The Baptism of the Spirit

What is “the Baptism of the Holy Spirit”? Is it an experience which happens at conversion or sometime afterwards? Within this article, I hope to make the case that although the term itself refers to a specific event, the individual believer’s reception of the Holy Spirit today is associated with water baptism.

The Day of Pentecost

In the Gospels, John the Baptist speaks of one who would come after himself and baptize the people of Israel with the Holy Spirit:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
(Matthew 3:11)

The use of the word “fire” is connected with the “tongues of fire” which descended upon the apostles (Acts 2:3-4). This suggests that John’s description is fulfilled in the day of Pentecost itself (Acts 1:4-5) and not throughout church history. The apostle Peter ties the outpouring of the Spirit to a prophetic passage in the book of Joel which likewise appears to have a specific event in view (Acts 2:17-21; Joel 2:28-32), albeit one which is paradigmatic for the entire “latter days”.

From this point onwards, the book of Acts never again refers to a baptism of the Spirit. It does use the language of the Spirit being “poured out” or “received”, but the metaphor of being baptized with the Spirit is never used again. All of which suggests that the term has in view the specific outpouring which happened on the day of Pentecost, and not future times of revival or divine blessing.

Water Baptism

But of course, when people use this expression today, they’re normally just using it to refer to the Spirit being “received” or “poured out” upon someone, both of which are expressions used throughout the book of Acts. This is often tied up with the notion of a “second blessing” – that after someone has become a Christian there’s something more that they need to do in order to receive the fullness of God’s blessing.

The book of Acts, however, suggests that water baptism is the moment when the Spirit is ordinarily received (Acts 2:38, Acts 19:5-7). The few exceptions to this general rule within Acts are both highlighted as historical anomalies within the narrative (Acts 8:14-17, 10:44-48).[1] The idea of someone needing to continue to wait today for a kind of second blessing experience does not receive support in the pages of scripture.

An alternative view is that baptism is not necessary for the reception of the Spirit, which happens at conversion. It has been argued that to link the Spirit with baptism in this way undercuts the significance of faith as the means of forgiveness and salvation. Those advocating this view have appealed to Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?”
(Galatians 2:2)

The problem with this argument is that it takes baptism as though it were a “work of the law”, rather than as a means of grace, the benefits of which are received by faith. Later in the chapter, Paul quite directly associates faith and baptism (v26-37). So baptism can be assumed under the category of “hearing with faith”.

Conclusion

In summary then, the baptism of the Spirit refers in scripture to the initial outpouring which happened on the day of Pentecost. In order to experience the presence of the Spirit today, a person needs only to believe and be baptized.

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:38)


[1] The first passage involves a group of believers who had been baptized but hadn’t received the Spirit, which served the authenticate the ministry of the apostles as representatives of Christ. The second passage is a unique event in which the Spirit is poured out upon unbaptized Gentiles, serving as a sign of their inclusion in the kingdom of God.

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