What Is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit?
John Piper joins me over the phone for today’s question, an important one. What are we to make of the baptism of the Holy Spirit? The phrase seems to mean different things in the Bible — and it certainly means very different things to different denominations and church practices. Here’s today’s question, sent anonymously to us from Berlin, Germany.
“Hello, Pastor John! I have struggled to understand and embrace the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit,’ especially manifested as someone laughing and rolling around on the floor or even passing out for thirty minutes or longer. I’ve seen churches do this and put a lot of focus on these experiences, which make me quite uncomfortable. Can you explain what the Bible means by the ‘baptism of the Spirit’ as it relates to both (1) our initial salvation experience, and then (2) whether or not we are to expect or seek after subsequent baptisms of the Spirit later in the Christian life?”
Longing to Experience the Spirit
Pentecostalism is usually defined as a movement in Christianity that thinks of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience, usually after conversion, marked by speaking in tongues. That’s the stereotype, anyway, of what Pentecostalism means. That really is an oversimplification.
“This emphasis on the experiential nature of the Spirit is why the Pentecostal movement has been so globally effective.”
I just finished a book by Allan Heaton Anderson, To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity. He shows that there are far more diverse understandings of the Holy Spirit and his work among global Pentecostalism than we thought. What is common among many branches of Pentecostalism is not a singular view of baptism in the Spirit, but rather a strong emphasis on the experiential nature of the Spirit’s presence in the life of the believer.
I think this emphasis on the experiential nature of the Spirit is precisely why the movement has been so globally dynamic and effective. People everywhere are hungry for experiential reality, not just doctrinal facts or historical facts, which are affirmed with the mind.
That’s the stereotypical way of thinking about Western Christianity. We have a list of doctrines; we have a list of behaviors. We believe the doctrines, we do the behaviors, and we infer that we belong to God and that something supernatural is happening, but nobody experiences anything. That’s why Pentecostalism is succeeding the way it does, because they’re right on this. They’re right to say that to have the Holy Spirit is to have a reality that one experiences.
Two Different Uses
It’s important that we clarify the meaning of biblical terms like “baptism in (or with) the Holy Spirit” because it is a biblical term. It’s part of Christian experience.
What I’m going to suggest is that the way Paul uses the phrase in 1 Corinthians 12:13 and the way Luke uses the phrase (or Jesus reported by Luke) in Acts 1:5 are not the same. That’s my basic premise, which would avoid a lot of confusion if people bought this. So you can check it out for yourself.
This means that when we ask, “What does the phrase ‘baptism in (or baptism with) the Holy Spirit’ mean?” we have to ask, “Are you talking about Paul’s use or Luke’s use as he quotes Jesus?” They’re not contradictory. I’m not arguing that there’s any conflict. I’m saying they use the same words in different ways. They use the same phrase in different ways. Let me clarify each of those.
Receiving the Spirit at Conversion
In 1 Corinthians 12:12–13, Paul says,
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 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. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)
Now, I think virtually everyone agrees that Paul’s understanding here of baptism by the Spirit is the act by which the Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ and his body, the church. In other words, it’s conversion. It’s becoming a Christian. This is what it means to be a Christian: to be moved upon by the Holy Spirit in such a way that we are brought to faith and united to Jesus.
Empowered by the Spirit
Now, I don’t think that’s the way Jesus and Luke are using this similar phrase in Acts 1:4–5. Here’s what Jesus says as Luke quotes him:
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
He’s quoting John the Baptist from Luke 3:16, where John says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Now, I don’t think Jesus means that his disciples will be converted from unbelief to belief in this baptism that they’re supposed to wait for in Jerusalem. I think Luke sees the apostles as genuine born-again believers before this promised baptism happens to them.
Luke ends his Gospel with a description of the apostles before the experience that they’re supposed to wait for called the baptism of the Spirit. It says in Luke 24:52–53, “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Here’s a group of men worshiping Jesus. They have great joy. They’re blessing God through Jesus in the temple. These are not unregenerate disciples waiting to be born again by the arrival of the Holy Spirit.
Ask for a Fresh Baptism
Well, what then does Jesus mean in Acts 1:5 and Luke 3? I think when he says you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, he means you will receive extraordinary power for Christ-exalting ministry. That’s what I think he means. You will receive extraordinary power for Christ-exalting ministry.
“The kind of empowering that we receive in the baptism of the Holy Spirit is an experience that we need again and again.”
Now, that experience may come in an unusual, decisive experience after conversion — a day, a week, a year, or a minute — followed by subsequent outpourings or fillings or baptisms of the Spirit periodically throughout life. Or that experience may come at the very moment of conversion followed by lifelong subsequent experiences of empowering in the Holy Spirit. It may come in various ways and fillings and blessings throughout a lifetime that are just unpredictable and various.
I think it would be a mistake to limit baptism in, by, or with the Holy Spirit to a single second event after conversion. Even though you might experience one, that doesn’t mean it’s the normative way that this baptism is to be understood. I think the kind of filling and empowering that we receive in such experiences are needed again and again and again in the Christian life. They’re not consistently the same in every season of the Christian life.
It is right, I think, to ask for a fresh baptism. That’s the language of the Puritans. That’s the language of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. That’s my language again and again as I approach the pulpit and seek to preach. I say, “O God, I need a fresh baptism. I need a fresh anointing. I need a fresh filling. I need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
Filled and Empowered
I think the language is various in the book of Acts for these kinds of things, which are not continuous. You have Paul on Cyprus, and he’s about to speak. It says he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and then he has an extraordinary power to deal with this magician there on the island (Acts 13:8–12). That’s the kind of thing that I think Jesus was saying: “I want you to know this experience as you head out to evangelize the world.” Let me give four quick bullet points of reasons why I think Luke and Jesus used the term that way.
First, Luke describes the first baptism of the Spirit as being filled. He uses the filling language in Acts 2:4. He says, “Wait for this baptism” (Acts 1:4–5), and then when he describes it in 2:4, he says, “They were filled with the Holy Spirit.” For him, these are overlapping realities, fullness and baptism. Then throughout the book of Acts, the term “filled with the Holy Spirit” is a recurrent repeated experience in the believer’s life, not just a onetime experience.
Second, Luke says that being baptized with the Spirit is a fulfillment of the promise of Joel 2 (“Wait for the promise”). Then the promise from Joel gets fulfilled and explained in Acts 2:16 and following. The promise of Joel 2 is not the new-covenant promise of new birth. It’s the covenant promise of prophetic power: you’re going to speak with extraordinary power.
“When he says, ‘You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,’ he means you will receive extraordinary power for Christ-exalting ministry.”
Third, Luke describes being baptized with the Spirit as receiving power for witness (Acts 1:8). He’s saying, “When you receive the Holy Spirit, you will have power so that you can be my witnesses to the end of the world.” That’s the immediate description of what’s going to happen if you wait for the baptism. So it’s an empowering for global Christ-exalting effectiveness.
Finally, fourth, Luke says that being baptized in the Spirit is being clothed with power from on high so that the message of Christ can be taken effectively to all the world. That’s the language of Luke 24:49, where he tells them, “Wait in Jerusalem till you are clothed with power from on high.”
What About Tongues?
My understanding of baptism with the Holy Spirit is that Paul uses a form of this phrase to refer to what happens at the new birth. Luke uses a form of this phrase, when quoting Jesus, for the empowering by the Spirit.
To answer the question about the peculiar signs, it may or may not include various signs like tongues or other unusual manifestations. I think every Christian should seek fresh baptisms in this sense again and again and again for effective ministry.