The Baptism in the Holy Spirit

It’s Wednesday, so it’s time for a Wednesday Word, and this week our word is actually more like five words (but Wednesday Phrase just doesn’t sound as good!): it’s ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. You see, last Sunday was Whitsun, and I am a Pentecostal, so baptism in the Holy Spirit (or BHS for short) it is.

Now, Pentecostals tend to be quite good at talking about BHS as an experience or about some of its effects, but we’re not always quite so good at talking about what it actually is. And that’s a problem, because when we don’t talk about what it actually is, it leaves people with all sorts of wrong ideas. So sometimes people end up equating the baptism in the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues (and let me say this right at the outset, the two are definitely not the same thing!) and other people think of it as power to do miracles or ‘the gateway to the gifts’.

One of the ways people often describe it (boosted in popularity by some good and helpful work in the field of New Testament Studies by Pentecostal NT scholars showing that the Pentecostal concept of BHS does actually have a solid biblical basis) is as ‘power for evangelism’, and while that’s certainly better than confusing it with speaking in tongues, it’s still not enough to describe the biblical concept of BHS. In fact, ‘power for evangelism’ is more accurately one of the effects of BHS than the nature of the baptism itself.

The Spirit Himself

So what is it then? The Bible describes it as a ‘promise’ (Acts 1:4; 2:33) and a ‘gift’ (Acts 10:45-46), but what’s the content of the promise and the gift? The Holy Spirit Himself! The Father’s promise (Acts 1:4) is ‘the promise of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:33) or ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38).

Now, that’s not to say that believers only suddenly encounter the Holy Spirit in the baptism of the Spirit. Not at all! It is the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8) – He shows us the reality of our sin before God, the righteousness of Jesus which He freely offers to us in the gospel, and the victorious judgment of the ruler of this world through Christ’s victorious Cross and Resurrection. In other words, the Spirit opens up our eyes to our condition and need and to the beauty and salvation of Christ and His finished work. And as He does, the Spirit works faith in us and unites us to Christ. Without the Holy Spirit we could not be Christians (Romans 8:9-11).

So then, if we’ve already got the Holy Spirit, what do we mean that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is the gift of the Spirit Himself? Good question! Now, traditionally, Pentecostals quite often turn to the concept of ‘power for evangelism’ at this point. The argument is that BHS is described with a different purpose than salvation. So it’s not a different Spirit, but a different goal. And in a sense that’s true, but it also rather limits the nature of this gift. Yes the Holy Spirit is doing something different in the baptism in the Spirit that He’s doing in regeneration and conversion. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that He isn’t just giving power; He’s giving Himself, though in a different way.

Think of it like this. Regeneration/conversion is an upward movement: the Holy Spirit lifts us up out of the grave, unites us to Christ and seats us with Him in the heavenlies. All that is incredibly glorious and objectively true, but we can’t see it. It is also full salvation (and that’s very important – nothing needs to be added to it!). Through that upward sweep of the Spirit, the Father ‘has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:3). That means, united to Christ, we already have every spiritual blessing in Him (so it’s wrong to speak of the BHS as a ‘second blessing’ – all blessings are contained in the ‘first’ blessing!). Who is it that we’re united to and in whom we’re blessed? The Christ, the Anointed One. And so ‘in Him’ we partake of His anointing, His Spirit. The Spirit unites us to Christ and in Christ we partake of His Spirit. All of this is objectively true, but we can’t see it.

So where does the baptism in the Holy Spirit come in then? Surely I’ve just ruled it out theologically. Not at all. Remember, that’s all objectively true, but we can’t see it. And what the book of Acts makes very clear about the BHS is that it’s something that can be seen, that can be felt; the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a tangible experience. Just think for a moment of the Samaritans in Acts 8. When they were baptised in the Spirit, Simon the Sorcerer ‘saw that … the Holy Spirit was given’ (Acts 8:18). The BHS was something Simon could see (and something so clear to see that he wanted to pay for the power to bestow it! – Acts 8:19). Or think about Ephesus in Acts 19. There Paul could ask ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ (Acts 19:2) and he expected that they’d be able to answer the question. In other words, receiving the Holy Spirit (this is another expression Luke uses in Acts for BHS) was something tangible that you would know whether you’d received or not.

