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Baptism in the Holy Spirit Is for New Christians By Max Aplin
One of the hallmarks of traditional Pentecostalism is the belief that there is a clear distinction between being regenerated, i.e., born again, by the Holy Spirit and being baptized in the Spirit. As far as I am aware, before Pentecostals first came on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century, there is no evidence that any Christians previously held this belief.
Instead, up until the end of the 19th century all Christians seem to have taken the view that is shared by the majority of believers today, which is that there is an overlap in what we mean by regeneration and what we mean by baptism in the Spirit.
I side firmly with the majority view on this issue. And I think I am right in saying that Christians who define themselves as Pentecostal are increasingly moving away from the (unbiblical) view of traditional Pentecostalism towards the mainstream view, and this is a very welcome development.
As well as holding that regeneration and Spirit baptism are separate things, many traditional Pentecostals also believe that it is normal for Christians to first be baptized in the Spirit at some time after their conversion. Those who take this view believe that although it is God's will for all Christians to be regenerated when they are converted, often they should not expect to be baptized in the Spirit until later, when they have reached a certain level of spirituality that makes them ready for Spirit baptism.
Most Christians, by contrast, believe that it is God's will for Christians to experience both regeneration and Spirit baptism when they receive the Spirit at conversion, and that there is no need for a believer to reach an advanced level of spirituality before he or she is baptized in the Spirit.
In this article I will argue for this majority view. I am convinced, as most Christians are, that if someone has saving faith in Jesus Christ, then he or she is ready for Spirit baptism, and I will try to demonstrate this from Scripture.
To prevent this article from becoming too long, I will not spend time discussing exactly what we mean by baptism in the Spirit. Nor do I intend to spend time defending the majority Christian view that regeneration and Spirit baptism are overlapping things. My focus will be specifically on the timing of the Spirit baptism of new Christians.
I have noted that traditional Pentecostals understand regeneration and Spirit baptism to be separate things, and I have said that I do not take this view. I have just said too that I will not spend time trying to defend my view on this point against that of traditional Pentecostals. Some readers might be wondering, therefore, whether I will be able to discuss the timing of Spirit baptism without discussing whether regeneration and Spirit baptism overlap.
I believe I will be able to do this. Importantly, in what follows I will simply be focusing on baptism in the Spirit and asking if the Bible teaches that this takes place when people become Christians. None of my arguments will depend on how we understand the relationship between Spirit baptism and regeneration.
Let's turn, then, to the biblical evidence on this issue. Does Scripture teach that Christians should expect to be first baptized in the Holy Spirit at the time of their conversion or at some later time? The following points are relevant to the discussion:
(1) In Acts 1:1-11 Luke tells us that on the day the risen Jesus ascended to heaven, 40 days after His resurrection, He said to the 11 apostles (Judas Iscariot no longer being with them):
'. . . you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now.' (v. 5)
There is no doubt that we should understand Jesus' prophecy of Spirit baptism in 1:5 to be fulfilled in the events of the day of Pentecost, related in 2:1-13, about 8 or 10 days after Jesus' ascension (depending on what calendar was being followed). Not only do the events of Pentecost involve the Holy 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 informed that on one occasion between Jesus' ascension and the day of Pentecost about 120 Christians were gathered together. Therefore, when 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 as much as a hint in the text that any of these Christians was not ready for Spirit baptism.
The events of the day of Pentecost, recounted in Acts 2:1-13, therefore count quite strongly against the view of those Pentecostals who say that today new converts are often not ready for Spirit baptism.
(2) It is sometimes claimed 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, and, to cut a long story short, I reject the view that the apostles were regenerated before the day of Pentecost. However, for the sake of argument let us assume that they were actually regenerated before Pentecost and that they were then baptized in the Spirit on that day.
Even if we make this assumption, however, it is crucial to recognise 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.
(3) 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:
(i) In Acts 8:15-19, as is widely agreed, receiving the Holy Spirit involves baptism in the Spirit. And 10:47 refers to Cornelius and his relatives and friends receiving the Spirit, while the same event is referred to in 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.
(ii) The context of 2:38 strongly suggests that receiving the Spirit in this verse involves baptism in the Spirit. 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 2:17, 18 and 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.
We should have no hesitation in saying, then, that the receiving the Holy Spirit that Peter refers to in 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 immediately after the repentance and water baptism he refers to, i.e., immediately after conversion. 2:38 cannot reasonably be interpreted in such a way that receiving the Spirit is understood to be something that often takes place at some time after people become Christians.
Acts 2:38, therefore, stands as a strong piece of evidence that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that we can expect to take place at conversion.
(4) It is sometimes argued that the Bible portrays the apostle Paul first being baptized in the Spirit 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 (v. 9) he is filled with the Spirit, i.e., baptized in the Spirit, after Ananias comes to visit him (see vv. 17-18).
