Moving Beyond Confusion with the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#7)

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)

The seventh (and last) in a multipart blog post series

Let me share with you some of my personal journey. When someone says “charismatic,” with respect to the Christian faith, it can evoke a lot of different reactions….

I have had a number of friends who would consider themselves as “charismatic,” as well as friends who are “non-charismatic.” I have helped to lead worship at a Pentecostal church, back in college, as well as church fellowships that take a rather dim view of all things “charismatic.”Some friends really look forward to worshipping at a “Spirit-filled” church. Others will not touch anything “charismatic” with a 10-foot pole. I even had a girlfriend years ago who dumped me because she said I was too “charismatic,” which was strange, particularly since I do not think I have ever genuinely “spoken in tongues,” and certainly never around her!

Like British Bible teacher John R.W. Stott was, I consider myself open to the charismatic movement, but I am cautious. Like Stott, I do not believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be turned on and off at will, like a water spigot. Sure, there is the whacky stuff associated with many TV evangelists that drives me crazy, but my main concern is theological. It all started with that awkward conversation with my high school friend, some thirty years ago, that I mentioned in the first blog post in this series. I lost track of her over the years, but the theological conundrum she left with me has stayed with me:

Clarke, have you received the baptism in the Holy Ghost?

In one sense, the inner turmoil turned out for the best. I had to search the Scriptures for myself, seeking God deeper in my prayer life, asking that I might be filled more with His Spirit, in obedience to His Word. I still desire that, today. For that, I am most grateful for that conversation.

But in another sense, the question left me in a state of needless confusion. I read books by John R. W. Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones on this topic, and both had very different conclusions. Which one was right? I would have conversations with various pastors, all sharing conflicting views on the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

How was I to make sense of it all? What does the Bible really teach about the “baptism in the Holy Spirit?”

Sorting Through the Confusion on the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”

On more than one occasion, I have been tempted to throw my hands up in the air. For if Christians can not agree on the very nature of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, how could we have any confidence to identify when the Spirit is at work, and when the Spirit is not? In an ironic twist, the very doctrine, that was intended to give us assurance in Christ, led me to doubt. The very work of the Holy Spirit, to draw believers together in unity, had (and still has) become a sword of contention and strife among God’s people. Clearly, this is not a healthy state of affairs.

I know that I have not been alone in this. On the good side, there are those who have experienced healing, through teachings that emphasize the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” as a “second blessing.”

However, there are others who have tried to fake an experience of the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” in order to try to fit in with their particular movement. Others have linked their charismatic experience with the false teaching of the “prosperity gospel,” only to become disillusioned when the false promises of “prosperity gospel” preachers fail to materialize. These are tragedies that I hope that we can learn from, so that we might take a fresh and more responsible look at the Holy Scriptures.

Tying Myself Up in Theological Knots

As an analytical thinker, here is a good example of where it all got complicated for me: There is a concern regarding Christian apologetics, particularly when Bible teachers split off the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” from the initial conversion to Christ, as being normative for every believer. Many teach that to “receive the Holy Spirit” is the same as the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” using Acts 8:14-17 as a model.

First, the Samaritans “received the word of God,” their initial belief in the Gospel (v. 14), followed by the laying on of hands, where they “received the Holy Spirit”, for their “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). This same pattern is seen at Pentecost. The first group of disciples in Jerusalem, who were with Jesus after the Resurrection, had already believed in Jesus, only to be subsequently “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” in Acts 2after the Ascension.  In other words, when they were “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” they also “received the Holy Spirit,” and vice-versa.1

But a problem arises, when you also consider that many of those same disciples with Jesus, following the Resurrection, yet before the Ascension, also “received the Holy Spirit,” according to John 20:22. This idea of “receiving the Holy Spirit,” as a one-time event, subsequent to conversion, therefore has some problems. Did they “receive the Holy Spirit” twice, once before the Ascension, as in John’s Gospel, and again after the Ascension, as in Acts 2? Or, did the “receiving of the Holy Spirit” simply “not take,” in John’s Gospel? I think not.

So, how could these disciples “receive the Holy Spirit” in John, only to be later “baptized in the Holy Spirit” again in Acts, when the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is a one-time event? There are good, possible explanations for this, but they are not entirely intuitive.2

A More Sane Solution to the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit”

However, what if I was approaching this from an entirely wrong angle? Recall the argument laid out in this blog post series.

Once I understood that the coming of the Holy Spirit is meant to be the identifying marker for the believer, signaling the new covenant, that joins the Palestinian Jew, the Jews of the Diaspora, the Samaritan, and the Gentile together, by their faith in Christ, then the confusion melted away. At Pentecost, it was not just the original, Palestinian disciples who saw the Lord prior to the Ascension who “received the Holy Spirit.” Rather, the non-Palestinian Jews who were in Jerusalem for the Pentecostal feast were also included in “receiving” the Holy Spirit, when they believed in Jesus (Acts 2:37-39).

