"Did you receive the Holy Spirit?": The Bible, Spirit-Baptism, and When?

When are Christians baptised in the Holy Spirit? Is it something that happens automatically at the same time as salvation, or does it come later? According to the New Testament, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit does not occur automatically at the same time as conversion. In fact we see in the Scriptural examples that it was something that normally happened to Christians after being saved. This is what we call the doctrine of subsequence: the fact that the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is subsequent to salvation.

The Day of Pentecost: Acts 2:1-4

In Acts 2, with the day of Pentecost, it's very clear that the disciples were baptised in the Holy Spirit some time after being saved. Most of these people had been followers of Jesus for quite some time before His crucifixion. They knew that Jesus had died on the Cross and risen again. In fact they had probably all seen Him after His resurrection. So, in addition to the fact that they were already Jesus’ followers, we have good evidence that they believed the gospel: that Jesus had died for their sins and risen again. So, these people were saved. Their obedience to Jesus’ command in staying in the city and waiting for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf Luke 24:49) is further proof of their faith. Yet they had to wait ten days after Jesus ascended before receiving the promised Baptism in the Holy Spirit. So it's very clear that there was a time gap between their salvation and their Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

But we have to admit that this is an unusual case. This was the first time that anyone was baptised in the Holy Spirit. In fact the Bible states explicitly that people could not receive the Holy Spirit until Christ was glorified (John 7:39). Yet the day of Pentecost is not the only biblical example of subsequence.

The Samaritan Believers: Acts 8:5-25

Philip preached the gospel in Samaria and multitudes were saved. But they weren't baptised in the Holy Spirit until later, when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and prayed for them. Luke records what took place:
Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)
These Samaritans had ‘received the word of God’ and been baptised, yet they still hadn’t been baptised in the Holy Spirit. In fact there was time for word of their faith to reach the apostles in Jerusalem and for them to send Peter and John in between the salvation of the Samaritans and their Baptism in the Holy Spirit. So here there's a very clear example of subsequence.

The Apostle Paul: Acts 9:17

Paul (at that time known as Saul) was converted on the road to Damascus when He saw the Lord. Three days later Ananias came to see Paul, saying ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 9:17). Although Luke does not actually record the moment when Saul was baptized in the Holy Spirit, Ananias’ words make it clear that it was subsequent to his conversion.

The Ephesian Disciples: Acts 19:1-7

When Paul encountered some disciples in Ephesus, his first question to them was ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ (Acts 19:2) (or in the words of the authorized version ‘Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?’).* The very fact that Paul could ask such a question shows that he considered the Baptism in the Holy Spirit to be something distinct from conversion, for if all Christians were automatically baptised in the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion, this question would not make any sense. Thus this question proves that it is possible to believe (and thus become a Christian) without being baptised in the Holy Spirit.

Indeed this is what we see when these disciples are baptised in the Holy Spirit. Although not all theologians agree as to when exactly these disciples were saved, what is clear to everyone is that they were baptised in water before being baptised in the Spirit. As baptism is for those who already believe, this shows that they were saved before being baptised in the Holy Spirit.

Cornelius and his Household:  Acts 10:1-11:18

Cornelius and his housefold appear to have been saved and baptised in the Holy Spirit during the same sermon. Yet we can't use this one example to contradict all the other clear examples of subsequence which we have seen. Thus in this case it seems that Baptism in the Holy Spirit immediately followed salvation. So, although we shouldn't forget the unique circumstances in this event, it would appear that such a close proximity in time between the two is possible. In fact, from all the examples we have seen in Acts, it would be fair to say that it is desirable to be baptised in the Holy Spirit as soon after conversion as possible. It is not something to put off until one has been a Christian for many years.

Either translation is possible. The Greek includes neither the word ‘when’ nor the word ‘since’,but would literally be translated ‘having believed’. Ultimately, the mere fact that Paul asked the question is significant enough without debating how to translate the question.