Clinton Wahlen, PhD, is an associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

How are conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit related to baptism and the laying on of hands? Is either of these religious practices necessary to receive the Holy Spirit? This brief consideration of the New Testament evidence attempts to answer these questions.1

Origin and nature of Christian baptism

Christian baptism has its origins in John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Acts 13:24).2 Being baptized by John signaled one’s repentance in response to John’s preaching, just as Christian baptism shows a positive response to the similar proclamation of Jesus and His disciples (Luke 5:32; Acts 2:38). Jesus’ submitting to John’s baptism shows that Christian baptism should not be distinguished too sharply from that of John.3

Jesus’ baptism, however, is unique in several aspects. First, He needed no repentance because He never sinned. Second, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit for His unique Messianic role in the fulfillment of prophecy (Acts 10:38). Third, His baptism prefigured His death and resurrection (Luke 12:50; John 2:19–21) and set an example for believers to follow.

Christ’s baptism is also instructive because it shows the close connection between Christian baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus indicates, receiving the Holy Spirit is just as essential as being baptized (John 3:5). So extraordinary is the transformation made by the Spirit in a person’s life that Jesus describes it as being “born from above” (John 3:3, marg.). Paul identifies baptism as symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus and of a life-changing experience. It marks one’s death to sin, burial with Christ, and resurrection to a new life (Rom. 6:1–7; cf. Titus 3:5). Baptism, which biblically is by immersion in water,4 is also the means whereby a person is united to the church (1 Cor. 12:12–14).

While baptism and conversion are closely associated, nowhere in Scripture is baptism said to cause this inner change. Repentance must come first (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the outward sign of an inwardly repentant heart (1 Pet. 3:21; Col. 2:11, 12). This inner change is also described as being “sealed” by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Important as baptism is, it is not a means of salvation but the person’s public witness to the Holy Spirit’s work in his or her life (Acts 10:47, 48).

The laying on of hands and the gift of the Spirit

Turning to another New Testament religious practice, both Jesus and the apostles are described as laying their hands on people in various settings and for a variety of reasons. Often it had no necessary connection with inward change and no obvious relation to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Laying on of hands (sometimes together with prayer) relates to

  • the healing of disease by Jesus (Mark 6:5; Luke 4:40) and His followers (Acts 28:8),
  • Jesus’ blessing of children (Matt. 19:13–15),
  • the apostles ordaining of seven individuals for the work of ministering to people’s material needs (Acts 6:1–6),5
  • the church in Antioch ordaining Paul and Barnabas as missionaries and sending them on their missionary journey (Acts 13:1–3), and
  • Paul’s instruction on selecting elders: not to lay hands on anyone hastily (1 Tim. 5:22).

Only three New Testament passages connect the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands (Acts 8:17, 18; 9:17; 19:6). As a close examination of the larger context of these verses will make clear, these were unique, exceptional, and unrepeatable cases that necessitated the laying on of hands and should not be used as a model for ministry today.6

1. Acts 8:17, 18. Philip’s preaching of the gospel in Samaria led many to believe and be baptized, including Simon Magus (Acts 8:5–13). When word reached Jerusalem that “Samaria had received the word of God,” Peter and John were sent to help and follow up the work being done by Philip (v. 14).7 As the text indicates, the Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized (v. 16).8 So the apostles “laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). No explanation for this action is given, but there are some hints as to the reason.

First, the preaching of the gospel in Samaria represents a major mission advance by the early church in harmony with the instructions given by Jesus (Acts 1:8). In addition, the text uses unusual language to describe the fact that the Samaritans had not received the Holy Spirit: “for he had not yet fallen on any of them” (Acts 8:16). The word “fallen” (Gk. epipiptō) refers to the giving of the Holy Spirit on only three occasions, with this being the first. The second is in reference to the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles who gathered at Cornelius’s house to hear Peter’s preaching (Acts 10:44). The third is contained in Peter’s description of this event to some in the Jerusalem church—that “ ‘the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning’ ” (Acts 11:15; emphasis added)—referring to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–8). In other words, the three stages in preaching the gospel to the world indicated in Acts 1:8—first to Jews; then to Samaritans; and, finally, to Gentiles—are marked by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.9 This outpouring on Samaritans occurred sometime after they were baptized. In the case of the Gentiles, however, the Holy Spirit was poured out beforehand (Acts 10:44).

2. Acts 9:17. Following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul was brought into connection with the early church through the ministry of Ananias, who had been instructed in a vision to go to him (vv. 10–16). As with the Samaritans’ conversion, the seal of Christ’s church was to be placed on his conversion and baptism. “Laying his hands on him,” Ananias said, “ ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’ ” (v. 17). As a result, “something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized” (v. 18). The text is unclear as to whether the act of Ananias in laying his hands on Paul effected the regaining of sight, being filled with the Holy Spirit, or both. From verse 12, it might be concluded that it only accomplished Paul’s healing. Notice Ellen White’s description: “In Christ’s stead Ananias touches the eyes of Saul, that they may receive sight. In Christ’s stead he places his hands upon him, and, as he prays in Christ’s name, Saul receives the Holy Ghost.”10 Even though it coincides with the laying on of hands, it seems that the reception of the Spirit came in response to prayer.

