Charismatism & The Book of Acts

copyright 1987, Fred G. Zaspel

The Confusion Surrounding the Book


The Claims

Charismatic theology rests largely on the teaching that Spirit baptism occurs subsequent to salvation when certain conditions are met and is evidenced by speaking in tongues. Their evidence? The book of Acts. Their claim is that these teachings rest on the pattern set forth in Acts. This booklet will evaluate the book of Acts in light of these claims.

There is some evidence for their claims. In Acts 2 the apostles were baptized in the Spirit at a time which was subsequent to their salvation. In Acts 8 the order for the Samaritan converts was as follows: 1) repentance and faith, 2) water baptism, 3) Laying on of the apostles' hands, and 4) receiving of the Holy Spirit. The same is true in Acts 19. Again, in Acts 2, having been baptized in the Spirit the apostles spoke in tongues; this also was the case in chapter 19 and possibly in chapter 8. Cornelius spoke in tongues upon receiving the Spirit in Acts 10. According to the Charismatics, this is the pattern for today.

The Problems

But the issue is not settled quite so simply: upon closer examination the pattern does not hold true. For example, in Acts 2 the apostles were baptized in the Spirit subsequent to salvation, but the 3000 others received the baptism at the time of salvation. So which is normative? Which is the pattern for today? In Acts 10 the Gentiles were also baptized in the Spirit at the time of salvation. Furthermore, Spirit baptism occurs before water baptism in Acts 2 and 10 and after water baptism in chapters 8 and 19. Once more, the Spirit was given only by the laying on of the apostles' hands in Acts 8 and 19 but without it in chapters 2 and 10.

Upon close examination of all relevant data from the book of Acts, the Charismatic's supposed pattern erodes. The "pattern" is not so consistent.

A Clarification

Confused? One thing is obvious: The Charismatics' supposed pattern in the book of Acts is not found in the book of Acts! Their "pattern" is only a part of the pattern of the book of Acts. Indeed, it is difficult (but not impossible) to find any overall pattern in the book. To follow the pattern of the book of Acts is a worthy goal, but which pattern should be followed? The pattern in the book of Acts is (seemingly) inconsistent with itself: sometimes there are tongues; other times there are none. With some the Spirit is received through the laying on of hands; with others no such laying on of hands is needed. Some receive the Spirit before water baptism, some after. If all Scripture is inspired, the interpreter must find a position and pattern which allows for and includes all the Biblical data, not just a part of it.

A Principle

One more principle emerges from the midst of this confusion: doctrine must be based on the apostle's teaching, not experience. To put it another way, in formulating theology, the apostles' teaching is normative, not the experience of some in the history recorded in the book of Acts. To approach doctrine in any other way brings total confusion (as that just surveyed) and does disservice to the inspired teaching of the apostles.

With this principle established (that apostolic teaching is normative), the interpreter must recognize that I Corinthians 12:13 is the only interpretive comment on the subject to be found in the New Testament: "For in one Spirit we all were baptized into one body." Other passages refer to Spirit baptism in one way or another, but this is the only verse which seeks to explain it. From this statement, then, the interpreter can interpret the issue, and using this verse as a guide he can sort through all the varied details in the book of Acts.

The Purpose of Acts

Basic to this study is an understanding of Luke's purpose in writing the book of Acts. He states that purpose in the opening lines of the book: it is to set forth the continuation of the ministry of Christ after His resurrection and ascension; that is, His ministry through His apostles (hence the designation, "Acts of the Apostles"). He wrote to document the spread of the apostolic church from Jerusalem to the "uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). His purpose, then, was not doctrinal but historical, which explains his failure to explain the differences which arise in the "pattern" of the book. His purpose directed his style.

The Transition of Acts

Observing It

The book of Acts, then, is a transitional book, and as such it is unique. It bridges the gap between the old dispensation and the new, from God's dealings primarily and almost exclusively with the Jews to his dealings primarily and almost exclusively with the Gentiles. In the Gospels God's people still worshipped according to the Mosaic Law with its tithes, sacrifices, and temple; in the epistles, God's people are the church, meeting and worshipping outside the temple and apart from the Mosaic Law. In Acts there are both; it is a period of transition. In the Old Testament order, the Angel of the Lord was appearing to men to reveal God's will, a phenomenon unknown in this age; but in Acts the Angel of the Lord is at times at work as before (e.g., Philip, Acts 8). Acts is a transitional book, and as such it is unique.

There is no other explanation for the varied and seemingly inconsistent "pattern" in the book of Acts: unless Acts is seen as a period of transition, the confusion cannot be accounted for. The liberals use the "confusion" as evidence for the opposition between Peter and Paul. The ultra-dispensationalists divide the book into different dispensations. The only real solution lies in the fact that Acts is a transitional book; it records a period of transition, the link between the Old and the New orders.

