Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Baptism of the Holy Spirit (I)

'Baptism' derives from the Greek word, baptizein--"to plunge" or "immerse". Thus in the baptism of water, the person to be baptized is plunged (in full or partial immersion) into water, accompanied by some form of the words, 'I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'. The meanings attached to water baptism are various. Some Protestant denominations will view it basically as a public profession of faith in Christ and an act in conformance to the will of God, but NOT an act necessary for 'salvation' (in the sense of receiving the Spirit of God that 'justifies' (makes righteous) through the forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Life of God). Faith in Jesus as Lord and in his resurrection, is the act that justifies and brings the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In some other denominations and the Catholic and Orthodox churches, baptism is no less than the 'sacrament of regeneration' (Roman Catholic Catechism), the act where one is 'immersed' in the death of Christ, and rise up in resurrection with Him as a 'new creature' (Romans 6:3-4). Thus it is through faith AND baptism (Mk 16:16) that justification is achieved and the Holy Spirit first received (in a definitive manner? After all the Spirit surely works to give faith). In this view, faith of course precedes baptism, but it must be completed by baptism. It is through baptism (and not faith alone) that one becomes part of the Church, the Body of Christ.

This article does not attempt to evaluate the long and complex arguments about water baptism. Let us however dwell on what is agreed upon by almost all Christians: justification and salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father. It is only possible because Christ died on the Cross and through his Resurrection, became the source of eternal life--the Holy Spirit--for all his disciples (John 7:37-39):

"On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as[c] the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." 39By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified."

Salvation is fundamentally a resurrection experience, a sharing in the life of the Risen Christ--a life that will in no way end with death. It is a gift that comes with faith and (perhaps) baptism. Only when one is 'saved' can one be called a 'Christian', a person who is sealed with the transforming Spirit of Christ, the New Adam--a 'new creation' (2 Cor 5:17) aflame with the likeness and glory of God.

Thus whether or not water baptism is necessary for salvation, the coming of the Holy Spirit certainly is. There is no salvation without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven (Matt 12:31) (if one mistakes the working of the divine Spirit as something demonic and refuses to receive Him with love, then what justification is there to talk about?).

Then when we say Christ 'will baptize with the Holy Spirit' (Jn 1:33), does it refer to the initial gift of the Spirit at the moment of salvation? One of course cannot deny that faith and baptism allows us to be 'immersed' in the Spirit, i.e. to be anointed and covered by it. But is that all? Here we enter into another dispute between the evangelical, pentecostal, catholic/orthodox denominations about the significance of the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit:

'1When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)

Earlier in fact, Christ refers to this as being 'baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). Clearly the apostles, Mary the mother of Christ and the other folks gathered in the room believe in Jesus as the Christ and in his resurrection. Indeed the apostles at least have already received the Holy Spirit on the day of Christ's resurrection (Jn 20:22). Mary was herself overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (1:35) 33 years ago at the conception of Jesus. There is no indication that the Lord who is with her ever left her.

Charismatics and Catholic scholars will probably concur in stating that at the point of pentecost, the folks in question were already 'saved'. Some evangelical scholars disagree, putting 'complete' salvation at Pentecost. I would think the overall scriptural evidence is in favor of having 2 forms of baptism (water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit), with the latter form happening after salvation.

The Catholic Church indeed has the sacrament of Confirmation that perpetuates the pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit. And Confirmation always happen after Baptism, with the candidate being in a 'state of grace' (Catechism). It is a sacrament that confirms and deepens the presence and seal of the Spirit. Catholics do not look for the 'tongues' that accompanied the first Pentecost (and other 'laying on of hands' in Acts), but acknowledge that Confirmation will deepen the gifts of the Spirit--and chief among these are divine love, faith and hope. Of course candidates who are confirmed may suddenly start speaking in tongues (it is after all a spiritual gift), but I do not think it is a very usual occurance.

For the Pentecostal and charismatic denominations, they look for the 'falling of fire' of the first Pentecost, and the associated sign of tongues. Charismatic assemblies have indeed reported the full replication of pentecost, complete with shaking buildings, whirling wind, tongues of flame and the speaking in tongues. Personally I see no reason why this is impossible (as if God whose will moves the stars cannot shake a house or produce any necessary physical phenomena). But the question is whether such spectacular phenomena are really the most important aspect of the baptism of the Spirit?

My own view is somewhere in between the Catholic and Pentecostal views. There is no doubt that Catholic Confirmation DOES perpetuate pentecostal baptism IF the person receiving has both a deep yearning for the Spirit and the necessary faith. But if the sacrament is received as some kind of routine or worse, social ritual, then it is hard to see how Confirmation can replicate the effects of the first Pentecost. Surely Pentecost is an 'empowerment' (as the charismatic Christians may term it), when the fearful apostles are turned into lions of the faith. Received without much faith or enthusiasm, Confirmation surely does not attain its full 'empowering' potential and lead to much growth of the gifts of the Spirit.

Catholics definitely have something to learn from the Pentecostal thirst for the living waters. Yet I have some reservations about the Pentecostal focus on tongues. The usual argument is how in EVERY case in Acts when the Spirit is received, the gift of tongues was manifested. Thus the gift of tongues is taken to be the proof for the pentecostal baptism, without which there is no baptism. But if we consider the whole New Testament as a whole, we find the chief emphasis given always and everywhere to love (the supreme commandment) and faith. There are simply too many quotations to prove this point. The chief and by far the most important manifestation (gift) of the Holy Spirit, is Love. For indeed, "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him". (1 Jn 4:16).

Thus I do agree with the Catholic view that baptism of the Spirit (Confirmation)
does not ALWAYS have to be accompanied by the gift of tongues. Certainly in Christian history we have many people who are clearly empowered by the Spirit (Mother Theresa, St Francis etc.) but whose chief feature is not erupting in tongues, but in love. Indeed, if the Spirit of love is supposedly received in glory and yet love does not increase by one bit, are we not just deceiving ourselves? I would think if we need any 'proof' for the baptism of the Spirit at all, an increased love for God and men will be a better proof than any other gift.