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A Theological Pilgrimage: Chapter 4

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Conclusion
Preface | Abbreviations | Bibliography

Chapter Four


With Special Reference to "The Baptism in the Holy Spirit"
Excerpts from a report adopted by the General Assembly of the
former Presbyterian Church, U.S. (Southern), in 19711


Certain Contemporary Experiences of the Spirit

A. There are a number of people in historic Protestant churches- -and most recently in the Roman Catholic Church- -who have had an experience which they call "the baptism of (with, in) the Holy Spirit," or sometimes "the filling of (with) the Holy Spirit." This experience has been so meaningful and vivid to those who have gone through it that they have difficulty putting it into words: "a new relationship, a deeper encounter, a closer walk." Many speak of it primarily as an extraordinary sense of God's reality and presence, and lay claim to a praise and adoration of God hitherto unknown to them. At the same time they often testify to a new bond of community with those who have had the same experience, and a heightened desire and capacity to bear witness to the gospel. In all aspects of life they claim a deeper love, joy, and peace.

Frequently they testify to a multiplicity of "charismata," such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, and so on. Many claim that speaking in tongues was the primary manifestation of their "filling" or "baptism," for it has been either an immediate accompaniment of their experience or has followed some time later. They usually disclaim an interest in the spectacular as such; rather, their testimony is to the reality of God, a deeper awareness of His presence, and the wonder that the Holy Spirit has filled their being.

As these people seek to understand what has happened to them, they generally speak of it as an occurrence within their Christian life. Usually they think of themselves as having been believers for a long time; hence, they do not interpret this experience as entrance into faith but as something beyond. Sometimes they speak of salvation and being "filled with the Spirit." They claim that both could (and sometimes do) occur at the same moment, but for most of them there has been a separation in time. Frequently this "baptism with the Spirit" has occurred after the laying on of hands; but this is not true in all cases. For most of these people the testimony is that- -with or without the laying on of hands- -the experience occurred after extended prayer and seeking. Some speak of this event as a transition within their Christian experience, from the state of Christ's (or the Spirit's) being with them to His being in them. Others say that the transition is rather to be understood as a fuller realization of what was already within them. In any case, these people feel sure that they have entered into a new and exciting life in the Spirit.

B. The events which we have enumerated have raised some critical problems for our Church, and especially for those congregations in which the events have occurred. In the first place, we have tended to stress the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer as uniting the believer to Christ and thereby bringing to him God's grace in salvation. Justification has been viewed as the initial work of the Spirit in applying to man the benefits of Christ's work, and sanctification as the ongoing work of the Spirit in completing the divine purpose by transforming a human life more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. But in this contemporary experience of the Spirit there seems to be testimony to an additional working of the Spirit that goes beyond the initiation of Christian life (justification) and its progress (sanctification)- -a "baptism" or "filling" with the Holy Spirit. The critical question here is how, in the light of the Biblical witness and the Reformed tradition, this understanding is to be adjudged.

In the second place, problems of another kind also arise from the situation to which we have referred. When some members of a congregation claim special pneumatic experiences, or claim extraordinary gifts- -e.g., healing, speaking in tongues- -the peace, unity, and fellowship of the Church may be seriously jeopardized. Differing views of the Spirit and His work may give rise to a schism between those who claim a Spirit baptism and those who do not, or between those who recognize the validity of such claims and those who do not. Obviously our Church ought to provide some guidance in these matters where strong differences of opinion may result in contention and the disruption of the Church's work.

Manifestly, any valid guidance that can be given on this, or on any other subject, must be derived from the teachings of Scripture, and must be evaluated in the light of the Standards of our church. We shall therefore attempt to sketch what the Old and the New Testaments have to say with regard to the Spirit, and then to examine the teachings of the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, before proceeding to draw conclusions.2

V Concluding Observations

An evaluation of contemporary events involving a "baptism of the Holy Spirit" must begin, as the structure of the report implies, with the guidance furnished us by the Scriptures. At the same time we are called upon to give serious heed to the doctrinal Standards3 of our denomination. Likewise it is imperative that we seek to understand what is deeply involved, and at stake for those who claim to have had such a "baptism" within their Christian experience, and particular "charismatic" manifestations. The Scriptures remain our primary source; yet our understanding of Scripture depends upon the illumination provided by the Spirit Himself.

Our study of the Old and New Testaments, however, has revealed no single consistent doctrine of the Spirit which is now immediately applicable to the contemporary situation; nor has it furnished us with a simple straight line of doctrinal development in this regard. Moreover, we must avoid the temptation to improve on the concept of the Spirit through any speculative theory drawn from other sources. Hence, our point of departure in this task can be no other than the New Testament's close identification of the Spirit with Jesus Christ. As Christians we must be guided first of all by God's self-revelation in Christ, testing our understanding by the Scripture's testimony to Him who is our Lord.

