About Spirit Baptism

Spirit Baptism in The New Testament

One of the ongoing debates among Christians is “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” and its relationship to Christian experience. For well over a century, the Christian community has been divided into two major camps on this issue: those who follow a charismatic interpretation, and those who follow a more traditional (non-charismatic) understanding of the relevant NT passages. In charismatic circles, Spirit baptism is connected to a post-conversion experience, often called a “second blessing,” which supposedly empowers believers for greater spiritual growth and service. This second blessing is also vitally connected to speaking in tongues as evidence not only of the second blessing but of salvation itself. Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues are such important subjects that they deserve separate treatment, so this article focuses on Spirit baptism and a subsequent article will focus on speaking in tongues.

When one first looks up all of the New Testament passages that refer to Spirit baptism, it may be surprising to discover how few of them there are—only six. Spirit baptism occurs once in each of the four Gospels, and each one records John the Baptist’s prediction of the Spirit baptism that would occur in the future, that is, the future from John’s historical perspective (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). After His resurrection, Jesus made the same prediction but said it would occur “in a few days” (Acts 1:5), and this prophecy was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), which of course was the event John the Baptist was referring to. The last reference to Spirit baptism is Paul’s explanation of what that baptism means (I Corinthians 12:13). Before considering these passages more closely, another important fact should be considered. The phrase “the baptism of the Spirit/Holy Spirit” does not occur in the New Testament, and (as shown below) using this phrase places the emphasis in the wrong place, which leads to improper conclusions about Spirit baptism. Although “Spirit baptism” does not occur in the New Testament either, I prefer that phrase because it is briefer and void of theological implications. As we will see, the actual phrase in all six occurrences is “baptism in the Spirit.”

The phrase “the baptism of the Spirit” implies that the Spirit is the baptizer—as in the phrase “the baptism of John” (Matthew 21:25; Acts 18:25) where John is the baptizer—but this is not the case for Spirit baptism. John the Baptist’s words are clear that Jesus is the baptizer: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). This same event is also recorded in Mark 1:8 and Luke 3:16, while John 1:33 records the same message at a later event. John was the baptizer in water baptism and thus immersed believers “in” the water, and Jesus was the baptizer in Spirit baptism and thus immersed believers “in” the Spirit (at salvation) and will immerse unbelievers “in” fire (at the final judgment). In all three instances of baptism in this verse, “with” in the NIV should be translated “in,” which is a much better and more common translation for the Greek preposition en that is used each time. Thus, in water baptism, one is surrounded by water; in Spirit baptism, one is surrounded by the Spirit; in fire baptism, one is surrounded by fire. Spirit baptism, then, is primarily a ministry of Christ to His people, not a ministry of the Spirit, for Christ is the agent of baptism and the Spirit is the sphere of that baptism: Christ baptizes them “in” the Spirit.

Acts 1–2 indicates that the day of Pentecost marked the beginning of Spirit baptism. Using the language of John the Baptist in the Gospel passages we have already seen, Jesus told the apostles just before His ascension into Heaven, “John baptized with [better “in”] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with [better “in”] the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). This occurred ten days after Christ’s ascension, and Acts 2:1-4 describes it in some detail, including the response of the crowd to what happened and Peter’s evangelistic sermon that resulted in 3,000 people being saved. But the experiences described occurred only to the apostles, or at most to the 120 in the upper room (see 1:15), not every believer in Jerusalem at the time. This initial Spirit baptism resulted in “violent wind” (2:2), “tongues of fire” (2:3), being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4), and the ability to “speak in other tongues” (2:4). Many who have charismatic leanings emphasize the fact that speaking in tongues occurred at this initial Spirit baptism, but Luke did not say or even imply that speaking in tongues is the main indication that one has experienced Spirit baptism. In fact, Luke did not even address that issue here or elsewhere since he did not mention Spirit baptism again. To be consistent, the charismatics who make this connection should insist that the violent wind, the tongues of fire, and the filling of the Spirit must accompany Spirit baptism and its “second blessing” since all of them occurred on the day of Pentecost, but they do not. Another major problem for those who follow this charismatic understanding of Spirit baptism is the way they define speaking in tongues, but this issue will have to wait for the subsequent article. Luke’s narrative documents the fact that the initial Spirit baptism—the one John the Baptist and Jesus predicted would occur—happened on the day of Pentecost and was accompanied by these four evidences of the Spirit’s presence: violent wind, tongues of fire, filling with the Spirit, and speaking in tongues. The reason the Spirit manifested His presence in this way was so the apostles and others would know that the predictions by John the Baptist and Jesus had been fulfilled. But Luke did not say that every occurrence of this Spirit baptism would be accompanied by these events, much less one specific one like speaking in tongues. The fact that the apostles, who were already believers, experienced this baptism does not mean that believers today must look for an experience like this subsequent to faith in Christ. Neither Acts 1–2 nor any other passage in the New Testament even hint at such an idea. Instead, the experience of these believers on the day of Pentecost marked the transition from the old covenant (the Mosaic law) to the new covenant (the age of grace). The first people to experience Spirit baptism (on the day of Pentecost) were already believers, of course, for Christ would not baptize lost people in this way. But this was not a precedent for all believers to seek Spirit baptism after salvation. It happened this way only that first time on the day of Pentecost, but after that believers experience Spirit baptism at conversion as shown from Paul’s explanation.

The final passage on Spirit baptism is in Paul’s only reference to it: “For we were all baptized by [better “in”] one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:13). The other five references to Spirit baptism provided the historical background for that event, while Paul here gave the theological significance of Spirit baptism for every believer for the entire age of grace. Once again, Jesus is the baptizer as implied by the passive voice and as stated clearly in each of the four Gospels. Jesus baptizes all believers “in” (not “by” as in the NIV) the Spirit so that believers of all time would identify with each other as “one body”—thus uniting all believers no matter their ethnic (Jew or Greek) or social (slave or free) status. This verse is part of an extended discussion on spiritual gifts in chapters 12–13, which indicates that Christ’s purpose in baptizing us in the Spirit is to provide spiritual gifts for us so we can serve each other. Speaking in tongues is not the evidence of Spirit baptism (12:30 specifically denies this since Paul said not all believers have this gift) or of one’s salvation experience. The spiritual gifts that believers receive at salvation are the evidence of this baptism.

To sum up, each of the four Gospels records John the Baptist’s prediction of Spirit baptism (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33), and Jesus also predicted it just before His ascension (Acts 1:5). Spirit baptism occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), marking the transition from the era of the old covenant to the era of the new covenant that believers now live under. Paul explained that this Spirit baptism unites all believers “into one body” (I Corinthians 12:13), and the larger context demonstrates that this baptism is manifested in the life of believers through the exercise of spiritual gifts for the benefit of other believers. There is simply no evidence for the claim that believers must have a “second blessing” after salvation for spiritual power in Christian living and service to God. Further, none of these passages support the idea that all believers must speak in tongues as evidence of Spirit baptism, let alone as evidence of their prior salvation experience. Explaining speaking in tongues in detail is beyond the scope of this article, so that issue will be the focus of a later one.