A friend of mine, who I esteem highly when it comes to spiritual matters, once told me, “When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we’re all just guessing.” Though this statement may sound a bit like relativism, I believe there is actually a lot of truth to it. In my mind, it is the reason we see such a division surrounding the doctrine of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
There are at least two extremely opposing views on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. In one camp, you have what I would nickname the “Truth Christians” who put a high value on the scriptures and knowing God through his truth. Many (not all) of these believers would say that all Christians are baptized in the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion, and they would not necessarily associate a supernatural experience with it. On the other side, you have your “Spirit Christians” who emphasize an experience with God through the Holy Spirit and witnessing his signs and wonders. Many (again, not all) would say that the Baptism is a “second blessing” in that it is another singular event after conversion, which is evidenced by speaking in tongues.
I believe there is a balance to be found between the two. Growing up in more of the “Truth” camp, I personally have come to realize there is something to be learned from these believers who want to experience the Holy Spirit. You cannot completely know and understand him from through just knowledge. He is actually meant to be experienced as the person of God who lives with us and in us. This truth has been revolutionary for me. Not only can I know about God and pray to him, but I can actually know him, interact with him, and have him interact with me.
When I began to experience God’s Spirit in more supernatural ways, I began having to go back to the scriptures to figure out how my new paradigm fit into the Bible. Now, I was having to interpret the scriptures based on my experience with God, instead of the other way around. For example, I had studied the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues in the Bible many times and had formed an opinion on it based on my interpretation of that knowledge–but my interpretation was based on zero experience. When God later gave me that gift, I was able to go back and interpret those verses based on a personal encounter, and it all made more sense!
All that to say—as my friend had said—with the Holy Spirit, sometimes we are guessing because he is mysterious in a lot of ways. Certainly, we can know a lot about him from the Bible, but such knowledge alone can only take you so far. It is the difference between reading about a person in the newspaper and actually sitting down for coffee with them.
So, when it comes to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, I believe many “Spirit Christians” have formed their theology based on what they have experienced. They themselves may have had an experience where they encountered the Holy Spirit in a powerful way (separate from their salvation) and ended up speaking in tongues for the first time. And because of that, they assume this will be the norm for everyone.
This an example of the guesswork that goes into trying to understand how God operates. Those believers are just doing their best to interpret their experience; and I think there is a portion of it we can take away, but I don’t think it’s all right. You can’t really argue with someone’s experience, but the interpretation of it can be faulty. Here is where we need to learn from our Bible-centered brothers and sisters to make sure our experience aligns with scripture.
Somehow we need to meet in the middle. I think the experiential side shows us that a Spirit baptism does not always happen at salvation. However, the Bible also makes no indication that speaking in tongues is always a byproduct. Many Truth Christians also recognize the a need to be consistently filled with the Spirit, but many fail to realize that “filled” is merely another way to say “baptized.”
Allow me to offer several points from scripture to help us understand the Baptism of the Holy Spirt:
1. All Christians receive the Holy Spirit to a degree at salvation. Romans 8:9 (NASB) tells us, “But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him,” explaining that every believer has received the Holy Spirit into their life. I believe, through salvation, that God has given us the fullness of himself, but that does not mean that every Christian is “full” of God. This is evident by their actions. So, it is not that God is holding back the fullness of his Spirit from us, but we have to be willing to surrender to receive it.
2. Being “baptized” and being “filled” with the Holy Spirit are used interchangeably in the Bible. This is important to understand moving forward with the other points. Note that, in Acts 1:5, Jesus told the disciples that they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”, but then later in Acts 2:4, it says they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” at the actual event of Pentecost. Though these two terms provide slightly different imagery for this spiritual experience, it is clear that they are synonymous.
