frequently posed by charismatic Christians who are enthusiastic about their experiences with the Holy Spirit.
A doctrine that was once largely confined to Pentecostal and Assembly of God churches has now become of central importance to a vast number of believers. The Neo-Pentecostal movement has reached into nearly every Christian denomination. A sense of excitement and spiritual renewal usually accompanies this fresh discovery of the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in the church.
Neo-Pentecostalism has sought to define a doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit based on people’s experiences. The doctrine has been widely controversial.
Usually, but not always, the charismatic Christian considers the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace, distinct from and subsequent to regeneration and conversion. It is a work of the Holy Spirit that is available to all Christians but not appropriated by all. Charismatics are divided among themselves on the issue of whether speaking in tongues is a necessary sign or manifestation of the “baptism.”
Pentecostals point to the pattern in the book of Acts where believers (who obviously had the regenerating work of the Spirit prior to Pentecost) were filled by the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. This biblical pattern, which includes a time gap between conversion and baptism of the Spirit, is then seen as normative for all ages.
Pentecostals are correct in seeing a distinction between regeneration by the Holy Spirit and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration refers to the Holy Spirit giving new life to the believer—making alive one who was dead in sin. The baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to God empowering His people for ministry.
While the distinction between regeneration and the baptism of the Holy Spirit is legitimate, making a time gap between the two normative for all subsequent ages is invalid. The normal pattern since the time of the apostles has been that Christians receive the empowering of the Holy Spirit along with regeneration. It is not necessary for believers to seek a specific second work of Spirit baptism following conversion. Every Christian is Spirit-filled to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the amount of yielding to the Spirit.
Another problem with the Pentecostal doctrine is that it has an inadequate view of Pentecost. Pentecost marks a watershed moment in New Testament history. In the Old Testament, only a select few believers were endowed by God with gifts for ministry (see Numbers 11). That pattern changed at Pentecost. At Pentecost all the believers present (all of whom were Jews) received the baptism. Likewise, in subsequent outpourings, the Samaritan converts (Acts 8), the believers at Cornelius’s household (Acts 10), and the Gentile disciples of John living in Ephesus (Acts 19) all received the baptism of the Spirit.
The first believers did not think that the Samaritans, the God-fearers, and the Gentile disciples of John could be Christians. So the baptism of the Holy Spirit served as confirmation of their membership in the church. Since each of these groups experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the same way that the Jews had at Pentecost, their inclusion in the church could not be denied. Peter himself experienced this firsthand.
When Peter saw the Holy Spirit come upon the God-fearing Gentiles at Cornelius’s house, he concluded that there was nothing to keep them from full membership in the church. Peter said, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).
The subsequent episodes of Holy Spirit baptism beyond the day of Pentecost should be understood as an extension of Pentecost by which the whole body of Christ was gifted for ministry. In the New Testament church not every believer spoke in tongues, but every Christian was gifted by the Holy Spirit. The prophecy of Joel was thus fulfilled (Acts 2:16–21).
- The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a distinct work in which the Spirit endows believers with gifts for ministry.
- In Acts, the Holy Spirit is poured out on four groups (Jews, Samaritans, God-fearers, and Gentiles), indicating they all are included in the New Covenant church.
- Pentecost fulfills the Old Testament prophecy that the Spirit would be poured out on all believers and not restricted to a few.