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Water & Spirit baptism (Proper 1)


“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became a believer?”

Will the powerful symbols of water and Spirit  (wind, fire, flood, and voice ) that connect this Sundays readings call forth in us the powerful and creative fruitful manifestations of the Spirit that they represent?

In my early days as a follower of Jesus (early seventies) I was involved with groups known as the Jesus People. Some were converts to full-on commitment from nominal Christian or Jewish backgrounds brought into enthusiastic faith in the Pentecostal circles of the movement. Others had been raised in conservative churches such as Baptist and were stepping into the overt evangelistic roles valued in their traditions. Both groups expected the Spirit to be involved in their witness to the reality of Jesus, but the latter group had inherited a suspicion of Pentecostalism from the dispensational doctrines of their churches. When it came to questions about the relationship between water baptism and spirit baptism there was quite a bit of controversy and disagreement between the two groups. One of the things I appreciate about Anglican tradition is that although we are not immune to controversy we have not been strongly influenced by dispensationalism and have largely avoided controversy on this issue.

Much of the controversy was around the question of whether one received the Holy Spirit at the time of water baptism (perhaps without even being experientially aware of it) or whether one was required to have a “second work of grace” in order to receive (be baptised in) the Holy Spirit.  The ACTS 19:1-7 passage in this Sunday’s lections was of course used by the group who said it was possible to be baptized in water without being baptized in the Spirit and thus a second work of grace is required and normative.
A subset of this group was adamant that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was always accompanied by the experience of speaking in tongues. Indeed at many a meeting this question was lifted right out the scripture “Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed?” If the person answered “yes” the follow up question was often “Did you speak in tongues?” And if the answer was “no” the implication often followed that (no matter what else your faith or other experience indicated), you hadn’t really received the Spirit until you did so.

One problem with this approach is that it isn’t necessarily the total reality of the Spirit’s work in a persons life’s that is being examined.  I am afraid an emphasis on one specific immediate outward manifestation may have the unintended effect of actually retarding a full appropriation of Spirit Baptism and its implications for discipleship. It is not even so much the point whether the incoherent phrases babbled by a person under such peer pressure are genuine glossolalia or not.  I suspect the significance of the apostle’s question was much more.

As Pentecostal pastor Carlos Ortiz suggested: If the Pentecostal movement had emphasized the work of the Spirit according to Galatians 5:22 (the fruit of the Spirit)  instead of Acts 2:4 (speaking in tongues) a different, and I think he implied better, history of the Church in the last century might have been written.  Galatians presents the work of the Spirit as the growth of fruit (character traits and temperaments). The Spirit’s gifts that include speaking in tongues seem to function more as tools or particular abilities or ministries in the church. If we understand that the Holy Spirit’s work  enables us both to do certain things, and to be certain kinds of people, we are delivered from arguing that if we have  character (fruit) we don’t need tools (gifts) or vice versa.

The reason for having gardening tools is to produce fruit. The abilities that God gives us to minister are not a substitute for the Christ-like character he intends to produce in us, but are part and parcel of the whole process of our spiritual growth.
Questions of when Spirit baptism (normally?) occurs in the life of a disciple and whether it is always accompanied by particular signs, are not unimportant. However I suspect Paul was more concerned with the overall and ongoing reality of the Spirit’s work in both ministry abilities and character growth.

Perhaps rather than asking “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became a believer?” a more useful question today would be:  “Is the Spirit presently active in your life?” “And How? 

“Is there anything happening in your life that you would have a hard time to explain apart from the work of the Holy Spirit?”

About Dell Bornowsky

I have been a farm boy, woodworker, and building maintenance consultant. Prior to Anglican, my formation was in Roman Catholic, Jesus People, Baptist and Pentecostal tribes. I am interested in cultures, philosophy, mysticism, and wilderness travel. I am a husband and father. I believe creation is good, that God acts in material history, and that ancient wisdom may be more relevant than we realize. Presently Rector of St Philip in Regina.
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