A. As we seek to give an expression of our faith in the Holy Spirit that will be an aid in comprehending the experiences which have prompted the present study, there are several basic principles which we must bear in mind. First, as the Scriptures repeatedly affirm, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the holy God, the God of the Bible. All our speech about the Holy Spirit is therefore speech about God. We shall make no attempt to define the concept of "spirit" in general and then move to an understanding of the Holy Spirit based on our ideas about the essential properties or characteristics of "spirit." Rather, our task is to discern the meaning of God's action, in the person of His Spirit, in the lives of His people.

Second, as the New Testament makes clear, and as Calvin aptly reminds us (Institutes, 3.1.4), there is no understanding of the Spirit apart from faith. This means that all our statements about the Holy Spirit are in essence affirmations of faith. They are not "factual" statements in the sense that they purport to give objective data or information which may then be tested for accuracy by scientific means. In speaking of the Holy Spirit we speak from faith to faith.

Third, since the Holy Spirit is the spirit of the God whom we know only through Jesus Christ, we are compelled, in regard to the contemporary spiritual phenomena, to "test the spirits to see whether they are of God" by the measure of their confession of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:1-3). Nothing that contradicts what we see in Christ can rightly be regarded as the activity of the Spirit; on the other hand, whatever bears witness to Christ and His work of the redemption of mankind exhibits the incontrovertible evidence of the Spirit's presence.

B. With the foregoing principles in mind, and with constant reference to the Biblical teachings, the Standards of our Church, and the contemporary situation, the Permanent Theological Committee offers the following statement for the guidance of the Assembly.
1. The greatest emphasis in the Bible, and the most prominent aspect of our Reformed tradition, is to be found in the work of the Spirit in bestowing upon man all the benefits of God which come to him in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ is the way whereby all benefits are received, such as justification, sanctification, and eternal life (1 Cor. 6:11; John 3:16; Confession of Faith, 14.2), and through the Holy Spirit this salvation is a reality.

2. The Holy Spirit accordingly dwells in all who thus believe. If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him (Rom. 8:9). Thus it is impossible to speak of a transition within Christian existence from the state of Spirit's being with to being in. The Spirit indwells all Christians.

3. Baptism with water is a means of grace whereby the grace of salvation is not only offered but conferred by the Holy Spirit (Confession, 30.6). However, according to the Confession, the significance of baptism is not tied to the moment of administration, for, though God's saving grace is conferred thereby, such grace may become efficacious at a later time, or it may have become efficacious earlier. For example, there are those who do not come to an appropriation of this grace (especially if baptized in infancy) until a later date. Calvin speaks (particularly regarding infants) of being "baptized into future repentance and faith" (Institutes 4.20), and urges that this should fire us with greater zeal for renewal in later years. From this perspective it is possible to say that baptism with water may very well be separated from salvation, or at least from full entrance upon it. Though baptism is a channel of God's grace, this grace is not automatically efficacious. Accordingly, there may be special need in the Reformed tradition to lay stress on later occasions (such as entrance into communicant membership) on which God's grace may also be appropriated. Reformed teaching about baptism must be held in creative tension with all that is also said about the importance of conversion and regeneration, and the practice of our church should be in harmony therewith.

4. "Baptism with the Holy Spirit," as the Book of Acts portrays it, is a phrase which refers most often to the empowering of those who believe to share in the mission of Jesus Christ. The significance of "baptism with the Spirit" is also represented in terms such as "outpouring," "falling upon," "filling," and "receiving," being for the most part attempts to depict that action of God whereby believers are enabled to give expression to the gospel through extraordinary praise, powerful witness, and boldness of action. Accordingly, those who speak of such a "baptism with the Spirit," and who give evidence of this special empowering work of the Spirit, can claim Scriptural support. Further, since "baptism in the Spirit" may not be at the same time as baptism with water and/or conversion, we need to be open-minded toward those today who claim an intervening period of time. If this experience signifies in some sense a deepening of faith and awareness of God's presence and power, we may be grateful.

5. We are called upon to recognize a work of the Spirit which involves the application of special gifts and benefits to the members of Christ's church. The Confession of Faith suggests this in Chapter 9.4, where, following the paragraph on the Spirit's work in redemption, the words, in part, read, "He calls and anoints ministers for their holy office, qualifies all other officers in the church for their special work, and imparts various gifts and graces to its members." Here is a special work of the Holy Spirit of calling and anointing that is peculiarly related to the life of the believing community. We would add that it is important for the church constantly to bear this work of the Holy Spirit in mind so that there will be a continuing readiness for, and recognition of, the calling, the qualifying, and the imparting of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit to the community of faith. Both a fresh confrontation with the biblical record and contemporary spiritual experience, we believe, are bringing us into a fuller understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.

