Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing forms of Christianity, if not the fastest.[1] Though I disagree with Pentecostal theology, I do believe that the rise of charismatic theology, which Pentecostalism is a part of, has benefited the Church. For one, Pentecostals have made theologians pay much more attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. For that, we can all be grateful. Pentecostals are also highly evangelistic. As an evangelical, I’m in favor of getting the gospel out to the nations.

Though modern, Pentecostal theology is just over 100 years old, it, like older denominations, is quite diverse. Two common themes stand out as being essential elements of Pentecostal theology, however: baptism in the Holy Spirit and the subsequent practice of speaking in tongues.

The Essence of Pentecostal Theology

Pentecostals differ from other evangelicals on the doctrines of salvation and of the Holy Spirit. These differences are most clearly visible in their views on how to live the Christian life post-salvation. Along with other evangelicals, Pentecostals believe that to be saved, a person must have a personal relationship with God that is possible only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Once God convicts a person of their sins and calls them to repentance, the Holy Spirit begins to indwell the person who then begins the long, often arduous process of sanctification. So far, Pentecostals and evangelicals agree.

Differences arise at the next step, however. Though we usually don’t use this phrase, most evangelicals locate baptism in the Holy Spirit at salvation. We believe that when a person gets saved, they are immediately baptized in the Holy Spirit who will then indwell them for the rest of their Christian lives. Furthermore, we deny that a person must speak in tongues if they’ve been baptized in the Spirit.

Pentecostals demur in two areas. First, Pentecostals believe that it is possible to separate a person’s baptism in the Holy Spirit from their salvation experience. In other words, they believe a person can be saved without being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Aside from the harder versions, most Pentecostals would believe that I, a Baptist who has never spoken in tongues, am a Christian in whom the Spirit of God lives; however, they would say that I need to be baptized in the Spirit in order to receive God’s full empowerment. Without Spirit baptism, I am living the Christian life without the full amount of God’s power in my life. Thus, the first difference between Pentecostals and other evangelicals is that Pentecostals believe that a person’s baptism in the Holy Spirit is a distinct event that may or may not occur at salvation.[2]

Second, Pentecostals believe that a person’s baptism in the Holy Spirit is followed by speaking in tongues.[3] Most Pentecostals would even say that speaking in tongues invariably follows Spirit baptism. Other evangelicals would certainly not attach speaking in tongues to Spirit baptism; indeed, many evangelical churches do not practice speaking in tongues in any form. Thus, the second difference between Pentecostals and other evangelical groups is the emphasis on speaking in tongues subsequent to baptism in the Holy Spirit. While speaking in tongues is much more conspicuous than the internal baptism of the Holy Spirit, Spirit baptism is more important to Pentecostal theology than speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is really just the evidence that a person has been baptized by the Spirit; thus, tongues seems to have a derivative value.

Pentecostal Theology and The Bible

Pentecostals get their unique theological views from taking the book of Acts as normative. In short, they believe that the book of Acts in prescriptive; that is, they believe that the book of Acts is a model that ought to be followed by the modern Church. As a result of this important presupposition, the unique parts of their theology come almost exclusively from the book of Acts. Filtered to its most basic components, here is the argument in favor of Pentecostal theology:

  1. In the book of Acts, Christians experience baptism in the Holy Spirit as something distinct from their salvation experiences.
  2. In the books of Acts, Christians always speak in tongues following Spirit baptism.
  3. These experiences are paradigmatic for Christians.
  4. Therefore, we should expect a Spirit baptism that is distinct from our salvation experiences.
  5. Therefore, when we are baptized in the Holy Spirit, we will always speak in tongues.

This argument is quite simple: What we see in the book of Acts is to be repeated. Essentially, Pentecostals get to their views by reading the book of Acts as a model, they read Acts like Acts is prescriptive.

To examine this argument, we need to ask two questions: First, have Pentecostals interpreted the Spirit baptism passages correctly? Second, is Acts prescriptive? In other words, does the book of Acts tell us what we should expect, or does the book of Acts tell us what the early Church experienced? If Acts’s situation is too different from our situation, then we will have reason to believe that what happened in Acts may not be repeated for us.