So, if we think of regeneration/conversion as the upward sweep of the Spirit, we can think of the baptism in the Holy Spirit as the downward sweep. First He sweeps us up into union with Christ in the heavenly places where we are blessed with every blessing in Christ, then He sweeps down upon us bringing us a tangible experience of the blessing of the heavenly places here on earth.

The Outward Flow of the Spirit

But the baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t only a coming upon; it is also a filling. That means the Holy Spirit doesn’t just sweep over us and then go on beyond us, but rather He fills us and sweeps us outward into His mission in the world. This is where the power for evangelism comes in. It’s not simply that the Holy Spirit gives us some power. No, He Himself is the power and He carries us out in mission filled with Him as our power. His is the mission, He is the power and He is the true witness to Christ; yet filled with Him we have the privilege of taking part in His mission as He makes us powerful witnesses.

Outward and Upward

This outward flow doesn’t find its end in ‘evangelism’ but in salvation. We evangelise, but through this outward flow of the Spirit in us in mission, the Triune God saves. The Spirit flows outward in mission in order to sweep others upward as He gives them new life and unites them to Christ.

From Jesus, To Jesus

It’s Jesus who pours out the Holy Spirit in BHS. As Peter explained on the day of Pentecost, ‘Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.’ (Acts 2:33). And the Spirit’s role and delight is to glorify Jesus. So the baptism of the Holy Spirit comes from Jesus and leads back to Jesus. We’ve seen that in the Spirit’s outward flow in mission, but that’s not the only way it’s true. The foremost question about any experience purporting to be the baptism in the Holy Spirit is does it glorify Jesus. Any experience that leads me away from love for and delight in Christ cannot be the genuine work of the Holy Spirit! Any experience that distracts from Christ does exactly the opposite of what the Holy Spirit does.

So, the fullness of the Spirit is seen in a life that looks to Christ, glories in Christ, and gives glory to Christ. That’s exactly what’s described in Ephesians 5:18-21 (see this old post, ‘Signs of the Spirit’).

A Foretaste of the Age to Come

In Hebrews 6:4-5 we see receiving the Spirit described as tasting ‘the powers of the age to come’. I’ve already said that we already have all spiritual blessings in Christ – BHS is not a new blessing. But rather, it’s an in-breaking now of the future age when ‘in the ages to come [God will] show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:7). In the future ages it won’t be a different grace – as always the grace is ‘in Christ Jesus’ – but we will experience His grace in a new way. Revelation describes this as the city which is the Lamb’s wife (that’s us – the Church), yet this city had no temple ‘for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’ (Revelation 21:22). This is the most intimate picture of fellowship with God, where the whole City has become His Holy of Holies and we live there in the enjoyment of the presence and fellowship of the Trinity forever.

And yet, already the Bible tells us that we ‘are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:22). The Spirit brings something of the future age into the present. Then we will know life in the Holy of Holies of the Triune God’s love and fellowship in its fullness, but already the Spirit brings us something of the experience of that love and fellowship in part.

Immersed in the Trinity

And this is the love and fellowship, the power and mission, and ultimately the glory of the Triune God. The Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not just about the Holy Spirit. The Father gives the Promise to the Son who pours out the Spirit. The outpoured Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14), who glorifies the Father in and through the Church (Eph. 3:20-21).

The night before the Cross, Jesus told His disciples, ‘I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you’ (John 14:18). But how would He come? In the context He’s talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit. So through filling us with His Holy Spirit, Christ fills us with Himself (which is the very purpose of His Ascension – Eph. 4:10). What’s more, Jesus doesn’t only talk about His coming, but the Father’s as well (John 14:23). So in the filling of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son come and fill us too. The Spirit brings the Father and the Son who indwell Him with Him. As we are filled with the Spirit, we are filled with Christ and filled with the Father. So the baptism in the Holy Spirit is an immersion in the Triune God.

Anyway, I think I’d better stop writing now. Hopefully that makes some sense about what the baptism in the Holy Spirit is. (And the length will just have to make up for last week’s lack of a Wednesday Word!)