6. The "baptism of the Holy Spirit" may be signified by certain pneumatic phenomena, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6). In the Old Testament, as we have noted, the Spirit is understood at times as an invading power, a charismatic fury; also it is frequently associated with ecstatic prophecy. However, since the Spirit came only to certain exceptional persons, this was quite limited. With the New Testament dispensation the Spirit is now available to all who believe in Jesus Christ. Hence such signs of this invading power as ecstatic language and prophecy could occur with anyone who has experienced this visitation. Clearly it would be a mistake to say that all upon whom the Spirit comes must manifest specific pneumatic phenomena. The Spirit usually manifests Himself in other ways. However, that such extraordinary manifestations may occur- -and in so doing give evidence of the Spirit's working- -is quite in accord with the witness of the New Testament.

7. There may be further bestowal of the Holy Spirit. "Baptism with the Spirit" signifies the initial outpouring of God's Spirit wherein the community and/or person is filled with the presence and power of God. But also there may be later bestowal in such fashion as o signify implementation of the original event, whether or not accompanied by pneumatic phenomena (cf. Acts 2:4 with 4:31). This renewed activity of the Spirit ought not to be designated "baptism" (at least, the New Testament never uses this term for it), but as "filling," wherein the empowering Spirit moves to renew the believer and believing community.

8. The bestowal and reception of the Spirit, or the gifts of the Spirit, does not signify a higher level of spirituality nor ought it to suggest that some Christians have more of the Holy Spirit than others. Such expressions as "baptism," "filling," and the like point rather to the Spirit's implementing activity; endowment for the witness to the gospel. The Spirit is active in all believers, and they may be "filled" with the Spirit in various ways for the mission of the Church. It should be added that such expressions as "having" or "filled with" the Spirit are not to be construed as obviating the possibility and actuality of growth in grace and knowledge.

9. Both the coming of the Spirit Himself and the various abilities or charismata which He may bestow upon people are, above all, to be received as the benefits of God's free grace. Neither the Spirit, then, nor His gifts may be considered "possessions" of the believer; he does not own them, nor can he presume that they are, or will be, at all times (or at any given time) available. Each occasion on which the Spirit's presence is known or His gifts made manifest is to be an occasion for new thanksgiving and praise to God. Hence, there should be no jeopardizing of the peace, unity, and fellowship of the Church because of special experiences of the Holy Spirit, but a rejoicing together in all those ways whereby God leads His people into fuller apprehension of the riches of His grace.

10. An experience of the Spirit can neither be validated as such, nor evaluated with respect to its theological significance, by any scientific (i.e., psychological, sociological, etc.) means. It is to be acknowledged that such events, just as any other human events, may become the legitimate objects of scientific inquiry. But regardless of the scientific conclusions which may be reached, the question of the theological significance of the phenomena will remain, and it may be answered only within the context of the Christian faith. The Corinthians' ability to speak in tongues, for example, may have a perfectly good psychological explanation; but whether the Spirit of Jesus Christ was active in the phenomenon is a question which neither psychology nor any other science can answer. But this conclusion leads also to the observation that the extraordinary or unusual nature of an experience (and the same would apply to gifts) is no criterion by which to judge its significance for faith. Ecstasy is not in itself an unambiguous occurrence. Not every dramatic event, experience, or ecstasy is necessarily a work of the Spirit.

11. It is clear the there is Biblical and Reformed witness concerning baptism of the Holy Spirit and special endowment of the Holy Spirit in the believing community. Of course, it is impossible to make any general pronouncement concerning the validity of particular claims made, since multiple factors may be at work. But where there is divisiveness, judgment (expressed or implied) on the lives of others, an attitude of pride or boasting, etc., the Spirit of God is not at work. However, where such an experience gives evidence of an empowering and renewing work of Christ in the life of the individual and the Church, it may be acknowledged with gratitude. This means above all that Christ should be glorified, His own Spirit made manifest in human lives, and the Church edified. For such evidences of the presence of the Holy Spirit the Church may rejoice.4


1A complete copy of the report may be found in Presence, Power, Praise: Documents on the Charismatic Renewal, edited by Kilian McDonnell, 1:287-317.

2For reasons of space I will omit sections II, III, and IV dealing respectively with the Old Testament, New Testament, and Church Standards. However, those sections are well worth reading because they provide a valuable biblical and ecclesiastical foundation.

3The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

4Concluding remark: This report is highly significant in that it officially recognizes a "special empowering work of the Spirit" and that "baptism with the Spirit may not be at the same time as baptism with water and/or conversion" (B. 4 above). Moreover, the report closes quite positively with the statement that "where such an experience gives evidence of an empowering and renewing work of Christ in the life of the individual and the Churcit may be acknowledged with gratitude" (B. 11). This is indeed an extraordinary step ahead for a Presbyterian denomination!

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Conclusion
Preface | Abbreviations | Bibliography


Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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