Recovering the Biblical Ministry of Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Part 4B: POLEMICS* - Conversion
Updated: Jan 30
*“Polemics” may seem too daunting a word for this blog, but It follows the idea of a battle or contest of words and ideas. In addition, it follows the alliterative series of titles I’ve chosen.
In preparation for a stint in church planting after seminary, I attended a Church Planters Boot Camp. A discussion about outreach began and one pastor brought up The Alpha Course. The elder statesman of our group indicated that while Alpha seemed like an effective program, church planters shouldn’t use or encourage it because of Alpha’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. In fact, several pastors at the boot camp took issue with some aspects of Alpha’s teachings about the Holy Spirit, especially one baptism, many fillings. On the Holy Spirit retreat (part of the Alpha curriculum), participants are invited to be filled with the Spirit. Alpha also allowed speaking in tongues as a possible result, but not a necessary sign, of filling. Apparently, this was too much for the concerned pastors. They seemed to reject any mention of a second blessing or second experience of grace.
My observation is that conservative Evangelicals often dismiss what they perceive as Charismatic or Pentecostal teachings and experiences. Many folks have shared with me hurtful experiences done “in the name of the Spirit.” I always encourage them not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Yes, we must test all teachings and experiences through scripture, but we must also guard against cynicism and disdain rooted in our own past personal experiences.
I have also noticed that when discussing any aspect of the work of the Spirit, Evangelicals often merge a whole host of Pentecostal teachings and practices in their argument – teachings such as immediate sanctification, prosperity gospel, faith healing, etc. Instead, can we stay focused on the particular issue at hand, not allowing other disputed teachings to distract us? I am not arguing in favor of the entire set of doctrines held by traditional Pentecostals, I am only urging us to closely examine specific biblical passages about Spirit baptism.
The Main Question: Does Spirit baptism take place only at the point of Conversion?
Some conservative Evangelicals argue passionately against the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a second experience. They insist that scripture teaches Spirit baptism is always a part of conversion and cannot be separated from it. Most of their insistence comes in response to Charismatic teachings, particularly those made on the basis of events in Acts. The one scripture that they point to as a positive affirmation of “only at conversion” is 1 Corinthians 12:13:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
They believe 1 Corinthians 12:13 refers to Spirit baptism and that here Paul equates Spirit baptism with conversion. Therefore, according to this line of thinking, there is no second experience to be pursued. Noted theologian Wayne Grudem supports this perspective when he writes, “‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit…’ must refer to the activity of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the Christian life when he gives us new spiritual life (in regeneration) and cleanses us and gives a clear break with the power and love of sin (the initial stage of sanctification). In this way ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ refers to all that the Holy Spirit does at the beginning of our Christian lives.”
Much theological debate has swirled around this passage, so I will try to clearly summarize why I disagree with Grudem’s (and others’) perspective.
One Passage of Scripture Vs. the Greater Testimony of Scripture
Even if this passage of scripture does refer to Spirit baptism (I don’t believe it does), we must hold it up against the whole witness of scripture. I learned an important interpretive principle in seminary: One passage of scripture does not a good argument make!
This verse is not only inconclusive on Spirit baptism, but no other passages in scripture support this idea. Nowhere else in all of scripture do we find an inspired author teaching that Spirit baptism must/can only happen at conversion – not even with Paul himself.
A related interpretive principle is: Allow scripture to interpret scripture. We need to hold up 1 Corinthians 12:13 against the other passages of scripture we have examined. When we do, it becomes abundantly clear that Spirit baptism is about empowerment and that it can happen as a distinct experience after conversion.
I demonstrated that the Spirit’s empowerment was most often an experience after conversion specifically in articles 2 (Priority and Precedent) and 3 (Pattern). From the Old Testament Samson to the New Testament Apostles, this was a clothing with power distinct from conversion. This model is not just seen in Acts (as many conservatives claim and then dismiss), but also in the books of Judges, Numbers, and the Gospels. I contend that the epistles confirm it as well.
Does salvation occur at Water Baptism? An Example of Comparing Scripture with Scripture
Is someone born again when they are baptized with water? We might argue “yes” from scripture by quoting Peter’s speech in Acts 2:38a: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Or notice Romans 6:4. Paul writes, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Most Evangelical scholars agree that both of these passages refer to water baptism. Specifically, in the Romans verse, Paul used the picture of a person being immersed in water to illustrate being buried with Christ, thus equating salvation with water baptism.
Are we to assume that Paul and Peter don’t believe a person has truly entered the kingdom of God until they have received water baptism? Are we to discount the thief on the cross? Or Paul’s words in Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”?
Furthermore, in the Romans passage, Paul used baptism with water as a metaphor to make a greater point. He was explaining the pattern of death to life and used baptism to illustrate this. We need to be particularly careful not to extrapolate theological truth about a subject when it was not the main point of the passage.
Most Evangelicals don’t pair salvation with water baptism. Why? Because we test these scriptures against the greater testimony of scripture. Shouldn’t we do the same with Spirit baptism? With 1 Corinthians 12:13?
1 Corinthians 12:13 – Salvation, NOT Spirit Baptism
If most of us Evangelicals would accept such an interpretation (see above) for Romans 6:4, wouldn’t it be equally valid to approach 1 Corinthians 12:13 in the same way? Clearly baptism (neither Spirit nor water) was not the main subject in these passages. Paul was talking about unity: we “form one body.” The question is which baptism is he referencing to illustrate his discussion of unity?
I believe the textual evidence is strong that he was not referring to Spirit Baptism, but was in fact referring to conversion and therefore water baptism.
1. The Spirit’s Work and the Greek Preposition ‘en’
The seminary professor who taught all of my Greek courses had a very interesting background. He served as a Vineyard pastor but then felt called to become an Eastern Orthodox Priest. He was well aware of this same discussion and whenever he would talk about or translate 1 Corinthians 12:13, he would always say with a smile, “For we were all baptized by/with/in (en in the original Greek) one Spirit.” At the time, I thought this was curious and didn’t understand the significance that many put on this one preposition.
This little preposition has been the source of great debate. As we understand Spirit baptism, it is performed by Christ Jesus and the Spirit is the “element” in whom we are baptized. In other words, we are baptized by Jesus, in the Spirit. This is different from water baptism. The “element” of water baptism is, of course, water. And if one believes that the Spirit is the author of salvation (which water baptism represents) then the Spirit is ultimately the baptizer. In this case, we are baptized by the Spirit, in water.
Spirit Baptism (Empowerment): We are baptized by Jesus, in the Spirit.
Water Baptism (Conversion): We are baptized by the Spirit, in water.
The debate is about the translation of en. It can be translated as: by, with or in. How you translate it affects WHO is doing the baptizing and whether Paul is talking about water baptism/conversion or Spirit Baptism/empowerment. If Paul as talking about water baptism/conversion then he means for us to translate this little preposition as ‘by.’ Thus he would not be equating Spirit Baptism with conversion as many evangelicals claim.
However, if you translate it as in, as many Evangelicals argue, then you have Paul essentially equating Spirit Baptism with conversion. And that is why many Evangelicals say there is no second experience, we receive baptism in the Spirit at the point of conversion. This makes the translation of en crucial.
To me, the context of the passage strongly favors translating en as by and thus supports the argument that Paul was referring to water baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Looking at all of chapter 12, we see Paul’s subject was the ministry of the Spirit. He used the preposition en repeatedly and it is translated as by in many versions. For example, look at 12: 3, 8, 9 in the NIV (2015):
Vs. 3: Therefore, I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God…
Vs. 8: To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit…
Vs. 9: …to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit…
The context is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Paul goes as far as saying in verse 11, “All these are the work of the one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” This is just two verses before to our disputed verse 13. In my opinion, it seems clear.
Paul saw one of the ministries of the Spirit as salvation, which he represented through a reference to water baptism. According to Jesus, the Spirit is at work convicting non-believers of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). The essence of being born again is when the Spirit of God enters into a soul and gives life to our spirit (John 3: 5-6). Again, this strongly favors Paul’s reference to the Spirit’s ministry of salvation as represented by water baptism.
2. Paul’s Use of the Word ‘Baptism’
Another important consideration is Paul’s use of the word ‘baptism.’ Where else did Paul refer to the empowering work of the Spirit with the word baptism? Actually, there is no other place where he definitively utilizes the word ‘baptism’ in reference to what Jesus called ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit.’
What seems more telling is how Paul used the word “baptism/baptize/baptized” in the book of 1 Corinthians itself. It is very clear that he meant water baptism in all the other instances in the book. He argued that it doesn’t matter who we have been taught by or even baptized by (Apollos, Peter, Paul), we should all be united in Christ Jesus.
I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 1 Corinthians 1:14-15
In fact, this sets up the point made in 1 Corinthians 12:13: we have ONE (water) baptism that Paul uses to represent salvation.
3. Paul’s Language for the Empowering Work of the Spirit
Throughout his letters, Paul chose to use different language for the empowering work of the Spirit. For example, like Jesus in Acts 1:4 and Peter in Acts 2:38; 11:17, he used the word “gift” to reference Timothy’s Spirit baptism and empowerment (2 Timothy 1:6-7). In Ephesians 5:18, he used the word “filled” to reference the empowering ministry of the Spirit subsequent to conversion. This same word is used in the book of Acts, including in the disciples’ initial experience at Pentecost (Acts 2:4). He also used the word “poured” in both Romans 5:5 and Titus 3:6. This word is used in the original prophetic word of Joel (Joel 2:28-29) and then directly connected to Spirit baptism in Acts 2:33 and Acts 10:45. And the other term worth noting is the word “drink” in 1 Corinthians 12:13b. Because of the ongoing nature implied in this term, it seems clear that Paul was thinking of us partaking in the Spirit’s continuing ministry of empowerment.
Paul used these words (gift, filled, poured) in reference to the empowering work of Christ. We do not have a conclusive record of him using baptism/baptized in reference to the empowerment of the Spirit. To me this directly undercuts the argument that in this one instance (I Corinthians 12:13a), he broke from his normal practice and employed the word for Spirit baptism.
4. The Dual Reference to Salvation and Spirit Empowerment
Finally, 1 Corinthians 12:13 falls into what I believe to be a pattern of the early church leaders. They referenced both our salvation experience and our empowering experience. If you allow that the early apostles saw salvation and empowerment as two connected, but distinct experiences, then you can see their dual references. For example,
Peter at Pentecost:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38
Peter in Caesarea:
Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Acts 10:47
Paul to Titus:
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior… Titus 3:5b-6
Now read the 1 Corinthians verse in this context:
Paul to the Corinthians:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 1 Corinthians 12:13
Thus, in this verse, Paul did not repeat a reference to Spirit baptism, but followed the pattern of Spirit Born and then Spirit Baptized.
A Solid Endorsement
Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a key leader in Reformed and Evangelical circles in the 20th century. For nearly 30 years he ministered in London at the well-known Westminster Chapel. Lloyd-Jones was known for his powerful expository, verse by verse preaching. Many of his sermons have been reprinted posthumously. Although he wasn’t raised within the Charismatic or Pentecostal movements and never aligned himself with them denominationally, he believed that baptism with the Spirit was distinct from conversion. In the following quote, after having dealt with most of the relevant passages about Spirit baptism, he comments specifically on Acts 19: 1-7:
“Now there is an absolute proof that you can be a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and still not be baptized with the Holy Spirit; that incident proves it twice over. Twice over! The question at the beginning and what actually happened subsequently. The important point is that there is a difference, that there is a distinction between believing and being baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
My perspective is that Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not “go Pentecostal,” as he was accused of; he had simply “gone biblical” regarding the Holy Spirit. Lloyd-Jones demonstrated the courage to preach and teach the scriptures as he understood them all to the best of his ability, which was considerable. Even if his conclusions would later be minimized or ridiculed, Lloyd-Jones stood fast. After all, he had experienced joy unspeakable. What a model for us all! Let us embrace that same courage to live and minister truthfully, boldly, based on the powerful evidence of the sacred text.
Getting Past Semantics
After having plowed through all this, we may be in significant danger of getting lost in semantics. Many conservative Evangelicals do affirm the subsequent fillings of Holy Spirit. For example, Wayne Grudem, argues strenuously against Spirit baptism as a second experience of grace. Nevertheless, he affirms the ongoing experience of being filled:
“Yet an even more commonly used term in the New Testament is ‘being filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Because of its frequent use in contexts that speak of Christian growth and ministry, this seems to me to be the best term to use to describe genuine “second experiences” today (or third or fourth experiences, etc.).”
Personally, I have experienced a fresh infilling of the Spirit several times. You could say that each of these fillings is a subsequent work of grace. It doesn’t really matter to me what you call my initial experience (or subsequent experiences) of Holy Spirit filling after conversion. Baptized with the Spirit. Filled with the Spirit. Let’s not get hung up on semantics when so much is at stake.
Reflecting on Alpha’s phrase, “one baptism, many fillings,” I realize how brilliant this is. They don’t decide (as far as I have read or understood) whether Spirit baptism takes place at conversion or in a subsequent experience. They simply believe in the one baptism with many fillings. More and more Evangelicals seem to be embracing this.
My advice, then, is to choose the language you are most comfortable with and lead people to be Spirit-empowered for ministry again and again. A practical look at this ministry will be the subject of the final article in this series.
 Alpha is an international outreach (and discipleship) ministry that is a basic introduction to the Christian faith. See alphausa.org
 As far as I have read, Alpha does not articulate further on the baptism and filling of the Spirit. They don’t seem to take a position on whether Spirit Baptism takes place at conversion or can be a second experience.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Inter-Varsity Press with Leicester and Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids. 1994, p.768.
 See also John 3:16 and Eph. 2:8-9.
 To be neutral, all Bible versions (with notes) have a footnote or reference to the possibility of translating en as by, with, in.
 Some point to Galatians 3:27, “for all you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ…” I think this favors conversion but it is not conclusive.
 See I Cor. 1: 13-17; 15: 29. 1 Cor. 10: 2 is a bit odd because Paul is referencing Moses.
 For fun, cross reference “drink” with these passages: Luke 1: 15, John 7: 37 and Eph. 5: 18.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit. Harold Shaw, Wheaton, Illinois. 1984, p.31. (Published by special arrangement with Kingsway Publications Ltd, Sussex, England)
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Inter-Varsity Press with Leicester and Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids. 1994, p.781.