Pentecostalism is a Spirit-emphasizing movement that is characterized by several unique doctrines and practices, including baptism in the Spirit for Christians after conversion, speaking in tongues as evidence of that Spirit-baptism, and the exercise of all the spiritual gifts. These charismata include the “sign” or “miraculous” gifts of word of knowledge, word of wisdom, prophecy, miracles, healings, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
This article addresses Pentecostalism and the theology associated with it, noting its origins and mentioning two movements—the charismatic movement and third-wave evangelicalism—that flow from it. Passing over the many commonalities that Pentecostalism shares with other Christian traditions, the article focuses on its theological, experiential, and missional distinctives. While many of these distinctives are well grounded and appreciated by most other traditions, some Pentecostal elements raise concerns.
Pentecostalism and the theology associated with it is part of several “waves” of Spirit-emphasizing movements spreading worldwide. Originating slightly over a century ago, Pentecostalism and its theology spawned the charismatic movement, third-wave evangelicalism, and even some heretical groups. With a great number of commonalities with other Christian churches and movements, Pentecostalism is distinguished by theological, experiential, and missional elements. While many aspects of Pentecostalism and its theology are welcomed and respected, some raise concerns.
Pentecostalism began at the turn of the twentieth century through a series of events that led to the Azusa Street (Los Angeles) revival in 1906. From its small beginnings, Pentecostalism has expanded into a global movement with about 600 million adherents, over a quarter of the two billion Christians worldwide.
Pentecostalism has given rise to three important developments, or waves of activity. The first wave, which is Pentecostalism itself, gave birth to new denominations (e.g., for example, the Assemblies of God, the Church of God, the Foursquare Church). The second wave is the charismatic movement, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. Named for its particular emphasis on the charismata, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic movement is the development within mainline churches and denominations (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and Anglican churches) to incorporate certain distinctives of Pentecostal theology and practice. The third wave, beginning in the 1980s, is third-wave evangelicalism, a branch of evangelicalism featuring both similarities to and differences from Pentecostal theology and the charismatic movement.
Passing over the many commonalities that Pentecostalism shares with Christianity in general (e.g., doctrines such as the Trinity and Christology, practices such as prayer and Bible study, and activities such as corporate worship and evangelism), its distinctives include the following theological, experiential, and missional areas.
In many people’s mind, the key distinctive of Pentecostal theology is baptism in the Holy Spirit as a second blessing, after salvation. This distinctive depends on two doctrines: separability and subsequence. Separability maintains that regeneration and baptism in the Spirit are two distinct mighty acts of God. Regeneration is the Spirit’s work to remove the unbelievers’ old nature and to implant a new nature, resulting in the new birth. Baptism in the Spirit is his falling upon believers to empower and equip them for service.
Subsequence is the doctrine that baptism in the Spirit takes place subsequently to regeneration, either logically or temporally. The Holy Spirit first causes unbelievers to be born again—this is his work in saving them—then he powerfully falls upon them as believers—this is his work to launch them on mission. It may be that these two experiences are simultaneous, happening at the same time. Still, the Spirit’s work in salvation through regeneration logically precedes his work in baptizing for service; the latter is dependent on the former. More often these two experiences are temporally distinct: days, weeks, months, years, sometimes even decades after people experience salvation through the Spirit, they experience baptism in the Spirit as a second blessing. An implication of this view is that whereas there are (and can be) no Christians who are not regenerated by the Spirit, there are Christians who are not baptized in the Spirit.
According to classical Pentecostal theology, this second blessing is necessarily accompanied by glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, which is a second Pentecostal distinctive. Whether this phenomenon consists of a known language (e.g., Italian or Swahili, though never before studied or spoken by its recipients), some angelic tongue (1Cor 13:1), or an encoded message (e.g., X-17-pr-9-bt, the key to which the interpreter possesses), speaking in tongues is the manifestation of baptism in the Spirit. Tongues-speaking is used to praise God and his mighty works (Acts 2:11; 10:46), express prayers and thanksgiving (1Cor 14:13-17), utter mysteries directed toward God (1Cor 14:2, 9), and, when interpreted in the church, function like prophecy to communicate messages from God (1Cor 14:5). Some expressions of contemporary Pentecostalism no longer maintain the necessity of speaking in tongues as the evidence of Spirit-baptism. Indeed, a significant portion of Pentecostal Christians have never spoken in tongues.
