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Baptised in the Spirit

This Pentecost, Roger looks at Baptism in the Spirit and investigates the different ways in which people interpret what it means for us today, and how we can understand the controversy surrounding it.

As we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, and are reminded of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it is good to look once again at the Baptism in the Spirit spoken of in the New Testament, and try to understand the controversy surrounding what this means for us today.

Baptism in the Spirit has been a seriously divisive point of doctrine, and has caused people to take sides and divide within the one 'Body of Christ'. As a result, many Christians are perplexed, and uncertain of what to believe. To the outsider it may appear that one 'camp', although doctrinally exact, lacks warmth and fervour, while another, though full of zeal, runs too often to excess and spiritual superiority: and all this centres round a phrase that is only mentioned seven times in the Scriptures, by four different people, on only four separate occasions!

 

This article examines three popular interpretations of those verses containing the phrase 'Baptism in the Spirit'. Understanding the validity of each of these interpretations, and the possibility of their peaceful co-existence, could help to maintain the unity of the Spirit among believers. Divisions often arise through an unnecessarily exclusive approach to the interpretation of this Scriptural phrase.

 

Three popular views of the Baptism in the Spirit

 

1. HISTORICAL AND POSITIONAL

This implies that the Baptism in the Spirit which took place at Pentecost was unique, and constitutes a position into which all believers enter when they believe in Christ.

 

 2. CONTEMPORARY AND EXPERIENTIAL

implying that the 'Baptism' is a personal event which can be experienced by each individual believer throughout the church age, subsequent to, and separate from, their conversion to Christ.

 

3. CORPORATE AND LOCAL

suggesting that each local gathering may, or should, have its own experience of being welded into one body of believers by the advent of the Holy Spirit.

  

We shall now consider these three viewpoints in greater detail.

 

1. HISTORICAL AND POSITIONAL

 

Those taking this view quote 1 Corinthians 12:13, 'For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body', and say that, since Pentecost, to be converted is to be in the Body of Christ, and therefore baptised in the Spirit, not through a second experience, but through an historical event, appropriated by faith. Otherwise, they say, this verse would imply that there could be true believers in Christ not yet in His Body because they had not had a 'Baptism' experience.

 

Furthermore, the Greek tense in the phrase 'you were baptised' (the Aorist tense indicating an event in time) can be interpreted as refering to the whole church, into whose position all believers now enter.

 

Moreover, in Matthew 3:9-12, when Pentecost was foretold by John the Baptist, he linked it first with the end of the old age, Israel. ('God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Now the axe is laid to the root of the trees'), and then implied that Baptism in the Spirit would mark the beginning of a new age, the new people of God, that is, the church. Just as Israel came into being in history as a national entity through the Exodus from Egypt, (they were 'baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea', says Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:2), so the church came into being through the death and resurrection of Christ, and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. And, of course, since the great Exodus of Israel from Egypt, every individual Israelite has stood in the good of that event, and is 'in Moses'.

 

Similarly, those of this viewpoint would argue, every individual Christian since the first century is 'in Christ', and stands in the good of the event at Pentecost when the Spirit was given, without necessarily having a personal 'Baptism in the Spirit'.

 

Furthermore, when Peter defended the events in the house of Cornelius to the brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 11:15-18), he said that the Holy Spirit fell on them 'as on us at the beginning', (i.e. at Pentecost). Therefore, he says, he remembered how Christ had foretold them of Pentecost, saying 'John baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit' (quoting Acts 1:5, when Jesus added 'not many days hence', which plainly related His words specifically to Pentecost). Peter recognised that the Gentiles had received the same gift, from which he understood that God had included the Gentiles in the church.

