Chapter 6: Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Most of what we have said previously about reception of the Spirit applies to the baptism in the Holy Spirit. One of the seven terms that Luke uses with regard to Pentecost and Caesarea is “baptized in the Spirit.” We will focus in this chapter on this term.

This term is commonly used by all branches of the church today to represent the presence and work of the Spirit. The common usage of the term does not, however, signify agreement on its meaning. Like the term “baptism” used in connection with water, this term is defined in a wide variety of ways.

The Meaning of Baptism in the Spirit

The term “baptism” in the Spirit is not used in the Bible, but the term “baptize” in the Spirit is used. All the phrase “baptism in the Spirit” does is use a noun in the place of the verb. The underlying reality is the same. It is both convenient and proper to use the term baptism in the Spirit when discussing this subject.


The views about baptism in the Spirit are as varied as the theologies of the beginning of Christian life. Briefly, we will name three main lines of thought that have to do with individual believers.

One definition is that baptism in the Spirit refers to entry into the body of Christ upon coming to faith. Our union with Christ is effected by the work of the Spirit. This is a common view in many branches of the church.

The second definition makes baptism in the Spirit a gift to the believer for the purpose of empowerment. Several viewpoints are held with regard to the purpose of the empowerment. Our view is that the primary purpose is to empower the believer to be a witness.

A third definition, expressed by Lederle (p. 240), is that baptism in the Spirit is the charismatic dimension of the Christian life. What is the charismatic dimension? Lederle (p. 226) answers: “Simply this: the Christian life has an experiential faith dimension to it.” This view seems to have a growing popularity among many charismatics.

The Scriptural Data

The term “baptize in the Spirit” is used six times in the gospels and in Acts: Matthew 3:11Mark 1:8John 1:33Luke 3:16Acts 1:5 and 11:16. Some scholars hold that Paul uses this term in I Corinthians 12:13. We will briefly examine these references.

First, John the Baptist originated the term “baptize in the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus came to be baptized, John said (Luke 3:16) “‘As for me, I baptize you with water . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.'” This saying may be compared with the three parallel passages: Matthew 3:11Mark 1:8; and John 1:33. Clearly, John’s proclamation about baptism in the Holy Spirit was born out of the context of baptism in water.

What did John the Baptist mean by the term “baptize in the Spirit?” Very clearly, the result of the baptism (Luke 3:17) was predicted to be the separation of the chaff and the wheat. His own water baptism was not very efficient at making this distinction, but the baptism in the Spirit would be. John himself did not say how this separation would be accomplished. We cannot preclude some inner work of the Spirit, but the main idea is the separation itself.

Second, Jesus says (Luke 24:), “‘I have come to cast fire upon the earth.” The fire is the Holy Spirit in action. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, even families will be divided. Clearly, the issue is acceptance or rejection of Christ. We note that at Pentecost (Acts 2:3) tongues of fire rested on the disciples. The fire was representative of the presence of the Spirit and the empowerment that would confront people with the claims of Christ.

Jesus referred to the baptismal saying of John in Acts 1:5. The proclamation of John was about to be fulfilled. Jesus was about to pour out the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Later (Acts 11:16), Peter referred to how Jesus used to speak of John’s proclamation. According to Peter (Acts 11:17, this gift of the Holy Spirit was received by both the disciples at Pentecost and Caesarea.

Clearly, Jesus was referring to an empowerment for witness. The separation that John the Baptist envisioned would be accomplished until Christ returns through empowered preaching and the advance of the gospel. This does not preclude a future outpouring that directly separates. But the method today is to preach the Word and to witness under the inspiration of the Spirit

Third, we turn now to Paul. Many think of I Corinthians 12:13 as an instance of the use of the term baptized in the Spirit. The ASV says, “in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body.” A similar translation is rendered by NIV, which says “for we were all baptized in one Spirit into one body.” The NASB says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Both of these views, as well as others, are grammatically possible.

Walvoord (p. 139) maintains that this passage refers to baptism in the Spirit and that this baptism enters one into the body of Christ. With regard to the baptism in the Spirit references, he states that I Corinthians 12:13 is “the major passage which may be taken as the basis of interpretation of the other passages.” Thus, he attempts to fits the other references into his interpretation of Paul’s passage.

