Initial Evidence of Spirit Baptism?

Pentecostal theology has clung tightly to the doctrine of speaking in tongues (also called glossolalia) as the initial physical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. The biblical support for this doctrine comes almost exclusively from the book of Acts. In five places believers are filled with the Spirit and, Pentecostals assert, these five instances indicate tongues to be the initial physical evidence of Spirit baptism.

In Acts 2:1-4 and 10:44-46 it is clear that those who were filled spoke in tongues, and in Acts 19:1-6 the believers spoke in tongues and prophesied. But the other two instances are not as clear. In Acts 8:14-17 believers were filled with the Spirit with no mention of accompanying signs. But in the following verses Simon offers to purchase the ability to confer the gift as Peter and John did. This suggests that Simon saw or heard something impressive, a physical evidence that demonstrated that the believers were filled with the Spirit. It is reasonable to conclude that what he heard was speaking in tongues. In Acts 9 Saul is converted and filled with the Holy Spirit. Since Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 that he speaks in tongues more than the Corinthians, it is clear that Paul received this gift, and it is reasonable to think that it happened at the time he was filled with the Spirit.

Is this a correct interpretation of the Acts texts? To answer this question we have to ask, was Luke intending to teach tongues as initial evidence, or if not, do we see Luke assuming this doctrine in the way he describes the experience? It seems clear that Luke is not intending to teach initial evidence, for if he were, he would have been sure to mention tongues in every instance where Spirit baptism occurs. Leaving it out of the Samaritan experience in Acts 8 is most unusual if Luke wanted to teach this to his hearers. Also, combining prophecy with tongues speech in Acts 19 would have confused his intended teaching, unless he wished to say that both tongues and prophecy were the initial evidence.

But we need to take a closer look at the text to see if Luke might have assumed tongues as initial evidence when he wrote. If everyone already believed this doctrine, Luke would see no need to teach it, and he would not need to mention tongues every time he describes Spirit baptism, so its absence in Acts 8 and 9 is not disconcerting. But when Luke writes about Spirit baptism, any beliefs about initial evidence should become evident to some degree. Does Luke betray a belief in tongues as initial evidence?

If Luke believed in tongues as initial evidence, then the occurrence of prophecy in Acts 19:6 comes as a surprise. There Luke is describing the immediate effects of Spirit baptism. What he describes reveals what he believes to be the initial physical evidence, if indeed he believed there was such a thing. The inclusion of prophecy suggests that if there is an initial physical evidence of Spirit baptism, then speaking in tongues may be too narrow a category to describe it.

Speaking in tongues itself is a subcategory of prophecy, as Acts 2 indicates. Luke records Peter explaining the glossolalic outburst on the Day of Pentecost as a fulfillment of a prophecy by Joel that spoke of everyone prophesying (2:16-17). So for Peter and Luke, to speak in tongues is to prophesy. It is a form of prophecy. Partly for this reason, some Pentecostal scholars have suggested a broader understanding of the initial evidence doctrine. William Menzies suggested the term, “Spirit-inspired speech.” This would include prophecy as well as tongue-speaking, but would not be limited to those two manifestations. Any word spoken out of the fullness of the Spirit can be referred to as Spirit-inspired speech.

Prophecy in the apostolic age may have had two connotations. Narrowly defined, prophecy consists of words spoken from God through a prophet. Broadly defined, it can be any spoken word that derives its source from the Spirit, whether those words are in one’s native tongue or a language the speaker has never learned. In this case, a joyful outburst of praise in one’s native language can serve as evidence that one has been filled with the Spirit. I have often heard people burst out in praise to God in English and instantly knew they were praising God by the Spirit. Acts records this as part of the evidence of a Spirit-filled community (13:52; cf. 8:8). Today it may be confusing to refer to a sudden, joyful, outburst of praise as prophecy, but if it can be called Spirit-inspired speech, it may be used as an indication that one has been filled with the Spirit.

But perhaps all this talk about initial physical evidence is off the mark altogether. Reading Paul’s letters, one comes away with the conviction that all believers are possessed by the Spirit and that all are expected to be full of the Spirit at all times. There is no discussion of a second work of grace; only the full manifestation of the original work of conversion.

All believers receive the Spirit. One cannot receive part of the Spirit. He is a person and cannot be divided into parts. We who believe in Jesus have all the Spirit we are ever going to receive in this life. It is not a question of us getting more of the Spirit, but of the Spirit getting more of us. When we surrender our lives fully to him, we can begin to walk in the fullness of the Spirit. Any believer anywhere in the world can immediately be filled with the Spirit simply by fully surrendering to him. That includes the surrender of your mind that questions whether God still works miracles today, and the surrender of your tongue that only speaks what the mind tells it to say.

I believe the reason millions of Christians have never spoken in tongues is because they are convinced God does not want them to. If you are willing to surrender this presupposition and fall fully into the arms of God’s grace, you may be surprised what you hear coming out of your mouth. Regardless of what happens, though, why not do it? What harm can come from fully surrendering to God.

I do not think it is helpful any longer to teach Spirit baptism as a second work of grace. Millions of evangelicals are put off by this teaching. But if being filled with the Spirit simply referred to experiencing the fullness of him who already indwells us, more people would be open to experiencing that fullness, even if it came with a message in tongues. I hope that the future of the Pentecostal movement takes a step in this direction for the sake of unity and for the sake of truth.


5 comments on “Initial Evidence of Spirit Baptism?

  1. Nathan says:

    Thanks for discussion. I have to disagree with you. No one recorded in Acts expected to speak in other tongues,they didn’t have the option not to speak. It happened,as Joel prophesied. Thank you

  2. davidmccollough says:

    Modern narrative-critical tools shed light on this matter. In the new book from Paternoster, Ritual Water, Ritual Spirit, all sides in the debate are challenged.

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