Is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a single event concurrent with one's regeneration or a unique, second-experience—privy only to those who ask in faith—stemming from their conversion, evidenced by speaking in tongues? Unfortunately, one's answer to this theological inquiry determines the locale of his or her seat among the denominational isles. This question is especially pertinent to me. My father came to faith in the Pentecostal Stream. As such, he believes the latter position to be sound doctrine, which has caused him to question the authenticity of one's profession of faith if they cannot claim to have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. After years of personal study, coupled with many hours of intense-and-often-heated debates with my father, I have concluded that the baptism of the Holy Spirit describes the act where Jesus Christ, in order to mark the advent of a new dispensation in redemptive history, fulfills his old covenant promise to inaugurate the coming of his kingdom through a unique and unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit on new covenant believers (cf. Acts 2:14-21), thereby purifying, empowering, and purposing people from every nation, tribe, and tongue into a single, unified-yet-diverse community of faith: the church. This permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an individually experienced, one-time-event, indiscriminately applied to all who call on the name of the LORD in faith throughout the church age, at the moment of regeneration.
In this post, I will lay out the traditional articulation for the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience through the arguments of renowned theologian and avid defender this position, the late J. Rodman Williams. I will, then, interact with Williams, use relevant biblical passages to express my understanding of this phenomenon, and offer a response to those who claim to have experienced the reception of baptism with the Holy Spirit after their conversion.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a Second Experience
According to Williams, every believer is born-again through a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit: "Those who turn to Christ in true faith and thereby enter into a new life in His name may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." However, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (sometimes referred to as "infilling") is a different matter entirely. While the Spirit dwells in all believers, not all believers receive the infilling of the Spirit. These are, in fact, two distinct experiences: one brings new life and salvation, the other, empowerment.
Williams places the Apostles' reception of the Holy Spirit at the command of Christ to "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22) in juxtaposition with their ostensible, later experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5-8; 2:4). This, coupled with Peter and John's successful prayer for Holy Spirit to come upon the Samaritans who had previously "received the word of God" (Acts 8:14) and John's disciples who did not immediately receive the Holy Spirit when they believed (Acts 19:1-7), provide further evidence that baptism of the Holy Spirit is not necessary byproduct of one's saving faith. Rather, it is received only through a heartfelt request for God to grant the experience. Williams comments "By persistence in asking, seeking, and knocking, you may be sure that God delights to give the Spirit to the ardent seeker." The Apostles expectantly followed the command of their Savior to wait in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, setting for believers an example to ask and wait for the same. The reception will be evident, as the baptism of the Holy Spirit is always evidenced by the conferral of the supernatural and phenomenal gifts, i.e., speaking in tongues.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a one-time-event
How should one respond to Williams' conclusion, which on the face of it, seems to be self-evident, and biblically substantiated? By exploring the passages mentioned above and setting them in their proper redemptive context, I believe we will arrive at a very different conclusion. Concerning the Apostles' separate receptions of the Holy Spirit, Williams takes the unique temporal context of the dusk of the old covenant and the dawning of the new as the normative pattern in the church age. In a sense, he is correct. This was a distinct, second event.
When John the Baptizer comes on the scene, he announces that he was performing baptism with water to express repentance. This baptism was a type of ceremonial cleansing, but John is clear in explaining that "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" (Mt 3:11). Jesus receives John's baptism. Therefore, it is safe to assume that his disciples followed suit. If one is to compare the disciples' experience to our own-as Williams does in his defense-he or she must ask, should all Christians expect to receive John's Baptism of repentance, a Great Commission sanctioned baptism into the threefold Godhead, as well as a third experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit? Of course not! John's baptism with water is universally distinguished from the water baptism prescribed in the Great Commission (Mt 28:19), as it precedes it in its covenantal context. It was a place-holder. Believer's baptism corporally enacts the spiritual reality of being buried and raised with Christ. Jesus' prescription comes after his resurrection. The point remains, the one of whom John spoke would institute a new baptism of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
Under the dispensation of the old covenant, the work of the Holy Spirit primarily occurred within the boundaries of God's covenant people, Israel. God foretold of a new covenant he would make with his people that was not like the old covenant (Jer 31:31-34). In this covenant, he promised to put his Spirit in his people, and this Spirit would cleanse them and move them to follow his decrees and keep his laws (Ezk 36:24-28). This regeneration by- and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a concurrent act. The New Testament usage of "baptism of the Holy Spirit" describes the act where Jesus Christ abrogates the previous covenant and inaugurates the new. This is how the Apostles viewed this purported "second experience."
