As a child, I was raised under the umbrella of Christian beliefs known as charismatic. (It comes from the Greek word for gifts of the Spirit, charisma, which means something like gifts of grace, and from which we get the English word for being “graced” with personality.) I grew up hearing a lot about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, with all its attendant signs and gifts. Whether or not I’m charismatic now may depend on your definition, so I’ll try and explain my position. This is not a condemnation of anyone else’s view, but I do hope it receives careful consideration.
Charismatics typically view the baptism of the Spirit as a second and distinct experience from salvation. While Scripture says the Spirit dwells in the hearts of all believers, charismatics hold that being “filled” or “baptized” is something else: a closeness to God that provides greater comfort, wisdom, and guidance, as manifested through spiritual gifts (namely “speaking in tongues”). In worship, many charismatics believe in surrendering to this supernatural power, often associated – perhaps unfairly – with hyper-emotional behavior: shouting, dancing, running, fainting, laughing, or being “drunk” in the Spirit.
This view comes primarily from the book of Acts, where the baptism of the Spirit is first received and throughout which Christians are filled with the Spirit and then speak in tongues (unknown languages). Many thus conclude that the experience is always accompanied by speaking in tongues; that no one has been filled with the Spirit until they do so; and that believers should therefore “seek” the Spirit to that end. They see tongues as a “heavenly language” to be understood through divine inspiration.
I now believe this overlooks the full teaching of the Bible.
Before Christ (as far back as Creation), we find the Spirit of God at work – typically by divine power, but sometimes through specific individuals for a variety of reasons. It “came upon” various men to build the tabernacle (Exodus 31:3); bless Israel (Numbers 24:2); defeat Israel’s enemies (Judges 3:10; 11:29); and give a prophetic word (2 Chronicles 15:1; 20:14). It “rushed” upon Samson with strength (Judg. 14:6, 19; 15:14); Saul for prophecy and warfare (1 Samuel 10:10; 11:6); and David from the moment of his royal anointing (1 Sam. 16:13). It’s said to have simply been in Joshua (Num. 27:18). It “clothed” Gideon for war (Judg. 6:34) and Zechariah for prophecy (2 Chron. 24:20). It “entered” and “fell upon” Ezekiel to inspire his message (Ezekiel 3:24; 11:5). Finally, in Luke, it “filled” John the Baptist before birth (1:15) and his parents to speak (1:41, 67); and it’s said to have been upon Simeon at least long enough to show him the Messiah (2:25-26).
So the Spirit influenced certain people at certain times for certain reasons. The descriptive terms seem relatively interchangeable, and there was no pattern. Sometimes it recurred, as with Saul and Samson; other times, it seemed permanent, as with David and John; and in some cases, it happened to ungodly men against their will. But in every case, God selected them for a purpose and inspired them long enough to carry it out.
Yet the focus is on the nation of Israel, not the life of believers. Thus, the Spirit is said to have spoken through the prophets as recorded in Scripture (Zechariah 7:12; see Acts 1:16; 28:25-26; Hebrews 3:7; 10:14-17; 2 Peter 1:21) to correct the people of Israel (Nehemiah 9:30), among whom the Spirit resided (Isaiah 63:11; Haggai 2:5) for their instruction (Neh. 9:20).
But God promised more. By those same prophets, He said the Spirit would be poured out (Isa. 32:15) on all Israel (Eze. 39:29) and their offspring (Isa. 44:3; 59:21) – as well as all mankind (Joel 2:28-29). The Spirit wasn’t available to everyone… but it would be. Ezekiel said this “new spirit” (11:19; 36:26) would be put into them for obedience (36:27).
Meanwhile, God promised a Messiah, upon whom the Spirit would rest (Isa. 11:2; 61:1) and by whom we could be “baptized” in it (Luke 3:16). When Christ came, anointed with that Spirit (Acts 10:38) beyond measure (John 3:34), he promised it to his disciples as our Helper or Comforter – depending on your translation of John – whom the Father would send in his place to be in us and with us (14:16-17; 16:7), to teach and remind us and bear witness of Jesus (14:26; 15:26), to convict us and guide us (16:8-11, 13). Before ascending to the Father, Jesus connected this to John the Baptist’s prophecy of spiritual baptism through Christ and told his disciples it would give them power (Acts 1:5, 8).