Hummel holds that Paul refers to baptism in the Spirit in I Corinthians 12:13. However, unlike Walvoord, he (p. 182) says that Luke and Paul use the term “baptize in the Spirit” in two different ways. Luke uses it in the sense empowering for prophetic witness, while Paul uses it of entry into the body of Christ.


My own view is that baptism in Acts baptism in the Spirit refers to empowerment for prophetic witness. Whatever John the Baptist meant in Luke 3:16, this is the way the term is consistently used in Acts.

With regard to I Corinthians 12:13, the translation “by” one Spirit, rather than “in” one Spirit, is more in harmony with the immediate context. However, many scholars argue for “in” one Spirit. In the end there is not much difference. It is the action of the Spirit that unites us with Christ.

Baptism and Other Terms

What is the relationship of the term “baptism in the Spirit” to the terms “receive the Spirit” and “be filled with the Spirit?” The common element in all these terms, in Luke’s presentation, is that the Holy Spirit wonderfully empowers the believer. The believer, through a personal relationship, is clothed with the Spirit. Even though at bottom the terms represent a common experience, they each express their own nuanced thought.


The term “receive” the Spirit is not used in the Old Testament. Luke uses this term to describe the appropriation of the Spirit at Pentecost, Samaria, Caesarea, and Ephesus. All these cases refer to the empowerment of the Spirit. The disciples had an observable experience that resulted in witness. According to Peter (Acts 2:38), the promise of the gift of the Spirit is for all believers.

This term has wider connotations in the writings of John and Paul. It is a common denominator to all experience in the Spirit. When a believer comes to faith, he receives the Spirit. This initial reception may be unperceived by the believer and unobservable to others. However, it opens the way for a highly experiential reception.


The term “filled” is carried over from the Old Testament, while “baptism” is a New Testament term. People were filled with the Spirit in the Old Testament and in the New Testament prior to Pentecost. Now, believers in Christ are eligible to be filled with the Spirit. This is not to say, however, that God could not again fill a child in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15) as He did John the Baptist. We must not limit God!

We often used “filled” with the Spirit and “baptized” with the Spirit interchangeably. The disciples were baptized in the Spirit at Pentecost. Also, Luke says they were filled with the Spirit. The term “filled” is not limited to an initial experience. It can be used of both repeated and continuous experience.

Baptism in Water

It is important for us to discuss the relationship of water baptism and Spirit baptism for two reasons. One is that the term baptism in the Spirit is drawn from baptism in water. The other reason is that the two baptisms often appear in the same context.


Many look at water baptism in a sacramental way. According to them, baptism is a necessary or virtually necessary ingredient in our initiation in the faith. Baptism is viewed as the moment when the Spirit does His saving work. Others see baptism in a testimonial way. The believer testifies to what God has done in his life.

My own view is that baptism is symbolic. The believer testifies to what God has done. Moreover, the church acknowledges and gives its approval. Although symbolic, baptism can be, and should be, a moment when the Spirit’s presence is especially real.

Different Experiences

Baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit are different experiences. In the Gospel of Luke (3:7, 12, 21) John the Baptist came baptizing. His was a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.” Then, he contrasts his baptism (Luke 3:16) with what Jesus would do. “‘He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.'” In Luke’s story baptism in the Spirit is an additional experience.

The disciples of Jesus (John 3:223:26; and 4:1-2) baptized in water. This was not Christ’s baptism in the Spirit. Later, Christian water baptism (Acts19:3-5) took the place of John’s baptism and the baptism of the disciples under Jesus. However, Christ’s baptism in water was not the same as baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit baptism was an empowerment to witness.

Normal Condition

Acts 2:38 clarifies the relationship between water baptism and Spirit-baptism. Peter commanded his audience to repent and be baptized. Then, they would be eligible to receive the gift of the Spirit. Baptism is mentioned in connection with the gift of the Spirit because new believers are expected to go on and receive the gift of the Spirit.

Baptism in water is a normal condition for receiving the gift of the Spirit, but repentance and faith are the only pre-requisites. The gift of the Spirit can come before (Acts 8:1219:5-6) or after baptism (Acts 10:47). The importance of water baptism, however, is not minimized.