In v. 17 Ananias addresses Paul as 'brother', and it is sometimes claimed 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. This passage therefore shows, the argument goes, an example of someone who becomes a Christian, yet who is not baptized in the Spirit until later.
This argument does not hold up under scrutiny, however. In the repeat account of Paul's time with Ananias that is found in Acts 22, Ananias tells Paul to 'Get up and be baptized, and have your sins washed away' (v. 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 9:17 and 22:13, should either be understood as an address by one Jew to another, or possibly as anticipating Paul's soon becoming a Christian. Regardless of which of these options is correct, Acts portrays Paul becoming a Christian and being baptized in the Spirit at the same time.
(5) In Acts 10:24-48 (also 11:12-16) Cornelius and his relatives and friends are baptized in the Spirit at the time they become Christians.
(6) Those who claim that baptism in the Spirit does not typically take place at conversion often 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 in question are portrayed as already Christians when Paul meets them.
This, however, seems 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) in the name of the Lord Jesus. Although it is not entirely clear, it seems much better to suppose 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 discussion so far has provided us with strong biblical evidence that we should expect new Christian converts to be baptized in the Holy Spirit at the time of their conversion. There is, however, one further passage that needs to be considered, Acts 8:5-17.
Pentecostals rightly point out that in this passage new Christian converts in Samaria are not baptized in the Spirit until some 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 learn of people who are first baptized in the Spirit at a time that is later than the day they become Christians (other than those who became 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 take place 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 all the qualification that is needed for being baptized in the Spirit.
It seems that in the case of these Christians in Samaria, for some mysterious reason the apostles Peter and John were needed to lay hands on these Christians for them to receive and be baptized in the Spirit. Presumably Philip the evangelist, who evangelised them, was not able to do this himself. I don't know why that is. But essentially these believers in Samaria can be regarded as new Christians at the time they were baptized in the Spirit. 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, for some mysterious reason, there was a delay in new Christians being baptized in the Spirit, then maybe similar situations will 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.
I would therefore encourage those Pentecostals, who think it is normal for Christians not to be baptized in the Holy Spirit until some time after conversion, to reconsider their theology. In fact, according to the Bible, this is highly abnormal. Spirit baptism is for new Christians.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about how I think traditional Pentecostal theology of baptism in the Spirit originated. Why did the first Pentecostals come to sharply distinguish between regeneration and Spirit baptism, when, as far as we know, all Christians before them believed that these things overlap? And why did many of the first Pentecostals claim that Christians should often not expect to be baptized in the Spirit until some time after their conversion?
It seems to me that this theology originated when Pentecostals misinterpreted their experiences of the Spirit. I think that the following happened:
Many Christians had sudden advances in their (genuine) experiences of the Holy Spirit some time after they had become believers; they correctly regarded these advances as involving baptism in the Spirit; they correctly believed too that they had been regenerated by the Spirit when they had become Christians some time before; but they wrongly concluded from this that God's normal procedure is to give regeneration and baptism in the Spirit in separate stages.
I would suggest that although these Christians experienced a much deeper baptism in the Spirit at some point after being first regenerated than they had at regeneration, this was not because it is God's normal plan to separate regeneration and Spirit baptism.
Rather, I suggest, the main reason this happened was because something was wrong at the time of their conversion, in one or both of two ways. Either they did not have hands laid on them as a means of God imparting the Spirit to them (Acts 8:17; 19:6; Heb 6:2) when they should have had, and/or they wrongly believed that today God does not impart the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Then, later, when they had hands laid on them or they were open to being given gifts of the Spirit, they had a deeper experience of the Spirit. Something of this sort happened to me myself.
Even when God's will is done regarding the laying on of hands at conversion, and even when Christians are open to being given gifts of the Spirit at that time, it is of course true that believers often come to experience new gifts at some point after their conversion. I am also convinced that sometimes - perhaps often - it is not God's will to give a new convert any of the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 at the time of their conversion, even if they are open to receiving them. So I am sure that some of the sudden advances in the Spirit experienced by Christians at a time after they are first regenerated are not because anything was wrong at the time of conversion. But I do think that these advances mainly occur because of the two problems I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Incidentally, I think that instead of saying that people in this category are regenerated at the time of conversion and then baptized in the Spirit some time later, it is better to say that at conversion they are regenerated and also baptized in the Spirit in a limited, stunted kind of way, and that later on they are baptized in the Spirit much more deeply. This allows us to recognise that there is an overlap between regeneration and baptism in the Spirit.
Please also see my related article:
Should Laying on of Hands Accompany Christian Water Baptism?
Google: Max Aplin "Should Laying On"
I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.
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