In Acts, it all came to pass on the Day of Pentecost: Jesus’ disciples were filled with the Spirit, as evidenced not only by speaking other languages, but with wind and fire (2:2-4). The Apostle Peter identified this as the fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out the Spirit on all mankind (2:17-18), which he credited to the exalted Jesus (2:33) and which would now be received as a gift by all believers (2:38).
Whereas before, the Spirit had only been given to a select few, it was now “poured out” on everyone so that all believers were “baptized” – according to the words of John and Jesus – by Christ who saves us. The outpouring and the baptism were the same thing: God’s act of sending the Spirit to dwell with all believers. The outpouring was the initiation of the continuous indwelling enjoyed by all who put their trust in Christ. You can’t have one without the other. In fact, Peter said that anyone would receive the gift of the Spirit – the same one received at Pentecost – who repents and is baptized for sin; and that all who obey God receive it as witness of Christ (Acts 2:38-39; 5:32). There’s no more hint of “seeking” spiritual baptism than of “seeking” salvation. The Apostle Paul said that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13), simple as that; and I believe Jesus meant the same thing when he said the Father would give the Spirit to anyone who asks (Luke 11:13) – no seeking necessary.
That’s why John said Jesus would baptize us in the Spirit: because it comes with salvation. God gives all believers the Spirit (Rom. 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:8), which we receive (1 Corinthians 2:12) through the hearing of faith (Galatians 3:2-5) so that we might become a temple in which the Spirit dwells (Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; Ephesians 2:22). He sends the Spirit of Christ into our hearts to adopt us (Gal. 4:6-7), and the very moment we believe, we’re given the guarantee or “down payment” of the Spirit, by which we’re sealed or made ready for the day of redemption (2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30).
Being “born again” means being “born of the Spirit” (John 3:3-8), becoming a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). We’re saved through the sanctification, justification, and washing of regeneration brought about by the renewal of the Spirit, which has been poured out on us in the name of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thes. 2:13; Titus 3:4-6). To receive Christ is to receive the Spirit. Without it, no one can truly call Jesus Lord (1 Cor. 12:3).
Just as the Spirit resurrected Christ (1 Peter 3:18), we walk in newness of life through him and with him (Rom. 6:4, 8, 11). By sowing to the Spirit, we reap eternal life from the Spirit (Gal. 6:8), through the power of which we can have hope (Rom. 15:13) and await that hope by faith (Gal. 5:5). That’s how the New Testament church found comfort (Acts 9:31) and joy in affliction (1 Thes. 1:6): because being a Christian means having the Spirit within us.
To be fair, the New Testament uses the word “filled” in a distinct way, but not to mean receiving the Spirit. Rather, it speaks to a manifestation of the Spirit – not necessarily tongues – as seen in John’s family before Pentecost. Throughout Acts, we find a variety of cases. The disciples are filled a second time after Pentecost, with some kind of earthquake but no tongues (4:31). The Ephesians receive the Spirit upon first hearing the full Gospel, speaking with tongues and prophesying (19:2-6). The Samaritans aren’t said to have done either (8:14-17). Ironically, neither is Paul, though he was apparently filled at his conversion (9:17-19) and certainly possessed the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 14:18).
The usual Greek for “filled” (pletho) can refer to rage, confusion, envy, shock – as if to mean “overwhelmed” in some sense. In Ephesians (5:18), Paul uses a different word (pleroo) when he tells us to “be filled” with the Spirit, but the context suggests something like “walking in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-6, 13) so as not to gratify the flesh (Gal. 5:16-18, 25). Other examples of this second word suggest disposition more than worship: being “filled” with the fulness of God (Eph. 3:19) or the Holy Spirit and joy (Acts 13:52). Stephen and Barnabas were similarly “full” of the Spirit (Acts 6:5; 7:55; 11:24). But we can’t simply equate this with a second experience, in light of everything else.
As for tongues, we find them spoken in Acts as a sign to others. The Spirit was poured out at Pentecost on Jewish believers, who impressed witnesses by speaking multiple languages; and Peter took advantage of the opportunity to essentially start the church (2:5-47). When Peter went to Caesarea, the Spirit “fell” on Gentiles who praised God in other tongues and were baptized as Christians (10:9-48), under the realization that God accepted them for their faith as well (15:7-11). In both stories, tongues served as a sign – not of spiritual experience, but of God’s power to save.