The language of “receiving the Holy Spirit,” or even the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is not about giving us a cookie-cutter model for how all Christian experience is supposed to happen. Luke is primarily being descriptive, as opposed to being prescriptive in Acts, but there is more to it. The key to understanding the coming of the Spirit, in the Book of Acts, is about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Old Testament prophecy anticipated a time when all true believers in God will have the Holy Spirit poured out upon them all, not just on an occasional few. The Holy Spirit is not dividing the community, but instead, the coming of the Spirit is bringing all true believers in Christ together, something quite different from what we find under the old covenant. So, it would make sense for the New Testament writers to address the question of whether or not the believer in Christ was truly a member of the new covenant, as opposed to the old covenant, under the Mosaic law. Under the new covenant, Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles all share together in the same Holy Spirit, whereas the old covenant was just for Jews alone.

It is in this sense that the early church got this right, by linking the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” with the sacrament of confirmation. In other words, the “laying on of hands” at confirmation does exactly that. It confirms that the earlier baptism by water really corresponds to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, under the new covenant.

The “laying on of hands” does not necessarily, in and of itself, impart the Holy Spirit. Rather, confirmation reaffirms that having belief in Christ is coupled together with the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Believing in Christ and “Spirit baptism” are distinct, but they can not be separated. No matter what our background, Jew or Gentile, black or white, etc., as believers in Christ, we share in the same Holy Spirit, that unites us together.

Or to put it another way, it is very easy to think that you are a Christian, when in fact, there is no clear evidence of the Holy Spirit present in your life. Is there an empowerment to witness for Christ in your life, as supplied by the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit of God drawing you to have fellowship with other believers, uniting you with them?

If not, then it is worth considering the possibility that you are not yet a Christian. Having a “head” knowledge of Jesus does not necessarily mean you have a “heart” knowledge of Jesus, granted by the Holy Spirit. You need both.

If you are a Christian, the very presence of the Holy Spirit should hold you accountable to seek the things of the Spirit, manifesting a desire for fellowship with Christians, and for ministry, through the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:1), and bearing evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, in your life (Galatians 5:22-23). Otherwise, your supposed “faith” is nothing more than intellectual assent to ideas, instead of having a life-giving relationship with Christ.

No Caste System Among the People of God

“Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is not a subsequent or “second blessing” experience, though we may be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” in a profound way, after our conversion, multiple times in our Christian life. In that sense, we can have “second blessing” experiences, and even possibly, third, or fourth, or more blessings as well. The Holy Spirit is not limited, and the church’s greatest need is to experience more heart-felt, Spirit-filled revival. So, let us welcome that work of the Holy Spirit.

I am not trying to be dogmatic here. It just seems like this is the best and most sane way to read the Bible consistently. I am open to be persuaded differently. But such persuasion needs to be based on the text of Scripture, and not through the subjective lens of personal experience.3 We live in an age where personal experience often has a greater degree of authority in our lives, as Christians, than submission to the Bible. We often project our own experiences, expecting others to conform in like manner, thus leading to errors in judgment.

In the controversy over the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” the result is often in the form of a “two-stage” or “two-tier” Christianity, whereby those who claim to have a particular experience tend to think of themselves as being more “spiritual” than others. Yes, we are expected to grow and mature in Christ, as we journey in our sanctification. But this should never cause us to look down on someone else who has not shared our exact experience. There is no caste system among the people of God.

 

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit might be imparted to us, in all fullness, that we might handle God’s Word faithfully, as His Spirit empowers us to be His witnesses, to the ends of the earth.

Notes:

1. Romans 8:9-17 makes a straight forward case from Paul’s perspective, that you simply can not be a Christian without receiving the Holy Spirit. But when we look at some passages in Luke’s Book of Acts, the story can get a little murky. Some say that all Christians have the Spirit, when they are “born from above,” at conversion, but that not all have been “baptised” in the Spirit. This series of blog posts has contended that such an approach is an ad-hoc solution, that just tries to smash various texts together, with little regard for broader context. However, others suggest that Paul’s theology of the Holy Spirit is different than Luke’s theology, but I do not see the need to take this approach, either. First, this would undermine the fundamental unity of the Bible’s theology. Plus, Luke was too much of a close associate of Paul’s, over several years traveling together, to have such a contrary theology. Yes, there is a Biblical tension here, but where do we find resolution? Andrew Wilson, a British pastor in a New Frontiers church, a charismatic fellowship in England, has a helpful, brief essay explaining the different views about “receiving the Holy Spirit”. I lean towards Wilson’s option number 3. As mentioned earlier in this blog post series, I do not intend to address the issue of whether or not the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are “valid” for today. That is another heavy topic that deserves separate attention. 