Acts and Spirit Baptism

Pentecostal theology’s central claim is that Acts describes Spirit baptism as distinct from salvation. To support this claim, Pentecostals usually point to instances in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19. In each of these situations, Pentecostals allege that believers are saved at one point and then baptized in the Spirit at another point; indeed, in some of these examples, the amount of time between salvation and Spirit baptism could be quite a while.

As a side note, I should mention that the phrase “baptism in the Holy Spirit” doesn’t occur in any of these four passages. The closest that the Bible comes to describing these instances as examples of Spirit baptism is in Acts 11 when Peter describes what happens in Acts 10. Thus, while these chapters could contain examples of Spirit baptism, we should at least be careful about calling them what the Bible doesn’t call them.[4]

The first supposed instance of Spirit baptism is in Acts 2. It’s clear that this chapter contains an example of believers receiving the Holy Spirit post-salvation. However, Acts 2 is unique in salvation history to say the very least. In this chapter, the apostles, who had believed in Christ before God gave the Spirit to the Church, become the first people to receive the Holy Spirit in the New Testament sense. God then sends the sign of tongues as divine verification of what is happening. We are separated from these experiences by vast chasms. Our situation as 21st-century Christians is extremely different from the apostles’ situation. Given the differences between us and the apostles, Acts 2 has limited value as a paradigm for us. Our situation is simply so different from the apostles’ situation that we shouldn’t expect our experiences to be the same as theirs at every turn.

In Acts 8, it appears that Samaritans come to salvation when Philip preaches to them. When the Christians in Jerusalem hear of Philip’s missionary success, they dispatch two apostles, Peter and John, to Samaria. Once there, Peter and John pray that the new believers “might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”[5] Following their prayer, the Spirit comes on the Samaritan believers.

This seems to be an example of Christians receiving the Holy Spirit after their salvation; furthermore, this story has the advantage of being more analogous to our situation than Acts 2. However, this situation is not an exact parallel to us either. For one, this situation isn’t very far removed from Pentecost. At this point, God is still doing miracles in order to verify that he is the one behind the Church. In fact, a close examination of biblical miracles—such as speaking in tongues—reveals that God doesn’t perform miracles haphazardly. Instead, God’s miracles almost always have a distinct objective in mind. Thus, God did numerous miracles in Acts because he had a distinct objective in mind: the establishment of the New Testament Church. The Church is established in the 21st-century; thus, we may not see miracles on Sundays on the scale that we see them in the book of Acts.

Second, the situation in Acts 8 had a unique racial component. These new Christians were Samaritans, and the apostles and early Christians were all Jews. To say that there was animosity between these two groups would be an understatement. Perhaps God waited to give the Holy Spirit to these believers in order to ensure that they would follow the Church’s Jewish leadership. Or, perhaps God wanted to make it clear to the first non-Jewish group of believers that the apostles held a special role in the Church. After all, Peter and John would soon write letters that would be binding with God’s authority on these Samaritan believers. So, while this is an example of Spirit baptism being distinct from salvation, it’s far from clear that this is a paradigm for us. Once again, there are differences between us and the original circumstances that should cause us to be cautious about imitating what we read.[6]

Finally, Acts 10 and 19 are both poor examples to imitate. Neither case appears to be an example of believers being baptized in the Spirit post-conversion. It simply isn’t clear in either chapter that the people who received the Spirit were already Christians. Thus, neither of these chapters can support the idea that baptism in the Holy Spirit is distinct from salvation.[7]

In summary, the weak narrative evidence in the book of Acts doesn’t give sufficient grounding for the Pentecostal idea of Spirit baptism. Even the best examples of baptism in the Holy Spirit are either open to other, plausible interpretations, or have important details that don’t apply to us. Without didactic support for the doctrine of Spirit baptism, this doctrine ought to be rejected due to its insufficient biblical basis.

Notes & Sources


[2] Douglas Oss, “A Pentecostal/Charismatic View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. Wayne Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 241-43.

[3] Ibid., 260.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 773.

[5] Acts 8:15b-16, NIV.

[6] Grudem, 774.

[7] Ibid., 774-75.

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