What Is Spirit Baptism?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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Many Christians today testify that sometime after they became believers, they experienced another amazing work of God called “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” As they understand it, this work of God, subsequent to conversion, brings the believer into a new, ongoing experience of the Spirit in which they receive greater blessing and empowerment for godly living, meaningful worship, and effective ministry. It is evidenced typically by speaking in tongues. This understanding of baptism in the Spirit is held traditionally by many Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.

But other Christians have not had this experience of a dramatic second work of grace. Do these Christians have a deficient relationship with the Spirit? Are they at a significant disadvantage compared to other Christians who have had this second work? If not, how should we understand the experience of those who have experienced a dramatic work of the Spirit in their lives?

Baptism in the Spirit

The best way to proceed is to consider what the Scripture says about baptism in the Spirit. The expression in Greek, baptizein en pneumati, occurs seven times in the New Testament. Four of them involve John the Baptist’s prediction that Jesus will baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). Two passages in Acts (1:5; 11:16) use the expression to describe what happened on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Spirit came upon the disciples. The last passage to use the expression is 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (esv).

First Corinthians 12:13 makes clear that all Christians have been baptized in the Spirit; Paul’s whole argument in this context hinges on this reality. This demands that baptism in the Spirit happens at the moment of conversion in connection with union with Christ. Yet Christ’s disciples were baptized in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, well after their conversion. So which is it? The Pentecostal view’s solution to this dilemma is to distinguish baptism by the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:13 from baptism in the Spirit in the other texts. The former happens at conversion and is true for all believers; the latter is the second work of grace described above. But this distinction has no basis in the Greek text; the same expression, baptizein en pneumati, is used in all seven passages. This suggests it is the same baptism in the Spirit in each text, and so it must occur at conversion.

What About Pentecost?

But if Spirit baptism occurs at conversion, how do we account for the experience of Jesus’ disciples on the day of Pentecost, when they were baptized in the Spirit well after their conversion? To answer that, we need to keep two important considerations in mind. First, Jesus inaugurated the new-covenant age. This included a more powerful, intimate relationship between the Spirit and each new-covenant believer than that experienced by old-covenant believers (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:26–27; Num. 11:29; Joel 2:28–32; Acts 2). The day of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit marked the beginning of the Spirit’s new-covenant relationship with believers (Acts 2:14–21). Second, Jesus’ disciples lived during the transition to this new-covenant relationship with believers. Therefore, while they believed in Jesus long before the day of Pentecost, they did not receive this new relationship with the Spirit in Spirit baptism until the day of Pentecost. But unlike believers in Acts during this transitional stage, all believers since then receive baptism in the Spirit at their conversion, as taught in 1 Corinthians 12:13.

What, then, is involved in this baptism in the Spirit that all believers receive at conversion? First, believers receive the Spirit into their lives forever thereafter (Acts 2:38; 8:14–17; 19:1–7; Rom. 8:9–11; Gal. 3:2–3). It ushers in the Spirit’s indwelling, which forms the basis for all His works in believers’ lives. Believers are thus initiated by Spirit baptism into the permanent, intimate relationship with the Spirit described by the new covenant. Second, while Jesus baptizes us in the Spirit (John 1:33), it is also true that through the Spirit received at Spirit baptism we experience the presence of Christ in our lives (Rom. 8:9–11). Third, baptism in the Spirit also unites the believer with the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). There is a real spiritual unity in the body of Christ, and this is due to the work of the Spirit in uniting each of us to all Christians universally. One cannot be part of Christ’s universal church without having the Spirit.

Second Work of Grace?

If all believers have been baptized in the Spirit at conversion, what might we say about those who have experienced a “second work of grace”? We need not dismiss the reality of powerful manifestations of the Spirit in the lives of believers after their conversion, even though such manifestations are not Spirit baptism as described above. This work of the Spirit best explains the powerful manifestations of the Spirit that are often mistaken for baptism in the Spirit. The ongoing presence of Christ and the Spirit in believers’ lives, effected in Spirit baptism, is absolutely central for their growth as Christians, a topic to which we now turn.

For Further Reading:

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