What Makes a Christian Charismatic?

Posted July 17, 2008

Falsehoods are “sticky” for some people; they can’t let go of them.

They continue to believe, for instance, that sunbathing is healthful, or that an alcoholic nightcap improves sleep, or that seatbelts are useless or even dangerous, or that the Pope never goes to confession. One such falsehood that some people cling to is the belief that all Christians are “charismatic” by the fact they are baptized with water and living in the state of grace, especially if they have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior. This position is one that confuses three separate spiritual states: 1) That of a baptized Christian in the state of grace (who is sacramentally and canonically a Christian, “baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27); 2) That of a Christian who is “born-again” (“regenerated”). That is, a Christian who has undergone a kind of “conversion.” Or a “metanoia” experience, as the Greek Fathers called it, which involves a knowledge of and commitment to Jesus as one’s Lord and personal Savior (Gal. 2:20). It is a state which Pope John Paul II said is lacking in many “sacramentalized” Christians; and 3) That of a charismatic Christian who has received the baptism in the Spirit as an experience separate from, and usually subsequent to, a “conversion” experience (Titus 3:4-5). Each of these three spiritual states can be lost or diminished in some way. The first, by mortal sin (1 John 5:16-17). The second, by loss or diminution of an abiding commitment to Jesus as Lord (John 15:6). The third, by not “living by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16-26). To simplify the problem, this three-fold distinction can be reduced to a two-fold one, namely, the uncompromising distinction between a “pre-charismatic” Christian and a charismatic Christian-a distinction that seems to needle many non-charismatics, and raises the hackles of some theologians whom I love to challenge.

The Pentecost experience of becoming charismatic by being “baptized in the Spirit” (Acts 1:5) is something clearly distinct from and beyond the experience of becoming a Christian by being “baptized into Christ” (Rom. 6:3) by water. The two baptisms have totally different purposes. Water baptism makes one a child of God in a special way, grafting one into the body of Christ (Gal. 3:27 Rom. 6:3), while Spirit baptism gives one charismatic power to be an effective witness (evangelizer) in building the Kingdom (Acts 1:8; Luke 24:48-49).

The distinction between various baptisms (plural) is scriptural and described as an “elementary teaching” of Christianity (Heb. 6:2). All four gospels quote John the Baptist emphasizing that distinction: “I baptize you with water, but he (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33).

Dissenting theologians claim that it was the Church that corporately received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and all Christians partake of that general outpouring-somewhat like a huge vat being water-filled, with many spigots for individuals to draw from the general supply. In this view, the baptism in the Spirit is not an additional experience subsequent to becoming a Christian, but a privilege that everyone experiences by simply being a Christian and thus partaking of the fullness of the Spirit-presence of the Church from the time of water-baptism. If this partaking could be called charismatic, then of course every Christian would be charismatic from the moment of Christian initiation by water baptism. However, this theological theory was disproved by St. Thomas Aquinas, who showed that within an individual, there is a distinction between the “indwelling” of the Spirit (occasioned by water baptism or Christian initiation) and the “infilling” of the Spirit (occasioned by a Pentecostal experience of being baptized in the Spirit).

Jesus also makes the distinction, in a pre-Pentecost discourse with his disciples in John 14:17, by using two separate prepositions: “with” and “in”: “The spirit … lives with you (now) and will be in you (later).” Jesus thus clearly distinguished between two different levels of intimacy by which the Spirit can relate to an individual. The baptisms mentioned in Hebrews 6:2 were referred to by Jesus at the beginning of his public life: in John 3:5 he tells Nicodemus that a person must be “born of water and the Spirit.” Then, at the very end of his earthly existence, just before his Ascension, he again distinguishes between the two baptisms: “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).

The disciples were already Christians, of course, as shown by the fact that they had already received spiritual life for having “heard his word and believed in the one who sent him” (John 5:24). Jesus had assured them that they were “clean” (Luke 13:10), with their “names written in heaven” (10:20). Furthermore, the resurrected Jesus had breathed upon them, even imparting the Holy Spirit to activate a ministerial gift of forgiving sins (John 20:22-23). Yet he told them to pray for (Luke 11:13) and to wait for (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4) a subsequent (and therefore separate) grace of the baptism in the Spirit a “few days” after his Ascension (Acts 1:5)–clearly an additional experience beyond the basic Christianity they had been experiencing.

A close study of the Acts of the Apostles shows that the early Christians regarded it as normal and normative for believers to be baptized in the Holy Spirit; hence, in the early Church a pre-charismatic Christian was regarded as a kind of “sub-normal” Christian. This is clear, for instance, in the case of the converted Samaritans, mentioned in Acts 8, who had fulfilled the two requirements for salvation given by Jesus (Mark 16:16): belief and baptism. Yet, when Peter and John arrived in Samaria, they “prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 8:15-16). They obviously had not received the baptism of the Spirit at the time of their conversion and water baptism. A similar example is seen in Acts 19. Paul found twelve disciples at Ephesus who were believers, and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when (or after) you believed?” When they answered in the negative, Paul baptized them. Then, “when Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (verse 6). If mere believing or being converted carried with it the baptism in the Spirit automatically, then Paul’s question would have been meaningless. The Ephesians’ baptism in the Holy Spirit was subsequent to (and therefore distinct from) their belief in Christ and also distinct from their water baptism.

While the baptism in the Spirit is always distinct from the conversion experience, it need not necessarily be subsequent to it, as in the case of Cornelius’ household, all of whom received the baptism in the Spirit before they were baptized in water (Acts 10:44-48). In recounting this episode at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:7-9), Peter referred to two separate acts: 1) Purifying their hearts by faith (conversion), and 2) Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s baptism in the Spirit at the hands of Ananias came three days after his conversion on the road to Damascus, and just before his water baptism (Acts 9:3-18). Here again, Spirit-baptism is seen as distinct from a conversion experience and distinct from water baptism.

A common misunderstanding is to regard Spirit baptism merely as a one-time isolated event, rather than the beginning of a “growth in the Spirit,” with a need for “refilling” periodically (by prayer meetings, etc.). Hence Scripture urges, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Heb. 10:25). When Peter and John joined in a prayer meeting after being released from prison, they were re-filled by a deepened presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31). The exact translation of Ephesians 5:18 is not “Be filled with the Spirit,” but “Be being filled with the Spirit”-an ongoing receptive experience. Thus, it is clear that the baptism in the Spirit is an experience over and above the experiences of water baptism, the born-again experience, and in general the conversion experience. It adds to the “indwelling” of the Spirit a new kind of presence-an “infilling” that is meant to produce empowerment and growth-a growth in the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) as well as the gifts of the Spirit (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).

Although Paul found much to criticize among the Corinthian Christians, still he called them “sanctified,” and yet “called to be holy” (1 Cor. 1:2). That is, he attributed to them what some theologians call “positional sanctification,” and yet he urged them to “progressive sanctification.” The growth factor in this “progressive sanctification” is the Holy Spirit himself (I Pet. 1:2; Rom. 13:16), who “helps us in our weakness and … intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:26). Hence, it follows that those with a deeper relationship with this “Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4) through the baptism in the Spirit have an advantage in opportunities for graces inducing that growth. (1 Th. 3:13; John 7:38-39).

Ultimately, in personal self-evaluation, the matter of the baptism in the Spirit resolves itself into a question. And this question is not, “Do I have all of the Holy Spirit?”, but rather, “Does the Holy Spirit have all of me?”