When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. [Acts 2:1-4]
At Pentecost, the disciples find themselves huddled together awaiting the gift that their Lord had promised to them. And come it did, with fire and the evidence of the newfound gift of tongues. The question for us, two thousand years later, is how we shall interpret this and other similar incidents recorded in the passages of scripture? Are they normative such that we should continue to expect their repetition or were they miraculous events that occurred once and should be understood as fulfilling a unique need at a moment in history? In the immediate context of the passage, the gift of speaking in foreign tongues served a timely purpose as the 12 were to communicate with the myriad peoples of many nations assembled in Jerusalem (vv 5-13). Peter and the other disciples stood before a crowd and associated the day with the prophesy of Joel:
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. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. [Joel 2:28-32]
Old Testament prophesy is seen by Peter as associated with the baptism of the Spirit spoken of by John the Baptist and Jesus. As he speaks to the crowd in vv 38, calling them to repent, he has in mind that they will receive the two incomparable gifts promised by the Lord, the forgiveness of sin and bestowal of the Holy Spirit.
Neither Stott nor Ervin disputes that these twin blessings are to be expected and greeted by the Christian. The question comes in the issue of subsequence; does the Spirit Baptism occur distinctly separate from the moment of conversion? Stott is among those who say no, that the Spirit indwells all believers as a step in the conversion event. He points to the plain reading of Acts 2:40-41 in which 3,000 blessed souls are saved, receiving the forgiveness and the indwelling of Spirit simultaneously. Exegetically, Stott is cautious in separating the unique experience of 120 and the believers who enter the kingdom subsequently. His hermeneutic framework does not find the narrative passages in Acts appropriate for deriving a doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that “it is a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation to begin with the general, not the special.” A more appropriate interpretive passage regarding the timing of the indwelling is seen in Galatians 3:14 “…by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” The context of the passage makes it clear that this “faith” is not a second, subsequent act of belief but the saving belief of conversion.
What of the two further incidents mentioned in Acts in which there appears to be a separation between conversion and Spirit indwelling? In Acts 8:5-17, one encounters the Samaritan believers, converted upon hearing the gospel from Philip the evangelist. With the exception of Simon the sorcerer, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the saving event of these believers except for the fact that these were Samaritans. Philip’s boldness in proclaiming the gospel in Samaria for the first time and the response of the people is nothing short of astonishing. Not only had Philip, a Jew, preached the gospel to the Samaritans despite the bitter rivalry that existed between the two peoples, they had accepted the word and believed! Here Stott poses an important question in understanding why Peter and John would need to make a trip to see these believers firsthand. “Is it not reasonable to suppose that it was precisely in order to avoid the development of such a situation (Jewish-Samaritan estrangement causing a schism in the new Church) that God deliberately withheld the gift of His Spirit from the Samaritan believers until two of the leading Apostles came down to investigate” and confirm the conversion by laying on of hands? The unique nature of this incident and the inability to repeat it makes this situation inappropriate as precedent for today in the development of doctrine.
The second incident is found in Acts 19:1-7 where we encounter the Ephesian disciples. The question that must be examined in this context is whether or not the ‘disciples’ were truly Christian disciples. Certainly, Paul refers to them as such but the reader must discern of whom they were disciples. Stott makes the case that their lack of knowledge of Jesus and the Holy Spirit marks them as non-Christian disciples. The repentance of John’s baptism must be followed by belief in the work of the Cross before one can claim the title of Christian disciple and it appears here that this was not the case.
Pentecostal theologian Ervin asks us to consider a different hermeneutic in which events must be interpreted in the context of history transitioning from the old covenant to the new covenant. He points us to John chapter 20 in which we find the disciples huddled frightened and in despair until the Lord appears to them with the greeting “Peace be with you!” and then breathed upon them, imparting the Holy Spirit to them. This moment marks the culmination of the old Sinai covenant and a new nation created in The Church. This imparting of the Spirit is to be interpreted as one that equips the believer for service and, by extension and in view of the Church’s commission, is a necessity for all members of the body. He further states “In the Pentecostal hermeneutic, repentance, faith, and water baptism constitute conversion and initiation into the new covenant community. Repentance and faith are the results of the Spirit’s action in the spiritual experience of the convert. These elements are the conditions for the new birth from above, for apart from the Holy Spirit convicting of sin there can be neither repentance nor faith. They are, therefore, sequentially prior to the Lukan gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The reason that Ervin brings up the Johannine experience is to draw the difference between that and the Pentecost experience(s) of Acts as recorded by Luke. John’s new birth message is ontological, it is a change in one’s nature where Luke’s gift of the spirit is functional, preparing one for service. Is the experience of Acts normative though? Ervin supports it by dismissing the assertion that Pentecost was a “once and for all” event in the church’s history by pointing to the narrative of Cornelius in Acts 10 which was separated from the event by at least ten years. He further disagrees with Stott as he points out that so long as the Great Commission of our Lord remains in effect, so too the need for Baptism in the Spirit as experienced at Pentecost will remain in order to supply the Holy Spirit power through which it will be accomplished.
The Pentecostal insists that the passages in Acts which describe the Baptism of the Holy Spirit are normative for Christian experience and are sufficient from which to derive a doctrine on this subject. The reasoning forwarded for establishing this position is that there are no other recorded experiences due to the fact that later authors would not see it as necessary since the experience was taken for granted that readers would already be familiar with it. We must turn to the Acts narratives for information on this and therefore, it is authoritative on this topic. Ervin gives 5 propositions that support this theological position:
1.John the Baptist’s baptism supplied the type for the baptism in the Spirit. (cf Acts 1:5) The baptism of Jesus places the Christian in Spirit.
2. Jesus himself is the administrator of this Spirit-baptism.
3. The baptism in the Holy Spirit is not synonymous with conversion and the new birth from above. Instead, it is subsequent to conversion and regeneration.
4. There will be normative evidence of this Spirit Baptism in the form of charismatic manifestations of the Spirit’s personality and power.
5. Baptism in the Spirit is synonymous (in Luke) with being filled with the spirit.
Grammatically, the description of the first Spirit Baptism (Acts 2:1-4 see above) contains the word translated “they were filled” in the ingressive aorist tense, meaning that the verb indicates a state or condition and denotes the entry into that state or condition. In other words, they moved from one state to another, that of being filled with the Spirit. In the narrative of the Samaritan Believers (Acts 8:14-17), Ervin reads this passage in the framework described in the previous paragraphs and therefore sees a clear subsequence to the conversion/Spirit baptism sequence. He does not engage the possibility that there may be a reason for God to have withheld the Spirit from this group of believers. Addressing the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19, Ervin does acknowledge that they may have had an incomplete presentation of the gospel to which they responded but he does not allow for the possibility that they may not have been regenerate, instead electing to emphasize the ordering of the process with conversion baptism preceding Spirit Baptism.
Both theologians offer conservative and reasonable exegesis in the original language and with appropriate Old Testament reference. As a secondary issue, it appears that one will follow the doctrine that best fits their overall theological framework. That is, unless they find themselves with experiential evidence that contributes to a reading of the narratives in a different light. Shall we divide fellowship over this? In no way.
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