Two aspects of becoming a Christian remain controversial among bible-believing Christians: baptism in water, and receiving the Holy Spirit. These issues are briefly explored here.
Water baptism did not begin with Christianity, but it has become a clear mark of it. The snag is that there is disagreement about what it means and when it should be done. For Christians who have a sacramental view, the act of being baptised does in itself convey salvation to the person. For other Christians the act is symbolic, but very important.
Baptism symbolises washing i.e. removing the dirt of sin. The outward washing with water is a picture of the inward washing which God does.
Baptism by full immersion also symbolises death, burial and resurrection. It shows an identification with Jesus, but is also a picture that the old life has gone and a new life has started.
Finally, baptism is a simple act of obedience to Jesus Christ. This can strike at human pride.
It seems that in New Testament times a person was baptised as soon as they declared faith in Christ. It was considered part of the process. Nowadays the church seems to split into two parties:
It seems obvious to me that we need to return to the biblical pattern: baptise people as soon as possible after they make a genuine confession of faith in Christ. This can include children, with the permission of their parents.
A important part of becoming a Christian is receiving the Holy Spirit. Without him, the person has merely adopted a new religion. In the New Testament, a conversion to Christ was normally visible and sometimes noisy. The details varied from person to person, but often there was prophecy, spontaneous praise or speaking in tongues.
This is not too surprising when it is realised that two of the descriptions given of the Holy Spirit with respect to a person are 'seal' and 'deposit'. A seal is a visible mark of ownership or authenticity e.g. on a document. It guarantees that this is the real thing, not a forgery. An invisible seal would be of limited value, but so would a late seal. A deposit is a down payment which guarantees what is promised for the future. A deposit must be tangible and prompt, and certainly cannot be merely another promise - you must be able to see the deposit and know that you have received it. It is the same with the Holy Spirit; his presence must be visible and tangible.
There are a number of things which the Spirit does in the Christian. I will mention just a few:
Unfortunately, many Pentecostal Christians and some charismatics insist on particular external signs such as speaking in tongues. They place too much emphasis on the gifts and can be less interested in the fruit. They also seem to have separated receiving the Spirit from conversion, so it becomes a second step rather than part of the first step. There is a tendency to claim Holy Spirit guidance for what may actually be daft human decisions. In any group which overemphasises gifts, there is a danger of developing spurious gifts.
Going the opposite way, conservative Evangelicals insist that receiving the Spirit happens automatically at confession even if there are no external signs. They actually seem to prefer an absence of signs. They say, quite rightly, that the fruit of the Spirit is more important than gifts. What they often really mean is that they find the gifts too embarrassing and scary so prefer to do without them. Conservatives get twitchy when anything seems to bypass Scripture, so they can miss out on assurance and guidance. The more extreme ones actually believe that God does not guide us, or at least not consciously, so we just have to make our own decisions and hope for the best - this sounds to me a bit like groping in the dark because you don't believe in torches.
Can a person receive the Holy Spirit silently, invisibly? I guess it is possible, but not very biblical. Or is it that it actually happens, if at all, later on? Possible, but again not the biblical pattern. I genuinely do not know whether those who show no clear sign of receiving the Spirit are as yet without him, or merely being very successful in suppressing the symptoms of his presence due to fear or ignorance caused by false teaching.
In either case the solution is simple. When declaring the gospel, and when teaching Christians, it should be made clear that God offers his Spirit from the point of conversion and that the presence of the Spirit in the life of the Christian should be visible and tangible. A Christian should know that he has received the Spirit, not just believe that he has because that is what he has been taught to believe. We receive the Spirit by faith; we do not need faith to know that we have received him! If anyone has doubts, then asking God will quickly sort out the issue: my experience is that asking to be filled with the Holy Spirit is a prayer that the Father loves to respond to quite quickly. If I lack the Spirit then it is my fault, not his. I discuss this issue further here.
back to Bible home, becoming a Christian, receiving the Spirit, listening to God
updated 22 June 2008: link to listening