In either case, speaking in tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit, which he continues to distribute to the church today, underscores another theological distinctive of Pentecostalism: continuationism. This position holds that the Spirit continues to give to the church all the spiritual gifts (listed in the New Testament as charismata), including the so-called “sign” or “miraculous” gifts: word of knowledge, word of wisdom, prophecy, miracles, healings, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues (some would include exorcisms). Accordingly, church members exercise their gifts of teaching, leading, and giving along with communicating revelations received from God through prophecy and (interpreted) speaking in tongues (1Cor 14). This position is countered by cessationism, which holds that the Spirit has ceased giving the “sign” or “miraculous” gifts to the church today. Those gifts were reserved for members of the early church, especially for the apostles.
Though it is certainly hard to generalize the experiences of Pentecostal adherents that distinguish them from other Christians, in many peoples’ minds the following are typical of Pentecostal experience. The first distinctive develops from the first theological distinctive: a two-stage experience of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostal adherents first experience regeneration by the Spirit, then they experience baptism in the Spirit. (Some Pentecostal groups hold to a three-stage experience: regeneration, sanctification, and baptism in the Spirit as empowerment for service.) Accordingly, Pentecostal believers have experienced a second blessing that non-Pentecostal believers have not.
A second distinctive flows from this second blessing: a powerful, almost palpable, experience of the reality and presence of God. This intimacy with God may be expressed as a deepened sense of love for and worship of the Lord, a greater joy in praying (and perceiving more answers to prayer), an intensified feeling of gratitude expressed in continuous thanksgiving to God, a heightened awareness of protection from temptation and suffering, or/and an enhanced anticipation of divine guidance and blessing.
A third distinctive flows from the Pentecostal emphasis on spiritual gifts. Accompanying the position of continuationism is the conviction that the gifts are not confined to the so-called leaders of the church but are distributed by the Spirit to all members, including the lowliest. This democratization of the gifts often results in the collapse of the clergy-laity distinction. While there are still leaders of the church, they often do not function in a traditional hierarchical structure, and they often reject the professionalism commonly associated with church leadership.
Again, while it is difficult to generalize about the missional distinctives of Pentecostal adherents and churches, many people recognize the following emphases. The first distinctive is an urgent missionality. Having been baptized with the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals and their churches take the Great Commission seriously and are propelled and empowered for evangelism, church planting, and reaching the unreached. Given this distinctive, it is no surprise that where new missional frontiers are found, much of the work and growth is due to Pentecostal efforts.
Beyond announcing the gospel and planting churches, Pentecostal adherents regularly engage in healing and deliverance ministries. This second distinctive flows from their theology that sickness, suffering, and oppression are manifestations of sin and/or demonic activity. Following Jesus’s instructions to his disciples (“he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”; Luke 9:1–2), Pentecostal believers proclaim the good news, heal the sick, and exorcise demons. Through such ministries, they confront the dreaded adversaries of humanity: sin, sickness, suffering, and Satanic/demonic power.
In summary, the three areas of Pentecostal distinctives are theological, experiential, and missional. These characteristics are summed up in the “Statement of Fundamental Truths” of the Constitution and By-Laws of the General Council of the Assemblies of God (Article 7, The Baptism in the Holy Spirit):
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. (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; Acts 1:8; 1Cor. 12:1–31). This experience is distinct from and subsequent to the experience of the new birth (Acts 8:12–17; 10:44–46; 11:14–16; 15:7–9). With the baptism in the Holy Spirit come such experiences as: an overflowing fullness of the Spirit (John 7:37-39; Acts 4:8); a deepened reverence for God (Acts 2:43; Heb 12:28); an intensified consecration to God and dedication to His work (Acts 2:42); and a more active love for Christ, for His Word and for the lost (Mark 16:20).
