The Holy Spirit

The third person of the Trinity was seriously neglected and misunderstood through most of the life of the church. In the last three centuries, the church has begun to recover the doctrine about Him, but so far no denomination has (to my knowledge) fully recovered and put into practice all of the biblical doctrine.

Who He is

God's agent

The Holy Spirit is the agent through whom God works in the world. At creation, the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Until Jesus came, the Spirit was given to selected individuals through whom God chose to work. When Jesus came to earth, the Spirit was given to him in full measure at his baptism. He did no miracles or ministry until He had received the Spirit.

In this age, the church is the body of Christ in the world and it is through the Holy Spirit that the church is being built.

God's power in the church

It is through the Spirit that God does anything in the church; by corollary, anything that the church does without the Spirit is dubious or worse [cf. Rom 14:23]. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be given to His disciples and that promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. As soon as they received the Spirit, the disciples also received power. Jesus promised that the church would do greater things than He himself had done, and the power to do that comes from the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is given to the church to equip it for works of service in the world. Through the Holy Spirit the church is built up, and through the same Spirit the church goes into the world to make disciples.

Jesus immerses in Holy Spirit

Every one of the four gospels reports John's message that Jesus would baptize in holy Spirit; it is given greater prominence than almost anything except the crucifixion and resurrection. The Greek word bapto means to immerse, dip or sink and baptizo (baptize) is an intensive form of bapto. The words “baptism” and “baptize” are simply transliterated from Greek; we would do better to translate them. When John came baptizing he was immersing people completely in the water. Similarly, Jesus immerses people completely in Holy Spirit (en pneumati hagio - the definite article is missing in all four gospels). There is a deliberate analogy between the manner of being immersed in water and the manner of being immersed in Holy Spirit. The difference is in who does the immersing: we immerse people in water and Jesus immerses them in Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that the analogy is complete. When someone has been immersed in water, both he and everyone else knows it. Similarly, when Jesus immerses someone in Holy Spirit, everyone knows it. If no-one sees any difference, it hasn't happened!

Not optional

Initiation into the fellowship of the church has four elements, all of which are required:

  1. Repentance of sins: the Holy Spirit convinces people of their sin and leads them to think again (the literal meaning of “repent”). They need to declare this out loud.

  2. Trust in Jesus: the Holy Spirit gives them faith to trust Jesus to save them from the penalty and the power of sin. This too must be declared out loud.

  3. Immersion in water: as a sign to the world that they have repented and trusted in Jesus, the new believers must be immersed in water. We know when this has happened because they are soaking wet!

  4. Immersion in Holy Spirit: Jesus immerses the new believers in Holy Spirit, as a sign that they are indeed saved, to give them the power to live a holy life, and to give them the power to do in the world the kind of things that Jesus did. We know when this has happened because they are soaked with Spirit: they start to speak as the Holy Spirit leads them, in other languages or in prophecy or praise in their own language.

How and when

Repentance, trust and immersion in water usually precede immersion in Holy Spirit, but the order can sometimes be different. All four elements should normally be so close in time as to be considered as one event. 1 Cor 12:13 shows that immersion in one Spirit (en eni pneumati - the same words as in the accounts of John's message, not “by” Spirit, as it is mistranslated) is part of initiation and is necessary to build a believer into the body, and Rom 8:9 shows that anyone who does not have the Spirit (that is, presumably, someone who does not show evidence that the Spirit is in him) is not of the Spirit. (ei de tis pneuma christou ouk ekei, houtos ouk estin autou,. Most translations say that such a one does not belong to Christ, but it may be that autou refers back to pneuma. The message of verses 9-11 is that the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in us is a guarantee that we will be raised to new life like Jesus. It is hardly reasonable, then, to suggest that we have to believe that we have received this guarantee without any evidence!)

In the book of Acts, we see a number of occasions when Holy Spirit was given. The times when people were not immersed in Holy Spirit at the same time as being immersed in water are all special cases:

  1. The Samaritans believed in Jesus through Philip's preaching and were immersed in water, but were not immersed in Holy Spirit until Peter and John came down to them and prayed for them. This is usually explained by the traditional hostility between Jews and Samaritans that needed to be healed by the explicit action of the leaders of the Jewish Christians.

  2. The gentile Cornelius and his friends and household were immersed in Holy Spirit almost as soon as Peter started to speak to them. Presumably the Spirit had already led them to repent and they were able to trust Jesus as soon as Peter told them about Him. Their immersion in Holy Spirit was the last element needed after Peter's vision to convince him that God had chosen the gentiles too. He hastened to complete their initiation by immersing them in water.