 

The point of this argument is that at least ten years had elapsed since Pentecost but Peter did not argue that the Gentiles had been baptised in the Spirit like every other convert since Pentecost, but that they had received the Holy Spirit as the first disciples had at the beginning. In other words, Peter equated the experience in Cornelius' house with the event at Pentecost, but he did not explicitly term this Gentile experience 'the baptism'. Rather he interpreted it as a conclusive sign that the Gentiles were included equally with the Jews in the church,

 

This viewpoint also interprets the events in Samaria (Acts 8), Caesarea (Acts 10) and Ephesus (Acts 19), when new converts received the Spirit - in two cases delayed after their coming to faith in Christ - as emphasising for the whole church age that Samaritans ('half-breeds'), Gentiles ('strangers') and John the Baptist's disciples ('younger brothers'), are all now included in the one Body, and thus in the one Baptism of Christ at Pentecost. These occasions could be considered as unique, and not necessarily termed 'Baptisms', nor seen as creating a precedent for future church experience.

 

The case for this viewpoint is very strong, but let us now consider the next.

 

2. CONTEMPORARY AND EXPERIENTIAL

Those who hold this interpretation may start with the words of John the Baptist (e.g. Matthew 3:11), where John compares his water baptism to Christ's Spirit Baptism, and argue that John's water baptism was both individual and a real experience, as one and another were dipped into the Jordan. Similarly then, the Baptism of Christ would be individual, for the Holy Spirit would be available as 'a rushing stream' (Isaiah 59:19, RSV) into which the Christ would dip His followers; and it would be a real experience, subsequent to conversion, for the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost was in addition to the new birth. Equally, in Acts 10, the events in the house of Cornelius could be termed a Baptism in exactly the same sense as Acts 2, and not just ‘like Pentecost', (see argument under viewpoint 1 above),

 

Furthermore, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:13, 'by one Spirit you were all baptised into one Body', he could be indicating not the inauguration of the church age at Pentecost, but that the believers at Corinth had experienced their own Baptism in the Spirit on a specific occasion, and the Aorist event tense of the verb would certainly allow this view.

 

However, the interpretation of the verse raises the problem that a believer who had not had such a Baptism as an experience would not appear to be in the Body of Christ. Some people have sought to deal with this difficulty in their interpretation by claiming that there are two Holy Spirit Baptisms. They claim that, of the seven places in the New Testament when Baptism in the Spirit is mentioned, the first six mean Baptism by Christ in the Holy Spirit, but the seventh - in 1 Corinthians 12:13 - means Baptism by the Spirit into Christ's Body. Thus, the first kind of Baptism would be the experiential Baptism in the Spirit, occurring subsequent to conversion, while the Baptism mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:13 is one which takes place at conversion, and which is purely for the purpose of placing us in the Body of Christ. In such a way some have tried to explain away the problem which this verse presents to those of viewpoint 2. But such an interpretation of the verse does not commend itself on three accounts:

(a) The Greek preposition in the phrase 'Baptism in the Spirit’ can indeed be translated as either 'in' or 'by as the argument above requires, but it is the same preposition in all seven occurrences of the phrase, and the Greek grammatical case for the word 'Spirit' is the same, which makes any distinctions in meaning and usage of the phrase unfounded from a linguistic point of view.

(b) To use one verse to establish a doctrine (in contrast to six other verses when the same phrase is used) is a dubious method of Biblical interpretation, ('In the mouth of two or three witnesses a thing shall be established ' is a good guideline).

 (c) To be consistent in following the picture of Body and Spirit which the Bible uses, we must assume the Body and the Spirit to be concurrent and co-existent, as body and spirit normally are. When they are not – i.e. 'body without the spirit' - the body is dead (James 2:26). Such a picture, therefore, would surely imply that to be immersed (baptised) into the Body is to be immersed in the Spirit of that Body.

But there is a more satisfactory way of solving the apparent difficulty of this verse, while still holding to the second view of a contemporary and experiential Baptism. Every other case in the New Testament of being baptised into something implies that you are in the element before you are baptised into it. For example, John the Baptist demanded real repentance in a person before he baptized them into or unto repentance (Matthew 3:7,8,11). Paul speaks of people being baptised into Christ (Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:27), but of course these would have come to faith and then been incorporated into Christ before they were baptised in water.

