What is meant by baptism in the Holy Spirit? Is it the same as conversion, as claimed by conservative evangelicals, or is it a post-conversion experience, as claimed by most Pentecostals and many charismatics?
There is a good discussion of the issue in Chapter 39 of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. He agrees with the conservatives (doctrinally) while leaving room for the charismatic experience (which he calls 'being filled with the Holy Spirit', something which he experienced himself). As usual with Grudem, he is helpful even to those who end up disagreeing with him.
The phrase only appears in seven verses. The first four of these are the four Gospel accounts of what John the Baptist said about Jesus. The fifth is in Acts 1:5 and is essentially Jesus repeating what John said, and clearly referring forward to the day of Pentecost. The sixth is Peter in Acts 11:16, referring back to 1:5 but applying this to what happened at Cornelius' house. The final verse is 1 Corinthians 12:13 "For we were all baptized in one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." (NIV)
Grudem then says that as the last verse clearly refers to conversion, then baptism in the Spirit must be conversion or at least some part of conversion. He deals with the Pentecostal argument that this verse is talking about a different baptism. They say that here the Spirit is the agent of baptism rather than the element i.e. the Spirit baptises us into the body of Christ. The earlier verses, it is claimed, refer to Jesus (agent) baptising us in the Spirit (element). Grudem shows that the greek construction does not require this, and would probably have been expressed differently if this indeed is what was meant. So it seems that the conservative case has been confirmed: Spirit baptism is conversion.
Is that it? Can the conservatives draw a sigh of relief and claim that they were baptised in the Spirit at their conversion, so there is nothing further to add? Not quite. Even if Grudem's argument is watertight there is still the issue of being full of the Spirit: "One baptism, many fillings!" is the way some put it, and Grudem would probably agree.
There are other issues to consider. I think three holes can be made in Grudem's argument, although they may not be enough to sink it.
The first issue is the word baptism. Because of our Christian heritage we always think of it in connection with initiation, whether first (conservative) or second (Pentecostal). It is a technical term in theology. However, its original meaning is simply 'immerse', 'dip' or 'soak'. It is used of soaking cloth in dye, or dipping a jug into a large bowl in order to draw off some water. It also has a metaphorical meaning of 'overwhelm' - presumably too much immersion leading to a sense of drowning! If we use one of these meanings instead of 'baptism' when translating Scripture I think we may get closer to what the original authors meant to convey.
It is now perhaps a little clearer that the final verse may not be using a precise theological term, but instead merely describing what happened in the past. Having been dipped does not necessarily mean that further dipping is unnecessary or impossible - sheep get dipped every year! Cloth will often need several 'baptisms' in the dye before it reaches the desired colour and fastness.
A second issue is that in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul was talking about unity, not initiation. His point is that all Christians are united, being part of the same body and having been soaked in the one Spirit. There are not two or more different bodies or spirits to which we belong. We need to be careful in applying this verse to a different argument.
The final issue is that we cannot always assume that what was true of Paul and his original readers is necessarily true of us. In Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27 Paul uses an argument from water baptism which only makes any sense if it is assumed that all Christians have been baptised. Water baptism is a visible external sign, so we know that not all Christians have been baptised. We know therefore that we cannot use Paul's statements about water baptism to assert that all Christians have been baptised. Similarly, we perhaps cannot use 1 Corinthians 12:13 to assert that all present-day Christians have been baptised in the Spirit. Maybe all those Paul knew had been baptised, or maybe he was just saying that all those who had been baptised in the Spirit (which was not necessarily all Christians) had been baptised into the same Spirit so were united whether they liked it or not.
So far we have followed Grudem, but shown that his argument is not entirely watertight. There is another way of looking at the issue, which avoids the exegetical problem of deriving an important doctrinal position from a single verse, in which the writer is making a different point anyway! Instead of using 1 Corinthians 12:13 to assert that baptism in the Spirit is conversion, we could look at the two incidents where this took place: Acts 2 (Pentecost) and 10 (Cornelius). In both cases other descriptions were used of the activity of the Holy Spirit: filled (2:4), poured out (2:17, quoting Joel), came on (10:44), poured out (10:45), received (10:47). There does not seem here to be a clear distinction between initiation ('received') and continuation ('filled'), so both the conservative and Pentecostal views take a knock.
Could it be that baptism (i.e. soaking) in the Spirit actually means the same thing as being filled with the Spirit, and that for these people the first time this happened more or less coincided with their conversion? Instead of identifying it with conversion or a second event, could we say that the biblical norm is that it should accompany conversion? It should be so normal that, like water baptism, Paul could assume that all had experienced it for the first time as they were converted. Subsequently they would experience it again (e.g. Acts 4:31). The reason we get so worked up about it (on one side or the other) is that our conversion experience may have been abnormal, due to inadequate presentations of the gospel leading to diminished expectations. Or maybe we had a biblical experience (e.g. sense of lightness as sin rolled away), but were subsequently taught to ignore it or regard it as merely a brief honeymoon period.
If we say that 'baptism = filling' then this leaves the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:13 open. It may, as the conservatives say, be referring to conversion or it may be referring to a separate event which happened at the same time. I have a theory about Paul (and the Holy Spirit): if a verse has two possible meanings then maybe both are true. Either way, Paul is saying that all Christians are one and he assumes that their total conversion experience was sufficiently overwhelming that 'baptism' is a suitable word to describe it.