Reaction to Pentecostalism and its theological, experiential, and missional distinctives has been mixed and, at times, vitriolic. Concerns about Pentecostalism include the following. First, the creation of a two-tiered Christianity by elevating believers who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues above other believers (i.e., those who lack such experiences) is unbiblical. It echoes the factionalism that Paul explicitly denounced in 1 Corinthians, the inspired writing to which Pentecostal theology of baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues points for some it is support. Talking enthusiastically about the second blessing can confuse and even repulse those who have not experienced it. Moreover, emphasizing the second blessing can give the impression that that one experience has elevated its recipients above the normal trials and temptations of life. But not even this watershed moment can be a panacea, a remedy for the troubles and tribulations that faithful Christians are called to face as they walk with the Lord day by day.
A second concern is Pentecostalism’s possible prioritizing of unmediated experiences of the Spirit over traditional means of grace. At least for some Pentecostal proponents, baptism in the Spirit, prophetic messages, divine guidance, and the like depend more on direct experiences of God rather than the normal means of divine action in the world. Two examples suffice: (1) claims of divine messages that contradict Scripture, contest church leaders’ decisions, and/or oppose well-grounded wisdom (e.g., medical directives for healing); and (2) declarations of divine instruction for others that turn out to be based on faulty notions of a sin problem, ignorance of life circumstances, and/or the personal agendas of those delivering the instructions.
It bears remembering that God’s presence and activity with his people is always mediated. Examples of mediation abound. Revelation: God speaks to his people by his Word, Scripture. Christ: God comes to his people by the incarnation of the Son, the one mediator between God and human beings. Atonement: God saves his people through the death of Christ as a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice that pays the penalty for human sin. Salvation: God applies the work of Christ through the announcement of the gospel and its appropriation by repentance and faith. Presence: God relates to his people through a structured relationship, which in the case of Christians is the new covenant. Church: God gathers his people as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, the church with its divinely appointed leaders and its liturgy, including ordinances that both mediate God’s presence and shape members’ lives into gospel-dominated rhythms.
A third concern is Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the unusual, even sensational, action of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, prophecy, miraculous healing, and the like. Few Christians today would deny that at times (and maybe more often than we think), God can and does work in spectacular ways. Christians are rightly thankful for dreams and vision of Jesus in the Muslim world, which have led to the conversion of tens of thousands of people. Christians appropriately rejoice when cancer victims are miraculously cured of their debilitating illness. Christians fittingly celebrate and heed the clear direction they are given through genuine prophecies. Alongside such stunning action of the Holy Spirit is his normal, daily, routine presence and power as he fills Christians and they walk and keep in step with him in the mundane matters of life (Eph 5:18-21; Gal 5:16-26).
The most significant concern regards the unbiblical and even heretical groups that in some sense derive from or are associated with Pentecostalism. One group is the Oneness Pentecostal Church that denies the Trinity, affirms a type of modalism, and baptizes people in Jesus’s name—and not the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Another group is the prosperity gospel movement with its claim that God wants his people to be healthy, wealthy, and successful. A third group is the so-called “word of faith” movement that emphasizes that words spoken in faith create the reality they address (e.g., health in place of illness). A fairly recent group is Bill Johnson and Bethel Church. This movement denies the sovereignty of God over sin, suffering, sickness, and death and claims that just as Jesus was a man filled with the Holy Spirit and performed miracles, so too Christians filled with the Spirit should perform miracles. Responsible adherents of Pentecostalism denounce all these movements.
Pentecostalism (along with the charismatic movement and third-wave evangelicalism) and the theology associated with it is a Spirit-emphasizing movement spreading worldwide. While sharing many similar doctrines and practices with other Christian churches and movements, it has distinctive theological, experiential, and missional elements. Pentecostalism and its theology offer many aspects that are welcomed and respected, while others raise concerns.
- Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996)
- Chad Owen Brand, ed., Perspectives on Spirit Baptism: Five Views (Nashville: B&H, 2004)
- William W. Menzies and Robert P. Menzies, Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Experience (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000)
- Cecil M. Robeck and Amos Yong, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)
- Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. van der Maas, eds., The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)
- Mark DeVine, “Where Did All These Pentecostals and Charismatics Come From?” TGC (November 18, 2013)
- Chad Brand, “Is Spirit Baptism the Privilege of Every Christian,” TGC blog
- Adam Mabry, “Why Charismatics and Calvinists Need Each Other,” TGC article (July 15, 2016)
- Amanda Casanova, “10 Things Christians Should Know about the Pentecostal Church,” christianity.com
- Assemblies of God, “16 Fundamental Truths”