3. Acts 19:1–7. Acts 19 describes the gospel being brought by Paul to Ephesus, where he stayed more than two years during his third missionary journey (vv. 8, 10). Almost immediately, he met “some disciples” (tinas mathētas, v. 1), about twelve in number (v. 7). When not further qualified, the term disciples normally refers to baptized Christian believers, especially in Acts.11 Given the context and the very general phraseology, these Ephesians were, at best, “believers with partial knowledge.”12 This would help explain why Luke interrupts Paul’s travel narrative at this point. In fact, Paul seems to recognize their instruction and experience were inadequate because he asks: “ ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ ” (v. 2). As we have seen, ordinarily, the reception of the Holy Spirit coincides with believing, so this should have been assumed. But their reply—that they had not yet “ ‘even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’ ” (v. 2)—is hardly reassuring. Although John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the One who would come and baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7, 8), these disciples from Ephesus may not have heard this remark. Thus, Paul explained how John had urged people to believe in “ ‘the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus’ ” (Acts 19:4).

Clearly, these men had been led by the Spirit up to this point; Paul brought them to a fuller understanding of the gospel of Christ. Their rebaptism by Paul “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5) set a seal on their Christian commitment. It also provides an important example for believers today—in two different ways. First, because baptism into Christ constitutes one’s formal acceptance of Him as Savior and entry into the Christian church, it should not normally be repeated any more than a married couple would repeat their wedding ceremony.13 On the other hand, if a person has fallen away from Christ by living a life out of harmony with Scripture and the baptismal vows they made, rebaptism would be appropriate. Thus, public confession is made of a return to Christ and reconsecration of one’s life to Him. A second reason a person may want to consider rebaptism is upon seeing and embracing a whole new paradigm of truth, as the disciples of John did, which leads to such a dramatic life change that rebaptism is deemed appropriate to mark this “new life.”14

Acts 19 also indicates that they received the Holy Spirit through Paul’s laying on of hands. This was for outreach because “they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (v. 6), just as the apostles had experienced for evangelizing the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–8, 16–21), and the Gentiles for a similar witness (Acts 10:44–48). The gift of the Spirit in Acts 19 was likewise strategic. The gospel could now spread more rapidly in Ephesus, which, as a major Roman port and center of trade for East and West, was the most important city of Asia Minor.15

Ask and receive

In preparing people for baptism and church membership, care should be taken to ensure that they have been thoroughly instructed and show evidence of conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit in their lives.16 The New Testament consistently associates receiving the Spirit with repentance, conversion, and baptism. The conversions of Paul, the Samaritans, Cornelius and his household, and other Gentile believers were unique. We find no biblical authorization for a minister to lay hands on individuals in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Spirit is normally bestowed on a person as soon as he or she understands and believes the gospel and is willing to receive this gift.

  1. For further study, see, e.g., Oscar Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament (London, UK: SCM, 1950); G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962); Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 83–198; Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, “Baptismal Instruction in the New Testament and Other Related Issues,” accessed October 8, 2020, https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/church/baptismal-instruction-new-testament-and-other-related-issues.
  2. Scripture is from the English Standard Version.
  3. See Wilson Paroschi, “Acts 19:1–7 Reconsidered in Light of Paul’s Theology of Baptism,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 47, no. 1 (2009): 94, 95, describing the distinctiveness of the post-Pentecost Christian baptism as introducing “an important ecclesiological emphasis” that includes “baptism in the name of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
  4. This is indicated not only by the basic meaning of the verbal root baptō (Albrecht Oepke, “βάπτω, βαπτίζω κτλ,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964], 529–546) but also by “much water” being required for baptisms to take place (John 3:23; Acts 8:38). Describing early Christian baptism, Ferguson states: “The Christian literary sources, backed by secular word usage and Jewish religious immersions, give an overwhelming support for full immersion as the normal action.” Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church, 891.
  5. It is natural to connect the actions of praying and laying hands on the seven with the nearest subject, namely, “the apostles,” thereby providing confirmation by the leadership of the seven chosen by the congregation.
  6. Similarly, “The few cases where it was performed are very peculiar and should not be used to universalize the practice.” Rodríguez, “Baptismal Instruction.”
  7. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 106, 107.
  8. The exceptional nature of the situation is underscored by the words “not yet” (oudepō) and “only” (monon).
  9. Cf. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, ed. Donald A. Hagner, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 383: “We may say that there is a Jewish Pentecost, a Samaritan Pentecost, and a Gentile Pentecost.”
  10. White, Acts of the Apostles, 122.
  11. See, e.g., Acts 6:1, 2, 7; 9:10, 19.
  12. Gerhard F. Hasel, Speaking in Tongues: Biblical Speaking in Tongues and Contemporary Glossolalia (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society, 1991), 99.
  13. Cf. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 19th ed. (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2016), 50: “A member whose spiritual experience has become cold needs a spirit of repentance which leads to revival and reformation. This experience will be followed by participation in the communion service to signify renewed cleansing and fellowship in the body of Christ, making rebaptism unnecessary.”
  14. Church Manual, 49. Rebaptism in no way impugns the significance of one’s prior baptism.
  15. Paul spent three years in Ephesus (Acts 20:31), and by the time John wrote the book of Revelation, churches were well established throughout the western part of Asia Minor (see Rev. 2; 3).
  16. See Church Manual, 44.

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