The sixth chapter from Professor Williams’ book, The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today, about the greatest reality of our time.
Chapter Six: Means
We turn now to a consideration of the gift of the Holy Spirit in relation to water baptism and the laying on of hands. Our concern at this point is the connection between these outward rites and the bestowal of the Spirit. How essential—or dispensable—are they? Is one or the other more closely associated with the gift of the Spirit?
It hardly needs to be said that this has been an area of significant difference in the history of the Church. This is evidenced by the fact, first, that both water baptism and the laying on (or imposition) of hands have been viewed as channels for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Some traditions have held the position that water baptism is sufficient: it is the means whereby the Holy Spirit is given. Accordingly, there is no call for laying on of hands in this situation. Others have held that the laying on of hands is the critical matter: without such, water baptism is incomplete, and there is no gift of the Holy Spirit. How are we to adjudicate between such critical differences?
That this is no small matter would seem undeniable. If the gift of the Holy Spirit is what we have been describing—a veritable outpouring of God’s presence and power—and if this gift is vitally related to an outward rite, then the identity of that rite, the question of its essentiality, and its proper execution are critical matters. If, on the other hand, there is no vital connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit and an outward rite, this ought also to be clarified so that we be not burdened by unnecessary concerns. That there needs to be serious reflection in this area is apparent; we can scarcely afford to be uncertain or confused in so important a matter.
Once again we turn primarily to the book of Acts as the basic historical narrative depicting the gift of the Holy Spirit, and now consider its relationship to water baptism and the laying on of hands. There will be some reference also to the Gospels and the Epistles; however, as has been the case in other previous considerations, Acts must be primary because it is the only New Testament record depicting the interrelationship between the gift of the Spirit, the occurrence of water baptism and the laying on of hands.
Let us begin with reflection upon the relation of water baptism to the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are concerned of course with water baptism as a Christian rite—and only incidentally with “the baptism of John” (which is transitional in Acts to Christian baptism).1 How does the rite of Christian baptism relate to the gift of the Spirit? By way of reply we shall set forth a number of declaratory statements and seek to demonstrate these in the five basic narratives having to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
However, before proceeding further, we find that water baptism, wherever described in Acts, is performed in the name of Christ only. There are four passages that mention His name in relation to baptism: Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; and 19:5—with the slight variation between “the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38 and 10:48) and “the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:16 and 19:5).2 What is important is the fact of water baptism in the name of Christ only3 (not the variation in the name) and how this will relate to a proper understanding of its connection with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now we move on to various declaratory statements. First, water baptism4 may precede the gift of the Holy Spirit. We begin by observing that Peter, following his Pentecostal sermon, asserts: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Water baptism obviously is depicted as preceding the gift of the Spirit. It is not altogether clear, however, whether a logical or chronological priority is envisioned. Peter’s words—”and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”—could mean either that the gift of the Spirit follows logically and therefore immediately upon water baptism, or that it may happen at some future time. Shortly after Peter’s sermon, the Scripture reads: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2:41). Nothing is directly said about their receiving the Holy Spirit; however, that such followed directly upon water baptism seems evident in light of the ensuing account (Acts 2:42-47).5
Let us turn next to the Samaritan account where again water baptism is definitely shown to precede the gift of the Spirit. In this instance, however, it is clear that there is an intervening period of several days. The Samaritans “were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12). Later, Peter and John “came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:15-16). So prayer was offered and the laying on of hands was administered with the result that the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit. Hence, there is an unmistakable separation in time between water baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit.
This passage is quite important in demonstrating that the reception of the Holy Spirit is not bound to the moment of water baptism. It is sometimes argued that there was a special reason for this in the case of the Samaritans, namely, that because of the longstanding prejudice between Jews and Samaritans, it was fitting that the gift of the Holy Spirit be delayed after baptism until representatives from Jerusalem (Peter and John) could come down, and by ministering the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans, demonstrate love and unity. The argument, however, is tenuous indeed, for if delay could happen here, why not in other circumstances?6 Or even if it be agreed that the Jewish-Samaritan situation was maximally one of prejudice, thus calling for additional encouragement from Jerusalem, why not a visit by Peter and John simply to express fellowship and love? Why also the Holy Spirit? In any event the evidence of the text is unambiguous, namely, that regardless of what might later happen, the Samaritans did not receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptized; and this leaves open the possibility that such could happen in other instances.7