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DOCTRINE: Baptism by the Holy Spirit

EDITORS’ NOTE: Today Baptist Press launches a week-long series of columns on biblical doctrine by former LifeWay Christian Resources President Jimmy Draper. The series coincides with “Baptist Doctrine Study” week within the Southern Baptist Convention.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Great confusion surrounds the doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. For some it is viewed as a subsequent work of grace in a believer’s life and is equated with the filling of the Holy Spirit. Others associate the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the gift of tongues. Still others diligently seek it as an unusual work of God in the life of the believer which confirms God’s power and allows a special closeness to God never before experienced.

The phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit” does not appear in Scripture. Christ is always described as the baptizer in the Gospels (see for example Matthew 3:11) and Acts, and then the Holy Spirit is His agent in the epistles.

The only verse that actually deals with the doctrine of “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” is 1 Corinthians 12:13. There are narratives in the book of Acts that deal with encountering the Holy Spirit under special circumstances. Acts is a history book that details the supernatural origin of the church. It is a transitional book. It is descriptive, but not generally prescriptive. It describes that unique time in history when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be the Paraclete, comforter and companion. But Pentecost was not the beginning of the work of the Holy Spirit any more than the incarnation was the beginning work of Christ. We cannot build a theology of the Holy Spirit from the book of Acts.

One thing is very clear today. We need the Holy Spirit! We need Him now, we need Him desperately and we need Him always. There is an experience for believers that is called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit”. We need it and we need to understand it.

It is a misunderstood experience. We actually have misnamed it. We refer to the baptism “of” or “in” the Holy Spirit as if He is an impersonal substance. From Scripture it should be “by” or “with” the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 12:13 is a good example. The Greek preposition “en” can be translated “in,” “by,” “with” or “of.” Here it is clearly instrumental and should be translated “by.”

The very meaning of the word “baptism” is often confused. The primary meaning of the word is “to immerse or submerge.” It also means “to be joined with.” It is a word used to describe the process of dyeing cloth. If you wanted a piece of cloth to be purple, you would dip it in purple dye. When the cloth came out of the dye, you had a different looking piece of cloth because it had been immersed or dipped into a colored dye. It was joined to the color. The baptism is not the dye; it is the act of immersing.

A redeemed sinner experiences a transformation when converted. God chose the imagery of baptism to explain the Spirit’s ministry of taking sinful people who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and immersing them into a whole new dynamic of life, an entirely new realm called the “body of Christ.” The Holy Spirit is not the solution in which we are immersed; He is the agent by which we enter this experience.

When does the baptism occur? The clear teaching of the New Testament is that it takes place at conversion. Note our key verse again. The word “baptized” is in the aorist tense, which refers to a past completed action. It refers to a once-for-all experience that is not repeated. Ephesians 1:13 tells us that we were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” when we believed. Every believer has been baptized by the Holy Spirit, but only once. You may be filled with the Holy Spirit many times, but there is no scriptural indication that baptism by the Holy Spirit is ever repeated.

Some identify this experience with the “tongues of fire” described in Acts 2 and use John the Baptist’s statement in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 to substantiate that conclusion. But that is incorrect because it ignores the context of John’s statement. In both those passages John says that the One coming has a winnowing fork in His hand to clean out His threshing floor and He will gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with “unquenchable fire.” Clearly the reference is to the fact that the coming Messiah will bring judgment as well as salvation and calls for a decision.

Nowhere are we commanded to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” We are commanded to be filled (Ephesians 5:18), but never to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Surely if this was a necessary experience we could expect the Word of God to urge us over and over again to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. But the subject is never mentioned in Scripture — not one time, in one syllable of one word in any sentence.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit is a wondrously unique experience. By that experience we are joined to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13, Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27). It is personal, but it is also corporate. “We are all baptized.” There is only one body of Christ, one family, one church. Baptism by the Holy Spirit is not some extra-ordinary manifestation, for it happens to all believers.

This baptism by the Holy Spirit is positional, not emotional or empowering. It places us in a position in Christ which makes it possible for us to receive power. It does not guarantee power in our lives. The Corinthians were baptized by the Holy Spirit, yet they were a very sensual and carnal church. They lived by the flesh, soaked in immorality, saw rampant litigation, conflicts and disputes between church members, and even abused the Lord’s Supper. Yet Paul said, “We are all baptized.” That baptism has to do with our position in Christ and it is universal for all believers.

This means that you don’t get a piece of Spirit baptism when you get saved and then more later. God does not baptize on an installment plan. All of the Holy Spirit you are ever going to get as a believer you got when Jesus baptized you by means of the Holy Spirit into His body at your salvation. The question is not, “How much of the Holy Spirit do you have?” Instead, you should be asking, “How much of me does the Holy Spirit have?”

A newborn baby has all he needs to be an adult. He will never get new parts as he ages; he simply grows in his ability to use the parts he has. The Spirit’s baptism is a unique, completed ministry. Thank God there are no second-class members of the body of Christ. None of us deserves to be in that body, but we are by His grace. All of us are joined to Him by the Spirit’s baptism and we all have access to the resources of the spiritual life that come through the continual filling of the Holy Spirit.

Thank God for this wonderful experience of the baptism by the Holy Spirit. It brings us new life, a new identity and a new nature.
Jimmy Draper is the former president of LifeWay Christian Resources.

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  • Jimmy Draper