What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and when does someone receive it?

In short, we receive the Holy Spirit when we receive Christ as Lord and Savior. Paul says in Romans: "You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Romans 8:9).

In another epistle, the Apostle states: "In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:13–14). So there is no gap between belief in Christ and the receiving of the Holy Spirit.

However, it should be noted that some have tried to teach what is called the "doctrine of subsequence" or "second work of grace," which states that Christians receive some of the Holy Spirit at the time of salvation and then what is called the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" at some time afterwards. A careful examination of Scripture shows this position to be incorrect.

First, the phrase "baptism of the Holy Spirit" appears nowhere in Scripture. Moreover, there is no place in Scripture where the Holy Spirit does the baptizing. Instead, the Bible clearly portrays Christ as the baptizer: "I [John the Baptist] baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11).

Second, while those supporting the teaching of subsequence point to specific episodes in Acts as proof that a secondary baptism occurs among all believers, closer inspection of both the texts and the historical background of the book undoes their position.

In Acts 2, a subsequent baptism with the Holy Spirit is certainly seen; however, this is in keeping with Jesus' previous promise to the disciples in Acts 1:5: "you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." This occurred on Pentecost and was a predominantly Jewish event that inaugurated the Church age.

In Acts 8, the Samaritans, a race deeply despised by the Jews, were added to the Church. While a subsequent baptism with the Holy Spirit is present in the text, the reasons for it are quite evident. It was important for the Jews to see and experience the fact that the Samaritans were included in the Church, and it was important for the Samaritans to know that the Jewish apostles were the channels of divine truth and that they were to be under apostolic authority.

In Acts 10, the Gentiles—Cornelius and those who were with him—were added to the Church. However, it should be noted that a subsequent baptism does not occur; rather, belief and the baptism with the Spirit occur at the same time.

Such is also the case in Acts 19 with a group of those who had only been exposed to John the Baptist's repentance teaching but nothing more. Belief in Christ and the baptism with the Spirit again occur simultaneously.

It is important to remember that the genre of Acts is that of historical narrative where Luke is recording an important time of historical spiritual transition. Therefore, a distinction must be made between what is descriptive in Acts vs. what is prescriptive. As one theologian has said, "We must not make the tragic mistake of teaching the experience of the apostles, but rather we must experience the teaching of the apostles."

To be baptized with the Holy Spirit means that Christ places the new believer into the unity of His body and connects him/her with everyone else who also believes in Christ. Baptism with the Spirit makes all believers one. Of this, Paul says, "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 12:13).

We must not miss the significance of the past tense expression "were all baptized." There is no state of limbo where a person is saved but not a part of the body of Christ.

While the Scripture never commands Christians to be baptized by, with, or of the Holy Spirit, it does charge them to be filled with the Spirit: "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). But as for the initial gift of the Holy Spirit, that happens at one, and only one, time—at the time of salvation: "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:4–5).

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