3. Note what the Greek word Baptizo means: immerse, submerge. We need to strip away the Christian jargon, and take this word for what it really is. I like the way Joseph Prince said it when talking about the Spirit Baptism: “It is one thing to have drunk some water, but it is another thing when you jump into the swimming pool,” meaning that all Christians can freely drink of the Holy Spirit, but he wants to completely immerse us in himself.
4. A Spirit baptism can be a separate event from salvation. We know this from the disciples at Pentecost, as well as from Acts 19:1-7 where Paul met a group of disciples—already believers in Jesus—who did not even know about the Holy Spirit. They had only been physically baptized (submerged) in water; but, when Paul laid his hands on them, they were baptized with fire. Some would say this was just a unique “transitional period” and that this does not happen today; but when you have so many other believers today describing similar experiences, you have to assume Acts 19 was not an anomaly. Plus, we have to think back to what Jesus said in Luke 11:13, that we can ask for the Holy Spirit, and God will freely give it. Tell me, why would we need to ask, if we already have all of his Spirit?
5. Spirit baptism can possibly happen at the same time as salvation. In Acts 10:44-48 after hearing the gospel from Peter, Cornelius and his companions were not only converted, but also baptized in the Holy Spirit simultaneously. This proves that Spirit Baptism can come at the same time as conversion, but it does not necessarily make it the norm.
6. Speaking in tongues can be one possible evidence of the Baptism, but it is not necessarily the only evidence. We know from Acts 2, Acts 10:46, and Acts 19:6 that speaking in tongues is a common occurrence after a Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Many people believe tongues is the evidence just because that is what they experienced, but that is not enough to assume that everyone’s experience will be the same. Acts 19:6 says that some of them also prophesied as evidence of the Baptism, so this seems to leave open the possibility for other experiences. From talking to others who each had a clear encounter (and what they believe was a Baptism) with the Holy Spirit, some felt electricity/tingling in their body, some felt extreme peace, some felt unspeakable joy, and others fell over under God’s power. For me, even though I speak in tongues now, I had a supernatural encounter with God long before the gift of tongues came. So, that might have been my first Baptism; but I don’t know, and frankly it does not matter to me. What is clear from the Bible and from others’ testimonies is that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is coupled with a powerful encounter with God.
7. The baptism/filling of the Holy Spirit is not necessarily a one-time event. In Acts 4:31, we see that the Apostles, who had already been filled with the Spirit once at Pentecost, were being filled yet again. Acts 13:9-10 (NASB) recounts that “Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him and said…” The writer seems to make note of the fact that, in that particular moment, Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit in order to preach. Acts 4:8 is another example, and there are many others. We also know that we can quench or grieve the Spirit, which seems to be the opposite of being filled. Being filled/baptized is not necessarily a once-and-for-all thing, but it is something we need to receive constantly.
I think the problem is that we try to put certain theology like this into a box and say that it has to happen a certain way every time; but, just like each person is unique, God works in each person’s life uniquely. It would appear that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit could look a little different for each person.
Another problem is we don’t like to feel like we are missing out on something. I believe that many Christians would rather believe they are already Baptized in the Spirit at salvation because it seems unfair that some people have it and some do not. I only say that because that’s how I used to view it; and I realize now that my attitude was from jealousy. But we cannot have faith to ask for something we think we don’t need. Faith comes by hearing the truth (Rom. 10:17). I only pray that what I am writing enables you to have faith to ask.
One thing is for sure: we need the Spirit’s baptism desperately for power in ministry, for freedom from bondage, and so much more. Some of the greatest Christian leaders of the past, including D.L. Moody, Charles Finney, Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, Andrew Murray, and Oswald Chambers all admitted that they had virtually fruitless ministries before they received the Holy Spirit’s power. They said everything was different after that.*
God’s ways are mysterious, so I am not going to claim that I have all of this figured out either. But what I do know is that we need to surrender to God’s Spirit everyday to be used by him! I also know what he promises if we ask:
“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:9-13, NASB)
* For more on this, I recommend They Found the Secret by V. Raymond Edman