Baptism & Receiving the Spirit
A few weeks ago, a portion of my sermon covered Acts 19:1-7. Paul encounters some “disciples” who had yet to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). It turns out that these twelve were disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:3). Being John’s disciples was commendable (Luke 7:29-30) but incomplete (Acts 18:25-26; 19:3-4). These men had never witnessed nor experienced the fulfillment of John’s words. Someone greater than he would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 19:4).
Of course, Jesus fulfills John’s prophecy. Jesus is the Christ who died to forgive his people’s sins (Acts 2:38) and reigns to give his people the Spirit (Acts 2:33). Paul ensured these twelve disciples knew Jesus. For Jesus, and Jesus alone, gives his people the revitalizing and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:4-6). Likewise, we too must ensure all disciples truly know Jesus who gives the Spirit.
Along the way, I exhorted the body like so: “If you choose not to identify with [Jesus] through faith and baptism, you will not receive the Holy Spirit. If you choose to identify with him through faith and baptism, he will pour out his Holy Spirit upon you.” Afterwards, a brother asked me to clarify what I meant by “through faith and baptism.” In other words, is receiving the Spirit caused by water baptism? It’s an important question, especially when some circles argue for a causal relationship between baptism and receiving the Spirit. But is that true? And what did I mean? Here’s my attempt to clarify.
Baptism & the Spirit in Acts
When trying to discern how water baptism relates to receiving the Holy Spirit, Acts isn’t so straightforward.[i] On some occasions, like the one in Acts 19, Christian baptism precedes receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 19:5-6). The same order transpires when Philip baptizes believers in Samaria. But on this occasion their reception of the Spirit is significantly delayed (Acts 8:12, 14-17).[ii] Differing from those examples is Acts 10-11. Hearing the gospel, Gentiles receive the Spirit first; and that act of God convinces Peter to baptize them (Acts 10:45-48; 11:15-17).[iii]
What should we conclude from these differences? First, we can say that water baptism is a crucial part of becoming a Christian. Jesus commanded the church to make disciples, baptizing them (Matt 28:19), and the early church obeyed him by baptizing those who believed in Jesus. By identifying publicly with Jesus and his church in the initiatory act of baptism, the believer gives expression to his faith and repentance.
Second, the situation in Acts 10-11 (not to mention the new birth!) guards us from saying that water baptism causes the reception of the Holy Spirit. God gave the Holy Spirit to believing Gentiles quite apart from baptism. That doesn’t minimize the importance of baptism. Nor does it mean there’s no relationship between baptism and receiving the Spirit at all. While not causing the Spirit’s reception, baptism surely signifies the cleansing and new life that comes with receiving the Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13).
Thus, water baptism in Jesus’ name doesn’t cause a person to receive the Holy Spirit, but the act does signify our faith in and identity with Jesus Christ who gives the Holy Spirit. And that’s all I meant by “identifying with Jesus through faith and baptism.”
I love you all very much, and I’m grateful for the Aquilas and Pricillas so willing to help me explain the way of God more accurately!
[i]A helpful resource that looks at faith, repentance, confession, baptism, and the gift of the Spirit in Acts is that by Robert Stein, “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament,” SBJT 2.1 (Spring 1998): 6-17 | http://d3pi8hptl0qhh4.cloudfront.net/documents/sbjt/sbjt_1998spring2.pdf. Stein shows that sometimes Luke mentions several of these actions together, and at other times they appear in different orders. Luke’s point isn’t to explain the logical order of our salvation, but to present these activities all as part of becoming a Christian.
[ii]Some say the delay was to have an apostle present. However, later in Acts, Ananias prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon Paul, and Ananias is no apostle (Acts 9:17). Others will say the believers in Samaria needed a second blessing of the Holy Spirit. However, Luke very clearly states that the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them (Acts 8:16). The closest parallel to the situation in Samaria is the initial group of 120 disciples before Pentecost. They had believed, but they were waiting for the Spirit to come. Luke’s point isn’t to argue for a subsequent spirit-baptism. The best explanation is that God intentionally withheld the Spirit until the apostles came, in order to show the incorporation of the Samaritans into the Jerusalem church. The occasion fits a much larger pattern where Luke is showing the spread of the gospel and the gift of the Spirit to new groups of people until no new groups exist (i.e., Jerusalem at Pentecost, then to Samaria, and next will be to the Gentiles in Acts 10-11). For further discussion, see Carson, Showing the Spirit, 143-46; Peterson, Acts, 286-87; Schnabel, Acts, 410-411.
[iii]The same order seems apparent in Acts 9:17-18; 22:13-15.