Pentecostals need to see the connection between baptism and Spirit baptism. Then our baptismal services would not be dry ceremonies. Just as soon as one publicly confesses Christ he should be desirous of being empowered to witness. His repentance and baptism make way for this. To wait longer is to leave him a Christian, yes, but not fully empowered for his service.

At Samaria says Luke (Acts 8:16) the Spirit “had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The term “fallen upon” is used at Samaria and at Caesarea (Acts 10:44). Peter makes it clear (Acts 11:15) that this terminology describes Pentecost as well. The meaning of Acts 8:16 is that the disciples had been baptized in water but had not yet been immersed in the Spirit. It is evident that the outpouring of the Spirit was important and expected.

The story of Paul’s conversion is told in Acts 9. Here again, baptism in water is connected. Ananias prayed for Saul. The purpose was “‘so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 9:17). Saul was healed of his blindness. The record does not say anything about his being filled with the Spirit. Whether or not he was, according to verse 18, “‘he arose and was baptized.'” Ananias said to Saul (Acts 22:16), “‘Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.'”

At Caesarea, the Spirit “fell upon” all those listening while Peter was still speaking. Seeing this (Acts 10:47), “he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Here, the sequence is changed from Acts 2:38. When the Spirit rested upon the disciples, Peter knew that God had granted “to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

Because repentance is prerequisite to receiving the gift of the Spirit, reception presupposes that repentance had taken place. Then, Peter baptized them in the name of Jesus. Acts 15:8-9 says this in another way: “‘God bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us….. having cleansed their hearts by faith.'”

At Ephesus, we have another example. These disciples knew only “John’s baptism.” Paul instructed them further about Christ. They were baptized in the name of Jesus. Then Paul (Acts 19:6) laid hands on them, prayed for them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them. The term “come upon” was used by Jesus (Acts 1:8) to describe His baptism. Here, too, the term seems appropriate. As Acts 19:2 suggests, the disciples received the Spirit.

The Baptism Metaphor

What does the metaphor of baptism contribute to our understanding of the baptism in the Spirit in the writings of Luke? I will list some of the characteristics of water baptism as I understand it. As each characteristic is listed, we will examine how Spirit-baptism compares. With regard to the Spirit, we will draw on the two cases that are called baptisms in the Spirit–Pentecost and Caesarea.

Historical Event

First, baptism is an observable event. It is something that you can see and report. It does not just quietly happen. The very purpose of it demands an historical happening. It involves a baptizer, the one baptized, usually witnesses, and water.

Both at Pentecost and at Caesarea, something notable and observable happened. The baptizer is Jesus, the believer is baptized, the element is the Spirit, and there were witnesses. At Pentecost some of the audience mocked, saying (Acts 2:13) “‘They are full of sweet wine.'” It was clear to Peter and others at Caesarea that the Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles. The outpouring of the Spirit upon them was sufficient evidence for Peter to baptize them in water.

Those who maintain that baptism in the Spirit is only a part of the objective works of the Spirit at salvation tend to lose this element of metaphorical significance. The metaphor is particularly suited to baptism in the Spirit as empowerment. It is the kind of experience that one can frequently recall in testimony to others.


Second, water baptism is a time of witness. The event gives witness to the saving grace of Christ. Just how it is related to salvation is debated, but the fact that baptism provides a witness is not. The purpose of the baptism is to demonstrate and lay claim to the fact that the one baptized is a child of God. The one who is baptized testifies to the saving grace of God. In our ceremonies, the one baptized verbally acknowledge his commitment to Christ.

The baptism in the Spirit was a moment of witness. At Pentecost, the audience heard the disciples (Acts 2:4) speaking in tongues. The audience said (Acts 2:11), “‘we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.'” At Caesarea, the Gentiles were (Acts 10:46) “speaking in tongues and exalting God.” The disciples were powerfully telling others about God. Then, at Ephesus the disciples “began speaking with tongues and prophesying.” This, too, was a witness to those present. When the Spirit was outpoured at Samaria, Simon “saw” (Acts 8:18) that the disciples were receiving the Holy Spirit. Luke does not tell us what he saw, but the experience definitely bore witness.


