Traditional and Nontraditional Spirit Baptism
I was sitting in a new member’s class once when I was a bit humored and slightly perturbed at what I heard. The pastors were surveying the church’s view on baptism. After a great teaching on water immersion and the symbolism behind it, a pastor began to debrief us on the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I was first cautioned when he prefaced his teaching by asking the audience to first disregard any and all traditional teachings on the subject. He mentioned that he was “not going to be teaching any Baptist or Methodist teachings” but rather he would be explaining “the biblical teaching of baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Now, I was at a Charismatic church and expected the teaching that followed, but that little disclaimer took me by surprise. I chuckled.
For many years, the church taught that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was a spiritual immersion of the Christian into the body of Christ. It involved both the washing of sins (regeneration) and the raising in new life (renewal) as described in Titus 3:5.
In fact, the apostle Paul detailed the baptism in his letter to the church in Corinth. He wrote “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The traditional view would argue that this spiritual baptism is a one-time experience that occurs at the moment of conversion, but believe there is another repeated experience after conversion referred to as “being filled with the Holy Spirit.”
However, in the early 1900’s a new teaching arose from the Charismatic Movement that described this spiritual baptism as a second experience that occurs sometime after conversion. Thus, the baptism does not refer to the regeneration and renewal of the believer, but to an unmerited promotion to a different class of spiritual life – a higher class. It is like the immediate transformation of a child to an adult. It is also a one-time experience (as the traditional view teaches) but it is subsequent to conversion. The belief of another repeated experience after conversion is also understood like the traditional view.
So then, the primary difference between the traditional and nontraditional view of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is (1) the work of the baptism, and (2) the timing of the baptism. A survey of both views should help us understand these differences more thoroughly.
Similarities in the Two Views
Both view the spiritual baptism in light of the physical baptism. This is first recorded in the gospels. In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist points out that his baptism by immersion is only a symbol of the coming baptism that Jesus will conduct (also Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). He clearly made a solid parallel between the two works – they were both baptismal. He also distinctly differentiated between the two works – one was physical and symbolic, and the other was spiritual and the object of symbolism. In other words, John’s baptism pointed to the actual and real spiritual baptism that Jesus gives.
Moving ahead in Jesus’ ministry on earth, He teaches the disciples about His ascension and then the dissension of the Holy Spirit. He says to them, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things” (John 14:26; 15:26). Jesus spoke often of this coming gift. He explained that unless He ascend to heaven, the Holy Spirit would not be given (John 7:39; 16:7).
Moving even further to the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christ instructs His disciples one last time in regards to this coming Holy Spirit. He tells them to go to Jerusalem and “wait for what the Father had promised.” Then he connects the symbolic baptism to this coming baptism, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4). The disciples did as Christ instructed and the Holy Spirit was given to them on the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. They were baptized by the Holy Spirit. God’s promised was fulfilled. This event was a point of transition in history. The ministry of the Holy Spirit was now more involved in individual lives then every before.
The remaining events recorded Acts are essentially where the two view divide. At this moment we will identify those events from a historical standpoint and then analyze the differences in the survey of each view.
The first is in Acts 8:15-17. Peter and John were sent to Samaria to pray for the new converts. Luke records that they “prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.” He writes that the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” So they had only the symbolic baptism in water. They had not yet received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the way that Peter and John had experienced. Luke says that they “began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.”
The second record of the spiritual baptism is in Acts 10:44-45. Peter had just arrived at the house of Cornelius who was a Gentile. While Peter is speaking, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening.” The Jewish Christians who accompanied Peter were amazed that even the Gentiles received the spiritual baptism.
The third and final event is in Acts 19:2-7. Paul arrived in Ephesus and questioned the Christians there, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They did not know what he was talking about. They mention only a water baptism. Paul then laid his hands on them and “the Holy Spirit came on them.” They were spiritually baptized.
Spiritual baptism is explained in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. This passage will be the focus in our Survey of the Traditional View.
Survey of the Traditional View
The Traditional View would argue that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a divine act by God that takes place at the moment of conversion. It is not actuated nor requested by man in any respect other than his faith to initial belief unto salvation.
The argument would begin with the connection that Christ made between the physical and spiritual baptisms. He tells His disciples “to wait for what the Father has promised.” And then tells them that the Father has promised a baptism like the one John performed, only this one will be with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4).
With that connection, the Traditional view would begin the case. John’s baptism was one that represented a transformation of some kind. It symbolized a washing of sins and a resurrection of newness. Paul used this sort of terminology in Titus 3:5. He says that God “saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” According to Paul, being saved is being washed of sins and renewed by God. This is a description of the salvation experience.
