The Truth about the Baptism of the Spirit

Are all apostles? Are all prophets?
Are all teachers? Are all workers
of miracles?  —I Corinthians 12:29

To the Holy Ghost the Bible especially (though not exclusively) ascribes the work of sanctification.  In the wider sense, the word “sanctification” refers to everything that the Holy Ghost does for our Christian faith and life (bringing us to saving faith in Christ and thus making us “a new creature,” moving and enabling us in that “new man” to do good works, and strengthening and preserving us in the faith).  The Spirit’s work of sanctification is accomplished through the Means of Grace—the Gospel and the Sacraments.  As a Means of Grace, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism bestows the following gifts of the Spirit:  It works the new birth of faith (John 3:5; Titus 3:5) and thus makes one a member of the spiritual Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13); it produces a new life of good works (Romans 6:4); it gives the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16) and, therefore, also bestows eternal salvation (Mark 16:16; I Peter 3:21).  Indeed, the Sacrament of Baptism—the application of water in the name of the Triune God according to Christ’s institution—confers great and priceless blessings of God’s Holy Spirit.  And yet, this Baptism is despised and minimized by charismatics, who look for something completely different (and far inferior), which they call the “baptism of the Spirit.”

The term “charismatic” is used with reference to those who claim to receive the same kind of special gifts (Greek: “charismata” – char • iz • mah • tah) of the Holy Ghost that were given to the disciples on the day of Pentecost (described in Acts 2), as well as to certain other Christians—notably among the members of the Corinthian congregation (I Corinthians 12, 14).  “Pentecostal” churches, “Full Gospel” churches, “Foursquare Gospel” churches, and others can be grouped under the heading “charismatics.”  While the history of these groups can only be traced back to the early 1900s, there were some charismatic tendencies in the Anabaptists of Luther’s day, as well as in Thomas Müntzer and the “Zwickau Prophets.”  Luther referred to these people as “Enthusiasts” (German: Schwärmer – shvair • mer).  In our present day, it is estimated that there are over 600 million charismatics worldwide (approximately one quarter of professing Christians).  The most common manifestation of the Spirit that the charismatics look for is the “speaking in tongues” (and the related gift of “interpreting” those tongues); but they also promote “healing,” “prophecy,” and general “miracle-working” as well.  All these things are to be expected, according to the charismatics, when a person has received the “baptism of the Spirit.”  But does the Bible say anything about such gifts (as the charismatics describe them); and does the Bible guarantee the appearance of any extraordinary spiritual gifts in every believer?

John the Baptist foretold that Jesus would baptize His disciples “with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).  Likewise, Jesus told the disciples that, after ascending into heaven, He would pour out the Holy Ghost upon them.  “It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you” (John 16:7).  “Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.  …Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:5, 8).  According to the words of the Savior, this outpouring of the Spirit would be an event that would bring to their remembrance all the things He had said to them (John 14:26) and fill them with “power” (Luke 24:49).  Christ also told them that the “Comforter” (Greek: “Parakletos” – pah • rah • clay • toss, John 14:16, 26; 15:26) would guide the disciples into all truth, and show them things to come (John 16:13).  These gifts were miraculously bestowed upon the disciples through the “immediate” (without means) working of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  This was a direct fulfillment of the foretold baptism “with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (Matthew 3:11)—including both the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, as well as the “cloven tongues like as of fire” that sat upon the heads of those who received this special “baptism” (Acts 2:3–4).

Now to a certain extent the foretold blessings of the Spirit mentioned above are still bestowed upon us Christians today by the working of the Holy Ghost through the means of His Word.  In His Word, the Spirit works to bring to our remembrance the teachings of Christ through His messengers (Matthew 28:20; II Peter 3:1–2); He builds us up and strengthens us (Acts 20:32; I Peter 2:2); He gives us “comfort” (Greek: “paraklesis”pah • rah • clay • siss, Romans 15:4); He guides us into all truth (John 8:31–32; 17:17); and He tells us of things to come (Matthew 24:4–13; Luke 21:25–28; etc.).  But the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, as these were bestowed upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost—and on certain other Christians as well (Acts 10:44–45; 19:6)—were discontinued by God after the time of the Apostles.  The “tongues” of the charismatics bear no resemblance—neither in source, nor in substance, nor in effect—to the gift of tongues as this was bestowed upon the disciples when they were baptized with Holy Ghost.

The tongues, or languages, in which the disciples spoke on the day of Pentecost were real languages—not incoherent, meaningless babblings. “They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. …Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language.  And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, ‘Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God’” (Acts 2:4–11).  If the charismatics want to experience this same “baptism of the Spirit,” then they really should expect spontaneously to start speaking in real languages (German, French, Latin, Greek, Norwegian, etc.) that they have never before learned.

Now the enthusiasts claim that their babblings are real languages—just not human languages.  They point to I Corinthians 13:1 and say that they, like the Apostle Paul, speak in the tongues of angels.  However, the Bible nowhere says that any human has ever been given the ability to speak in the tongues of angels.  In I Corinthians 13:1 Paul does not say that he has the ability to speak in the tongues of angels any more than he says that he has given all of his goods to feed the poor or has given his body to be burned (v. 3). Rather, he says that even if he had that ability, without also having true Christian love (“charity”), it would be unprofitable, useless, and meaningless.

But for what purpose did God grant the gift of tongues to various Christians in the early New Testament Church?  In general, like the other miraculous gifts, they served as a sign to unbelievers that the disciples were messengers of the Lord.  “Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (I Corinthians 14:22). “[The disciples] went forth and preached every where, the Lord working with them and confirming the Word with signs following (Mark 16:20).  Jesus described what these signs would include when He said: “In My name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17–18).  In addition to attracting the attention of the people and causing them to listen to the preaching of the Apostles, the gift of tongues also served the special purpose of allowing the Word of the Lord to be spread rapidly among the nations whose inhabitants spoke different languages.  As the various foreign visitors to Jerusalem confessed on Pentecost: “We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).

On another occasion, the gift of tongues helped to break down some prejudices held by many of the Jews against the Gentile Christians.  At the direction of the Lord, Peter and some of his Jewish friends came into the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, to preach to him and his family; and “while Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the Word.  And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:44–46).  When a question later came up about whether God would accept the uncircumcised Gentiles, this gift of tongues was used by Peter as proof that God had extended His Kingdom of Grace even to the uncircumcised.  He told the Jews at the church council in Jerusalem: “Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the Word of the Gospel and believe.  And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us, and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7–9).

The gift of tongues (as well as the other miraculous gifts) was certainly a good and important blessing in the early New Testament church.  However, not every Christian received the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.  Writing to the congregation in Corinth, where these gifts were bestowed in abundant measure, St. Paul rhetorically asks: “Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Are all workers of miracles?  Have all the gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?” (I Corinthians 12:29–30).  As the church grew, as the inspired writings of the Apostles became widely dispersed, and especially when the canon of the New Testament Scriptures was closed, leaving the church God’s entire written revelation of Himself to men, the importance of extraordinary, charismatic gifts decreased; and we have neither the need nor God’s direction to look for them as something that is important for our faith or Christian life or as validation of the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts (I Corinthians 3:16).

“But,” say the enthusiasts, “does not St. Paul exhort the Christians in Corinth to ‘covet earnestly the best gifts’ (I Corinthians 12:31)?”  Indeed he does.  But is meaningless babbling in a nonsensical “tongue” one of these “best gifts”?  Certainly not!  Now it is true that if God would grant us the ability to speak in real languages that we have never learned—as He did with the Apostles—we would classify that as being a beneficial gift that could help us do mission work in foreign lands as well as communicate more easily with our brethren in Nigeria and Russia.  But we still do not need such a gift in order to carry out our God-given mission of serving Him and our neighbor in love.  Immediately after Paul writes, “Covet earnestly the best gifts; and yet show I unto you a more excellent way,” he sets forth “charity” (Greek: “agape”ah • gah • pay), that is, Christian love, as being the most excellent virtue. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (13:1–2; see also verses 3–13).  Furthermore, if we would start speaking in a “foreign” language in our own congregations, it would not at all benefit the brethren who do not understand us.  “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?” (I Corinthians 14:6).  “In the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (v. 19).

The message of the charismatics does, indeed, have some carnal appeal to it.  It plays on a person’s emotions and his desire to have something tangible to point to as validation for his beliefs.  In a fleshly way, it makes people “feel” more connected to God—“feeling” that the Lord is working powerfully in their lives.  But therein lies the problem.  A person’s feelings and emotions dare never be made the touchstone of faith.  Not only does this make a person’s faith subject to the rising and falling tides of his emotions; but it draws his focus away from the Scriptures, “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” and from Jesus, the Cornerstone of His Church (Ephesians 2:20), the only Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6).  A dreadful judgment awaits those who base their faith on the sinking sand of signs and wonders instead of on the solid rock of Christ and His Word.  The Savior says: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.’  Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of Mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man which built his house upon a rock.  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.  And every one that heareth these sayings of Mine and doeth them not shall be likened unto a foolish man which built his house upon the sand.  And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:22–27).

Rather than speaking to us or through us in an incomprehensible language, the Lord has distinctly spoken to us through His prophets and apostles in clear words that even children can understand (Psalm 119:130; II Timothy 3:15); and He has caused His written Word to be made available to us all (Romans 16:25-26).  With the fully-sufficient divine revelation of Holy Scripture, we have no need of any “immediate” revelation of the Holy Ghost and should condemn the seeking of such as being a Satanic distraction from Holy Scripture (Cf. Genesis 3:1; Matthew 4:3ff.).  So instead of looking for a so-called “baptism of the Spirit” that has no divine command or promise connected with it, let us cling firmly to the Scriptures and thank the Lord for the Sacrament of Baptism that He has graciously given to His church, the sacrament which conveys far greater gifts than speaking in foreign languages, interpreting those tongues, or even physical healing.  For through the waters of Holy Baptism, administered according to Christ’s institution, the Holy Ghost works faith (John 3:5; Titus 3:5) and grants the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16) even to little ones who as yet cannot comprehend spoken language (Acts 2:39; Matthew 18:6; Luke 18:15-16; etc.).  These priceless blessings are the true “gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38) bestowed in Baptism for the salvation of our souls (Mark 16:16; I Peter 3:21).  May God graciously preserve us from being deceived by the “signs and wonders” of the false prophets (Matthew 24:24), and continue to build us up in our most holy faith through His precious Means of Grace, the written and spoken Gospel of our Savior and the sacraments that He instituted to offer, give, and seal to us the forgiveness of our sins!

P. E. B.