Acts and the Baptism of the Spirit

What does the Book of Acts teach about Spirit baptism? Does it teach it as a second work of grace, subsequent to conversion? Or does it teach it as part of the work of conversion? If the latter, than does that mean one has to be baptized in the Spirit in order to be saved?

Proponents of Spirit baptism as a second (or third) work of grace find the strength of their argument from two passages in Acts. In Acts 8:14-16 Samaritans received the gospel and were baptized, but they had not been filled with the Spirit. When Peter and John came from Jerusalem and laid hands on them they were baptized in the Spirit. This seems to be a clear demonstration of Spirit baptism as a second work of grace, for it must have taken at least a few days for people to travel from Samaria to Jerusalem and fetch the apostles.

There is no question that these believers did not receive Spirit baptism at the time they believed, or even when they were baptized, which would have followed the formula laid out in Acts 2:38. But it also seems clear that this was an unacceptable situation, one that needed the immediate attention of the apostles. To send for them, making them take a long journey, one that probably would have taken more than a day, to have them address the issue of believers who were not filled with the Spirit indicates that this was an exceptional case.

If Spirit baptism was accepted by the earliest Christians as a work of grace subsequent to salvation, then it is difficult to explain why Philip would see it as a problem, especially one so severe as to send for apostles to fix it. But if all believers were filled with the Spirit when they believed or were baptized, then this would be a striking contrast to the norm, causing many to wonder if God has in fact accepted these Samaritans. Maybe they need to become full-fledged Jews before God will accept them and give them his Spirit. So Philip calls for help, but when Peter and John arrive, they do not make any further requirements. Instead, they merely lay hands on them and they are filled.

Apparently, what God wanted was apostolic affirmation of the conversion of the Samaritans. Jews of Judea and Galilee viewed Samaritans as half-breeds or foreigners, which is what Jesus called a Samaritan in Luke 17:18. But they would not be considered pagans. One of Luke’s concerns in Acts is to show that through the Holy Spirit, God unites all the sects of Judaism. Without apostolic approval, uniting “foreigners” like the Samaritans to the Jerusalem church might have been problematic, much like uniting Gentiles was, requiring a conference to settle the matter (Acts 15).

It is also noteworthy that Luke records John as recommending immediate judgment on the Samaritans for resisting the ministry of Jesus (Luke 9:54). Now this same John is praying for them to receive the Holy Spirit. This must have been a formative moment in John’s life and ministry. In any case, Acts 8:14-16 seems to demonstrate an exception to the rule, not an example from which to form doctrine. Spirit baptism as a separate work of grace should not be taught from this passage alone.

To find a supporting text, some turn to Acts 19:2 Paul asks followers of John the Baptist, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed” (KJV). Paul seems to indicate that receiving the Holy Spirit is something that happens after believing, seemingly as a second work of grace.

The participle in this verse (since ye believed) expresses action antecedent to the action of the main verb (have ye received). This would suggest that the receiving of the Spirit and believing are two separate acts. But the antecedent action of a participle can sometimes be so close in time as to be negligible. That seems to be the case here, and that is why the NIV renders the phrase, “when you believed.” That means Paul is asking if they received the Spirit at the time they believed, not at some future time. So this verse does not support Spirit baptism as a separate work of grace.

It might be suggested that simply to ask the question means Paul was entertaining the idea that people might not receive the Spirit upon conversion. But the context of the passage suggests something else was in Paul’s mind. These were followers of John the Baptist, and Paul did not know the content of their faith. By asking if they had received the Spirit, Paul could ascertain whether these were believers in Jesus, or simply disciples of John who had not yet heard that messiah Jesus had come. So Paul’s question does not mean he thinks believers might not receive the Holy Spirit immediately. Quite the opposite, it means because all believers do receive the Spirit, he can find out if these are true believers simply by asking them if they have received.

This is not to say that there are no experiences of the Spirit subsequent to salvation. Acts 4:31 shows a dynamic explosion of the Spirit in the lives of believers who had already previously been filled. We should always be hungry and seek for the Holy Spirit to fill us, refill us, and keep us filled. But we also should not preach the gospel in two parts, telling unbelievers they need to be saved, so the Holy Spirit can indwell them, and wait until after they are saved to tell them they need to be infilled. The full gospel message needs to be shared with unbelievers, including the baptism of the Spirit.

Pentecostals are frequently charged with believing in doctrines based on experience, rather than Scripture. For the most part, this charge is specious. But there may be a case for it here. At the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, believers were being marvelously filled with the Spirit as God was restoring a missing ingredient to the church. Because believers had gone so long without this important aspect of the Spirit’s work, God needed to fill millions of believers with his Holy Spirit, after which, many of them would go on the mission field and see millions of unbelievers saved and filled with the Spirit.