2.  I lost many hours of sleep in college trying to figure this one out. There are plenty of critics out there who look at something like this to disprove the inerrancy of Scripture. However, there are viable solutions. One solution I have heard suggests that when Jesus instructs the disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit,” in John 20:22, prior to the Ascension, that Jesus merely “breathed” on them. This would imply that the disciples did not receive the Holy Spirit at that time, but that what Jesus was doing was prophetically promising that they would receive the Holy Spirit in the future, presumably at Pentecost (see Bible translator Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, a footnote on p. 769). After all, there is nothing that strictly indicates that the disciples actually “received the Holy Spirit,” there in John 20:22. To insist that they “received the Holy Spirit” prior to “receiving the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost would threaten to undermine the inerrancy of the Bible (As critics might otherwise suggest that Acts and John were in conflict with one another regarding the founding of the church; i.e. Luke/Acts has it at Pentecost, whereas, John has it prior to the Ascension). This described solution to avoid this difficulty is plausible, and a number of commentaries and study Bibles are now favoring this view (see the ESV Study Bible and the NIV Zondervan Study Bible). This interpretation is supported by John 7:39, that specifies that the Spirit will not be given until after Jesus’ glorification, presumably meaning His Ascension. Also, most translations today have Jesus having “breathed on” and not “breathed into” the disciples, a loose allusion to Genesis 2:7 (Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible: The Gospels and Acts, Kindle location 16780) . Those who follow Martyn Lloyd-Jones might see this as an example of overworking the text to force a particular meaning out of it. Lloyd-Jones, a defender of biblical inerrancy, was not persuaded by this “prophetic-promise” view, as for him it violated the sense of the Greek grammar, that indicates that the “receive the Holy Spirit” is in the aorist tense, depicting a completed event, not a prophetic future one (Joy Unspeakable, pp. 252-253).  Though it should be noted, that Lloyd-Jones never clearly addressed the particular difficulty of reconciling the Samaritans’ “receiving the Holy Spirit” in Acts 8 versus John 20:22,  in Joy Unspeakable. So, who do you follow? Wayne Grudem or Martyn Lloyd-Jones? Well, I am no Greek scholar, but given a choice, I will go with Grudem here. However, as I see it, as implied in previous posts in this series, a far better solution that avoids this whole dilemma would be to recognize that the New Testament writers use flexible terminology with respect to the activity of the Holy Spirit (“receive,” “baptism,” “filled,” etc.). Underlying the terminology is the reality of the initial presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer at the moment of conversion. John Stott sees this to be the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” followed by subsequent “fillings” with the Spirit, which can happen on multiple occasions, that confirm and strengthen our original “Spirit baptism.” Otherwise, you tie yourself up in knots with pitting one Bible proof-text against another, something that Greg Koukl, with Stand to Reason, adequately demonstrates. Furthermore, the exact timing of when the church officially began; that is, either at Pentecost after the Ascension in Acts, or prior to the Ascension, as in John, is not important. What matters is that the Holy Spirit has come on all believers, under the terms of the new covenant. Getting too bogged down with terminology “minutia” can unnecessarily tie you up in knots!   

3. I fully recognize that Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the same argument regarding the subjugation of human experience to the Word of God, throughout his sermons. There are many charismatics and Pentecostals who would do well to heed Lloyd-Jones correction (and thankfully some do!). Nevertheless, even Lloyd-Jones’ non-charismatic advocacy for a “Spirit baptism,” subsequent to conversion, opens a door that is better left closed. Instead, let us open the door to the continuing work and presence of the Holy Spirit to revive our hearts (I am not the only one troubled by Unspeakable Joy.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones tends to take the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” theme, and run amok with it. This reviewer is along the same lines, but is even much, much harder on Martyn Lloyd-Jones than I am!) The problem could simply be one of semantics, but herein is where confusion lies. Here is another example: Lloyd-Jones makes the peculiar argument that baptism and the fullness of Spirit are not the same, in that someone can be filled with the Spirit and not be baptized in the Spirit (Joy Unspeakable, p. 67). I find his argument to be in error, because he contends that being filled with the Spirit, per Ephesians 5:18, is wholly something we do, whereas baptism is something that God does (Joy Unspeakable, p. 71). Yet, even in Acts 2:4, we find that the believers at Pentecost were filled with the Spirit. The action implied is that God was filling them with His Spirit. In this instance, being filled with the Spirit was not entirely something of their own doing. We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit, but this does not remove God’s role in that Spirit filling. The confusion is all the more apparent when Lloyd-Jones favorably quotes George Whitfield as speaking of being filled with the Spirit after his conversion, as a type of Spirit “sealing,” with no mention of baptism (Joy Unspeakable, p. 161). The Scriptures appear to use the terminology of filled with the Spirit with more flexibility than Lloyd-Jones allows, and the Bible also allows for multiple “fillings,” in contrast to the one, singular baptism. On the whole (and your mileage might vary), I see that John Stott’s argumentation in Baptism and Fullness provides greater clarity than Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Joy Unspeakable. As two other reviewers point out (here and here), Joy Unspeakable is indispensable to the contemporary debate regarding the “baptism in the Holy Spirit”.  I am very hesitant in voicing my disagreement with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as his legacy continues to inform the preaching of those whom I highly respect, such as Minneapolis Bible teacher, John Piper.   Nevertheless, it is apparent that despite his massive learning, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ exuberance in certain matters led to poor judgments, that the more cautious John R. W. Stott was right to correct.

