Formations 05.24.2020: Receiving the Spirit

Acts 8:14-25

I had just finished my sermon on the Holy Spirit and the ways God empowers us to participate with God in ushering in the kingdom. I’d like to think it was a good sermon, but I honestly don’t remember.

A church member’s mom, who usually worshiped at a different church in town, was visiting our Baptist church that Sunday, and she seemed to like it. After the service, during the ritual of the Shaking of the Preacher’s Hand, she told me as much, and I thanked her. Then she asked me, “Have you been baptized with the Holy Spirit?”

“Yes,” I said.

She smiled. Her daughter, standing a few steps back, smiled even broader.

I’m close to 100 percent sure they didn’t interpret my answer the same way I did. But I told them the truth, and I didn’t think it was worth launching into a theology lecture at that precise moment.

“Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is a biblical term, but it’s a controversial one. For some, the term inspires images of freedom, excitement, and power. For others, the term inspires images of excess, emotionalism, and chaos.

After looking at all the biblical texts about the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of believers, I suspect that both of these opinions are missing the point. In Acts, someone whose character is marked by love, joy, peace, etc., might be described as being “full” (pleroo) of the Spirit. Meanwhile, the kind of supernatural empowerment that leads to bold preaching, speaking in tongues, and other overt evidence of God’s presence is described as being “filled” (pimplemi, a different verb) with the Spirit.

By contrast, “receiving” (lambano) or “being baptized with” (baptizo) the Spirit is more about how God marks a new believer as God’s own at the time of conversion. In fact, it used to be a custom in Baptist churches to lay on hands after baptism and pray for God to impart the Spirit upon the new believer. It’s a custom I kept for several years back in my pastor days.

So if that dear saint long ago had asked a follow-up question, “When were you baptized with the Holy Spirit?” I’d have answered, “When I first professed faith in Jesus Christ.”

The book of Acts describes three things that need to happen before someone has been fully converted. They must express faith and repentance, they must be baptized in water, and they must receive the Holy Spirit. The interesting thing is, those three don’t always come in the same order in Acts! It’s almost as if God isn’t awfully concerned about procedural matters. What matters is that, at the end of the day, everybody has done their part: God (giving the Spirit), the church (baptism), and the individual believer (faith).

When Philip shares the gospel with the people of Samaria in Acts 8, they welcome the message and are baptized (v. 12). The Samaritans have done their part, and Philip, representing the church, has done his.

The apostles in Jerusalem send Peter and John to observe the situation. That’s when they find out that something is still missing. The Samaritans have not yet received the Holy Spirit. We’re never told why, and the apostles don’t seem interested in finding out the causes of this anomalous development. They just lay hands on these new believers, and the Spirit comes. The process is now complete. The gospel has come in fullness to the Samaritans.


  • Where does your church place the most emphasis in describing Christian conversion: personal faith, water baptism, or the gift of the Spirit?
  • How does your church highlight the importance of all three emphases?
  • How can churches better acquaint new believers with the role of the Holy Spirit in their spiritual journey?
  • Whatever the apostles expected to find in people who had received the Spirit was apparently absent from the Samaritans. What indicators of the Spirit’s presence might they have been looking for?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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