What Is Spirit Baptism? A Fresh Look at A Pentecostal Distinctive

Perception is reality, as the saying goes. We all have our own thought worlds. Collectively, people with similar thought-worlds form a mini-culture through which they interpret everything around them. It is good to be firmly entrenched in a community, but it does not come without dangers. One of the greatest dangers is to think that one’s community has cornered the market on truth. People with such a thought pattern will judge outsiders not on the basis of Scripture, but on the basis of whether they deviate from their own community. This is one of the errors of many King James Only communities. Modern translations are corrupt not because they deviate from the original inspired text of Scripture, but because they deviate from the King James Version. In other words, they deviate from their own mini-culture.

Scripture teaches us that we need each other. Not only do we need each other within our little community of like-minded thinkers, but within the larger community of believers. We need those whose beliefs differ greatly from our own, perhaps even more than we need the people who are most like us. Those who differ with us see things from a different perspective, and they are able to see things we do not see. It is wise for every believer to be conscious of the community he is a part of, and be aware of doctrines and beliefs that are held because the community teaches it, rather than because that is the way Scripture demands it. In all likelihood, what the community teaches is what the Bible demands, but in some cases it is not. Sometimes a community teaches something unbiblical, but usually it just emphasizes a truth too strongly, shutting out all others who see things differently, even though Scripture is not clear enough on the subject to justify such dogmatism.

The community I am a part of is a combination of Pentecostal and Charismatic. This provides a mini-culture that includes expectations of supernatural expressions of the Spirit, including tongues, healing, prophecy, and miracles. Standing behind the expectation of these phenomena are some core doctrines about the Holy Spirit, a few of which may be considered part of the sine qua non (non-negotiables) of the Pentecostal movement. Not least of these is the doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The Pentecostal movement has always held Spirit baptism to be a separate work of grace from salvation, i.e., a post-salvation event that believers should seek. Seekers of this experience are usually told to expect God to give them something they did not previously possess – the infilling of the Spirit. At conversion believers are indwelt, but at Spirit baptism they are infilled.

My interpretation of Spirit baptism differs from this, and I plan to share my differences in this and future articles. But first I would like to express some problems that people from other communities have with the traditional Pentecostal position. people from other traditions have difficulty differentiating between indwelling and infilling. When they hear Pentecostals saying things like, “You need the holy Ghost,” it sounds to many of them as though Pentecostals view them as not possessing the Spirit, especially when the exhortations comes, as is so often the case, with an air of superiority: the one who has speaking to the one who has not. But possession of the Spirit is required for a person to be saved. Many evangelicals think Pentecostals are questioning their salvation when they are in fact only encouraging a greater experience of the Spirit. Pentecostals need to be more clear and more humble in their speech.

Many non-Pentecostals also believe they are already filled with the Spirit. They believe they have received all that God has for them and they are praying and laboring every day to walk that out in their lives. To be told that the Pentecostal church down the street has more of the Holy Spirit than they do may sound offensive to them. If you are Pentecostal and you do not understand why other evangelicals are not very accepting of you, this could be why.

Is it true that Pentecostals have more of the Holy Spirit, than non-Pentecostals? Sometimes it seems that way, especially when I see the gifts of the Spirit in operation. But often the opposite seems true. A lot of people who claim to have been baptized in the Spirit live lives that are so far from the teachings of Jesus that it is embarrassing to hear them publicly affirm they are Christians. Many people who have never been spirit baptized in the Pentecostal sense demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit better than most who speak in tongues on a daily basis. If we have more of the Spirit, then why do we not bear the fruit of the Spirit more consistently?

Could it be that Pentecostals do not actually have more of the Spirit just because they are Spirit-baptized? Does God give us part of his Spirit when we are saved, holding back so he can give us the rest when we receive Spirit baptism? I do not find this taught in Scripture. My Bible tells me that when we are saved we receive the Spirit, not part of the Spirit. You either have him or you do not.

If that is the case, then what is Spirit baptism? When Paul talks about it, he contrasts it with drunkenness: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). The contrast seems to be about what or who influences you. To be under the influence of alcohol leads to an uncontrolled life of sin, but to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit is to be under God’s control, leading to a life of praise and thanksgiving to God.

That suggests that baptism in the Spirit may not be about getting more of the Holy Spirit, but about the Holy Spirit getting more of us. Submission of the whole life to God will result in being filled with the Spirit, and the result is not merely speaking in tongues or prophecy. Spirit-filled people are first and foremost known as those who “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” who “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks (see verses 19-20). None of these activities requires a gift of the Spirit.

Perhaps if Pentecostals emphasized a life of praise and thanksgiving as much as they emphasized tongues and prophecy, they would not feel so isolated from the rest of the body of Christ. Perhaps if we were as eager to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit as we are the gifts, we would have better fellowship with other communities of believers who do not operate in the gifts. Perhaps those communities have something to offer us that we are lacking, just as we are convinced that we have something they lack. What if we all strove, like the Apostle Paul, to interact with each other in such a way that, “You and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom 1:12)? I think the whole church would be stronger and more unified, enabling us to focus more attention on the things we agree about, like our mission to reach the world with the gospel. Let us strive together for these things.


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