Third, baptism in water carries with it the attestation of the church. When the believer is baptized, he not only testifies to his salvation, but the church also recognizes him as a believer. Thus, the ceremony has value to the redeemed individual and to the body of Christ.

When the Spirit came upon the Gentiles at Caesarea, Peter knew that God had cleansed their hearts by faith. The very presence of the Spirit attested to their salvation. As a result, Peter was prepared to baptize them in water. Without this attestation, Peter might have hesitated to baptize the Gentiles. This was a major breakthrough in the church’s expansion.


Fourth, water baptism has an initiatory character. Normally, it happens at the start, or at least early, in the Christian life and is not repeated. When people are baptized, they publicly enter the Christian life and one baptism suffices. When Christians are being persecuted, baptism is a “point of no return” kind of event.

Many believe that the initiatory character of the term baptism applies to baptism in the Spirit. Thus, baptism in the Spirit becomes the initial experience of the believer in being empowered by the Spirit.

Some interpreters would limit the term baptism to an initial experience. However, it is not necessary to do so. Our baptism in the Spirit is a “living baptism.” We are influenced by a living Person and a relationship. Therefore, while the special emphasis of “baptism” is on an initial experience, it is not inappropriate to say that we can be repeatedly “baptized” in the Spirit. Although “filled” with the Spirit may be the preferred term for ongoing and repeated experience, the term “baptism” encompasses this as well.


Fifth, as I view it, baptism was an immersion in water. We acknowledge, of course, that others sprinkle with water instead of immersing. The figure of immersion is especially powerful with respect to Spirit-baptism. The real essence of being baptized in the Spirit is to be immersed in the Spirit’s presence.

Special Issues


All believers are to be baptized in water. This is the common understanding of all branches of the church. The New Testament, throughout, assumes that all who unite with Christ are to be baptized. Depending on the church’s theology, even the newborn children of believers are either “dedicated” or “baptized.” In my own denomination, we have a dedication ceremony.

Baptism in the Spirit, like baptism in water, is for all believers. No matter what definition of baptism in the Spirit is upheld, the proponents virtually all agree that this baptism is for all. However, views diverge with regard to how the baptism occurs. Those who regard baptism in the Spirit as entry into the body of Christ say it occurs automatically in response to saving faith. For those who see baptism in the Spirit as empowerment, all believers are eligible to receive this gift. Through faith, they will be baptized in the Spirit. Here is the promise.

38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39 “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” NAU

Entry Experience

Baptism in the Holy Spirit should be an entry experience into dimensions of Spirit-empowered witness and life. As Luke writes the story of the church in Acts, these dimensions are conspicuous. The early church, as Luke presents it, was powerfully influenced by the Spirit.

The early church apostles and believers had a strong sense of mission. They were committed to Christ and strong in their witness. They spoke often under the inspiration of the Spirit. Frequently, the Spirit revealed knowledge to them and guided them either directly or through dreams and visions. In the name of Jesus works mighty deeds were done.

Obviously, not every single person did all these things. God uses people in different ways. This point is well made by Paul in his discussion of the gifts of the Spirit. It was important, however, that these elements were present in the body of Christ. The church faced strong opposition and met that opposition through the wisdom and power of the Spirit.

Ongoing Witness

Jesus clearly stated the main focus of the baptism in the Spirit in Acts 1:8. When the Spirit comes upon the disciples they will receive power to be witnesses. Our focus should be on being witnesses. When we actively seek to fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus gave us, our need of empowerment will be evident. As we engage in being witnesses, our sense of reliance on the Spirit will grow. God gives the Spirit to those who are obedient in witnessing.


The term “baptize” in the Spirit is just one of the seven terms used by Luke to describe the experiences of the disciples at Pentecost, Samaria, Caesarea, and Ephesus. The metaphor of baptism, however, fits very well the experience that the disciples enjoyed. While the meaning is not limited to a one-time event, the crisis nature of the experience of the disciples stands out.

For Further Study

Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962.
Hummel, Charles E. Fire in the Fireplace: Contemporary Charismatic Renewal. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1979. Lederle, H. L. Treasures New and Old. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988. Walvoord, John F. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954.

Copyright © 2003 By George M. Flattery

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