Should Christians expect an experience separate to conversion where one is baptised in the Holy Spirit?
This is a hot topic at the moment. An affirmative answer to this question was one of the key developments which led to the establishment of several new church movements across the 20th century, Newfrontiers being one of those. Now, however, this idea is being questioned. The debate isn’t about what the Spirit does or how we should relate to him but about how we should expect to first receive him.
Do Christians receive the Spirit at conversion (as would seem to be implied by Romans 8:9) or should we expect a second experience where the Spirit is received, perhaps through the laying on of hands (as appears to have happened with the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17)? Another way to approach this question is to ask ‘Have all Christians received the Holy Spirit?’. Indeed Andrew Wilson has a helpful post over at the Theology Matters blog in which he outlines the three major viewpoints people take on this question.
As I’ve read some other people’s thoughts on the subject over the past week and have been thinking about it myself a few points have struck me as potentially important but, from the sample I’ve seen, as yet overlooked. As I put them in writing here I’m not seeking to give my take on the question (yet!) but purely to lay down a few points which may help that later enterprise.
Acts 1:6-8 an Interpretive Key?
Like all of the Biblical writings, Acts needs to be read as the literature is it. The beginning and ending of all literary works are always important for understanding the whole, perhaps particularly so in narrative. I wonder if Acts 1:6-8 may be part of Luke’s careful preparation of his readers for reading and understanding the rest of his narrative.
In Acts 1:6 the disciples ask Jesus when he will “restore the kingdom to Israel”, i.e. when is he going to get rid of the Romans, reinstate God’s rule and bring in the new age (‘the age to come’) promised to God’s people throughout the Old Testament. Jesus responds by telling them that it isn’t for them to know the ins and outs of the timings but then also immediately tells them that they will soon receive the Holy Spirit and act as his witnesses.
Despite what one occasionally reads this statement isn’t just Jesus randomly changing the subject or trying to change their focus. To announce the imminent arrival of the Holy Spirit to be received by God’s people is to announce that the age to come promised by God has now arrived in some way. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit to God’s people was one of the marks of the promised new age (as Peter argues, using a text from Joel 2 at Pentecost, Acts 2:14-21; see also Is. 44:1-4; Ezek. 36:26-27 et al). Indeed, it is likely that it was Jesus’ mention of the Spirit in 1:5 which prompted the disciples’ question since they hadn’t yet understood the now-not yet tension of the Kingdom in the church age. This reading is further supported by the fact that verse 8 starts with a definite ‘but’ (Gk. alla), i.e. It’s not your business to know all those details but what I can tell you is this much, the kingdom is here in some sense.
If this is so, then right from the outset of Luke’s account in Acts the presence of the Spirit is used as a marker of the breaking in of God’s new age. Where the Spirit is, there the age to come has arrived. If this is a fair reading of Luke I propose it may be a useful tool for understand Luke when he narrates the accounts of the Samaritans (Acts 8) and the Ephesian disciples (Acts 19). Could the significance of the presence or absence of the Spirit in each be about identifying and authenticating the true breaking in of the age to come? If so, it could be significant for our answer to the question posed above. The full out working of this will have to await another time.
Minor Breaks and Major Breaks
Some within this debate are asserting that there is no NT warrant for seeing a two stage process of receiving the Spirit, as has often been claimed through a harmonisation of Romans 8:9, which seems to state that all Christians have the Holy Spirit or else they are not Christians, and cases such as those of the Samaritan believers and Ephesian disciples in Acts, where, it is argued, there is then a subsequent receiving of the Spirit separate from conversion (I add ‘it is argued’ because I, along with others, don’t believe the disciples in Ephesus [Acts 19] were yet believers in Christ, it seems rather they had only got as far as responding to John the Baptist [v.3]).
In one sense I agree. Apart from the awkward case of the Samaritans there is no clear warrant in Paul or Acts for a substantial gap between conversion and receiving of the Spirit or, most relevantly, of receiving the Spirit in some sense at conversion but then receiving more or differently later. In almost every narrative case we have which mentions both initial belief and the Spirit, people respond to Christ and receive the Spirit at the same time. However, I think something has been overlooked in the assertion that there is no warrant for a two stage receiving of the Spirit. In Acts we find some cases where it is explicitly stated that it was apparent to all that individuals who had believed in Christ had received the Spirit in that very moment, as they believed (e.g. Cornelius and co., Acts 10:44-48).
However, in other cases it is clear that there was a gap between belief and explicit receiving or coming upon of the Holy Spirit. Though this gap may have been very short and the narratives in a sense invite us to see conversion and baptism in the Spirit (and sometimes also in water) as one event, there is nevertheless a chronological break. We see this for example with the Ephesian believers, when they have actually been told about Christ and responded they are baptised in water. Paul must have been certain that they had believed by this point, they had been converted. We then read that he lays his hands on them and ‘the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying’ (Acts 19:6). Here is a clear case in the narrative of Acts where though the gap may have been a matter of minutes there clearly is a separation between belief and some sort of receiving of the Spirit (we can not say from the narrative whether they had any sort of Spirit encounter at conversion as is implied in Romans 8:9, the point is neither affirmed nor denied). The same may be the case for Saul in Acts 9:17 but it is hard to be certain.
It seems the fact that many of us have tended to experience significant temporal gaps between someone’s initial belief and their subsequent experience of the Spirit (at least in terms of Spiritual gifts) has blinded us to these much smaller gaps in Acts. Any answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post must reckon with this evidence too. There is evidence for a separation of some sort between belief and some element of receiving the Spirit. I think the fact the temporal gap was very short and that it required action from Paul is significant and points us in the direction of an answer to our question but again this must await a subsequent piece.
Here then I propose are two elements which must be considered when we are seeking to read the New Testament as a whole and find a consistent understanding about when and how one receives the Holy Spirit. For reading the material in Acts we must follow its own guides, Acts 1:6-8 may be one such key guide. We must also not let our experiences of significant temporal gaps make us miss the significance of much smaller gaps in the narratives of Acts.
Assessing the question itself in an anywhere near satisfactory way is a much bigger task and must await a later piece. Hopefully these thoughts will aid the conversation for now.