The people formulating Pentecostal doctrine had almost all been filled with the Spirit many years after having been saved. It seemed obvious to them that Spirit baptism was a separate work of grace, and so that is how they interpreted Acts. And that works for people who are already saved but have never experienced the fullness of the Spirit’s work in their lives. But what about new converts?

Could it be that the reason so many believers do not receive Spirit baptism until months or even years after their conversion is because that is the way the message was proclaimed to them? What would happen if when we witnessed to unbelievers, we told them that when they get saved they can receive the baptism of the Spirit with an observable manifestation of the Spirit’s power? I think a lot more people would get filled with the Spirit the moment they believed. Of course, it is a lot easier to assume a person is saved on the basis of a prayer without requiring a supernatural manifestation of the Spirit to verify it. Which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven or rise up and walk, or speak in tongues? But if we believe in the power of the gospel, we can trust God to fill those who seek him and to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

Again, I am not suggesting that one should not be considered saved who has not manifested any Spiritual gift. However, I would suggest, based on the Book of Acts, that Luke might question the salvation of such a person. We live in a different world today and many sincere, godly Christians, some of whom have done much to change the world and advance the kingdom of God, have never manifested a Spiritual gift. Spirit possession is the mark of a Christian, and if one is possessed by the Spirit, the evidence will be there. That evidence is a changed life.

But there is also power in the Holy Spirit, and my desire is to see all believers endued with power from on high. Why not? Who would not want God’s power? If it is not for today, then no harm will come from asking God for whatever he has for your life. If it is for today, you could be missing out on something great by not asking. If you ask for a fish, God will not give you a serpent. There is no risk of receiving something demonic from God. Satan cannot intercept your prayers, and God always gives good gifts to his children. So why not ask for the power of the Spirit today?


5 comments on “Acts and the Baptism of the Spirit

  1. Joe says:

    Mr. Alt I believe one important part that may have been overlooked is the passage in John 20:22 when Jesus breathed on the disciples and commanded then to receive the which was Resurrection Day and then told to go and wait for the promise of the Father. Just wanted to know your thoughts.

    • Joe, some people think the disciples were filled with the Spirit when Jesus breathed on them, but I do not think so. I believe the breathing was a prophetic act signifying what they would receive. if they had already received, then why does Luke tell them to wait in Jerusalem until they receive? Waiting for the promise indicates they had not already received it. That came on the Day of Pentecost.

  2. Sarah Lloyd says:

    My experience has been that people have received the Holy Spirit Baptism with the evidence of speaking in other tongues before a verbal confession of faith, at a verbal confession and before water baptism, and also simultaneously with water baptism. Rather than confirm a second experience, it showed to me God’s creative variety and desire to show Himself a Being concerned with individuals and not just methodology initiated at Pentecost and stamped out for every believer afterward.
    Philip preaching in Samaria would suggest that he, at least, was already open to the idea that salvation was intended for the Samaritans. That Peter and John were sent to Samaria by the apostles also suggests little resistance to the idea that God had intended salvation for the Samaritans. Of course, these are just opinions. The council at Jerusalem actually records the acceptance by the elders in Jerusalem that God had intended the Gospel for the Gentiles, which would have included the Samaritans, who were Gentiles who intermarried with the Jewish lineage. If God had intended to use Peter to set the first disciples free from prejudice against other nations receiving the Gospel, why have this preliminary confirmation in Samaria that does not specifially record any opposition or prejudiceto Samaritan salvation?

  3. Sarah Lloyd says:

    The disciples in Ephesus were first baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. It wasn’t until Paul laid hands on them that the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in other tongues. This suggests to me, although within probably a very short span of time, a second experience. If not, is it necessary to have a verbal confession, then a water baptism, and then laying on of hands to be assured of salvation as confirmed by the Holy Spirit coming upon the believer? Okay leave out the water baptism, but still that thinking might suggest that there is more to being saved than what is written in Romans 10:9, that is an additional requirement of a laying on of hands so the Holy Spirit could come upon the beleiver.
    Although I have personally been thankful for the gift of speaking in other tongues as evidence of the resurrection of the Messiah, I thought the Scriptures indicated that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are children of God. Romans 8:15-16. There is nothing mentioned in that verse about any other action or qualification other than confession and belief.
    Just some thoughts. 🙂

    • Sarah, there are successive events in the process, but, as James Dunn puts it, these events are all part of the conversion-initiation process of salvation, not separate works of grace, as Pentecostals call them. The Holy Spirit testifies to us that we are children of God, but the physical evidence refers to testimony to others that you are God’s child. How did Peter know that Cornelius had been saved? He spoke in tongues.

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