While the gift of the Spirit is closely linked with baptism, which is the outward sign of its reception, this gift is always bestowed by God Himself.
The question of conversion and its relationship to the gift of the Holy Spirit and the practice of water baptism is an important one. In some Christian denominations they are virtually inseparable, while in others they are related but clearly separate. In a few places, the New Testament also seems to associate the gift of the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands. The question naturally arises as to whether one or both of these practices are necessary to receive the Holy Spirit. An answer to this and related questions necessitates a look at New Testament religious practices connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Meaning and Necessity of Christian Baptism
Christian baptism has its origins in John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).1 Being baptized by John signaled the people’s repentance in response to John’s preaching (Matt. 3:1, 2; Luke 3:1–14). This compares closely with Jesus’ own proclamation (Mark 1:14, 15; Luke 5:32) and the work of His disciples in baptizing those who followed Him (John 3:22–4:3), as well as the later Christian proclamation calling people to “‘repent and be baptized . . . for the forgiveness of your sins’” (Acts 2:38). John’s announcement that one was coming after him who would baptize not just “‘with water for repentance’” but also “‘with the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 3:11) may say more about Jesus as John’s successor (John 3:27–31) than about the difference between the two baptisms themselves. After all, it was the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism that identified Him as the Coming One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:29–34). Also, Jesus’ submitting to John’s baptism, together with His affirmation that by so doing they would “‘fulfill all righteousness’” (Matt. 3:15), shows that Christian baptism should not be distinguished too sharply from that of John.
On the other hand, Jesus’ own baptism was clearly unique in several respects. First, Jesus needed no repentance, which helps to explain John’s reluctance to baptize Him (Matt. 3:14). Second, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit for His unique messianic role in fulfillment of prophecy (Luke 4:18–21). Third, judging from other actions of Jesus as prophetic “signs,” ranging from miraculous healings and casting out demons to cleansing the temple, His baptism may have prefigured His death and resurrection, as His references to a future “‘baptism’” (Mark 10:38) and “‘the sign of the prophet Jonah’” suggest (Matt. 12:39).
Nevertheless, as with other aspects of His life, the very fact that Jesus was baptized seems designed to set an example for believers in Him to follow, because both His positive teaching and His practice highlight baptism (being “born of water”) as a necessary qualification for entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5). Soon after being baptized, Jesus authorized His disciples to baptize (John 3:26; 4:1–3) and after His resurrection, He commanded the apostles to baptize His followers (Matt. 28:19). Baptism even seems to be a condition of salvation (Mark 16:16). (This is not to say that salvation is impossible without being baptized.) These are some of the reasons that understanding and accepting Jesus’ teaching and choosing to be baptized is necessary for church membership (1 Cor. 12:13).
Christ’s baptism is also instructive for believers in another way. It shows the close connection that exists between Christian baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus placed the need to be born of the Spirit on the same level as water baptism (John 3:5)—both are essential, but they are also distinct. Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit marks such an important change in a person’s life that Jesus described it as being “‘born again’” (vs. 3) and turning “‘from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God’” (Acts 26:18). However, He also distinguished water baptism from being born of the Spirit and seems not to have equated the two, in agreement with His prioritization of inner righteousness over external religious practices (Mark 7:1–23). Paul explicitly identified baptism as symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus and a life-changing experience. It marks one’s death to sin, burial with Christ, and resurrection to a new life (Rom. 6:1–7). It is a vivid picture of “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), and the means whereby a person is united to the body of Christ, which is His church (1 Cor. 12:12–14).
While water baptism and a changed life are closely associated with each other, nowhere in the New Testament is baptism said to cause this inner change. As we have seen, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles called people to repentance as the initial step in turning (or returning) to God. And they apparently refused to baptize those whose lives showed no outward evidence of repentance (Matt. 3:7–9; Luke 3:7–14). Baptism by immersion in water—this is what the Greek word from which baptize and baptism derive—vividly depicts the change in a person’s life wrought by the Holy Spirit as they respond to this call. It is the outward sign of an inwardly repentant heart (1 Peter 3:21), an inward change that is also described as being “sealed” by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13). Thus, the apostles urged people to repent and be baptized, and promised them: “‘You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). All who receive the Holy Spirit receive it as a gift—a gift that can be given only by God Himself.
Human beings are simply the means God uses to communicate the good news of salvation by faith to people—which leads to their repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. These elements belong together in the process of salvation. Important as the outward act of baptism is, it cannot by itself be efficacious for salvation. Rather, it is the seal of and public witness to the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life (Acts 10:47, 48).
At the same time, although the biblical ordinance of baptism is as necessary now as circumcision was for a previous era of believers, it is important to remind ourselves that the outward sign of baptism is of little value without the inward change it is supposed to represent (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6). Both John the Baptist and Jesus condemned a focus on forms of religious practice without the corresponding heart change that these practices represented (Matt. 3:7–10; 6:5, 16). Just as unrepentant Jews could be “‘uncircumcised in heart’” (Acts 7:51), so baptized Christians could in reality be “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4) and even “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).
