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Rodman Williams: The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today: Means

Second, the Holy Spirit may be given with the laying on of hands. Returning to the Acts record, we observe that in three of the five accounts of the Holy Spirit being received, this occurred in connection with the laying on of hands. Peter and John, ministering to the Samaritans, “laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit”31 (Acts 8:17). At Damascus, Ananias, ministering to Saul, ” …laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit'” (9:17). And Paul, ministering to the Ephesians, when he “had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them” (19:6). There is obviously a close connection between the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is apparent once again that water baptism is not placed in an immediate conjunction with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism, as earlier mentioned, is related to forgiveness of sins, whereas laying on of hands is connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The symbolism is unmistakable: water baptism vividly portrays the cleansing of sin in forgiveness, the laying on of hands the external bestowal of the Spirit. Each of the outward acts is congruent with the spiritual reality to be received.

Looking more closely in the Acts narrative at this conjunction of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of hands, we observe that the Holy Spirit may be given through the laying on of hands. Thus it is not only a temporal conjunction, so that the gift of the Holy Spirit coincides with, or follows immediately upon, the laying on of hands; but also an instrumental conjunction, namely, that the imposition of hands may serve as the channel or means for the gift of the Spirit. Just following the words quoted above about the Samaritans (in Acts 8:17), the text reads: “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands …”.32  The word “through” (dia) specifies the instrumentality of hands in the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands is thus the means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit may be received.

The laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit has continued variously in the history of the Church. The practice belongs particularly to the Western tradition of Christianity, but with diverse understanding of what is conveyed in the gift. Sometimes it is assumed that through the laying on of hands there is the completing or perfecting of what was given earlier in water baptism; or, again, it is held that water baptism needs no completion or perfection, so that what happens through the imposition of hands is rather a confirming or strengthening of the person for the Christian walk. However, there is seldom in the traditional church any expectation that through the laying on of hands an extraordinary spiritual event will take place, namely, the gift of the Spirit as the veritable outpouring of God’s presence and power.

Here, again, is where the contemporary spiritual renewal is recapturing the biblical witness. Through the laying on of hands, people are receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, not in the sense of completion or perfection of confirmation (though it may include elements of both), but in the sense of a divine visitation so overwhelming as to release extraordinary praise and channels of powerful ministry. There is the exciting expectation that when hands are laid on a person, the Holy Spirit Himself will be given.33

Here two points need emphasis: first, as we have already observed, there is no necessity for hands to be laid on persons for them to receive the Holy Spirit. The exalted Lord may dispense with all ordinary means and sovereignly pour forth the Holy Spirit. Second, though the Holy Spirit may also be given through the laying on of hands, it would be a mistake to assume that this happens invariably, i.e. by virtue of the objective action.34  We have earlier commented that faith—believing—is the essential element in the reception of the Holy Spirit; thus in all the biblical incidents of the laying on of hands it is upon believers that hands are laid. For only those who believe in Jesus Christ may receive from Him the blessed gift of the Holy Spirit.

What then is the importance of the laying on of hands? If, on the one side, there is no necessity, and if, on the other, there is no guarantee, why not dispense with such? The answer would seem clear: the laying on of hands is a divinely instituted means of enabling persons to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hands signify contact, community, sharing—a human channel for the divine gift; the laying on of hands represents, as seen earlier, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon someone.35  Thus, though a person may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit without human mediation, the imposition of hands may greatly facilitate this reception.

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Category: Fall 2003, Spirit

About the Author: J. Rodman Williams (1918-2008), Ph.D., is considered to be the father of renewal theology. He served as a chaplain in the Second World War, he was a church pastor, college professor, and key figure in the charismatic movement of the 1960s. Beginning in 1982, he taught theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and became Professor of Renewal Theology Emeritus there in 2002. Author of numerous books, he is perhaps best known for his three volume Renewal Theology (Zondervan, 1996).

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