Where Did the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” Come From? (#2)

Fired up by enthusiasm, the theology of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is taking over the globe. But what is it exactly? (photo credit: Getty Images, Economist magazine)

Second in a series of blog posts

When my friend from high school asked me if I had received “the baptism in the Holy Ghost,” I had no idea that this question was a culmination of hundreds of years of church history, as Christians over the centuries have wrestled with what the Bible teaches regarding the Holy Spirit. I talked with various pastors and read several books. It really is a fascinating story.

The “Spirit of God” is first referenced in Genesis 1:2, right at the beginning of creation. But the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is not developed extensively within the pages of the Old Testament. Instead, the Holy Spirit makes a big splash in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Luke, notably the Book of Acts.

For example, we read in Acts about the Samaritans who came to faith in Jesus

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, 15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.“(Acts 8:14-17 ESV)

Within the first few hundred years in the church, Christians generally took this “receiving of the Holy Spirit” to be part of the initial experience of the believer, someone who came to have faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Just as Peter and John “laid hands” on these new believers, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, so did early church leaders lay their hands on new disciples of Jesus, that they might be confirmed in their faith.1

This gave rise, particularly in the West, to the practice of confirmation, whereby these church leaders, who would mostly be called “bishops” within a few centuries, would visit different churches within their jurisdiction, meeting with new disciples in the growing Christian movement to make sure they had been properly instructed in the Christian faith.  Confirmation was always closely associated with baptism, namely water baptism (as with the Samaritans, being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”). But it was also associated with the initial inward experience of the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

How did this theological idea develop?

The Early Church and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit

In the Western churches, confirmation eventually became regarded as a sacrament, whereby the baptized person would have their baptism confirmed.2 Within a few centuries after the founding of the church, the water baptism of infants had become a standard feature of church life, whereby the parents of newborn children would bring their babies to a worship service, to have their children baptized, typically by a local church leader. But as the practice developed, the sacrament of confirmation was delayed until the baptized child became old enough to be properly instructed in the faith. Then the bishop would come to visit the local church, make sure that this novice believer understood the basics of Christian faith, and then lay hands on the older child or young adult, thus acknowledging the confirmation of the baptism.

Baptism and chrismation in a Coptic Christian church, one of the churches of the East.

In the Eastern churches, the sacrament developed somewhat differently, and it is still today called chrismation. The Eastern Orthodox normally do not wait until a baptized infant becomes older to be chrismated. When a baby is brought forward for water baptism, the baby is then immediately chrismated. Oil, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, is administered by the presiding church officiant with the laying on of hands. As in the Western churches, this act was often associated with the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

When the Protestant Reformation came along in the 16th century, the sacramental character of confirmation in the West generally began to falter. Some Protestant churches held to considering young adult confirmation to be a sacrament, whereas, other Protestant churches did not, but continued practicing some form of confirmation, anyway. Churches still associated confirmation with the culmination of a process of instruction, required for receiving the Lord’s Supper.

But by the time the acceptance of “believer’s baptism” became more common, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, confirmation had lost a lot of its former place within the Protestant movement. Even today, among Baptist type churches, that only acknowledge “believer’s baptism;” that is, full immersion in water, to outwardly symbolize conversion or regeneration, there is no clear corresponding act of confirmation, to distinctly recognize “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” However, many evangelical churches today, Baptist and non-Baptist alike, view adult church membership to be a relatively close equivalent.

Over the years, the confused or diminishing role of confirmation in the Protestant movement left a vacuum regarding how Christians should view “the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Aside from the meditations of some “Puritan sealers”, those who viewed “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” as the same as the “sealing of the Spirit,”3 very few Protestant Christians taught much about the “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” until the period of the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a developing theological process, but eventually, the re-emergence of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” exploded upon the church in the early 20th century, with the advent of the Pentecostal revival. We will continue to explore this story in the next blog post.


1. The biblical terminology regarding an experience with the Holy Spirit varies throughout the New Testament, which can get confusing. Bible translations even differ between being baptized “in” versus baptized “with” the Holy Spirit.  Bible translator Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, pp. 763ff, , explains that “in” generally implies immersion, as in being “immersed” in the Holy Spirit. However, a number of Bible translators go with the more neutral “with,” which is more flexible.” Scholarly opinion is divided on the matter. Furthermore, here in Acts 8, we have “receive the Holy Spirit,” but in Acts 1:4-5 and Acts 11:16, we have “baptized in the Holy Spirit” or “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:4 talks about being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” There is also the “sealing” of the Holy Spirit, as in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22.  Scholars will draw distinctions between these various terms, but it is not always clear as to how they relate to one another. For example, as I will try to demonstrate, baptism in the Holy Spirit and being filled with the Holy Spirit can be overlapping, but they are not really the same thing. Baptism happens only once in a person, whereas the infilling with the Spirit can happen multiple times. We have no reports of someone being baptized more than once in the New Testament. But in the case of Paul, he was filled with the Spirit on multiple occasions, such as near his initial conversion (Acts 9:17), and later when he encountered Elymas the magician (Acts 13:8-9). In another example, it would appear that to “receive the Holy Spirit” is somewhat elusive, as to its particular meaning, a topic that I will explore later. For the purpose of these blog posts, and for the sake of simplicity, I mainly want to address the terminology of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”  

2. Classically speaking, a sacrament is the outward, physical sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The question of how/if grace can be communicated to the recipient of the sacrament is beyond the scope of this blog post series. This brief overview of sacramental theology will have to suffice, as the nuances in associating Spirit baptism with confirmation/chrismation can get quite involved.

3. An example of  a “Puritan sealer,” would be the late 16th to early 17th century English Puritan, Richard Sibbes. Sibbes made a distinction between the indwelling of the Holy Spirt versus the sealing of the Holy Spirit, as being two separate experiences.  The Spirit indwells the believer at conversion, as the believer becomes “born again,” otherwise known as “regeneration.” Other Puritans, such as John Owen, opposed this distinction as not reflecting the teaching of Scripture, emphasizing that we are sealed with the Spirit at regeneration. This debate is part of a larger discussion that preoccupied the Puritan divines during this era, of ordu salutis, which is Latin for the “order of salvation.”  While there is much profit to think about the process of how God works out salvation among His people, the ordu salutis debates from the 16th to the early 19th century tended to go on ad nauseum.  When I read E. Brooks Holifield’s incredibly detailed work, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of Puritans to the Civil War,  the ordu salutis debates that Holifield chronicled just made my head spin. The Puritans were awesome, but in this area, some of the Puritans tended to make things way too complicated.  

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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