Spirit baptism has been a much-debated issue since the 1870s when holiness-movement churches began breaking away from the Methodist church in America over issues of sanctification and seclusion from sin.
The conversation ratcheted up in the aftermath of the Azusa Street events that launched the modern Pentecostal movement in 1906. Currently, six or seven different interpretations concerning Spirit baptism have found broad support.
The main points typically debated are these: Does Spirit baptism occur at the time of conversion, or later? And, is it the privilege of every believer, or only for those who seek it as a separate experience?
Seven New Testament Mentions
Baptism in the Spirit is mentioned seven times in the New Testament (Matt. 3:11–12; Mark 1:7–8; Luke 1:16–17; John 1:33; Acts 1:4–5; Acts 11:15–18; 1 Cor. 12:13). The four Gospel texts are parallel—words spoken by John the Baptist. Some variation exists between the four accounts, but all contain the statement, “I baptize you in water unto repentance, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” The two accounts in Acts are quotations of this prediction. The 1 Corinthians mention has a special feature or two that demand our attention. But I will only deal with Acts 11 in detail.
Acts 11:1–18 recounts Peter’s return to Jerusalem after leading the Gentile Cornelius and his household to faith in Christ. Cornelius, a “God-fearing man” and a Roman centurion, had sent for Peter that he might “hear a message” from him (Acts 10:17–23). Peter preached the gospel at Cornelius’s house, and when he did, the Spirit came on the gathered group much as he had at Pentecost. They spoke in tongues and glorified God (Acts 10:44–45). (On this story’s implications for the fate of those who’ve never heard the gospel, see here.)
In Jerusalem, those “of the circumcision” took issue with Peter upon his return (Acts 11:2). These were likely Jewish Christians especially zealous for the law, sticklers for the ban on social interaction between Jew and Gentile. So Peter was compelled to offer a defense. He explained that while he was preaching, the Spirit fell on those gathered, “just as on us at the beginning,” and he remembered the words of the Lord: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Spirit” (Acts 11:15–16). Jesus spoke these words just before his ascension (Acts 1:5), else Peter might’ve had no knowledge of them. The continuity, though, of these words from John the Baptist to Jesus, then to Peter, and eventually to Paul (1 Cor. 12:13), stands as a major component of the new covenant and a critical theological issue that defines the church.
First, it’s important to clear away some of the exegetical clutter. First is the preposition in John’s statement and prediction, “I baptize you in (en, Greek) water.” Most translations render this “with,” which is legitimate, but not preferable. It’s likely a way for translations to not endorse one mode of baptism over others. The preposition en is also found in every one of the texts with reference to the Spirit and indicates the element into which believers are baptized (the Spirit), not the agency by which they are baptized. This is important because some interpreters have taken these texts (especially 1 Cor. 12:13) to mean the Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ. This is wrong. John baptizes in water, and Jesus baptizes in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the baptizer, as even 1 Corinthians 12:13 makes clear when Paul goes on to say, “and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (NASB). Jesus so immerses us into the Spirit that we also drink of him, in a combination of metaphors that implies a drowning in the Spirit.
Many Pentecostal writers have argued that this passage differs from the other texts in that it presents the Spirit as baptizing us into Christ. Among charismatics, this view has been largely rejected, and many recent Pentecostals have questioned it as well. Jesus’s name is not mentioned in Paul’s text, but that presents no exegetical challenge; it can easily be inferred.
Second, the parallel with John’s baptism becomes clear when one considers all seven texts. In John’s baptism, he was the baptizer, sinners were the baptized, water was the element, and repentance was the result. In Spirit baptism, Jesus is the baptizer, new believers are the baptized, the Spirit is the element, and incorporation into Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:13) is the result.
In Spirit baptism, Jesus is the baptizer, new believers are the baptized, the Spirit is the element, and incorporation into Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:13) is the result.
So, what is the significance of this in Acts 11?
One of the New Testament’s overwhelming emphases is the equality of Jews and Gentiles. This constitutes a redemptive-historical shift beyond the Old Testament, where Jews were God’s people and Gentiles had to link themselves to the Jewish community by male circumcision and law-keeping in order to join. In the new covenant age, however, those stipulations have been erased. Neither circumcision (Gal. 5:1–12), nor keeping the dietary laws (Acts 10:9–16; Rom. 14:6; 1 Tim. 4:1–5), nor temple worship (Heb. 7:26–28) are requirements for belonging to the company of believers. The only requirement is faith in Christ and his redemptive work (Rom. 3:21–26, 28; 4:1–25; Gal. 3:1–14).
Cornelius’s household spoke in tongues, one of three examples of this phenomenon in Acts (Acts 2:1–13; 10:46; 19:6). The significance of this practice is drawn out by Peter in Acts 11:17: “Therefore, if God gave to them the same gift as he gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
For Every Christian
This text has numerous implications. One is that the baptism of the Spirit happens at the time of conversion, not separate from it. It is the privilege of every Christian. Speaking in tongues is simply confirmatory evidence of conversion. Frederick Dale Bruner explains the place of tongues in Acts: “Speaking in tongues in Acts is on all three occasions a corporate, church-founding, group-conversion phenomenon, and never the subsequent Spirit experience of an individual.”
What had happened to the Jews in Acts 2 has now happened to Gentiles in Acts 10. In Acts 2, Jewish believers were baptized in the Spirit through faith in Jesus; in Acts 10, Gentile believers were also baptized in the Spirit through faith in Jesus. Hence there is no longer any distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers. In the context of Acts, this is preparatory for Paul’s mission, which takes center stage beginning in chapter 13. Paul’s mission and ministry—and the theology that informed it—was committed to the conviction that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28).
The baptism of the Spirit happens at the time of conversion, not separate from it.
John the Baptist’s ministry made straight the way for the One who came after him. He predicted the coming of the Messiah, proclaimed him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and announced his appearance. Even more, John’s baptism pointed to Jesus’s greater baptism, one that ushered in a new covenant in which the Law is written on hearts (Jer. 31:31–34), and which will unite all believers—Jew and Gentile alike—into one new body (Eph. 2:11–22) who will praise the Lamb with one voice forever (Rev. 5:11–14).