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

3 responses to “Moving Beyond Confusion with the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#7)

  • John Paine

    Clarke,

    I’m blown away by your scholarship and the depth and balance of your argumentation. Wow!

    I’m more of a staid Scotch-Canadian, raised in the Presbyterian church, when it comes to expressions of the Holy Spirit. A little bit of “carrying on” goes a long way to turn me off. Even if I could separate the genuine from the disengenuous, I would rather avoid the issue entirely. But…there is the weight of Scripture against my comfort zone. As David the Older might pensively write, thanks for giving us something profound to think about.

    John

    Like

  • Jerry Dearmon

    Clarke,
    Sorry for the delayed comment but I needed to read this blog a couple of times in order to make sure I grasped your finer points. I agree with John that you have given us a scholarly and comprehensive treatise in these seven blogs on a sometimes difficult and controversial subject. I appreciate how you have helped me understand the meaning of Baptism in the Holy Spirit and receiving the HS and when those events occur. Do I fully agree with you and understand the subject now? I will not say fully but I do agree that we have His Spirit abiding in us a guarantee that we have salvation and it marks us as His. Also, His works are accomplished through us if we allow His Holy Spirit to be manifested in fullness in our lives. I often have expressed my simple theory that while we are here in this world we are both Spirit and Flesh and that at any given moment our percentage of each varies with the influence of our thoughts and actions. Galatians 5:22-23 is a great way to do a HS check on our lives. I am looking forward to experiencing the fullness of His presence in the Glory ahead.
    BTW, have your ever wondered why we call Him “the” Holy Spirit? Would it not be better to say “His” Holy Spirit?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clarke Morledge

      Jerry, Thank you for your feedback and interaction here.

      Let me just say that this last post was mostly personal, in sharing my own struggles with this issue, and how a lot of Bible teachers, in their efforts to explain the relevant texts, while advancing a particular point of view, have often complicated things for me, instead of providing coherent clarity.

      The “charismatic issue” was a particularly big issue, back in my years in college, in the 1980s. It does not seem be as big of an issue these days, at least in most evangelical circles, of which I am familiar. But back then, I was involved in a small Pentecostal church, acting as a worship leader, as some college buddies of mine had invited me to this church. In many ways, it was a wonderful experience, as I particularly loved the pastor and his wife. But I did struggle with some of the teaching, and so, I eventually left the church, after having some difficult, yet healthy, discussions with the pastor.

      But what made this period in my life so distressing, was that I was also a college leader in my student fellowship, on campus. Some of the adamantly “anti-charismatic” students felt that I was leading a “split” in the fellowship, because of my involvement in this church, which was anything but the truth. I had many more questions than answers.

      The whole fiasco eventually worked itself out, but I was still greatly bothered by this tension between “charismatics” and “anti-charismatics” in evangelical circles. So, I have worked over the years to try to bridge the conversation between the two extremes. I do believe that part of the answer lies in taking a fresh look at Scripture, to gain God’s perspective, instead of falling back on the thoughts of man. The other part is basically learning to the listen to and love one another.

      Anyway, I hope that gives some additional perspective on why this issue is so important to me. I am not trying to be dogmatic on my view, but I am trying to understand God’s Word, in the best way I know.

      As to how we refer to the “the” Holy Spirit vs. “His” Holy Spirit, I had not considered that question before. But you raise a good question, as there is a tendency to de-personalize our understanding of God’s Spirit. The language of the Bible appears to include both speaking of “the” Holy Spirit and “His” Holy Spirit, so I am not convinced that there is a right vs. wrong here. But it is worth thinking about, if we tend to underplay thinking in terms of “His” Spirit.

      Thank you for that. And thank you again for your careful interaction and dialogue here. It is really helpful!

      Clarke

      Liked by 1 person

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