Some well-meaning Wesleyan scholars say that baptism with the Holy Spirit is a later event in the Christian life that is synonymous with or simultaneous with entire sanctification. From my perspective, this viewpoint does not appear to be strongly support by Scripture, nor was it John Wesley’s belief, though the idea did emerge around the late 1700s among Methodist ministers, namely Joseph Benson and John Fletcher.
Benson and Fletcher equated not only baptism in the Spirit but also receiving the Spirit with entire sanctification. This stands in direct contradiction to Ephesians 1:13, which says, “And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago.” All new believers receive the Spirit at the inauguration of their faith in Christ. We cannot be born of the Spirit if we have not been immersed in the Spirit. Wesley clarifies this point in a letter to Benson:
If they like to call this [entire sanctification] ‘receiving the Holy Ghost,’ they may: only the phrase in that sense is not scriptural and not quite proper; for they all ‘received the Holy Ghost’ when they were justified. God then ‘sent forth the Spirit of His Son into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father’.1
Wesley also addressed this issue in a letter to his chosen successor, John Fletcher:
It seems our views of Christian Perfection are a little different, though not opposite. It is certain every babe in Christ has received the Holy Ghost, and the Spirit witnesses with his spirit that he is a child of God. But he has not obtained Christian perfection. Perhaps you have not considered St. John’s threefold distinction of Christian believers: little children, young men, and fathers. All of these had received the Holy Ghost; but only the fathers were perfected in love.2
The majority of Wesleyan scholars have ignored Wesley’s own teachings about this doctrine and lean more toward Fletcher’s view. Theologian J. Kenneth Grider explains, “Until very recently at least, almost the universally-held view of Holiness Movement’s mentors” stands “in distinction” to John Wesley’s view of Spirit baptism.3 Writer of the Church of the Nazarene’s first commissioned systematic theology, H. Orton Wiley classified the work of the Spirit as having two general functions: “the Lord and Giver of Life” and “a sanctifying presence.” Of these two works, Wiley writes, “To the former belongs the ‘birth of the Spirit’ or the initial experience of salvation; to the latter, the ‘baptism with the Spirit’—a subsequent work by which the soul is made holy.”4 Though barely an afterthought for many Wesleyan-Holiness teachers, Wiley at least seams to suggest the receiving of the Spirit by all believers at the beginning of faith but still assigns Spirit baptism to the later event of entire sanctification. This, however, does not appear to fit the scriptural understanding of the word baptism.
Biblically speaking, baptism is understood as an initiation into the church body, or into the discipleship of a particular teacher, or the start of a divinely ordained work. John the Baptist would baptize new disciples into repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah. Jesus was baptized in preparation for His earthly ministry. Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles baptizing new believers from Pentecost onward, and in every case, baptism is associated with the start of their Christian journey and not a later event experienced by Christians in a mature state.
The same is true for Spirit baptism. Paul wrote, “But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Every believer in Christ is baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ, which is to say, they are initiated into the Christian church, born anew. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul uses the imagery of water baptism as a description of the spiritual reality of a Christ-follower:
Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. (Romans 6:3-4).
John Wesley wrote about this specific passage, “In baptism we, through faith, are ingrafted into Christ; and we draw new spiritual life from this new root, through his Spirit, who fashions us like unto him, and particularly with regard to his death and resurrection.”5 The ingrafting language here suggests that Wesley’s understanding of Spirit baptism is the new believer’s entrance into the body of Christ and not a later event.
Scripture does not provide strong support for Spirit baptism and entire sanctification being synonymous events. As described in Acts chapter 8, while it is true of the Samaritans that they believed in Christ when they heard Phillip preach but did not receive the Spirit until Peter and John arrived on the scene, it is also true that this was their first encounter with the Holy Spirit; it was not a secondary experience being had by mature Christians. At this stage, the Samaritans were babes in Christ taking their first step in faith. We must also recognize that this important event in Samaria was the first encounter of a people being indwelled by the Holy Spirit outside of Judaism, making it as unique to the first Samaritan Christians as Pentecost was to the first Jewish Christians.
There is a similar event later in Acts 10, when Peter went to the house of the Gentile Cornelius to preach the gospel. This was the introduction of the Christian faith to the Gentile nations, and in fact, these Gentiles received the Spirit before they were even water baptized. Again, we can say in no uncertain terms that these were new believers and not yet spiritually mature Christians. This event was their first life experience as followers of Christ and, like the Samaritans, their first encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Another instance of Spirit baptism can be found in Acts 19, where Paul came upon disciples who had not even heard of the Spirit, let alone received the Spirit. This was because they were disciples of John and not yet disciples of Jesus. They could not have been disciples of Christ because they did not yet know Christ; they only knew that the Messiah was coming. This passage is a better example of the Holy Spirit drawing people to salvation than it is of salvation leading to sanctification.
There is no question that, according to Scripture, all believers receive the Spirit. Paul explains, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9). And make no mistake; if we believe in our hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord, then we have been designated for His holy purpose and have consequently received the Holy Spirit. Whether we call that baptism in the Spirit or whether we associate Spirit baptism with entire sanctification is an argument in semantics and hermeneutics. We can have differing opinions on this issue so long as we all agree with Scripture that all Christians receive the Spirit from the moment they first believe and will also have multiple encounters of being filled with or empowered by the Spirit throughout our Christian walk (Ephesians 5:18).
- Letters of John Wesley, p. 161, Hodder and Stoughton 1915
- The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., Vol. VI p. 146, The Epworth Press 1931
- Grider, J. Kenneth, Wesleyan Theological Journal Volume 14, 2, p. 31 Fall 1979
- Wiley, H. Orton, Christian Theology Vol. 2, p. 321, Beacon Hill Press 1952
- Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, p. 500, Francis Asbury Press 1987