Another passage (and maybe more intensely argued) is found in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Again, Paul writes about a spiritual event that takes place at the moment of salvation. He calls it baptism. He writes, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Those holding the Traditional View would use this passage as their smoking gun. Here, you find Paul describing the baptism of the Holy Spirit as an inclusive event for all Christians regardless of their nationality and social status. To deny this baptism to those who have not yet received it would imply denying them true Christian status. In other words, Paul is saying that to be a Christian is to be spiritually baptized.
Now, while that may not directly answer the question of when the baptism must take place, it does directly answer the question of who will be baptized – all who believe. It implies, however, the answer to when. According to Paul, the person who believes in Christ is considered part of the body of Christ. Thus, one must be baptized into this body. So Paul implies that spiritual baptism occurs at the moment of conversion. The passage above from Titus also affirms this truth.
So the struggle to understand is complicated by the narratives in Acts that we read earlier. Why did those who believed already, not have the baptism of the Holy Spirit? This is most problematic in Acts 19:1. Paul asks the believers at Ephesus, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
There is no denying the fact that they did not receive the Holy Spirit yet still believed unto salvation (see 19:1). The Traditionalist would argue that the Holy Spirit was not yet taught to all people. The gospel was proclaimed and many were saved, but few were aware of the Holy Spirit’s involvement at all. So they had not received because they had no knowledge of Him.
It could be understood today like an inheritance left behind to a child. The child has no knowledge at first, but his ignorance does not necessarily mean that the inheritance is not his. Not until a lawyer informs him of his inheritance does he recognize its existence. So it is never used in any way.
This is how the new converts were living in their new life in Christ. They were saved and had the Holy Spirit, but did not recognize His existence. Nevertheless, their ignorance did not mean that the Holy Spirit was not with them. Ephesians 1:13-14 makes this even more clearer, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession.”
So to be washed from sin and renewed in Christ is to have the seal of the Holy Spirit. To have the Holy Spirit is to be saved. Therefore, to be saved is to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
In summary, the Traditional View teaches that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a one time event that happens at the moment of conversion whereby the believer is washed from sin and renewed in Christ as a new creation.
Survey of the Nontraditional View
The Nontraditional View would argue that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a divine act by God that potentially takes place sometime after conversion. It is actuated by God and can be invoked by man.
Rather than appealing to the connection Jesus made between the physical and spiritual baptism, the argument primarily appeals to the pattern in the book of Acts.(i) The argument begins before the Day of Pentecost.
Notice that Jesus’ disciples were believers before Pentecost and certainly before Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). It was later that Jesus told them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). Then even after that when the Holy Spirit finally baptized them (Acts 2:4).
This then is the premise of the argument and the perspective by which the remaining Acts records are interpreted. In Acts 8:15-17, the Samaritans had already “received the word of God.” In Acts 10:44-45, Cornelius “feared God” before Peter’s arrival. In Acts 19:2-7, some conclude that the Ephesians were believers although there is no real indication of this.
But nevertheless there is a pattern among all four accounts (including the first disciples). And to this, the Charismatic disciples point. It is there view that Christians should follow the example of those early Christians by asking Jesus for this baptism and expect it to happen. In other words, these account in Acts are commonalities and not historical events (as the Traditional View holds). Therefore, it must be so today.
There is really nothing to be explained sense this view builds on clear narratives. However, explanation is demanded for the passage in 1 Corinthians 12:13 which seemingly spells out that spiritual baptism is a conversion event. They would agree with the Traditional View of this passage, but would suggest that this refers to a different baptism of the Holy Spirit.(ii)
Having two different spiritual baptisms is also their answer to the questions regarding the apparent connection between John’s baptism (physical) and Jesus’ baptism (spiritual). However, the Nontraditionalist would differ on these points.
The two views of baptism in the Holy Spirit, while controversially debated, are not matters of the faith that should divide the body of Christ. However, in many cases they do. More than often, both views share contempt for the other.
It is my opinion that whether you believe one way of the other, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is inevitable. All in Christ will experience it whether they know it or not. Therefore, it can be lovingly debated among the two parties. But division is unwarranted and ungodly. Disagreements can be held, but divisions must be abolished.
My hope is that I portrayed both views with care as to not show a bias to either, but to simply survey both in order that they may become clear to one who does not know the difference.
- Robert Charles Sproul. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit. In: Robert Charles Sproul, ed. Essential Truths of the Christian Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc; 1992. 41:117-119.
- Wayne Grudem, Baptism in and Filling with the Holy Spirit. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, InterVarsity Press and Zondervan Publishing House; 1994. 39.