QUESTION: As Philip evangelized the Samaritans, many believed and were baptized (Acts 8:12). But verses 15-17 seem to say that the converts did not receive the Holy Spirit at their baptism, but rather when apostles from Jerusalem came and laid hands on them. Other texts also separate the receiving of the Spirit from baptism (e.g., Acts 10:44-48). How can we explain this, especially in light of Acts 2:38?
ANSWER: All Zwinglians—those who separate baptism from salvation—love to call attention to such data from the book of Acts. They believe that the data show that there is no appointed connection between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The fallacy in this interpretation is the assumption that every “receiving” of the Holy Spirit (e.g., 8:15-17) is in some sense for the purpose of salvation. This assumption is false, and it usually contributes to a false doctrine of baptism and salvation.
The fact is that in the book of Acts we can identify at least THREE different ways in which the Holy Spirit is given and received, each for a distinctly different purpose, and each to bestow a different kind of gift. All three of these ways, purposes, and gifts are found in the second chapter of Acts. I sometimes call them (1) SIGN gifts, (2) TRUTH gifts, and (3) SALVATION gifts.
In Acts two (2:1-13) the first way the Holy Spirit came upon individuals was to bestow SIGN gifts, specifically “speaking in tongues,” or the ability to speak fluently in a language one has never studied. Many have wrongly been taught and have wrongly assumed that the purpose of the tongue-speaking was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the nationalities present. There is nothing in the text to support this idea. The only reference to the content of the tongue-speaking is in verse 11, which says they proclaimed “the mighty works of God.” The best inference is that these “mighty works” were the great events of deliverance and redemption recorded in the Old Testament.
This is not a problem, since the purpose for the tongue-speaking was not its content, but its form. It was a MIRACLE, the main purpose of which is always to provide divinely-given proof (evidence, confirmation) of accompanying REVELATION. In this case the tongue-speaking was proof of the truth of Peter’s sermon, which immediately follows (2:14ff.). As such, this kind of outpouring of the Spirit was nothing new; the Spirit had been coming upon individuals to provide them with miracle-working power at least since the time of Moses. Jesus himself had the Spirit upon him for this purpose (see Luke 4:14; Acts 10:38), and the apostles had already experienced it during Jesus’ ministry (Matt. 10:1ff.).
We should emphasize that there is no connection between receiving a sign gift and receiving salvation. Most of the time those who received such gifts were already saved. Events in the life of Balaam (Num. 22-24) show that the Spirit could miraculously speak through an unsaved person (24:2; cf. 22:28-30). The fact that Jesus received the Spirit for this purpose definitely shows it was not a salvation thing. The filling of the Holy Spirit for tongue-speaking on Pentecost (Acts 2:4) did not involve salvation.
The second way the Spirit came on individuals in Acts two (2:14ff.) was to bestow TRUTH gifts, specifically upon the Apostle Peter. Sometimes we forget that Jesus had promised the apostles that after he was gone he would send the Holy Spirit to them for the purpose of enabling them to speak inspired messages from God (John 14:26; 16:12-15). In this case the Spirit would come upon the apostles with the gifts of revelation and inspiration. This is totally distinct from salvation as such.
Acts 2:14 does not specifically say that Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit as he preached his Pentecost sermon, but we can reasonably infer that this was when Jesus kept his promises as recorded in John 14 and 16. The content of Peter’s sermon was not something Peter would already know; it was probably not something that Jesus had already taught the apostles (see John 16:12). Other Spirit-inspired apostolic teaching is recorded throughout the book of Acts.
The third way the Spirit came on individuals in Acts two (2:37-41) was to bestow SALVATION gifts. This was indeed the main point of the Pentecostal work of the Spirit. The sign-gift (tongues) and the inspiration-gift (Peter’s sermon) were just laying the foundation and paving the way for the SAVING outpouring of the Spirit. This kind of Spirit presence was not given to OT saints, but was prophesied by the OT, by John the Baptist, and by Jesus himself as a new work that would be the hallmark of the New Covenant era (Isaiah 43:19-20; 44:3-4; Ezek. 36:27; Joel 2:28-32; Matt. 3:11; John 7:37-39). Those who received the Holy Spirit in the manner described in Acts 2:38 received the salvation gifts of regeneration and sanctification.
Acts 2:38 makes it clear that this third way of receiving the Holy Spirit was a salvation event, being accompanied by the forgiveness of sins. Acts 5:32 refers to “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” This must be a reference to this third way of receiving the Spirit, because this is the only one for which obedience to conditions is specified. Obedience for this purpose is called “obeying the faith” (Acts 6:7) and “obedience to the gospel” (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8). Peter’s statement in 5:32 shows that in the post-Pentecost church it was simply assumed that baptism was the time when the Spirit was given for salvation purposes; this did not have to be stated again every time a conversion and baptism were recorded.
How does all this apply to Acts 8:4-25? First, based on the last two paragraphs above, it is a more than reasonable inference that the Samaritans who were baptized (vv. 12-13) received the saving presence of the Spirit in that moment. That this is not specifically stated does not mean it did not happen. There is no reference to their sins being forgiven, either; but we rightly assume that it happened, based on the promise in Acts 2:38.
So why does 8:14-18 say they had not yet received the Holy Spirit, and that the visitation by the apostles, Peter and John, actually brought this about? Because what Peter and John accomplished by laying hands on the Samaritans was NOT the SALVATION gift of the Spirit, but SIGN and TRUTH gifts. The latter are totally different from the saving indwelling of the Spirit. The point was that the Samaritan Christians, though they had received full salvation (including the Spirit’s saving indwelling) at their baptism, had not received any sign or truth gifts that could be used in connection with evangelism and edification after Philip left.
What was accomplished by the laying on the apostles’ hands was the transfer of miracle-working power (such as tongues and healing) and the ability to prophesy (speak inspired messages from God). Though the Spirit was given for a similar purpose to the apostles in Acts 2, because that was a special event no “laying on of hands” was used. This happened one other time, as Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, Acts 10:44-48; 11:15. Other than Pentecost and Cornelius—two special and unique events, the Spirit gave sign and truth gifts only through the laying on of apostles’ hands. See Acts 6:6; 8:17; 19:6.
How do we know that the result of the laying on of apostles’ hands was the reception of sign and/or truth gifts, rather than the saving gift of the Spirit? Because of Simon the Sorcerer’s reaction to the result of this laying on of hands. The result was something he could SEE (v. 18), and something spectacular enough to tempt him to fall back into his witchcraft mentality (v. 18-19).
Thus the key to harmonizing the references to the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts is to see that he comes upon people for different purposes.