Pastoral students at Covenant Theological Seminary have to read Sinclair Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit, and, as I am coming from a very different perspective, I thought it would be worthwhile for me to respond to some of the material Ferguson covers in his book.
In the chapter entitled “Pentecost Today?,” Ferguson says “there is no other mode of receiving the Spirit…than faith’s reception of Christ,” meaning that when you believe in Jesus you receive the Spirit and there is no other reception of the Spirit. This might seem surprising to readers of Acts who read the many accounts of the Spirit coming upon believers at various times after conversion – before baptism, after baptism, a long time after baptism, and again after they’ve already received the Spirit. In this post I will examine Ferguson’s argument to see why he says what he does.
In Acts, Luke relates four occasions when converts are baptized in the Spirit (chapters 2, 8, 10, 19) and one time when those who had already been baptized in the Spirit were filled again (4:31). Ferguson begins with the day of Pentecost when believers in Jesus were baptized in the Holy Spirit. He concedes that this reception of the Spirit came long after faith, but says that this is not normative for today as the Holy Spirit was not available until that day. Jesus couldn’t pour out the Spirit until he had ascended so those who believed in him prior to his ascension couldn’t have been baptized in the Spirit yet. So far so good.
Now that the Spirit has been made available, the other occasions of filling are more difficult for cessasionists to explain. Ferguson first tackles chapter 10 where Cornelius and his household were baptized with the Spirit. To portray this event as a never-to-be-repeated event, Ferguson employs the following argument:
1. Peter saw that the Spirit fell on Cornelius’ household as it had on those in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost.
2. Peter remembered that Jesus had told them they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
3. Peter understands this to mean that the gospel has broken into the Gentile world.
4. The gospel first coming to the Gentiles only happens once and therefore is non-repeatable event.
Ferguson sees every Spirit baptism in Acts as a sign marker for a new stage in redemptive-history, and once the sign is done it isn’t needed anymore. There are several problems with this.
1. This idea is pure conjecture without any Biblical support.
2. The baptisms mentioned don’t fit his suggestion. Jerusalem – 2, Judea – x, Samaria – 8, Ends of the Earth – 10, x – 19 (Ephesus).
3. Paul says that Jesus tore down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile on the cross, not when he baptized them with the Spirit.
4. Peter says God was bearing witness to the recipients not the audience (Acts 15:8), and this witness is something all believers need (1 Jn 3:24).
5. Even if baptism in the Spirit was a sign marker, it doesn’t follow that it was only for this purpose.
Ferguson admits “in the case of the Samaritans and the Ephesians there appears to be a distinct second stage to their experience of the Spirit.” Concerning the Samaritans he uses the same argument as with the Gentiles: a new stage in redemptive-history. As I said above there isn’t any scriptural support for this so I won’t belabor the point. Concerning the Ephesian baptism, Ferguson has several issues to address. Why did Paul ask the disciples if they had received the Spirit in the first place? Wouldn’t he have asked them if they believed in Jesus? Secondly, if the baptism happens at conversion, why was Paul baptizing them in water if they weren’t believers yet? Thirdly, why does Paul have to lay hands on the Ephesians for them to receive the Spirit if it is by faith alone? Lastly, if the experiential baptism in the Spirit was only to introduce a new stage of redemptive-history, why did it happen to the Ephesians when a new stage was clearly not being inaugurated? Ferguson only addresses the first question, stating they weren’t genuine believers yet. This seems reasonable to me, though I would point out that here Paul assumes believers know that they have received the Spirit experientially (also Gal 3:2). Ferguson doesn’t answer the other questions.
Outside of Acts, Ferguson’s trump card is 1 Cor. 12:13 “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Ferguson states “Paul’s language is all inclusive and programmatic in character,” meaning this is what’s normative for the church – a person comes to faith and is immediately baptized in the Spirit whether they know it or not. Is there a way we can make this verse consistent with what we read in Acts without having to twist either? Of course. Paul either knew that all of them had been baptized in the Spirit, or would assume that they had all been baptized in the Spirit, just as he would assume they had all been baptized in water or that he spoke in tongues more than all of them. This allows us to maintain the clear sense of both Acts and 1 Corinthians. This is an important interpretive principle: saying that an event has happened to a group of people is not the same thing as saying it happens automatically to everyone. If Paul had said something like “when you believe in Christ you are baptized in the Spirit” that would be quite a different matter.
The last passage from Acts I will mention is Acts 4:31 “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Positively, Ferguson says that this experience is repeatable today. Negatively, he defines what happened as a “special influx of ability and power in the service of the kingdom.” That isn’t bad as far as it goes except that isn’t at all what it says. It says “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit himself is clearly what they were filled with, which of course resulted in the empowering the Spirit brings. The Holy Spirit is a person not an energy field or set of good qualities; let’s not forget that when we read passages like this.
Finally I will discuss Eph 5:18 where Paul says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled by/with the Spirit.” Of this verse Ferguson comments “to be filled with the Spirit refers predominantly to exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in a life that is under the lordship of the Spirit.” In one sense I have more sympathy for this view then the previously stated one as Paul most likely meant something to the effect of “be filled by the Spirit with the fullness of God.” So in this verse the Spirit is actually pouring things into us as opposed to filling us with himself. But what gets me is that is not how Ferguson understands the verse. He says “be filled with the Spirit” and defines that as believers being loving, joyful, and the like. Again, not ok. To be filled with God is not the same thing as being nicer to your boss.
I imagine I had the same reaction to reading this book as Ferguson would have reading a book that denied imputation of Christ’s righteousness. No doubt he is an excellent man and a knowledgeable Bible scholar, but this chapter seemed to be twisting one of the most important doctrines in the church. Seeing the baptism of the Spirit as a separate experience is not only the clearest way to read the NT, it is also the experience of several hundred million people alive today.