Facing the Charismatic Challenge
George W. Knight III
One of the most important differences between the Reformed, and the Pentecostals and some charismatics, is the belief of the latter that the book of Acts is our guide for the special gifts and that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as it appears in Acts, occurs as a special act subsequent to regeneration by the Spirit.
They cite Pentecost (Acts 2:1–41) and the events involving the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–25), Cornelius (Acts 10:1–11:18), and John’s disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7). They claim that in these passages people who are already regarded as disciples are then baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that this is the model for the Christian today. However, there was a unique reason for the timing of the baptism by the Holy Spirit in each case, and thus these passages do not provide a general model that we should try to emulate today.
Pentecost (Acts 2)
The Pentecost experience itself fulfills Jesus’ words to his disciples that they would receive “the promise of the Father” in being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” so that they could be his “witnesses ... to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:4, 5, 8). That power came upon them not only in that “from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind” filled the house and “divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them,” but also in that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2–4). This was the filling with the Holy Spirit and endowment with power that could come only from the ascended Jesus Christ, who was giving what the Father and he had promised to his disciples.
They experienced baptism with the Holy Spirit this way because they had lived both before and after the Resurrection and the Ascension and had become believers before the promise could be given. The spectacular phenomena of wind and fire, however, were not given again, and even the subsequent speaking in tongues does not seem to have been as significant as it was at Pentecost, when each person was able to hear them in his own language (2:6, 11).
What did Peter, standing with the eleven, say to those who were listening? He gave them the gospel and then said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (2:38–39). Here Peter offered to the hearers that which the apostles had received in two stages (forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit) as one complete offer to be given and received simultaneously. This is the model for today, not the unique experience of the apostles. The hearers were not told to wait, as the apostles had been told to do (Acts 1:4); rather, they responded immediately (2:41). Neither is it recorded that they received the spectacular signs that the apostles had received, nor that they spoke in foreign languages so others could hear and understand them. The passage goes on to say only that these believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). Only of the apostles does Acts say that “many wonders and signs were being done” (2:43).
The Samaritans (Acts 8:14–25)
The second account is found in the context of Acts 8:4–25. The account begins by recounting that “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (8:5). The response is given in these words: “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did” (8:6). The result is in verse 12: “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”
The apostles at Jerusalem heard that “Samaria had received the word,” but that the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” When they heard this, “they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit” (8:14–16). “Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (8:17).
The Samaritans became believers and were baptized, but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the hands of the apostles were laid on them. One may deduce from the text that this order of events was determined by the Lord for a reason similar to that in Cornelius’s case, when he and his household received the Holy Spirit first and then were baptized. In Cornelius’s case, this was to convince the circumcised believers accompanying Peter and those back in Jerusalem that they should receive and welcome Gentiles as fellow believers. In this case, it was to bring the Samaritans and Jews together. The Samaritans were shown that they were dependent upon the laying on of the hands of the Jewish apostles, and the Jews (represented by the apostles) were shown that they had to receive into one body with the one Holy Spirit their believing brothers, the Samaritans. Peter and John continued to speak “the word of the Lord” to these believers in Samaria, and “they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans” (8:25).
The Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10–11:18)
The third account in Acts is found in chapters 10 and 11. There we read of Peter being persuaded by God that he should take the gospel to Cornelius and his household at Caesarea. Cornelius was “a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household ... and prayed continually to God” (10:1–2). Peter, after presenting the gospel to Cornelius and those with him, concluded: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43). “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (10:44–46).
Here again, as in Acts 2, the gospel message, belief in Jesus, forgiveness of sins, and the reception of the Holy Spirit are tied together, but this time the baptism with the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles in order to convince Jewish believers that they had really been saved and admitted to the people of God. Note how Peter urged them to be baptized because they had “received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (10:47). This action of the Spirit convinced not only those who were with Peter, but also the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, as Acts 11:15–18 indicates.
Several things need to be noted about this episode. Even though Cornelius was a God-fearing man, Peter was directed to “declare to you [Cornelius] a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (11:14). Peter equated their receiving of the Holy Spirit with what the apostles had experienced “when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ” (11:17). It is interesting that Peter relates that gift to the apostles’ belief in Jesus, and to nothing else, even though the gift came some time after their belief in him, namely, after Jesus’ ascension. But this perspective is exactly the way Jesus had already presented the promise of the Spirit in John 7:39: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Thus, this baptism of the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household just as Peter had proclaimed and promised to the Pentecost crowd (Acts 2:38–39), except for preceding their water baptism. The Holy Spirit fell upon them before they were baptized, as a testimony to the Jewish believers accompanying Peter and also to those back in Jerusalem (Acts 11:15–18). The speaking in tongues was a sign for all to be aware of the salvation and baptism of the Spirit that had come to these, the first Gentile believers.
Disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1–7)
The fourth episode is in Acts 19:1–7. Paul came to Ephesus and found some disciples to whom he said, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Into what then were you baptized?” They replied, “Into John’s baptism” (19:1–3). Paul then told them that John instructed “the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” When they heard this, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them” (19:4–6).
They were believers as surely as John the Baptist was, but ones who had not heard, even though they had received John’s baptism, that the Messiah had come. Hearing this good news from Paul, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, “and when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (19:6). This was another unique experience. These men had believingly responded to a message someone had presented from John the Baptist, and being convicted of their sin, they had repented and had been baptized into John’s baptism. They had received “John’s baptism,” but not baptism in the name of Jesus. After hearing from Paul that John had not only called men to repentance for their sins, but also to “believe in the one who was to come,” namely, Jesus, they believed in him and received baptism in his name. Whether while baptizing them or thereafter, Paul laid his hands on them and the Holy Spirit came on them. This baptism of the Spirit (and its attendant salvation in Jesus) was signified to them and to Paul by these disciples “speaking in tongues and prophesying” (19:6).
The Lesson of These Four Episodes
These four episodes do not constitute a model for the Christian church to follow, because they do not have a consistent and uniform pattern. The first one (Pentecost, Acts 2) and the fourth one (John’s disciples, Acts 19) are the most similar, but even here there is an important difference. Some of the apostles had been disciples of John the Baptist, but they heard his message pointing to Jesus and turned to him in true faith, and then had to wait for the ascended Lord to send God’s promise of the Holy Spirit. The disciples of John in Ephesus had not come as far as the apostles, having heard and responded to the message about repentance, but not having heard the part about believing in the one who was to come. But neither we nor those we reach with the gospel are in that situation.
Nor are we Samaritans (Acts 8), despised by the Jews and disliking them equally. We have no need to learn that only through the hands of Jewish apostles will we receive the empowering, energizing, and uniting work of the Holy Spirit. We received the Spirit when we believed, and did not need to wait for the apostles or anyone else to lay hands on us. Yes, we are Gentiles, like Cornelius and his household, but we do not need to speak in tongues to convince Jewish believers that we are really Christians.
All of us who live outside these special and transitional situations are in the same position as those to whom Peter proclaimed the gospel right after the Pentecost episode: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
What has this search produced that is beneficial to the souls and lives of believers, as well as edifying to their minds? It is that in Christ they have all that they need, and do not need to seek something better or higher, such as a follow-up baptism of the Holy Spirit. Except for a few instances in the New Testament where God was especially instructing his church about the Samaritans and the Gentiles, that they were one with the Jewish believers and apostles, the New Testament repeatedly affirms that when people are united to Christ by faith they have in him thereby received the Holy Spirit.
Thus all Christians have the vitality of being united to Christ and indwelt by his Holy Spirit. As is the case with so many other gifts and graces of God, Christians are continually being urged by the apostle Paul to be filled with the Spirit and to walk by the Spirit, and not just to rest content that they have once believed, once repented, and once been baptized by the Spirit.
Interacting with Charismatics
How then are we to interact with our charismatic fellow Christians? When the opportunity is appropriate, we should talk with them in an understanding way and try to show them from Scripture that the supernatural special gifts have ceased because they have completed the tasks God assigned to them. When they point to their own lives as proof positive of their charismatic thinking, we should try to point out to them other ways of understanding their experiences. Were they only nominal Christians who have now come to really trust in him, and therefore, like the Ephesian disciples, have they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit as they trusted in Christ? Or were they really believers who turned from their lackadaisical walk as God heard their prayer and filled them with his Holy Spirit in which they were already baptized?
We must be eager to protect the Christian flock from the error of the charismatics. But, at the same time, we must embrace those who are caught up in that error as brothers and sisters in the Lord and seek to lead them away from that error.
The vitality of the Reformed faith is evidenced in the regenerating work of God immediately leading to the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the ongoing filling of the Spirit in God’s people. This work of God enables his people to understand that God has sovereignly founded his church in the apostolic age on the apostles and prophets with a display of extraordinary gifts. It also enables his people to understand that God continues to build his church on that foundation, without those apostles and prophets being present today, by the ordinary (but not extraordinary) spiritual gifts that God still gives his church. This understanding enables those who embrace the Reformed faith to meet the challenge of the charismatic movement and also other aberrant variations of the Christian faith.
The author, an OP minister, is an adjunct professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the ESV. This article is an edited version of “The Vitality of the Reformed Faith: Facing the Challenge of the Charismatic Movement,” which can be found among the 2009 Conference Papers of the International Council of Reformed Churches. New Horizons, January 2012.