This plainly agrees with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that tongues is a sign for unbelievers – not a heavenly language, but an earthly language spoken by heavenly means. If there’s nobody present who understands it, the speaker should pray for the gift of interpretation. (This is the closest we get to “seeking” the Spirit, but it’s not for a blessing; it’s to avoid confusing people and looking crazy. Paul said it, I didn’t.) He’s careful not to forbid speaking in tongues, but he recommends no more than two or three people do so – always in turn and with interpretation. If nobody can interpret, it should be kept private. (This tells us we’re in control of the gifts, not under the influence of them; and it implies their potential misuse by real Christians, intentionally or not.) He further tells us not to desire tongues above other gifts, but to pursue love. Christians, he says, will receive different gifts, because the church – the “body of Christ” – is like our own body: every member serves a different function according to God’s plan. The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for the common good in a variety of ways – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation are all signs of the same Spirit, appointed and distributed by God. Tongues is no more guaranteed than the rest of them, and it’s actually less important than others.
Even if tongues were consistent to every case in Acts, it would be descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells what happened to them, not what must happen for everyone. There’s reason to believe it was uniquely common in the New Testament, given how God worked through the Apostles to establish the church. They were given unique and special authority to speak by the Spirit (Matt. 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12; John 20:22-23), who then helped them guide other churches (Acts 15:28) and revealed the mystery of Christ to them as it had the prophets (Eph. 3:5). In Acts, the Spirit led, inspired, and spoke to them directly – as with Philip (8:29, 39), Peter (10:19; 11:12), Paul and company (13:2, 4; 16:6-7; 20:23) – and indirectly, as with Agabus (11:28) and the church at Tyre (21:4). Paul referred to signs and wonders as evidence of apostleship (2 Cor. 12:12) – not of being Spirit-filled. He said his ministry showed the Spirit and power of God (1 Cor. 2:4-5; 1 Thes. 1:5), which he used to bring Gentiles to obedience (Rom. 15:18-19).
The Bible never tells us that spiritual gifts have ceased. We may see less of them, but Scripture and experience tell us they’re still available – if perhaps uncommon. Those who “seek” the Spirit are genuinely seeking the Lord and may receive blessings or gifts in return for their devotion. They might even be “filled” (pletho) in some sense for a specific purpose or manifestation of God. Unfortunately, many are pursuing gifts they weren’t given under the false assumption that they’re what they already have as believers – the baptism and indwelling of the Spirit. This unfortunately leads to fakery and error.
We mistake emotional experiences for spiritual ones; we learn to worship by emulating others. It may seem insulting or sacrilegious to suggest that tongues can be imitated, but it’s not inherently difficult. (Whether or not the words mean anything is another matter.) It can be hard to tell the difference between good actors and misguided Christians; and we’re sometimes too cynical to trust in the work of the Spirit. That’s why we should test the spirits against the Word of God (1 John 4:1); and we should never be influenced by experience or testimony alone, for “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
Too many Christians ignore these warnings by valuing personal “revelation” as much as Scripture. Too many churches revel in the kind of sensationalism that stirs people up and garners attention; they prefer excitement to obedience and violate Paul’s apostolic command for order as a result (1 Cor. 14:40) – as I’ve personally seen a good many times.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with seeking God, so long as we know what we’re seeking. Those of us who are truly saved can still grow in the Spirit. If we desire other gifts, we can ask in faith and trust the will of God. But the only evidence – or fruit – of the Spirit is in our character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Telling Christians any different can lead them to think less of themselves for lacking the emotion and gifts of others.
In the early church (and at various times in history), God might have used signs and wonders to bear witness of the truth (Heb. 2:4), but we’re never told to look for them as evidence of God’s work in our lives. We know God abides in us because He gives us the Spirit (1 John 3:24; 4:13), which we know by whether it confesses Christ (1 John 4:2-3). It reveals this to us (Rom. 8:16) as the Spirit of truth (1 John 5:6-8), with which we learn spiritual things and without which we can’t understand them (1 Cor. 2:1, 13). It searches the deep things of God for our benefit (1 Cor. 2:10).
As Christians, we all “drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13), just as we receive “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-6) – not two. Our baptism in water represents the same baptism confirmed at Pentecost: the baptism into Christ, when our faith saved us and we received the Holy Spirit.
It’s all one and the same.