 

Similarly, the Israelites were 'in Moses' when they obeyed him and put blood on their doorposts, and followed him out of Egypt, before they were 'baptised into him' in the Red Sea. So the convert to Christ is in his body by faith before he is 'baptised into the Body' by the Spirit, for action. Just as the Holy Spirit came upon Christ at the outset of His public ministry (Luke 3:22), so the church, His Body, was clothed ('endued') with the Spirit in order to make her public debut, and commence her own ministry.

Furthermore, one could argue, every Christian needs to experience his own 'clothing' with the Spirit, to fit him for ministry to the world, that he should not be spiritually 'exposed' (Revelation 3:18).

 

Finally, the cases mentioned above from Acts chapters 8, 10 and 19, can obviously be used to support such a viewpoint, which would see the Baptism the Spirit as an individual experience, occurring subsequent to conversion, and applicable throughout the church age.

 

Once again, the argument for this case is very strong, but we must also consider the final view-point.

 

3. CORPORATE AND LOCAL

 

Those of this persuasion point out that on the three occasions in which a 'Baptism in the Spirit' is described, it is a corporate affair. At Pentecost, there were one hundred and twenty disciples gathered together, while in the house of Cornelius there were his household and friends. Similarly, 1 Corinthians 12:13 could be taken to mean that the local church had its own Baptism experience as a fellowship together (the Aorist tense used in 'you were baptised' could also support this view).

 

Such events do seem to recur in church history when revivals begin, and also one comes across companies of believers now and then who convey this sense of the Holy Spirit among them - that breath of life and blessing that says 'the Lord is there’.

Once again, it seems a feasible proposition to support that, since the Baptism is into or for the Body, it would be a corporate experience.

 

What can we conclude from all this?

 

First, all three views of Baptism in the spirit have good, perhaps foolproof, backing from the Scriptures and all three are held by equally godly men. Therefore, each viewpoint deserves respect, and its adherents should be honoured for their faithfulness to God's Word - not despised as either ignorant or 'unspiritual'.

 

Secondly, the three views are not mutually exclusive. Just as Calvary is both an historic event and a personal experience, and can be a corporate experience in the case of a mass turning to Christ, so Pentecost is an historic event but can also be experienced personally and corporately.

 

Thirdly, for an adherent of view 1, walking in faith in the Spirit's outpouring on the church at Pentecost, their life, labours and spirituality will in no way be inferior to one of viewpoint 2 who has had, or seeks, an experience of the outpoured Spirit in order to have greater faith in Him. We are saved by faith in Christ, not by experience of the Spirit. Therefore, there can be no evaluation of Christians in terms of experience, for all are in Christ Jesus.

 

Fourthly, we can expect there to be times when God meets a praying people corporately with revival, not only for its own welding together as a unified body, but also to energise that body for outreach and service, We should encourage such corporate seekings of God for His outpouring of the Spirit to be expressed in and through us.

 

Fifthly, we should encourage, not deter, one who seeks a personal experience of the Spirit's immersion, for such an experiential touch from God confirms His love for us, and thereby strengthens us for service. It is like the kiss of His love to the soul, which gives us confidence in declaring that love to the world. However, in counseling such a seeker we should uplift the Lover, God Himself, as the One he desires, and not seek merely to induce an experience. For, to continue the analogy, that would be as bad as 'sex at any price from any hand', when the person giving it is of lesser importance than the experience. Such an approach to this spiritual experience is, at best, cheapening God's gift, and at worst, highly dangerous. Like John the Baptist, let us point to the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire, and not to the fire itself.

 

Finally, we will be content for the Holy Spirit to be sovereign in His dealings with God's people. He has different ways of leading us, according to the requirements of our individual personalities, and varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in everyone (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

 

A good place to conclude, therefore, is with Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians:

 

'Be at peace among yourselves. ... Encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all ... Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil.’

 

'May the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.'

1 Thessalonians 5:13-14; 19-23

 

 

Roger Forster, 23/04/2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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