One of the big problems which this issue raises is the tendency to treat Christians as falling into two camps: those who have 'it' and those who don't. Those who have 'it' can be proud, and those who don't can feel belittled or inferior (so react by claiming that they don't need 'it' or have already got 'it' even though it appears to be absent). However, nowhere in Scripture is anyone asked "Have you been baptised in the Holy Spirit?" - it is an unbiblical question. The Bible uses 'baptised in the Spirit' to describe an event, as a synonym for 'filled with the Spirit'. The corresponding state, for a while after the event, is 'full of the Spirit' but this is not a permanent state; we need a repeat of the event.
The question is asked "Have you received the Holy Spirit?", with the expectation that the answer will be "Yes" for all Christians - this is a question about our initiation. Receiving the Spirit is an important part of the biblical conversion experience. He can only be a seal and a deposit if we know we have him. Lack of the Spirit means that a person is not yet born-again. It is my belief that in most cases receiving the Spirit will leave a person at least temporarily full of the Spirit. That happy state will persist if the person is taught to continue asking for more, and to avoid quenching or grieving the Spirit.
Scripture describes some Christians as being full of the Spirit, thus implying that not all are. Paul tells us to continue being filled, and Jesus tells us to ask the Father for good gifts such as the Holy Spirit. A biblical question to ask ourselves is "Am I full of the Spirit?".
The position I have arrived at is that there are two legitimate biblical questions we can ask:
In both cases the question is about the current state of the person, not some past event. The first question may seem to be phrased in terms of an event, but it carries the assumption that having received the Spirit a person does not entirely lose him. The question as posed is biblical (Acts 19:2). An alternative might be "Do you have the Holy Spirit?", but this begins to sound like the second question.
When disagreeing with someone it is helpful to be clear about what is the actual point of disagreement. This is often ignored when theology meets experience. The conservative wants to assert that he has been baptised by the Spirit, but what he means by that is that he has been quietly placed into the body of Christ. One can legitimately ask "In what sense have you been soaked in or overwhelmed by the Spirit, because these are what the word 'baptism' means?". It turns out that the conservative generally has two motives:
The first motive is laudable, although sometimes misguided. The second motive usually arises from some mixture of fear, ignorance and disobedience. The most vehement conservatives are often those who were saved in a Pentecostal/charismatic church but who then either became disillusioned by some of the nonsense they heard or simply lacked the courage to ask God to fill them with His Spirit.
What about the Pentecostal/charismatic? The motives can sometimes be
The first motive arises from pride; the second from fear. Note that for both groups the aim is to assert that they have 'it', whether from conversion or a second event. Their claim to a past 'baptism' can become a substitute for a present fulness.
What can we say about two-class Christianity? It has always been a problem. Each generation seems to come up with a new way of dividing 'them' from 'us'. Issues have included sanctification, church order, the Second Coming, Calvinism and charismata. It is generally unhelpful. However, we must be careful and not simply reject an idea because it might lead to some partitioning. For example, all Christians have either been baptised in water or they have not. The fact that this causes a division does not mean that we cannot talk about or insist on water baptism; Jesus commanded it for his disciples so we must do the same.
The problem here is that both sides are wrong! Baptism in the Spirit is not the same as conversion, nor is it a second post-conversion event. It is a filling with the Spirit, which should happen a number of times. It should start at conversion but then continue. Some of these events may be particularly strong or noteworthy; it may be helpful to use the term 'baptism' for these and 'filling' for others. This would be consistent with the biblical record, and reflects the metaphorical meaning of 'overwhelm', but we should remember we are talking merely about extent and not substance.
Some Pentecostals say that baptism in the Spirit is a second event which brings power for service. This is based on Acts 1:8. The problem with this view is that Cornelius received power as a first event, while the disciples received power (again) in a third event (Acts 4:31). No special significance can be attached to a second event. Of course, the Spirit will bring power as gifts and boldness are some of the effects of his presence. The reason we get excited about a second event is that our first event was likely to have been unbiblically quiet!
I have noticed that in recent years, and especially in 'Reformed' circles, people seem to have much quieter conversion experiences than was common when I was younger. Tears and smiles seem to be absent. In some cases all that seems to have happened is that they have been persuaded to change their mind about Christ. They then set about studying hard to learn more about him, and trying hard to be well-behaved and conform to norms and expectations. This is of course only to be expected if the gospel has been reduced to mainly a matter of belief. Later on, the keener ones may have water baptism mentioned to them as a second step of obedience. This is a travesty of biblical conversion! It is hardly surprising that people then fall into two groups: those who remain satisfied with what little they have and are fearful of any more, and those who realise that "there must be more than this" but then misinterpret the 'more' as a second step when it is really just missing elements from the first step.
Biblically, conversion involves repentance, faith, baptism in water and receiving the Holy Spirit; ideally these should all occur close together in time. Which is the crucial element? Catholics say water baptism. Evangelicals say repentance and faith, yet often accept remorse and belief instead, and regard the Spirit as automatic and invisible. Thus, repentance and faith are seen as the two elements of conversion. Curiously, charismatics agree with them because this means they can leave the Spirit to a second event. All, apart from catholics, treat water baptism as a later event. My own view is that all are important so I would rather not be forced into choosing one or two. We should not be asking "What is the minimum I can get away with?". However, if forced, I would say that receiving the Spirit is the crucial step. Before this, a person may be on a journey towards Christ and His church but it is the presence of the Spirit which guarantees that they have arrived.
Given biblical conversions, there would be less scope for 'second-blessing' theology because everyone would have started in the right way. Evangelical claims to have got it all at the beginning would contain more truth, although there is always more to come!
back to Bible home, becoming a Christian, receiving the Spirit, listening to God, starting with the gifts, the gift of tongues
created 8 Nov 2009