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The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
The passages below are taken from Charles Stanley’s book, “The Wonderful Spirit Filled Life,” published in 1992.
No ministry of the Holy Spirit has been more misunderstood than the baptism of the Spirit. Growing up, I always heard the baptism of the Holy Spirit described as an experience that took place sometime after salvation. I would meet people from time to time who spoke of “getting the baptism” or “receiving the gift.” In asking around, I discovered that the phrases were used to describe the experience of being baptized by the Holy Spirit. Such phrases are still in use today.
I remember the first time I saw somebody “get” the baptism. To be honest, it scared me. In fact, it bothered me so much that I decided I didn’t want it! Unfortunately, it was years before I took the time to dig into the Scriptures to discover what God’s Word had to say about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When I did, I reached two conclusions:
1. The Bible is clear and consistent in its explanation of the baptism of the Spirit; the confusion is unnecessary.
2. There is very little similarity between what the Bible teaches concerning the baptism of the Spirit and the experiences of many who claim to have been baptized by the Spirit.
I decided early in my ministry to allow the Bible to determine my conduct and to interpret my experience. By “determine my conduct,” I mean the Bible is my standard for living; it is my code of conduct. When I say “interpret my experience,” I mean I will always give priority to what the Scriptures say over what my experience may seem to indicate. I will not interpret the Scriptures through my experience. To do so is dangerous. It elevates me to the place of judge and jury over the Bible. I want God to conform my experience to the truth of His Word.
As I mentioned earlier, I know many believers who have had a significant experience following their salvation. Some have attributed this experience to the baptism of the Spirit. It is not my place to judge whether or not something has happened to these people. I feel it is my place, however, to warn them against justifying or explaining their experience at the expense of the integrity of God’s Word. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the Bible says about the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The Testimony of Scripture
John the Baptist got the ball rolling. As the forerunner to Christ, John had the responsibility of preparing the people for His arrival. Four hundred years had passed since the last legitimate prophet had spoken to the Jewish nation. People were suspicious. John had a challenging mission.
John often spoke about the baptism of the Spirit. He continually emphasized that once the Messiah arrived, He would baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit:
As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)
And again, he said,
And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.”
(John 1:33; see also Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16)
In all probability, the people of that day had no idea what it meant to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. They might have had theories, but nobody knew exactly what John meant.
Now the plot thickens. Jesus shows up. John recognizes Him as the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. But nobody gets baptized. For three years we don’t hear anything else about the baptism of the Holy Spirit—--it seems. Then, finally, the day He ascends back into heaven, Jesus brings it up again.
And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4—5)
In these verses, Jesus equates the baptism of the Holy Spirit with “what the Father had promised” and, more important, with “(that) which . . . you heard of from Me.” Think for a moment. What is He referring to? What had the Father promised? What had they “heard” from Jesus about the Holy Spirit? During His ministry, He never mentioned the baptism of the Spirit specifically. But now He is telling His followers to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism, the baptism that apparently He told them about previously, the one the Father had promised. What is He referring to?
Jesus is referring to a series of conversations He had with His disciples just before His arrest. He promised to send the Holy Spirit after He had departed:
And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you.(John 14:16—17; see John 15:26)
Notice that He said He would ask the Father to send the Spirit and the Father would do it. Jesus made a promise on behalf of His Father. That is the same as the Father promising the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was describing the baptism of the Spirit. He didn’t use the exact phrase. But His comments in Acts 1:5 clearly link the two discussions. He was not talking about two different events—--the coming of the Holy Spirit (see John 14) and the baptism of the Spirit (see Acts 1:5). They are one and the same.
Meanwhile . . .
A few days later it all broke loose. The Holy Spirit arrived. But lo and behold, there is no mention of the baptism of the Spirit! The Bible says they were all “filled” with the Spirit. What’s going on here?
And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1—4)
Why doesn’t it say, “And they were all baptized with the Holy Spirit”? Isn’t that what Jesus promised would happen? Isn’t that what John the Baptist predicted? Isn’t that what the Father promised?
Absolutely. And that is exactly what happened. They were baptized, filled, indwelt, filled with rivers of living water (John 7:38—39), and empowered. There is no distinction. It’s all the same thing. Jesus, Matthew, John, Mark, Luke—--they all used these terms interchangeably to describe the initial coming of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers.
Long after the actual day of Pentecost, Luke and Peter added two more figures of speech to the list. Peter was in the middle of preaching to a group of Gentiles when all of a sudden, in Luke’s words,
The Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening.
