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Are all believers baptized in the Holy Spirit?

All Christians believe that all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but there is debate over whether all believers are baptized in the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist prophesied that while he baptized with water, the one who would come after him (Jesus) would “baptize…with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11). Jesus reminded his disciples of this prophecy before he ascended, telling them to wait for this baptism in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4–8). This occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4). The question is: Do all believers now receive this Spirit baptism when they believe, or should believers seek to be baptized in the Spirit as an experience subsequent to salvation?

The classic Protestant position, embraced by a majority of evangelicals, is that people are baptized with the Spirit when they believe. This position argues that the New Testament does not distinguish between the act of receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized in the Holy Spirit. All believers are “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit,” which is “the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption” (Eph. 1:13–14). All who believe are “baptized into one body” by “one Spirit” and are “made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). If one is not baptized by the Spirit, this view maintains, that person is not part of Christ’s body and does not drink of the Spirit. Either a person has the Holy Spirit, in which case he or she is saved, or a person does not have the Holy Spirit, in which case “Christ does not belong to [him]” (Rom. 8:9).

This position equates Spirit baptism with conversion. People who hold to this position grant that the disciples had to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit for forty days, even though they already believed in Jesus. But they argue that this was only because the Holy Spirit had not yet been given (cf. John 7:38–39). Since Pentecost, this view holds, the Holy Spirit comes immediately when a person believes. On the day of Pentecost, Peter promised his audience that all who would repent and be baptized would receive what they had just witnessed the disciples receive: They would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). When Cornelius and his household heard the gospel for the first time, they believed and “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44).

Similarly, when the disciples of John the Baptist first heard Paul preach the gospel, “the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 19:6). The fact that there is no interval in these episodes between believing and receiving the Holy Spirit, and the fact that the Holy Spirit falls on everyone at the same time (none were left out who were not yet “ready” for the full baptism) demonstrate that being baptized in the Spirit is not an experience subsequent to salvation.

Other Christians disagree with this view. They maintain that the New Testament distinguishes between receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized in the Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit occurs at some point subsequent to salvation and is for the purpose of empowering believers for ministry. Jesus told his disciples that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit” came upon them and that they would be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The disciples already believed in Jesus and thus already had the Holy Spirit present in their lives, for no one can authentically confess Jesus as Lord without the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). But they were not yet empowered for ministry.

This position argues that the distinction is found throughout Acts as well as in some of Paul’s epistles. For example, in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter commands his audience to “repent, and be baptized” and then “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The gift is promised after repentance and obedience. In Acts 6, the apostles tell the Christians in Jerusalem to find “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” to help with some of the tasks of ministry (6:3). This implies a distinction between those who are “full of the Spirit” and others who are not.

The distinction is further shown in Paul’s dialogue with the disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus. Before he knew that these disciples had not received the full gospel, Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” (Acts 19:2). The question does not make sense if all who believe automatically receive the full empowering of the Holy Spirit. Paul later wrote to the church at Ephesus, encouraging them not to “get drunk with wine…but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). How could Paul command this if all believers are automatically filled with the Spirit?

The distinctiveness of Spirit baptism is also clearly evidenced in Acts 8. Here we are told that people from Samaria believed in Christ and were baptized (vs. 12) but some apostles were called up from Jerusalem to pray for them “that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 15). How could Philip or the apostles have considered the possibility that the Samaritans had not been filled with the Spirit if being filled with the Spirit is synonymous with conversion?

I personally find the arguments favoring a distinction between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which happens at conversion, and the infilling of the Spirit, which happens subsequent to conversion, to be most compelling. I thus encourage believers to always be seeking to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

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