There is a passage in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians which is disarming to most Christians. The passage is:
Are you people in Galatia mad? Has someone put a spell on you. in spite of the plain explanation you have had of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Let me ask you one question: was it because you practised the Law that you received the Spirit, or because you believed what was preached to you? Are you foolish enough to end in outward observances what you began in the Spirit? Have all the favors you received been wasted? And if this were so, they would most certainly have been wasted. Does God give you the Spirit so freely and work miracles among you because you practise the Law, or because you believed what was preached to you?Galatians 3:1–5
The main message of the letter is that we come into the right relationship with God (are justified) through faith in Jesus Christ rather than by following the Jewish Law. In the above passage Paul is making the point that the Galatians are going back on their Christian faith by agreeing to the idea that people need to be circumcised in order to be justified. His main argument is this: isn’t it true that you experienced the work of the Spirit among you because you had faith in the Christian message and not because you followed the Law? Therefore you know from experience that are justified by faith and not by following the Law.
What is so disarming about this passage is the glimpse it offers into the life of early Christian Churches. The basis of Paul’s argument is the experience of the Spirit. In order for his argument to have any force to the Galatians, they would have had to have experienced being given the Spirit and experienced miracles being worked among them. If Paul asked a modern parish of Christians, “Does God give you the Spirit so freely and work miracles among you because you practise the Law, or because you believed what was preached to you?” most of them would not be able to make sense of the question. Their instinctive response would be, “What do you mean, ‘God give us the Spirit so freely and worked miracles among us’? What are you talking about?”
The challenge of this passage for us comes from the fact that Paul simply takes it for granted that the Christians to whom he is writing have had these experiences. He does not feel that he has to explain what he is referring to or argue that it is possible to experience such things. He just expects that the Christians to whom he is writing know what he is talking about. He expects that they have experienced the giving of the Spirit and the working of miracles, and he expects that these are distinct enough experiences and common enough experiences that he can simply refer to them.
Nowadays in the Church it is again beginning to be possible to refer to people’s experience of the work of the Spirit among them and expect them to know what is meant. As the charismatic renewal grows into all parts of the Church, people are beginning to experience the Spirit given so freely and miracles being worked through faith. In other words, they are beginning to experience the life of the Spirit.
The life of the Spirit
For early Christians, the Holy Spirit was an experience before he was a doctrine. When the Lord Jesus was on earth, he promised that he would send the Spirit upon his followers. And he promised them that the Holy Spirit would do things among them that they could experience. He told them that they would be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He said that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26). He said that his followers would know the Holy Spirit:
“I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever, that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive since it neither sees nor knows him; but you know him, because he is with you, he is in you.”John 14:16–17
In the life of the early Church, the Holy Spirit was someone who was with them and acted among them. When the Christians in Jerusalem prayed for courage to speak the gospel message, “the house where they were assembled rocked; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31). Stephen “filled with the Holy Spirit” was able to gaze into heaven and see Jesus (Acts 7:55).
The Holy Spirit guided them. Philip was led by the Spirit when “the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go up and meet that chariot’” (the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch), and after baptizing the eunuch “Philip was taken away by the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 8:29, 39). Paul was led by the Spirit in his missionary journeys when “they traveled through Phrygia and the Galatian country, having been told by the Holy Spirit not to preach the word in Asia. When they reached the frontier of Mysia, they thought to cross it into Bithynia, but as the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them, they went through Mysia and down to Troas” (Acts 16:6–7).
The Holy Spirit spoke to them frequently. When some prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch, “one of them, Agabus, stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world, and this took place in the days of Claudius” (Acts 11:28). When some of the leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and fasting, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). Before Paul was taken prisoner by the Jews and given to the Romans, the Spirit constantly kept warning Paul about what would happen. He described this experience to the elders of Ephesus by saying, “I am on my way to Jerusalem, but have no idea what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit in town after town has made it clear enough that imprisonment and persecution wait for me” (Acts 20:21).
The Holy Spirit did many other things among the early Christians. Paul lists some of the kinds of things the Spirit does in a Christian community in 1 Corinthians:
“To one person is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit.”1 Corinthians 12:8-11
But the most important thing which the Spirit did for the early Christians was to let them experience God’s love for them and his union with them. In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul says, “The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God.” Paul clearly expects the Christians he is talking to to have had an experience of God’s love given through the Spirit. The same thing is true of John, who expects the Christians he is writing to be able to use their experience of the Spirit as a test of whether they are living in God or not:
“We can know that we are living in him and he is living in us, because he lets us share his Spirit.”1 John 4:13
The whole New Testament is alive with the fact that the early Christians were able to experience the presence of the Spirit in them and his work among them. And it is this experience which is returning with the charismatic renewal. The very same things are happening now which were happening then. Today people are reporting experiences of being filled with the Spirit, of being led by him, of having him speak to them, experiences of inspired speech, of prophecy, of discernment of spirits, of healing, of miracles. They are, in other words, beginning to live the life of the Spirit.
The life of the Spirit is a life in which a Christian can experience the Holy Spirit living in him and working through him. Most Christians today are not living the life of the Spirit. They live their Christian lives on the basis of doctrine. They were taught about Christ and about how to live as Christians. They decided to do it, and they have been trying to pattern their lives according to Christ’s teaching. They believe that Christ is real and that he hears them and helps them. But they do not feel that they are in much contact with him. They do not experience his presence nor do they see things happen which they can tell are his working.
The life of the Spirit changes that. When people are living the life of the Spirit, they know by experience that the Holy Spirit is in them. They do not have to “take it on faith” in the sense of believing it without any experience to indicate it is true. When people are living the life of the Spirit, they begin to experience the Holy Spirit making it possible for them to praise God and worship God with a new freedom. They experience the Holy Spirit making the scriptures come to life and making Christian doctrines make sense. They experience a new ability to talk to people about Christ, a deeper peace and joy.
The life of the Spirit also involves an experience of a new kind of community life – a community living “in the Spirit”. The life of the Spirit is not meant to be an individual life. The Spirit is given to form us into the body of Christ, and the life of the Spirit is a life which a community lives as well as an individual. A person who is part of a community that is living the life of the Spirit can experience the community being led in worship by the Spirit, being guided by the Spirit, being taught by the Spirit. The community as a whole experiences the presence of the Spirit.
When I talk about “experiencing” things I do not necessarily have something emotional in mind. “Experience” to us often means “emotion” or “feeling”. We say something is “an experience” if we mean that it is a great event or a striking happening. We can, however, have experiences that are not especially emotional. Suppose I meet my friend’s cousin. I may have heard of him before, so I knew he existed. Then I met him, and I “experienced” the fact that he existed. The meeting may not have been particularly emotional or striking, but the difference is that before I had just heard of him and now I know him by experience. This is the most important sense in which we experience the Holy Spirit.
Before I first began to hear about the charismatic renewal I had wanted to experience the life of the Spirit. I had always known that what happened in the New Testament and among the great saints could happen today. I never could see why it should not happen now, among us, if God is the same. And I was always unimpressed by the argument that the workings of the Spirit were only for the beginnings of the Church – to get it started. If ever the Church needed the work of the Spirit to make it effective and alive in the world, it is today.
I also knew that the presence and working of the Spirit must be something more than just interpreting circumstances or events as the Spirit’s working. Many Christians today know that the Holy Spirit should be in their lives, and so they decide to interpret what happens to them as the work of the Spirit. If circumstances turn out a certain way, that is the Spirit leading them. If someone tells them something helpful, that is the Spirit speaking to them. If they get a good idea, that is the Spirit inspiring them. I have never felt very easy about that approach. I always knew that the experience of the Holy Spirit for the early Christians and for the great saints was more than just interpreting what happened to them as the work of the Spirit. It was a distinct, recognizable experience.
My first exposure to the charismatic renewal came through reading The Cross and the Switchblade. It was in that story that I could see that the leading of the Spirit could be something a person experienced and not just something that he could deduce from circumstances. And I could see that it brought results. I could also see in that story that the Holy Spirit had the power to cure people from drug addiction much more effectively than psychological methods. Shortly after that, I read about the gift of tongues and what that could mean to a person. I discovered at the same time that many people were experiencing the workings of the Spirit that I was reading about.
Soon I began to talk with people who had experiences of being filled with the Spirit. Friends of mine began to tell me about a new ability to pray as the result of the Holy Spirit. They shared about praying for people for healing, and the results that came from it. They told me about the gift of prophecy, and how it was returning to use. And I soon began to experience all these things myself. I began to see from personal experience that the Lord would do for us all the things he did for the early Christians.
I also gradually have come to experience a community that lives in the Spirit, as our community has been built up in the life of the Spirit. I have seen gatherings for worship happen regularly in which there is a free, spontaneous spirit of worship and praise and in which the Spirit of God has brought about a remarkable unity among very different people. I have seen the Spirit give guidance to the community as a whole, the same message coming through many people, often independently of one another. I have seen a people be knit together and grow in numbers, not so much because of a plan, but because the same Spirit was living in them.
I was early convinced that we needed these workings of the Spirit if the Church was to stay alive and make headway in today’s world. I knew from my own experience in trying to bring people to faith in Christ that some kind of power was needed. And as I began to see that these things did not have to happen sporadically, but could happen regularly (“so freely” as Paul said to the Galatians), I began to become convinced that they were normal for Christians. The life in the Spirit, the life in which a person experiences the presence of the Spirit and his working, is the normal Christian life.
When I say “normal” I do not mean “average”. I do not mean that most Christians today are experiencing these things. They are not. But I mean that the life in the Spirit is the “norm” for the Christian life. This is the way it was meant to be. This should be the expected standard. There is no good reason why it cannot be.
My experience has been that most Christians would like to live the life of the Spirit, but they do not know how to begin. Catholics especially have been taught a great deal about the spiritual life. They know a lot about it. Many of them have given up a great deal and entered religious orders so that they can live a deeper spiritual life. But they often do not know how to start. They do not know how to get into that contact with the Spirit that allows them to experience his presence and to let him produce the spiritual life in them. It is for this reason that it is important to understand what it is to be baptized with the Spirit because the life of the Spirit only becomes possible after having been baptized in the Spirit.
Baptized in the Spirit
We can best understand what it means to be baptized in the Spirit by seeing what happens to people when they are baptized in the Spirit. The New Testament contains a number of passages which describe people receiving the Spirit. From these passages we can discover some interesting things.
In the nineteenth chapter of Acts, Paul comes to Ephesus. When he arrives, he comes across a group of “disciples”. He probably noticed something missing right away, because he began by asking a question, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” Now, think what a strange question this is. What would a group of modern Christians say to this? Probably, “What do you mean, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’?” That is, as a matter of fact, almost the answer the group of disciples gave. They told Paul they had not even heard there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit which they could receive. But what is strange about the question is that Paul expected them to know the answer. He expected them to be able to tell whether they had received the Holy Spirit or not.
When Paul got their answer, he knew that they were not yet fully Christians, and so he told them the good news about Jesus. “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and the moment Paul had laid hands on them the Holy Spirit came down on them, and they began to speak with tongues and to prophesy.” When Paul was done, these disciples had definitely received the Holy Spirit. They knew it, and so did he. There was a change in them.
The same definite coming of the Holy Spirit characterizes the passages in Acts where there is description of what happened when Christians received the Holy Spirit. It was certainly true at Pentecost. At Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit was manifested by “what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven” and “something that seemed like tongues of fire”. But it also made a distinct change in the apostles because they began to speak in tongues and even looked like they were drunk.
The same thing was true when the Spirit came upon the group of Samaritans who had believed because of Philip’s preaching. Peter and John came and laid hands on them “and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17). Acts then goes on to say, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the imposition of hands by the apostles, he offered them some money”. In other words, the giving of the Holy Spirit was obvious enough and good enough that Simon could see that something was going on and that it would be worth a small investment to obtain the same power.
Finally, the same thing happened when the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his friends. Peter and some other Christians went to Cornelius’ house, because God insisted upon it, and they told them the good news. However, it was clear all along that they were not inclined to feel that these gentiles could become Christians. But “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners. Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were all astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should be poured out on the pagans too, since they could hear them speaking strange tongues and proclaiming the greatness of God. Peter himself then said, ‘Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people, now they have received the Holy Spirit just as much as we have?’” (Acts 10:44–47). In other words, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon these pagans produced a definite, manifest change (it had to for the Jewish Christians to accept it).
From the passages in the New Testament, it is clear that when people are baptized in the Spirit, they know it. They experience the Spirit coming to them in such a way that they can recognize it. They can recognize it, in other words, not only in themselves but also in others. The result of being baptized in the Spirit is that the Spirit enters their life and begins to make things happen in a way that they can experience.
Nowadays, people are experiencing the same thing happen. The Holy Spirit is coming to people in a way that they know it and can recognize it from experience. Increasing numbers of people are being baptized in the Spirit in a way that is similar to what happened in the New Testament.
What happens at the moment when people are baptized in the Spirit varies a great deal. One person I prayed with for the coming of the Spirit said that he felt like an electric current was running through him. Another felt “a strange warmth” fill him. Many simply feel a deep peace, or a joy. Some even laugh. But the most important part of what happens when a person is baptized in the Spirit is not any physical sensations or emotions. It is the change that comes from having the Holy Spirit live in us in a new way. It is a new kind of contact with the Lord. People have described it in the following ways:
Immediately I was filled with peace. And it wasn’t just a feeling. I think it could best be described as if I met Jesus Christ without seeing him. It was just as if Jesus Christ came up to me and said, Hi. It was just like I knew him all along. That night was the big turning point in my life.
The next week I received the baptism of the Spirit and I spoke in tongues right away. It has made all the change in the world. Now I say I believe in God, but not because of a theory but because I’ve met him.
At one prayer meeting there was silence and I was meditating. It seemed to me that if I had a gift to give in response to Christ’s love, it would be myself. And then something very curious happened. It was very much like the words came, ‘Do it’. So I said, ‘OK’ After the prayer meeting was over, for good measure I went up to the chapel and knelt down and said, ‘I don’t understand but all right.’ And I left the chapel and I started to feel a tremendous happiness, more than I’ve ever felt in my life. It was maybe a week later that I prayed in tongues. There are effects. Basically you are no longer loose and questioning who God is. You know Jesus Christ is risen, loves you, is concerned about you personally.
In other words, the same type of thing is happening now as happened to the early Christians. And from the experiences which people are now having, we can draw the same lessons: that when the Holy Spirit comes to them, they know it, that people can experience the Holy Spirit coming to them in a way that they can recognize, and that the result of being baptized with the Holy Spirit is a change in their lives that involves experiencing the Holy Spirit in their lives in a new way.
What then is it to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the most obvious description of what happens when people are baptized in the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit comes to them in a way that they can know it. As a result of this coming of the Holy Spirit, they experience a new contact with God.
But there is something more to being baptized in the Spirit than that. When people are baptized in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit not only comes to them in a new way, but he also makes a change in them. Their life is different because their relationship with God has been changed. God is in them in a way in which he was not before. He has made his home in them in a new way.
As a result of the change which the Holy Spirit makes in people, those people can then begin to experience the presence of God. They can know God in a way they never did before — by immediate experience. They can also begin, to experience the Holy Spirit working in them in a new way. The Spirit guides them, speaks to them, teaches them, lets them know God and know that God loves them.
Another way of saying what it is to be baptized in the Spirit is that it is an introduction to the life of the Spirit. It is a beginning, the doorway, to the life of the Spirit. What makes the life of the Spirit in people possible is the presence of the Holy Spirit in them doing all the things which God promised the Holy Spirit would do. Therefore, the only way for people to experience the life of the Spirit is for the Holy Spirit to be in their life in a new way (to dwell in them in a new way). There has to be a change such that the Holy Spirit begins to do all these things. When that change occurs, a person has been baptized in the Spirit.
Being baptized in the Spirit is an introduction to the life of the Spirit, but it is also an introduction to the Christian community. I can remember the first time I went to a “charismatic” prayer meeting. I felt “out of it” — and only partly because some of the things people did were strange to me (like praying with their hands lifted up). I could pray with my hands lifted up (and did, somewhat self–consciously), but I still could not be fully part of what was happening there, because they had experienced something I had not. The Spirit was moving in them both individually and as a group in a way he was not moving in me. I needed some way of “getting into” what they were “into”. Or rather, I should say, I needed to let it into me. If a community is living in the Spirit, the only way of coming into the life of that community is by being baptized in the Spirit. People cannot simply join (even if they “joined” they could not take part in its life). And since we need a community that is living in the Spirit in order to live in the Spirit ourselves, being baptized in the Spirit should not only mean coming into a new life with the Spirit. Normally it should mean coming into a community as well. “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Corinthians 12:13).
Being baptized in the Spirit is just a beginning, an introduction. It puts us into the kind of relationship with God that makes it possible for us to live the life of the Spirit. If we do not realize that it is just a beginning but instead start to think of it as a one–time spiritual experience which is an end in itself, we can develop some bad attitudes, for instance, the attitude that once I have had an experience of the Holy Spirit, I have “got it”.
From now on, all through my life, I am numbered among those who have “got it”. From the way people sometimes talk, a person might get the idea that God is mainly concerned about who has once had this experience and who has not. Those who have had it are the sheep, and those who have not are the goats.
Once we are baptized in the Spirit, we have not “got it”. But we can have it. The “it” is the Holy Spirit living in us and working through us. Once we have been baptized in the Spirit, we can have the Holy Spirit live in us and work through us. We have experienced the Holy Spirit in a new way and that experience makes it possible for us to live with him in a new way. But that experience is not a guarantee that we always will. People who have been baptized in the Holy Spirit can end up farther away from God and from the life of the Spirit than people who have not. And what God is interested in is not people who once had the experience of being baptized in the Spirit, but he is interested in people who are now living in the Spirit.
Another bad attitude that comes from thinking of being baptized in the Spirit mainly as a single experience is the attitude that once I have been baptized in the Spirit I have all I need to live the Christian life. In a way this is true (the Holy Spirit is all we need to live the Christian life), but in a way it is all wrong. When we are baptized in the Spirit, we are in a new relationship with God, but we have to know how to grow in that relationship. It is like being married. We can be fully and completely married and still not have a good married life. We can be baptized in the Spirit and still not live in the Spirit very well. We have to learn how to live the life of the Spirit.
The key to learning how to live in the Spirit is the experience of living in a community of people who are living the life of the Spirit. Being part of a community that is living in the Spirit is so important that it is almost true to say that when we are baptized in the Spirit, we receive as much of the life of the Spirit as the community we are part of is experiencing (fortunately this is not completely true). If the community we are part of has learned to yield to the gift of tongues, when we are baptized in the Spirit, we will speak in tongues much more readily. If the community we are part of either is closed to the gift of tongues or has difficulty in yielding to it, we will have a much harder time speaking in tongues when we are baptized in the Spirit. If the community we are part of experiences the guidance of the Spirit deeply in a regular way, we will experience it easily and soon. If the community we are part of does not know what the guidance of the Spirit is, we will have a hard time discovering it for ourselves.
The life of the Spirit is something which is shared with us by the community we are a part of. If the community has faith in something (tongues or guidance or whatever it might be) it will be able to impart that faith to us. There are, of course, exceptions. The Holy Spirit often gives an individual more than the community he is part of. But as a general rule, the Lord prefers to work with people as a body and not individually. He prefers to give the gift of prophecy, for instance, to a body through an individual and not to an individual for his own use when the body cannot receive it.
In other words, being baptized in the Spirit involves coming into a new relationship, a relationship with God and with a Christian community. It is a beginning. Without it, we cannot live the life of the Spirit. But being baptized in the Spirit is only a beginning. We need to learn how to live the life of the Spirit in a community of Christians who are living the life of the Spirit together.
[copyright © Stephen B. Clark, published by Tabor House, 2012]
Top image credit: Composite image and quote by Living Bulwark layout artist, with abstract background artwork from Bigstock.com. Used with permission.
Steve Clark has been a founding leader, author, and teacher for the Catholic charismatic renewal since its inception in 1967. Steve is past president of the Sword of the Spirit, an international ecumenical association of charismatic covenant communities worldwide. He is the founder of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical international missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.
Steve Clark has authored a number of books, including Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Finding New Life in the Spirit, Growing in Faith, and Knowing God’s Will, Building Christian Communities, Man and Woman in Christ, The Old Testament in Light of the New.
- See articles by Steve Clark in Living Bulwark Archives