  3. Paul found some disciples at Ephesus who had been immersed into John's immersion. They obviously must have known of the promise of immersion in Holy Spirit, because this was part of John's message. However, they did not know that the time for this had already come,. Once Paul had established their condition, they were immersed in water in the name of Jesus; then Paul laid his hands on them and the Holy Spirit came on them so that they spoke in other languages and prophesied.

Each time it was obvious that people had or had not been immersed in Holy Spirit and the apostles took immediate steps to remedy whatever was lacking. In the first two cases, Peter is involved; he was presumably needed to exercise his power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven to admit both Samaritans and gentiles. In the third case, the obvious lack of the Holy Spirit led Paul to discover that those disciples had not been immersed in the name of Jesus either.

All the gospels tell us that Jesus will immerse in Holy Spirit. Acts shows us what to expect from immersion in Holy Spirit and how to know when it has happened — there is absolutely no warrant in Acts for suggesting that immersion in Holy Spirit can be expected to happen imperceptibly, over a period of time. The epistles show us that the experience is part of the normal Christian life: all of them take it for granted. Hebrews 6:2 tells us that immersions (plural: one in water and one in holy Spirit) are part of the elementary principles of Christ, part of the foundations of our life, milk not solid food.

Our situation

Over the centuries, the church has nearly lost the knowledge of the Holy Spirit. The experience of immersion in Holy Spirit has not been preached. It has therefore not been expected and for the most part has not happened. “[Jesus] did not do many mighty works ... because of their unbelief.

As soon as the elements of initiation were separated, problems began.

  1. The expression of the initial gifts of the Spirit is always evident and nearly always vocal. If someone does not understand this and suppresses the promptings of the Spirit in him, he will not speak out and will therefore appear not to have been immersed in Holy Spirit. This will cause him and others to doubt the promise.

  2. Clearly, Jesus is not usually going to immerse someone in Holy Spirit until he has repented and trusted in Jesus. If such an unrepentant person is immersed in water, he will not receive the Spirit and people will start to doubt the promise of the Spirit.

  3. If immersion in water is wilfully delayed, immersion in Holy Spirit will probably also be delayed. In the second century, people began to delay immersion for fear that sins committed after immersion would not be forgiven. Of course, that showed a lack of true repentance and trust in Jesus as well, so it is not surprising if they did not experience immersion in Holy Spirit. However, the lack of that experience will inevitably have led to a general lack of expectation.

  4. The church reacted to the excesses of Montanism by quenching the Spirit. This was overreaction and disobedient to the scripture.

  5. We learn from Paul that immersion in water is a picture of death. Our old self is completely buried in the water and we are raised to new life out of the water. At some stage the church began to “baptise” infants; their tender years were presumably the reason for giving them a token sprinkling with water rather than immersing them in it. Since they had not repented and trusted in Jesus, they were not immersed in holy Spirit either. Token sprinkling is just as powerful a picture, of its kind, as is full immersion. It is a picture of half-heartedness, compromise, nominalism and wishful thinking. It is hardly surprising that it is not usually accompanied by immersion in holy Spirit, even when done to an adult.

  6. If a church is disobedient, God will eventually remove His blessings from it. If the organisation continues to exist, the stunted life of its members will give people a wrong expectation of life in Christ.

Our expectations shape our experience. Where immersion in Holy Spirit is preached as part of our initiation, it is expected and does happen.


If we disobey God, we inevitably have problems. We are not allowed to take anything away from the scripture; neither are we allowed to add to it. It is indisputable that throughout history the institutional church has been both adding to and taking away from God's word, and we must ask the Spirit to show us all the ways in which we have done that so that we can repent of them. For a start, we must re-think and return to New Testament principles of initiation: people must repent and trust Jesus first; they should then immediately be immersed in water and they should expect to receive the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is not given immediately, we should continue to pray until they do receive Him and are immersed in Him.

We are left with the problem of the many who have never received the Spirit (or only to a very limited degree) and are therefore crippled in their walk with God. Those who have been “baptised” by a token sprinkling may need to be properly immersed in water as a sign to themselves and the world (especially if they were “baptised” as babies with no faith on their own part).

We need to commit ourselves to pray until we have all experienced immersion in Holy Spirit and filling with Holy Spirit (inside and out – a complete soaking!) We should not attempt to do anything else until that prayer is answered: “Remain in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”

There is hope!

God wants to build up His church! If we turn from our own ways and embrace His, He will bless us abundantly, as He has promised. So do not look on the above as condemnation intended to plunge us in guilt, but as fatherly rebuke and admonition designed for our good. God wants to build us into something beautiful and glorious. Let us work with Him to achieve that!

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