Have you ever heard someone claim that they were “baptized with the Holy Spirit”? This phrase may be understood in a variety of ways, but often the individual is referring to a unique, one time experience in their Christian life, which placed them on a higher spiritual level. They are no longer merely born-again believers, but are now uniquely empowered by the power of the Holy Spirit for His work.

In many Charismatic and Pentecostal circles this interpretation of baptism with the Holy Spirit  is passionately taught. William Rodman, an influential Charismatic theologian states: “those who turn to Christ in true faith and thereby enter into a new life in His name may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (William, p. 187). 

At first glance this teaching might not seem like a big deal. But does the Bible teach a two-class Christianity? Are there “carnal Christians” and “spiritual Christians”? Even though those terms are used, the Bible never divides Christians into two levels. Every Christian is being guided, sanctified and being led by the Holy Spirit in the same spiritual spectrum by the same spiritual experience. 

So how do we go about this whole topic? Well, for starters, often times the various phrases like “baptism with the Holy Spirit”, “Spirit empowerment” and “being filled with the Holy Spirit” are used interchangeably. So initially, in our discussion, let’s focus primarily on the concept of “baptism with the Holy Spirit”. 

Baptism in the Holy Spirit- What is it?

In 1st Corinthians 12:13 we read: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (ESV). What is this text saying? The passage points out that there is unity in the church within diversity, because each believer is baptized “in one Spirit”. The result of this baptism in the Holy Spirit is an implantation of each person into the body of Christ, where each is exercising their unique gifting. But when does one gets implanted into the body of Christ? The answer is clear and undisputed: at conversion. This means that this baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs at conversion.It’s a simultaneous event.As soon as the person is born again, regenerated and saved, he is also baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a special outpouring on certain Christians but rather a universal manifestation at the beginning of their conversion. The text in Corinthians confirms this universality when it says “we were allbaptized,” and “We were allgiven the one Spirit”. Salvation is not the background or backdrop for baptism with the Spirit, but rather it is a single point at which one is saved, born again and, at the same time, is baptized in the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ.

What about the Pentecost experience?

Some may object by saying, “well, what about the Pentecost experience? The disciples were believers for a long time before they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.” The answer is very simple: the Pentecost experience is a unique experience in the life of the church, and we cannot associate our own experiences with it. This is very clear when we understand the transition that happened between the old covenant and the new covenant, and how Pentecost is the finale in that process. 

As Jesus comes into the scene he initiates the transition between the covenants, which is evidenced by his proclamation: “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). When John the Baptist prophesies about Jesus, he says, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). Then, throughout Jesus’s ministry he teaches his disciples: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Matt. 22:20). When Jesus dies on the cross, the “curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Matt. 27:51), symbolizing the end of the old covenant and the start of the new. Then, after His resurrection Jesus tells his disciples “John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirt” (Act. 1:5), referring to the Pentecost experience. Pentecost marked the beginning of the new covenant, or rather, the last piece in the transition between the covenants.

If we look at the Pentecost event itself, in Acts 2:1-12, we realize that Luke points out elements to this experience that are unique and are not found anywhere else afterwards. This was a dramatic event, accompanied by a loud noise, “like rushing wind”; flames of fire resting on the believers and them speaking in tongues. These tongues were clear, intelligible languages, of which the bystanders commented: “we hear them declaring the mighty wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). Peter raises his voice and speaks to the crowd by quoting Joel in Acts 2:17-18, indicating that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has happened as an inauguration of the new covenant. 

The reason this transition phase is so important to keep in mind, is because, when we approach the Pentecost event, we must realize that it was a unique event in the life of the church. It was the birth-day of the church of Jesus Christ! We cannot associate the Pentecost experience with any other events in the life of the church.

What about second experiences? 

There are several key texts in Acts that are used to discredit this position, yet upon a closer examination, these texts prove otherwise.

In Acts 8 we read that Phillip preaches in Samaria and many people there accept the word of God, yet they don’t receive the Holy Spirit. So, the Jerusalem church sends Peter and John, who lay their hands on them and in that act these new converts receive the Holy Spirit. Luke points out the uniqueness of this event: “the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them”, pointing out that, normally, when people believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes upon them right away. We need to keep in mind that Jews and Samaritans were living in a constant animosity (John 4:9). So, when the gospel spread to the Samaritan people, how could Christians in Judea truly treat them as brothers and sisters and not as some second-hand Christians? Grudem provides a very good answer to this and, also, a reason for why the delay of the Holy Spirit had to take place: “God in his providence, sovereignly waited to give the new covenant empowering of the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans directly through the hands of the apostles so that it might be evident to the highest leadership in the Jerusalem church that Samaritans were not second-class citizens but full members of the church” (p. 774). 

In Acts 10 we read about Cornelius and his friends, who were Gentiles, and after Peter came and laid his hands on them they received the Holy Spirit. Some may use his example to say that the Holy Spirit comes upon the believer after conversion, upon the laying of hands. But Cornelius and all the people with him were not believers in Jesus prior to this event. The angel that appeared to Cornelius didn’t tell him the message about Jesus, but instructed him to send for Peter. Peter himself tells them about Jesus Christ and only when they believe in Jesus, the Spirit falls upon them. 

In Acts 19, Paul arrives in Ephesus and finds disciples of John the Baptist. Paul asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed? The reason Paul asks this question is because he saw this as an unusual event, because they apparently had not. They said “no, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Some use this text to justify baptism with the Holy Spirit after conversion by emphasizing that they were believers yet needed Paul to lay his hands on them for them to receive the Holy Spirit. However, if we look closely we realize that these people didn’t even know about Jesus’ coming at this point. They only believed in what John the Baptist had preached. In other words, they still lived in the old covenant. Paul had to tell them that Jesus had already come. Only when they heard about Jesus did they become Christians and receive the Holy Spirit.

Filling with the Spirit

People in the Pentecostal and Charismatic circles often claim that they have “experienced” baptism with the Holy Spirit after conversion and have noticed visible spiritual changes as a result. Even though they might have experienced an unusual empowering, we cannot say that it was baptism with the Holy Spirit. This type of experience may point to a different experience that the Bible calls “filling with the Holy Spirit”.

There are important differences in terminology between “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and “filling with the Holy Spirit”. These differences are clearly portrayed when the disciples, who were “baptized with the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost, were also filled with the Holy Spirit prior to speaking before the Sanhedrin counsel (Acts 4:8). This shows that these two experiences are not the same thing. We also observe in Acts 4 that, when the disciples “had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spiritand continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). These were disciples who were already baptized in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and were repeatedly filled with the Holy Spirit.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit is a one-time even; yet filling with the Holy Spirit is a subsequent empowering of the Holy Spirit for a specific, intended purpose. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is a necessary part of our Christian ministry. Paul commands the church in Ephesus to be filled with the Spirit when he says: “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). Our life for God is completely dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. This text is a command for a continuous action on the part of the believer. We are to be under the guidance and control of the Holy Spirit at all times. Paul also says in Galatians 5:16 “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Believers are to yield themselves to God and rely on the Holy Spirit to empower them for godly living. Only then will they produce the fruits of the Spirit and not the thorns of the flesh.

To summarize, baptism with the Holy Spirit happens to all believers in Jesus Christ at the point of their conversion. From then on the Bible emphasizes the importance of being filled with the Spirit daily and continually; this is a position of dependence and desire for the Spirit of God to empower us and do His work in and through us.


Citations from:

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine 
  2. J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology