Baptism in the Spirit

by Donald Macleod

Until the 20th century theologians paid little attention to the phrase the baptism of the Holy Spirit: and the relative neglect could claim some biblical justification. The precise wording the baptism of the Spirit does not occur anywhere in the New Testament and the idea itself occurs very infrequently. There are in fact only three references: in Matt. 3:11 (and parallels) where John the Baptist proclaims that Christ will baptize in the Holy Spirit; in Acts 1: 5 where our Lord Himself promises that the disciples will be baptized in the Holy Spirit; and in 1 Cor. 12:13 where Paul affirms that all Christians were baptized in one Spirit.

The importance of a doctrine cannot be measured, however, by the frequency with which a precise wording occurs in Scripture. Otherwise the doctrine of the Trinity would have to be dismissed as quite secondary. Holy Spirit baptism is only one of several designations for that all-important initiatory experience by which the Holy Spirit comes to take up residence in the believer; and as such it rivals union with Christ as the single most important concept in the Christian doctrine of salvation. Its importance has been further enhanced by the exigencies of controversy and particularly by the construction put upon it by Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal theology. This has raised questions so radical and so far reaching that none of us can afford to ignore them.

The most fundamental of these questions is that of the relation of Holy Spirit baptism to regeneration and conversion. Pentecostal theology insists that the two are quite distinct; that the baptism is frequently, if not indeed normally, subsequent to conversion; that it is therefore perfectly possible for a man to have been born again and yet not have received Holy Spirit baptism; and indeed that some Christians never receive this blessing.

One of the most articulate advocates of this point of view was R. A. Torrey, whom F. D. Bruner has described as 'after Wesley and Finney, the most important figure in the pre-history of Pentecostalism'. 'The baptism with the Spirit,' writes Torrey,

'is a work of the Holy Spirit distinct from and additional to His regenerating work. In other words, it is one thing to be born again by the Holy Spirit and quite another thing to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

Ralph M. Riggs, a contemporary Pentecostal theologian, is equally emphatic:

'Although all believers have the Holy Spirit, yet it still remains that all believers, in addition to having the Holy Spirit may be filled with or baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

The disciples before Pentecost

'had received the Holy Spirit already, but they yet needed the baptism in the Holy Spirit.'

Receiving, being filled, being baptized

One major difficulty which immediately faces this doctrine is that the language of the New Testament simply will not allow us to distinguish in this way between being baptized in the Spirit and receiving the Spirit. These––and other terms––are used quite interchangeably. For example, in Acts 1:5 Luke foretells the day of Pentecost as an experience of being baptized in the Spirit. In Acts 2:4 he describes it as being filled with the Spirit. We cannot, in the face of these statements, go on to say that being filled and being baptized are two different experiences. On the other hand, the same experience is foretold in Acts 1:8 as the Holy Spirit coming upon them; and described in Acts 2:38 as receiving the Spirit. Putting all these together we have to conclude that having the Spirit come upon us, receiving the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit and being baptized in the Spirit are one and the same experience.

The way that Luke describes the experience of Cornelius and his household is equally significant. He sees it as an exact parallel to Pentecost (Acts 11:15) and as a precise fulfillment of our Lord's promise. 'Ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit' (Acts 11:16). Yet in describing the event he does not use the language of filing or baptism. He says instead that the Holy Spirit fell on them (Acts 10:44), that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them (Acts 10: 45) and, most significantly of all, that they simply received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:47).

It is surely clear that no one can claim the authority of the New Testament for distinguishing between receiving the Spirit, on the one hand, and being baptized or filled with the Spirit on the other. Equally clearly, no one can claim canonical authority for the form of words. 'All have received the Spirit, but not all have been baptized or filled with the Spirit'.

All believers baptized in the Spirit

But the case does not rest on biblical vocabulary alone. There is considerable direct evidence in the New Testament that all believers experience Holy Spirit baptism.

To begin with, the universality of the gift of the Spirit was one of the main points in the prophecy of Joel (2:28-32), of which Pentecost was the fulfillment. In the old dispensation, the Spirit and His gift were distributed only to special individuals within the people of God. This limitation, says Joel, would be done away with in the last days (the Christian dispensation). The Spirit would be poured on all flesh. Their sons and their daughters would prophesy, their young men would see visions and their old men would dream dreams. The Spirit would come not only on the eminent, but on servants and maid-servants. Moses' longing (Num. 11:29) would be fulfilled: All the Lord's people would be prophets, speaking forth the wonderful works of God.

Luke's account of Pentecost makes it clear that this is exactly what happened: All the believers were baptized in the Spirit (Acts 2:4). The all is so defined that it does not allow us to believe that any single disciple was excluded. The whole church described in Acts 1:13-26 were 'all with one accord in one place', and when the baptism came it came on all of them. At that moment, there was not a single believer in the world who was not baptized in the Spirit. Bearing in mind also his use of Joel's prophecy it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Luke wants to establish at the outset that this is to be the distinctive feature of the new dispensation.

The description of the experience of the 3,000 converted through Peter's preaching is certainly in accord with this. He promised that those who responded to his message would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). But he does not portray this as something additional to the basic experience of salvation. Instead, the gift is said to be a direct and immediate effect of conversion: 'Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'. Remission of sins and the gift of the Spirit go together. A few verses later, the total experience of these converts is said to be simply that they 'gladly received his word' (verse 41). It is fair to conclude from this that the only condition of being baptized in the Spirit is a glad reception of the gospel. Every penitent –– every forgiven sinner –– has undergone Holy Spirit baptism.

It is the very same doctrine we appear to have in 1 Cor. 12:13, 'For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body'. Some have expressed reservations as to the relevance of this passage to the question of baptism in the Spirit and suggested that it refers to baptism by the Spirit rather than to baptism in the Spirit. It is difficult to see any reason for this. Grammatically, the expression is exactly the same as in Acts 1:5. Had Paul wished to express the idea of baptism by the Spirit he could have done so unambiguously by using the preposition hupo (by) rather than the preposition en (in). But had he done so, he would have been saying something the New Testament does not say anywhere else. Its uniform teaching is that it is Christ who baptizes. In Matt. 3:11, for example, John the Baptist says, 'He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit'. Peter speaks to the same effect in Acts 2:33. The exalted Christ has shed forth the Holy Spirit. The only alternative to this is that sometimes (e.g., Acts 1:4) the Spirit is represented as the gift of the Father. The Spirit Himself does not baptize. He is what we are baptized in or baptized with. Otherwise it would not be possible to contrast Spirit baptism with baptism in (not by) water or to relate it to baptism in (not by) fire.

This interpretation is confirmed by the second part of the verse: 'we were all made to drink into one Spirit'. The Greek verb underlying our English is epotisthemen. It was frequently used with the meaning of watering (plants) and as T. C. Edwards points out, this metaphor, expressing the ideas of abundance and power, would be perfectly appropriate here: 'Like plants, we are drenched in the Spirit. The one shower waters all the fields and soaks through to the rootlets of every particular blade of grass.' Michael Green combines what he sees as the meaning of the two metaphors of 1Cor. 12:13 in the statement: 'All alike have been immersed in the sea of the Spirit; all alike have had His living water irrigating their parched lives.'

The purpose of this baptism Paul defines in the phrase 'into one body'. He uses the preposition idiomatically, in the sense of 'with a view to': 'We were all baptized (immersed, drenched, irrigated) in the one Spirit with a view to our forming or becoming one body'.

This surely rules out an elitist interpretation along the lines that Spirit baptism is an experience of the few. All believers are members of the one body and as such all are baptized and all are drenched in the one Spirit. Equally, all have spiritual gifts which are essential to the proper functioning of the body so that no one should feel superior, no one should feel inferior and, above all, no one should feel redundant. It is difficult to see how Paul's argument for recognition of their inter–relatedness and inter–dependence could survive if the body were divided by such a radical distinction as that some had Holy Spirit baptism and some did not. Such a distinction would do exactly what Paul wants to avoid –– create a schism in the body (1 Cor. 12: 25).

Theological arguments

The argument that it is possible to be regenerate and yet not possess Holy Spirit baptism is as difficult to sustain on the theological level as it is on the exegetical. All Christians are united to Christ. To suggest that this can be so without a corresponding union with the Holy Spirit is to separate these two persons in a way that is quite inconsistent with historic Trinitarian theology. The Son and the Spirit are, with the Father, one God. So close is the union that each is in the other (John 14:10), so that the mission of the Comforter is equally the mission of the Son (John 14:18) and Paul can even say, 'The Lord (Jesus Christ) is the Spirit' (2 Cor. 3:17). It was upon such passages that the post–Nicene Fathers built the doctrine of the coinherence of the divine persons. We have a fine statement of the doctrine in Basil: 'If any one truly receive the Son he will find that He brings with Him on the one hand His Father, on the other the Holy Spirit. For neither can He from the Father be severed, who is of and ever in the Father; nor again from His own Spirit disunited. For we must not conceive separation or division in any way; as if either the Son could be supposed without the Father, or the Spirit disunited from the Son.'

If this doctrine of the coinherence is true, as it surely is, there can be no relation with the one Person that is not equally and symmetrically a relation with the others. To be fully in the Son is to be fully in the Spirit. To have Christ dwell in our hearts by faith is simultaneously to have His Spirit in our inner man and to be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19).

To change the perspective slightly: to be in Christ means to have communion with Him and this in turn means that we share fully in all that He has. The most precious of all His endowments, surely, is the full and overflowing indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal argument wishes us to believe that we can be in Christ and yet not share in this; or at least, not share in it fully. But this, surely, is impossible. How can He be said to share if He withholds His Spirit, or bestows Him only 'by measure' (John 3: 34)? To be a member of His body means, if the metaphor has any significance, that we share fully in His vitality. It is His spiritual life that courses through us, enabling us to say, 'Christ lives in me' (Gal. 2:20). We are rooted in Him (Col. 2: 7), our roots going deep into the resources of Christ so that we effectually tap the fullness of the Spirit that is in Him.

The New Testament view of faith

The Pentecostal position is equally inconsistent with the New Testament view of faith. Faith saves; and it is impossible to confine this to regeneration and conversion, excluding the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the unspeakable gift (2 Cor. 9:15). He is the paramount promise of the Father (Acts 1: 4) and the invariable seal upon our sonship (Eph. 1:13). Sharing Christ's experience of Him is the climax of the apostolic benediction (2 Cor. 13:14). Even to the Old Testament, salvation could not be defined apart from receiving the Spirit: 'I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes' (Ez. 36: 27).

But not only does the New Testament insist that baptism in the Spirit is part of the very meaning of salvation. It also asserts explicitly that faith and the gift of the Spirit are inseparably connected. This appears clearly in Paul's rhetorical question in Gal. 3: 2: 'Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith?' He lays down the same doctrine in Eph. 1:13: 'In whom also, after ye believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise'. All they did was to believe: having done so, they were sealed. Gal. 3:14 is clearer still. We receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Part of the interest of this passage is that it equates the promise of the Spirit with the blessing of Abraham. In other words, the gift of the Spirit was the core of the blessing promised in the Abrahamic covenant. We cannot be beneficiaries under that covenant and lack it. Nor can we conceivably be children of Abraham and lack it. Indeed, we can go further still and argue that the conferring of the Spirit was the great purpose of the atonement and that we can have no share in the blessings of that atonement without having the fullness of the Spirit. The movement of Paul's thought is quite clear: 'Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law. . . that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.' We cannot let ourselves be put in the position where, before qualifying for the gift of the Spirit, we must have something additional to faith –– some plus. Faith puts us in Christ and by doing so makes us nothing short of complete (Col. 2:10).

Christian service

It is just as impossible to reconcile the notion that some Christians do not possess the fullness of the Spirit with the New Testament teaching on Christian service. R. A. Torrey tries to make a distinction between being saved and being ready for service and permits himself the following astonishing statement:

'Now if a man is regenerate he is saved. If he should die he would go to heaven. But though he is saved he is not yet fitted for God's service' (the italics are his).

This distinction does such violence to New Testament theology that one can only gasp. Far from arguing that because not all have the Holy Spirit not all are ready for service we should have to argue that because all are deemed to be ready for service all must be endowed with the Spirit. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, makes clear that Christ expects from every believer the highest standards of service. Every 'blessed' man will live in such a way as to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5: 13f.). Paul's expectations are similar. He would find the idea of a Christian who is not fitted for service absurd! To be redeemed from sin is to become at once a servant of righteousness (Rom. 6:18), bearing the fruit of the Spirit in a life characterised by love, joy, peace and all other excellences (Gal. 5: 22f.). Peter is equally explicit: How could the idea of people being saved and yet not ready for service possibly fit into 1 Peter 2: 9: 'Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should show forth the virtues of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light'? The duty of proclaiming the virtues of God is laid firmly on every Christian: but only because of what they are. The imperative rests on the indicative. We are neither exempt from service nor unprepared for it.

The passage from 1 Peter reminds us that among all the various forms of service expected of the Christian, witnessing has a special place. We have to hold fast our profession (Heb. 4: 14), hold forth the word of life (Phil. 2:16) and give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3: 15). This takes us right back to the commission given to the church in Acts 1: 8, 'Ye shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria and unto the uttermost part of the earth.' It was precisely to prepare them for this that the promise was given, 'Ye shall receive power'; and this was the promise fulfilled at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on each of them, enabling them to speak forth the wonderful works of God. Witness and indeed doxology –– is the business of every Christian. To suggest that some believers have been left without the resources for it is to stand the New Testament ethic on its head: as if God expected us to make bricks without straw.

Never an apostolic prescription

Finally, it is surely significant that none of the New Testament writers, facing the perplexing problems of the early church, ever suggested that what they needed was baptism in the Holy Spirit. Consider the churches they were writing to: Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Ephesus, Laodicea. Their problems were surely serious enough disunity, heresy, immorality, worldliness, lack of evangelistic concern. There was an all too evident absence of power. The classic Pentecostal analysis of the luke–warm church at Laodicea, for example, would have been that they lacked 'the fire', 'the second wind', 'the baptism of the Holy Spirit'. But this is never the New Testament approach. Their problems are seen not as due to the lack of Spirit baptism but to a failure to reckon with the implications of the deepest spiritual truth about themselves (Rom. 6: 2, 1 Cor. 6: 2, Gal. 3: 3). It was the very fact that they had all received the Spirit that made their heresy, factiousness and worldliness so appalling.

What then are we to conclude? That baptism in the Spirit is an absolutely fundamental element in the Christian doctrine of salvation; that the experience of it is what initiates a man into the Christian life, so that without it we are not Christians at all; and that to have had it is to have received the Spirit in His fullness, enabling us to say, 'I can do all things in the One who strengthens me' (Phil. 4:13).


The Spirit of Promise. Donald Macleod. Christian Focus Publications. 1986, pages 1-10.

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