The Laying on of Hands and the Gift of the Spirit
Turning to another New Testament religious practice, both Jesus and the apostles are described as laying their hands on people in various settings and for a variety of reasons. Often, it had no necessary connection with inward change or obvious relation to the gift of the Holy Spirit:
● Jesus sometimes laid hands on people to heal them (Mark 6:5; 8:23, 25), as would His followers (Mark 16:18; Acts 28:8).
● Jesus laid His hands on children to bless them (Matt. 19:13–15).
● The apostles appointed seven individuals by means of prayer and the laying on of hands for the work of ministering to people’s material needs (Acts 6:1–6).
● After fasting and prayer, the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas as missionaries by the laying on of hands, and sent them on their missionary journey (Acts 13:1–3).
● Paul instructed Timothy regarding the selection of elders not to lay hands on anyone hastily (1 Tim. 5:22).
Only three New Testament passages explicitly refer to the Holy Spirit being given in connection with the laying on of hands (Acts 8:17, 18; 9:17; 19:6). As a close examination of the larger context of these verses will make clear, these were unique, exceptional, and unrepeatable cases that necessitated the laying on of hands and should not be used as a model for ministry today. As one seasoned New Testament researcher has observed, “There should be little doubt that it is normal in Luke’s eyes for all believers to receive the gift of the Spirit at conversion and that it is considered anomalous when this does not happen.”2
Acts 8:17, 18
Philip’s preaching of the gospel in the city of Samaria led many to believe and be baptized, including Simon Magus (Acts 8:5‒13). When word reached Jerusalem that “Samaria had received the word of God,” Peter and John were sent there to help and follow up the work being done by Philip (vs. 8:14). As the text indicates, the Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized (vs. 16). It underscores the exceptional nature of this situation with the words “not yet” and “only.” So, the apostles “laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (vs. 17). No explanation for this action is given, but there are some hints as to the reason.
First, it is important to recognize that the preaching of the gospel in Samaria represented a major mission advance by the early church in harmony with the instructions given them by Jesus before His ascension to heaven (Acts 1:8). In addition, and more significantly, the text uses an unusual expression in describing the fact that the Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit: “for he [the Holy Spirit] had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:16, italics supplied).
The Greek word translated “fallen” refers to the giving of the Holy Spirit on only three occasions. This is the first of the three. The second is in reference to the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles who gathered at Cornelius’ house to hear Peter’s preaching (10:44). The third is contained in Peter’s description of this event to some in the Jerusalem church—that “‘the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning’” (11:15, italics supplied)—referring to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost (2:1–8).
In other words, the three stages in preaching the gospel to the world indicated in Acts 1:8—first to Jews, then to Samaritans, and, finally, to the Gentiles—is marked by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This outpouring on the Samaritans occurred sometime after they were baptized. In the case of the Gentiles, however, the Holy Spirit was poured out beforehand (10:44). In both cases, the sanction of the church through the apostles on the expanding mission featured prominently. It is important to notice that there was no clear pattern in the gift of the Holy Spirit in relation to baptism and the laying on of hands. Each situation was unique and exceptional.
Following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul (who prior to Acts 13:9 is referred to by his Jewish name “Saul”), was brought into connection with the early church through the ministry of Ananias, who had been instructed in a vision to go to him (9:10–16). As with the Samaritans’ conversion, the seal of Christ’s church was to be placed on the conversion and baptism of Saul. The text describes Ananias as “laying his hands on him [and saying] ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’” (vs. 17). As a result, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized” (vs. 18). The text is not clear as to whether the act of Ananias in laying his hands on Saul effected the regaining of sight, being filled with the Holy Spirit, or both. From verse 12, it might be concluded that only healing was accomplished by this. However, the Greek text makes no distinction between Saul regaining his sight and being filled with the Spirit. In fact, the syntactical parallelism of the two verbs following a conjunction of purpose suggests that both results stemmed from Ananias laying his hands on him. Note this vivid description given by Ellen G. White: “In Christ’s stead Ananias touches his eyes that they may receive sight; in Christ’s stead he lays his hands upon him, prays in Christ’s name, and Saul receives the Holy Ghost.”3 Even though the reception of the Spirit coincided with the laying on of hands, it apparently came in response to prayer rather than being caused by the physical act itself of Ananias’ hands being laid on Saul.
Acts 19 describes the gospel being brought by Paul to Ephesus, where he stayed more than two years during his third missionary journey (Acts 19:8, 10). Almost immediately, it seems, he met “some disciples” (vs. 1), about 12 in number (vs. 7). Most often, when not further qualified, Luke uses the term disciples for baptized Christian believers, especially in Acts. However, he does not always use it this way, sometimes referring specifically to disciples of John the Baptist. In view of the context, and the very general phraseology, these Ephesians were, at best, “believers with partial knowledge,”4 similar perhaps to Apollos (18:25). Paul seemed to recognize that their instruction and/or experience had been inadequate, because he asked: “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’” (19:2). As we have seen, ordinarily reception of the Holy Spirit coincides with believing, so this should have been assumed. But their reply—that they had not “‘even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’” (vs. 2)—is hardly reassuring. Although John the Baptist had pointed to Jesus as the one who would come and baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7, 8), these disciples from Ephesus may not have been present to hear this remark, as they were completely uninformed about Jesus. Thus, Paul proceeded to explain how John had urged people to believe in “the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (vs. 4). It is not necessary to postulate the continuing existence of some first-century sect of Baptist followers in order to suppose that many who had been baptized by John, including these disciples, continued to value the religious instruction and experience thus gained without becoming followers of Jesus.
