Spirit Baptism: An Evangelical Reformed Perspective

We begin our examination of the doctrine of Spirit Baptism among various Christian groups by first discovering how the dominant (numerically speaking) mainline Evangelical protestant strain stands on the idea. The issue at hand is not the existence or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit but whether or not there is an experience subsequent to one’s conversion and baptism by water that empowers the Christian to service and/or ministry. The typical Reformed position on Baptism in the Spirit is that it occurs at the time of conversion once and forever. There is no “second blessing” as enunciated in Pentecostal and Holiness theological frameworks.

There is no denial that the the gift of the Paraclete was promised by the Father throughout the Old Testament and will be received by believers under the new covenant. Joel 2:28-29 gives one of the earliest examples:

Joel 2:28 ‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Isaiah also mentions the promised coming of the Spirit:

Isaiah 44:3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

When we turn to the New Testament, we see this promise enacted in the passages mentioned in the earlier article ‘Where Do We Find Baptism in the Spirit?‘ The question for the Evangelical is how to interpret these passages. Are they to be read as normative, that is, as the standard experience to be expected, for the Christian life? Gordon Fee gives the answer that “unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is merely narrated or described can never function in a normative way. (Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth) Fee’s point is that unless the Lukan corpus was written with an explicit intent to be didactic it cannot be utilized to establish precedent for the future. The conclusion then is that the Baptism of the Spirit occurring subsequent to water baptism is not expected to be a normative experience. Grudem suggests that the ‘Pentecost’ experiences of the disciples were unique to that period in history. What happened for them at the recorded points happens for modern believers (and the Corinthian believers) at conversion. (Grudem, Systematic Theology)

What of the gift of tongues that some Pentecostal theology extends as proof of indwelling of the Spirit? If we put aside the cessationist discussion, we should determine if tongues was meant to be a universal gift of the Holy Spirit. The answer, if experience is not the normative foundation of theology as Reformed theologians say, is easily deduced from the Pauline passages regarding the distribution of gifts. Stott puts it best when he concludes “we must always remember that the Holy Spirit is concerned for the church as well as for individual Christians. So we must rejoice equally in his charis (grace) given to all, which makes us one, and in his charismata (gifts) distributed to all, which makes us different. The unity and the diversity of the church are both by his appointment.” (Stott, Baptism and Fullness)

The Reformed Church in practice most closely aligns with the Pauline exhortation in Ephesians (5:18) Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Paul uses a present tense imperative verb giving the meaning of one being continually filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather than a single point of experience, the filling of the Spirit is to occur on a daily basis, constantly being refreshed for greater ministry. It is a process of the ongoing sanctification of the believer, renewed through repentance, thanksgiving, and worship. This should not be read to indicate that Christians leak or diminish in capacity for the Holy Spirit. The fullness of the Spirit indicates an ever expanding capacity for more filling by the spirit, in addition to what one already experiences.