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Have you been baptised in the Holy Spirit?

December 1999 | by Palmer Robertson

Much of the Christian church in the last half of the twentieth century has stressed the matter of the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. Some of the fastest-growing churches worldwide put great stress on the necessity of being baptised in the Spirit.

This ‘baptism’ is often described as something that occurs after conversion and demonstrates the power of God in the life of a believer. According to this teaching, not every Christian has experienced baptism in the Spirit, although they could if they would.

According to this popular view, many (perhaps most) believers lack this experience, and this accounts for the lack of power in the churches today. The baptism of the Spirit, they say, will be accompanied by special signs, notably speaking in ‘foreign tongues’ or languages.

Novel idea

How are we to evaluate this teaching on the baptism of the Spirit? Could you, along with many other Christians, be missing one of the greatest blessings God intends you to have?

It should be noted that this teaching about the baptism of the Holy Spirit is comparatively modern. Hardly anyone among the church fathers, or for the last two thousand years, has suggested anything like this novel idea.

As an example of earlier opinions on the subject, the words of Augustine (A.D. 354 -430) may be noted. In commenting on 1 John he says: ‘In the earliest time, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues”, which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance”. These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening [i.e. it was fitting that a sign be given] of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening [i.e. for a sign] and it passed away’.

Twofold significance

In attempting to consider this issue as it relates to the teaching of Scripture, we must consider the specific usage of the phrase ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit’. The expression is found seven times in the New Testament, and these instances present a twofold significance of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Firstly, the baptism of the Holy Spirit marks the inauguration of the new covenant age in its fulness. This is the aspect we shall consider in this article. This initial baptism in the Holy Spirit may be likened to the ‘christening’ of a ship. When a boat is launched, a bottle of champagne may be broken against its bow as a symbolic action. This one-time action launches the ship upon its life on the high seas.

Secondly, the baptism of the Holy Spirit marks the initiation of each and every believing individual into the blessings of the new covenant. This baptism in the Spirit of every believer in Christ may be compared to the issue of a ticket which confirms that a particular person belongs on the ship. We shall consider this second aspect next month.


Six of the seven references in the New Testament relate the ‘baptism of the Spirit’ to an inauguration, the beginning of the new covenant age. All six draw a distinction between the redemptive working of God in Old Testament times, up to and including the days of John the Baptist, and what would follow after the Spirit had been poured out by the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Parallel references are found in the four Gospels. In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist says: ‘I baptise you with water for repentance; but he who is coming after me … will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and in fire’. In Mark 1:8 we read: ‘I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you in the Holy Spirit’. Luke’s version (3:16) is: ‘I baptise you with water; but he … will baptise you in the Holy Spirit and in fire’. Finally, John 1:33 reads: ‘He who sent me to baptise with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptises in the Holy Spirit”’.

In each of these four cases, a contrast is made between two successive epochs in redemptive history. No person living prior to the point in history at which Jesus, as the crowned Messiah, poured out his Spirit, could experience the baptism of the Spirit.

The testimony of Acts

Jesus himself is the only exception to this fact. He received the baptism of the Spirit at the time of his own water-baptism, since he was the Son of God (cf. Matthew 3:16). Other people could be born again of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). The prophets of old, and the disciples of Jesus, could experience the sanctifying work of the Spirit in a limited sense. They also received certain gifts from the Spirit. But it was impossible for them to experience the baptism of the Spirit before Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father, for ‘the Holy Spirit was not yet given because Jesus was not yet glorified’ (John 7:39).

Two further references to the baptism of the Spirit are found in Acts. Both contrast the two ages of the experience of the Spirit, just like the four references in the Gospels. The resurrected Christ is twice reported as having used this phrase. In Acts 1:5 Jesus says: ‘John baptised with water, but before many days you will be baptised in the Holy Spirit’. Again, in Acts 11:16, Peter reports the same statement: ‘I remembered the words of the Lord, how he said, “John baptised with water, but you shall be baptised in the Holy Spirit”’.

Just as in the Gospels, Acts distinguishes between the time before the coming of the Spirit in fulness, and the age after he was poured out on believers. Only after Jesus had taken his seat at God’s right hand as the ‘anointed one’ could he pour out his Spirit from his heavenly throne.

Double experience?

It is for this reason that people living today cannot have the same two-stage experience of the Spirit as did the original apostles. They lived across the two eras, namely, the time before the outpouring of the Spirit from Messiah’s heavenly throne, and the time after that event. The clock of history would have to be turned back for a person today to have the same kind of double-experience of the Spirit.

People today can no more have this two-level experience, than they can have the two-level experience of Jesus that the disciples enjoyed. For a few years the disciples lived daily in the company of the flesh-and-blood manifestation of the Son of God. Then, after Christ had ascended into heaven, they experienced his presence through the outpoured Spirit, just as believers do today. But theirs was obviously a historically unique experience; no one today can share it.

Yet a large number of people insist that every believer today needs to have the same two experiences of the Spirit as did the original apostles. They say that a person must first experience the Spirit at the time of conversion, and then later receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

This viewpoint overlooks the uniqueness of the experience of Peter and the other apostles. They clearly were converted by the Holy Spirit during the lifetime of Jesus on earth. This can be seen from Peter’s famous confession, and the Lord’s response. Peter says, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Jesus responds, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:16-17).

So Peter clearly was converted before Pentecost. But he did not receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit until the new age of the Spirit was inaugurated on that day. Believers today cannot go back to the time before the Spirit had been poured out — for which we should be grateful.

An idea to be resisted

To summarise, then, six of the seven uses of the phrase ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ in the New Testament underscore the transition between the two ages of the Spirit. The people of the old covenant experienced only a limited manifestation of the Spirit’s power.

After Christ was exalted to the right hand of the Father, a new age of the fulness of the Spirit was inaugurated. The day of Pentecost ushered in this new era of the outpoured Spirit. Because the original disciples were unique in living through both ages of the Spirit, their experience cannot be used as a model for the experience of every believer. Their conversion to faith in Jesus and their baptism in the Holy Spirit were separated by several years from one another simply because no one other than Jesus himself was baptised in the Spirit until the day of Pentecost.

Believers today should resist the idea that they must have the same two-fold experience of the Spirit as did the original disciples. It is impossible to turn back the clock of history to give every believer the same experience as the first disciples.

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