Clearly, the Spirit had led these men up to this point; Paul carried the work further by bringing them to a fuller understanding of the gospel of Christ. Their rebaptism by Paul “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (vs. 5) sets a seal on their Christian commitment. It also provides an important example for believers today in two ways. First, it is important to remember that baptism into Christ constitutes one’s formal acceptance of and entry into the new covenant. Normally, this should not be repeated. But if a person has had a serious moral fall by walking away from one or more baptismal vows and living a life out of harmony with the new covenant, rebaptism would be appropriate. In such a case, the person by rebaptism makes a public confession that, subsequent to his or her baptism, there had been a rejection of Christ, making necessary this return and re-consecration of his or her life to Him. A second reason that a person may want to consider rebaptism is when seeing and embracing a whole new paradigm of truth, as the disciples of John did, leads to such a dramatic life change that rebaptism is deemed appropriate to mark this “new life.”
Acts 19 also indicates that “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them” (vs. 6). This concrete manifestation of the Spirit, similar to what the apostles experienced at Pentecost (2:4,11) and what the Gentiles experienced through Peter’s preaching (10:46), was for the purpose of building up the church by preaching the gospel because Luke immediately added that “they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (19:6). The apostles on the day of Pentecost had received these same gifts to evangelize the inhabitants of Jerusalem (2:1–8, 16–21) and, later, the Gentiles (10:44–48; 11:15, 16)—all in fulfillment of prophecy (Joel 2:28–32). This further impartation of the gifts of the Spirit was likewise strategic. The gospel could now be spread more rapidly in Ephesus—which, as a major Roman port and center of trade for both East and West, constituted the most important city of Asia Minor. Ellen G. White indicates that, through the gift of the Spirit, these believers “were enabled to speak the languages of other nations and to prophesy. Thus they were qualified to labor as missionaries in Ephesus and its vicinity and also to go forth to proclaim the gospel in Asia Minor.”5
The New Testament consistently associates the gift or work of the Holy Spirit with repentance, conversion, and baptism. As Paul taught, the Spirit is received through “the hearing of faith” (Gal. 3:2, NKJV). This is evident in the conversion of Paul, of the Samaritans, of Cornelius and his household, and of other Gentile believers, all of whom gave evidence of having already received the Spirit before they were baptized. While the Holy Spirit empowers individuals for specific ministries, this is distinct from the work of the Spirit at conversion. The apostles, for example, seem to have received successive endowments of the Spirit for different purposes. Before His ascension, Jesus imparts to them the Spirit and instructs them regarding their future duties in establishing and solidifying the young church (John 20:21‒23). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out for preaching the gospel to all nations in fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18; Acts 1:8). In Acts 4 it was to preach more boldly in the face of persecution.
Acts describes a similar outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Samaritans through prayer and the laying on of hands by Peter and John. In the case of Paul, he not only regained his sight through the laying on of hands by Ananias, but it was also an important step in his being accepted into Christian fellowship and his reception of the Holy Spirit for the Gentile ministry to which God had called him (Acts 9:15). This was true, too, of the Ephesian believers who responded to Paul’s teaching about Jesus by being rebaptized. Their deepening experience and reception of the Spirit’s gifts through the laying on of hands opened doors for them to have a more effective witness in the important city of Ephesus.
While the gift of the Spirit is closely linked with baptism, which is the outward sign of its reception, this gift is always bestowed by God Himself. Also, with regard to the outpouring of the Spirit, there is no clear pattern as to whether it precedes or follows baptism. On the three occasions when the Holy Spirit was poured out on human beings through the laying on of hands, we have found that these were unique, exceptional instances. Textual indicators point to the uniqueness of each occasion and the unrepeatable nature of the event. Therefore, we should not think that through the laying on of hands, whether before or after their baptism, the Holy Spirit can be given. To the contrary, the Spirit is normally at work in a person as soon as he or she understands and believes the gospel and is willing to receive this gift, independent of the action of other human beings. Finally, before Seventh-day Adventist ministers present individuals to the congregation as candidates for baptism and church membership, care should be taken to ensure that they have been thoroughly instructed and show evidence of conversion and the gifts of the Spirit in their lives (Matt. 7:18–20; 2 Tim. 4:l–5). It is the Spirit who apportions gifts “to each one individually as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:11, NKJV, italics supplied). Ministers are simply God’s instruments to facilitate this work.
Clinton Wahlen, PhD, is an Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES