Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Is in a Name?

How do the baptism of the Spirit, baptism into Christ, and the filling of the Spirit relate to each other? This is a divisive issue that can degenerate into a fight over names. How, then, should we approach it?

It is common for many Christians to have an experience after salvation where they trust Christ's work in them rather than trusting their own efforts. This experience is often standardized and made a requirement for spirituality. This may be called the baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Spirit, or baptism into Christ (connected to crucifixion with Christ). Now these are historically related and are different names for the same teaching. But there are differences in the details (such as whether a person receives it by speaking in tongues).

It is clear that it is impossible to follow Christ without the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (John 15:5; Romans 8:8; Galatians 3:3). This is something recognized long ago by Augustine of Hippo and affirmed by everyone even close to Christian orthodoxy. But what the theologians affirm and what is commonly taught can be two different things. Also, there can be a gap between what we believe intellectually and how we behave. Therefore, it is not uncommon for individuals to have an experience where they realize they should trust in God's power, rather than their own. Now it is my understanding from Scripture that the Holy Spirit works in the life of every believer (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:9; Philippians 2:13) and that any later experience is simply a recognition of this fact. I think this important because, if something depends on us, it can become a legalistic burden. But isn't the important thing that we reach the conclusion of trusting in God, not ourselves?

The danger comes, though, when we take our experience and make it the basis of deciding if the Spirit is working in someone else. There is also the question of external signs. There are cases in Scripture where the Spirit's working in people resulted in speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:44-46; 19:6; some see it implied in Acts 8:17,18, though it is not mentioned). Other times the Spirit's working showed no such manifestation (Acts 4:8,31; 7:55; 13:9-12). In the Old Testament, one of the signs of God being at work in His people was the splitting of bodies of water (Exodus 14:21; Joshua 3:14-17; 2 Kings 2:8,14). Does this mean God is not at work in your life if you do not part a body of water?

Now I would hold the baptism by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13) and baptism into Christ (Colossians 2:12-14) to be names for the same event, which happens at salvation (and is pictured in water baptism) and filling to be the proper term for God's work in us after salvation (Ephesians 5:18). But the important thing is not the name we use, but to have the fact of trusting in God, rather than ourselves.

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