Perhaps the primary doctrinal difference separating Pentecostals and most Charismatics from the rest of Christendom is the doctrine of Baptism in the Holy Spirit. According to their view, Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a singular milestone in the Christian life that occurs subsequent to salvation and is evidenced by speaking in tongues. The Assemblies of God considers Baptism in the Holy Spirit one of their four Core Doctrines and one of their 16 Fundamental Truths:
All believers are entitled to and should ardently expect and earnestly seek the promise of the Father, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the normal experience of all in the early Christian Church. With it comes the enduement of power for life and service, the bestowment of the gifts and their uses in the work of the ministry.
To support this statement they cite Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4, Acts 1:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. They also add that Baptism in the Holy Spirit is “distinct from and subsequent to the experience of the new birth,” citing Acts 8:12-17, Acts 10:44-46, Acts 11:14-16, Acts 15:7-9.
But is such an event really an essential part of the Christian life? Does the Bible really teach that Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs subsequent to conversion? Are Christians who haven’t had such an experience falling short of God’s plan for their life?
Let’s take a look at what the Apostle Paul has to say about the subject in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For we were all baptized in one Spirit into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In other words, all Christians have been baptized in one Spirit resulting in all Christians having been placed into one body. Baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs at conversion, not subsequent to it, and is a singular event that places us into the body of believers. Regarding this verse, James D. G. Dunn says, “once the initiatory and incorporative significance of the metaphor is grasped, the Pentecostal arguments fall to the ground.”
In light of this passage, how then do Pentecostals maintain their belief? Largely because of a translation issue. Most translations of 1 Cor 12:13 read “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body…” (NIV). The phrase “by one Spirit” rather than “in one Spirit” allows for a theological loophole: if this verse is taken to mean that the Holy Spirit is the one doing the baptizing, then it cannot be a fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prophecy regarding Jesus: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mat 3:11). If the Spirit is doing the baptizing at conversion in 1 Cor 12:13, then the Pentecostal must look elsewhere to find where Jesus baptizes us with the Spirit, and so they do, interpreting events in Acts to find the post-conversion baptism in (not by) the Holy Spirit.
But is such a reading tenable? Is 1 Cor 12:13 the only place in the New Testament that speaks of the Holy Spirit baptizing us?
Let’s look at spirit baptism as it is actually used in the New Testament. The Greek for baptism in the Holy Spirit is always βαπτίζω + ἐν (baptize + in), such as βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι (he will baptize in the spirit). Spirit baptism is always describe as being done by Jesus and in the Holy Spirit, just as water baptism is always done by a person and in water. So in Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, says: “He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί).
Baptism in the spirit is mentioned six more times in the New Testament; here are the first five instances:
βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ.
he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit
βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ
he will baptize in the Holy Spirit
βαπτίζων ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ
who is baptizing in the Holy Spirit
ἐν πνεύματι βαπτισθήσεσθε ἁγίῳ
in the Holy Spirit you will be baptized
βαπτισθήσεσθε ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ.
you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit
All of these verses use the exact same grammar, βαπτίζω + ἐν (baptize + in), to describe the element in which we are baptized. The last verse mentioning baptism in the Holy Spirit is one we’ve already discussed:
1 Cor 12:13
ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι ἡμεῖς πάντες εἰς ἓν σῶμα ἐβαπτίσθημεν
in one Spirit we all into one body were baptized
1 Cor 12:13 is grammatically consistent with the way Holy Spirit baptism is used everywhere else in the New Testament — Paul uses the exact same pattern, ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι … ἐβαπτίσθημεν (in one Spirit … we were baptized). Consistent with New Testament usage, the text clearly says that we are baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Why then do English translations say “by” instead of “in”? Because what sounds perfectly normal in Greek (ἐν…εἰς) sounds quite awkward in English: in…into. But Paul is choosing his words carefully, and is describing the results of our Spirit baptism. Our baptism in (ἐν) the Spirit brings us into (εἰς) the body of Christ. εἰς refers to the goal and final location of the action taking place. Paul uses the same grammatical construction in 1 Cor 10:2: πάντες εἰς τὸν Μωϋσῆν ἐβαπτίσθησαν ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ (all into Moses were baptized in the cloud and in the sea). Here the cloud and the sea are the elements they are baptized in and that baptism placed them into Moses, in the form of new life under the Mosaic covenant with Moses as their leader.
If Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a universal Christian experience at conversion, what then do we make of the seemingly mysterious experiences of the Holy Spirit that Pentecostals build their theology upon, such as the so-called Johannine Pentacost (John 20:19-23), the Riddle of Samaria (Acts 8:14-17) or the Day of Pentacost itself (Act 2:1-6)? I won’t take the time to exegete these passages in this post, but suffice it to say that all these passages must be interpreted in light of Paul’s clear teaching that Baptism in the Holy Spirit is an initial experience that brings us into the Body of Christ.
To answer the questions I posed earlier, Baptism in the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian life; it is an experience in which all Christian partake. But contra the Pentecostal understanding, it does not occur subsequent to conversion. To seek future experiences of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life is a noble (and biblical) goal, but to divide Christians into two classes (those who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit and those who haven’t) is not only biblically and theologically misguided, it is a potentially dangerous doctrine that can lead to divisiveness, false expectations and misplaced efforts.