And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out. (Acts 10:44-45, emphasis mine)
Now we have the Holy Spirit falling and being poured out. Is this a new ministry of the Spirit? Of course not. It’s just another way of describing the initial entry of the Holy Spirit into the heart of a believer.
We know this to be the case from Peter’s interpretation of what happened. Notice what he compares the incident to:
And as I [Peter] began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way? (Acts 11:15—1 7; see Acts 15:8)
We must allow Peter to call it as he saw it. A group came to faith and immediately—--with no begging, praying, pleading, or prompting--—the Holy Spirit fell. According to Peter, it was the same thing that occurred in the Upper Room. And it was the same experience John the Baptist predicted in the beginning.
Now, to really tie it all together, take a look at how the leaders in Jerusalem interpreted what happened to those Gentiles.
And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18, emphasis mine)
Why would they bring up repentance and life? Why wouldn’t they say, “Well, then, God has baptized them with the Spirit just like He did us,” or “It looks like God is going to allow Gentiles to be filled with the Spirit along with us Jews”? Why would they bring up talk of salvation? Because it all goes together. It is all the same thing.
The baptism of the Spirit signifies that a man or woman has put faith in Christ. That is why the apostle Paul could write,
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. (1 Corinthians 12:13, emphasis mine)
Every believer has been baptized by the Holy Spirit. Baptism symbolizes our identification with the body of Christ. To be baptized into the body is to be placed into the body, which happens at the moment of salvation. Billy Graham concurs:
In my own study of the Scriptures through the years I have become convinced that there is only one baptism with the Holy Spirit in the life of every believer, and that takes place at the moment of conversion.1
The Source of Confusion
You may be thinking, If it’s that simple, why all the confusion? Certainly there must be more to it than that. If not, why are so many Christians convinced otherwise?
The confusion stems primarily from the delay in Acts between conversion and the baptism of the Spirit. Some believe that to be the normal pattern. So they encourage believers to seek the baptism of the Spirit. After all, the disciples received it later. Paul received it later. The disciples of John received it later (see Acts 19:1—7).
The delay was necessary then because the Holy Spirit could not come until Jesus departed. There was no way around it. Well, there would have been one way. Jesus could have delayed His offer of salvation as well. But that would have made it hard on John the Baptist—--not to mention the tens of thousands of Old Testament believers. God’s predetermined order of events made it necessary to delay the baptism of the Spirit for those who were saved prior to the day of Pentecost. But something happened on the day of Pentecost that demonstrated God’s desire to put an end to the delay.
The First Invitation
The Upper Room phenomena caused quite a stir in the community. Jews from all over were gathered to celebrate Pentecost. When they heard the Galileans speaking various foreign languages, they were amazed. Before long they began asking a critical question: “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12)
Peter seized the opportunity. He called for their attention and explained in detail what was going on (see Acts 2:14—36). When he finished, the Bible says,
They were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)
Peter was ready. He said,
Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.(Acts 2:38)
According to Peter, they didn’t need to wait to receive the Holy Spirit. They didn’t even need to ask for it. They needed to be saved. That was the only condition. John Stott writes,
The 3000 (v.41) do not seem to have experienced the same miraculous phenomena (the rushing mighty wind, the tongues of flame, or the speech in foreign languages). Yet because of God’s assurance through Peter they must have inherited the same promise and received the same gift (verses 33, 39). Nevertheless, there was this difference between them: the 120 were regenerate already, and received the baptism of the Spirit only after waiting upon God for ten days. The 3000, on the other hand, were unbelievers, and received the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Spirit simultaneously—--and it happened immediately they repented and believed, without any need to wait.
This distinction between the two companies, the 120 and the 3000, is of great importance, because the norm for today must surely be the second group, the 3000, and not (as is often supposed) the first.2
The only other clear example of a delay between salvation and the baptism of the Spirit is found in Acts 8. There we find Philip3 preaching to the Samaritans and performing signs to validate his message. A large number of Samaritans expressed interest, and many were actually coming to faith.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about what was happening, they decided to send Peter and John to Samaria to help with the work and to check on Philip. When they arrived, they discovered that the new believers had not received the Holy Spirit. Luke writes,
For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:16—17)
Some use this incident to support the idea that the baptism of the Holy Spirit comes by way of laying on of hands. But that is not the point here at all. If that was all there was to it, Philip could have laid his hands on the new believers. After all, God was performing miracles through the hands of Philip (see Acts 8:6). Why didn’t he lay his hands on this group? Why did they have to wait for Peter and John?
As you may know, the Jews despised the Samaritans. They considered them half-breeds. It wasn’t unusual for Jews to travel miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaritan-held territory. Use your imagination. If the Samaritan believers had automatically received the Holy Spirit the day Philip preached to them, what do you think would have happened? There would have been a First Church of the Samaritans and a First Church of Jerusalem. The delay forced the Jews to acknowledge the fact that their God had accepted the Samaritans just like He accepted them. The delay united the early church.
The significance of this incident is not the delay. Neither is it the relationship between the laying on of hands and the baptism of the Spirit. The significance is that the apostles had to lay their hands on the Samaritan believers. In doing so, they put their stamp of approval on the Samaritan missionary movement.
The Haves and the Have-Nots
About once every two or three months someone will walk up to me and ask me if I have the baptism. I always answer, “Yes.” Sometimes I elaborate, “But not in the way you are thinking.” What disturbs me most about that question is that it sets up a false dichotomy in the body of Christ. Remember, one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to enable believers to work together, to build unity in the body. The “do you or don’t you” mentality works against the unity of the body. Therefore, it cannot be of the Spirit.
The Bible does not support the notion that one group of believers has the baptism and another group does not: “There are not two levels of believers—--gifted and non-gifted, baptized in the Spirit and not baptized in the Spirit.”4 This way of thinking flies in the face of everything the Bible teaches about spiritual gifts and the body of Christ.
I have talked to dozens of sincere believers who claim that the baptism of the Spirit dramatically improved their Christian experience. Their prayer lives are better, they have more boldness, and their hunger for the Word has increased. I say, “FANTASTIC!” I am all for an enhanced Christian experience. “But why,” I ask them, “do you have to call whatever happened to you the baptism of the Spirit? Call it something else. You are just confusing the issue.” Some have responded by calling it “the second baptism of the Spirit.” That’s even worse. The Bible never speaks of a second baptism of the Spirit.
As I said in the beginning of this chapter, my job is not to judge the rightness or wrongness of a believer’s experience. An experience is an experience. But I cannot stand by silently and watch people misuse the Word of God to validate their experiences. R. C. Sproul says it beautifully,
I am delighted to hear of increased faith, zeal, earnestness in prayer, and the rest. My concern is not with the meaningfulness of the experience but with the understanding of the meaning of the experience. It is the interpretation of the experience that tends to go against Scripture. Our authority is not our experience but the Word of God.5
Andy told me a funny story that illustrates what I am trying to say. Several months ago he began leading a worship service on our new property. Three or four months prior to the starting date he was unable to sleep. He couldn’t get the new worship service off his mind. He said he would lie there praying about it until the early hours of the morning. Night after night this went on. After two or three days he started getting up and going into the other bedroom to pray. He was convinced the Lord was keeping him up to pray. When he told me what was happening, he was so excited about what God was doing in his prayer life. “I’m not even tired the next day,” he said.
After two weeks of this, his wife got a little concerned. He had been on some medication for the flu, and Sandra thought there might be a connection. She called the doctor. Sure enough, one of the things he was taking was a stimulant. Andy quit taking that particular pill and started sleeping like a baby. So much for his amazing prayer life! I believe God honored Andy’s prayers. But the fact remains—--Andy misinterpreted what was happening.
I was reminded once again of how easy it is to misinterpret our experiences. We have to be careful. It’s dangerous to jump to conclusions. As long as we align the interpretations of our experiences with the teaching of Scripture, we will be fine. But when we use the Bible to sanction the validity of our interpretations, we get into trouble. If you have trusted Christ as your Savior, you “have the baptism.” Not only that, you have been indwelt, filled, and therefore have everything you need to experience the wonderful Spirit-filled life.
1. Billy Graham, The Holy Spirit (Dallas: Word, 1988), p. 62,
2. John R. Stott, Baptism and Fullness (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), pp.28f.
3. See Acts 6:5 for background on Philip.
4. R. C. Sproul, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton, Ill,: Tyndale, 1990), p.157.
5. Sproul, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, p. 158.
THINK ABOUT IT
• What have you been taught about the baptism of the Holy Spirit during your Christian experience?
• Have you ever had a spiritual experience that you misinterpreted? Explain what caused your mistake.
• Why is there so much confusion about the baptism of the Holy Spirit among believers?
• What are the dangers of this confusion?
• Reread 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Acts 2:38. Spend some time thinking about these verses’ assurance that if you have trusted Christ as your Savior, you have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. (152-162)
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