In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter does not describe the coming of the Spirit as a second thing believers should pursue. On the contrary, he explains to non-believers that this unprecedented and indiscriminate outpouring is a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy that in the "last days" God would pour his Spirit out on all who call upon the name of the Lord.
Chad Brand explains that, of the seven passages in the New Testament that describe a baptism in the Holy Spirit, six of them point to "the fulfillment of the promise of the gift of the Spirit (John 14:25-27; 15:26-27; 16:7-11), first to the Jews in Jerusalem, then to the Gentiles. Christian Jews and Gentiles are now one not only because they have a common Savior but because they have the same gift of the Spirit (Eph. 2:11-3:6; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 2:9-29; Col. 1:26-27).” The inauguration of the coming of Christ's kingdom was ushered in through a unique and unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit on people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
The Samaritans of Acts 8 receiving the Spirit after Peter and John lay hands on them is distinct not because they receive a unique dispersal of the Spirit. For the remarkable detail in this story is not the timing of the Spirit's falling, but the subjects on whom he fell. This is the point of Luke's recounting of Peter's vision in Acts 10, Cornelius' conversion, and Peter's startling realization that "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34-36). He goes on to say, "And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to the Gentiles, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8-9).
The same Spirit that fell on God's people fell on "not his people." For this was part and parcel of the terms of the new covenant: God would have mercy on "No Mercy," and he would say to "Not My People," that they are his people and he is their God (Hos 2:23). Baptism of the Holy Spirit, then, does not refer to a second encounter where believers—only after asking—receive the special empowerment. It refers to "the work of Jesus Christ in which he pours out the Holy Spirit on new believers thereby incorporating them into his (Christ's) body, the church."
Concerning John's disciples receiving the Spirit after Paul lays hands on them, it often goes without comment that this same group is the only examples of someone receiving the sacrament of baptism twice. Suffice it to say, it is likely that they had not truly believed in Christ but were only privy to the sign of John's baptism without understanding the significance of the one of whom John preached. This explains why, after hearing Paul's articulation of the gospel as an offshoot of John's baptism, they were baptized in the "name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19:5) and received the Holy Spirit. John baptized in water, but the one who was greater than he would baptize those who truly repented and believed in the Holy Spirit. Blomberg concludes:
Just as baptism in water was the initiation rite symbolizing repentance and faith in Christ, entrance into the community of believers, and incorporation into Christ's body, so "baptism in the Spirit" referred to that moment in which the Spirit first began to operate in believers' lives.
As I stated earlier, my father is one who claims to have received a baptism with the Holy Spirit after conversion, evidenced by the manifestation of speaking in tongues. How would one begin to articulate this doctrine to someone who truly believes they have experienced this "second blessing"? First, I would remind them that Scripture is the canon, the right-rule that governs our understanding of God and this world, and should, therefore, serve as the primary and final lens through which we inspect our experience. Second, I would explain that Scripture teaches that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a single event that occurs at the moment of our Salvation where we are regenerated, cleansed, empowered, and permanently indwelled by him. Third, I would explain the distinction between the baptism of the Holy Spirit (one-time-event) and the filling of the Holy Spirit (reoccurring): the former is the root, the latter the fruit. The filling of the Spirit is subsequent to one's initial experience of the Spirit where they are empowered for specific tasks or purposes.
In closing, I offer an admonishment that accepting the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience can have disastrous, unintended consequences. It can conflate the seismic covenantal shift from old to new covenant inaugurated by Christ's death, resurrection, and exaltation. It can obfuscate a right understanding of the ordo salutis (order of salvation). It can create a vacuum where one uses their subjective, sensible experience as the lens through which they read Scripture. It can divide Christendom into the haves and have-nots, leading to an air of spiritual superiority. By arguing that tongues are the evidence of true faith, proponents of a second experience may trouble the consciences of genuine believers, resulting in disheartenment, lack of assurance, or worse: humanly conjured manifestations of artificial tongues.
I will end how I began, by asking a question: Is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit a single event concurrent with one's regeneration or a unique, second-experience-privy only to those who ask in faith-stemming from their conversion? After briefly, yet charitably, laying out a defense of the latter position, I interacted with the answers given, surveyed the relevant biblical texts in light of their redemptive-historical context, and hopefully articulated the strength of understanding the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be a one-time event in the life of a believer. I hope, by God's grace, that you will arrive at the same conclusion.