Explaining It

This transition period was necessary for at least two reasons.

1. A Foundational Period

The first is the need for a foundational period. A period of time was needed for the apostles and prophets to lay the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). Their teaching had to be given, and then it had to be validated by the exercise of their sign gifts (II Corinthians 12:12). The book of Acts records the history of that foundational and miracle-working period; it sets the stage and lays the ground-work for the superstructure phase of the church which followed. During a time of transition, some of both eras (those before and after) will be apparent for a time. The foundation had to be laid, and it had to be confirmed by a period of miraculous gifts; with this accomplished, the transition was complete.

2. Believers Living Before & After Pentecost

Another factor demanding a time of transition is the unique position of those people who were believers before and after Pentecost. For them, by the nature of the case, Spirit baptism had to come subsequent to salvation, for it first occurred on Pentecost. Such was the case with the apostles.

Furthermore, the cross and the day of Pentecost did mark a definite change in God's economy, but to those believers who were not in Jerusalem to hear of it God did not open heaven and make the universal announcement, "Okay, it's time now; everybody shift!" Obviously, time was required for the message to get out to the other believers, and there must have been thousands of them who needed to hear the new message. Some interpreters suggest that these believers who were not at Pentecost were nonetheless "ideally" baptized without knowledge of it. But this is not in keeping with the facts. Two examples illustrate this well: Philip in Samaria (Acts 8) and Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). In the case of Philip and the Samaritan revival, there were some believers there even before Philip's arrival (John 4:39) who did not receive the Spirit until Peter and John later arrived and ministered Him to them (Acts 8:14-17). In Paul's case there were believers converted under the ministry of John the Baptist who then did not receive the Spirit until some 20 years later. In both cases there were men who were believing before Pentecost but who were not present on Pentecost and so did not receive the Spirit until some time later; they had "not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:2).

It is evident that only the believers present at Pentecost were baptized in the Spirit at that time; the others moved into this transitional period without it, receiving it later when the Holy Spirit was ministered to them by the apostles or their associates (Galatians 3:5). This is also why Jesus commanded His disciples to tarry in Jerusalem until the arrival of the Spirit (Acts 1:4-5).

3. Other Factors

There were perhaps other factors requiring a transitional period, such as normal resistance to change, the necessity to preach the gospel to the Jew first, and a needed period of miraculous signs, but these two mentioned seem to be the most prominent.


There is, then, a quite different pattern emerging from a study of all the relevant facts, and it is explainable only by recognizing the transitional character of the book of Acts. Those saved on or after Pentecost received the Spirit at the time of their salvation (the three thousand at Pentecost and the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius); those who were believers before Pentecost received the Spirit either on the day of Pentecost (if they were present, as the apostles in Acts 2) or sometime later, when the apostles could minister the Spirit to them (Acts 8 and 19).


As verified by Paul's comment in I Corinthians 12:13, those saved now follow the pattern of those in Acts who were saved after Pentecost and receive the Spirit at the time of salvation. This is the norm once the transition was complete. There are two exceptions to this pattern (Acts 8 and 19) and for very good reasons; these will be explained below.

A Survey of The Relevant Passages

Acts 2

The events of the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 are the fulfillment of the promise Jesus gave over and again to His disciples, namely, that He would come to them in the Person of the Spirit. It is an unrepeatable event simply because it was unique: it marked the birth of the church, the day of its formation, the beginning of a new age. It was the coming of the Spirit of Christ to take up residence in His church. This can only happen once; there can be only one day of birth. There were present there people who were saved prior to that time, so by the nature of the case Spirit baptism occurred after salvation.

So by virtue of its uniqueness, the events of Pentecost cannot be the norm today. It was a necessary part of that transition period, but the circumstances can not be duplicated.

Acts 8

Acts 8 gives one example of people saved after Pentecost and receiving the Spirit still later, which is explainable only in light of the fact that it was a part of a transitional period.

Of the many problems facing the early church, two were very prominent. One was for the Jews to be willing to share their blessings with the Samaritans; the other was for the Samaritans to be willing to share them with the Jews! Their hatred of each other was as long-standing as it was deep. Furthermore, the events of Pentecost were led by Jews (the apostles); there were no Samaritans involved. Evidently (more evidence is given below concerning the same problem with the Gentiles in Acts 10), God saw that if the Samaritans received the Spirit without the Jews, unity would never be possible; the Samaritans would have their own branch of Christianity. But being unable to receive Him independent of the Jewish apostles, they were forced to recognize the unity God established and the authority of the apostles (even though they were Jews). The same was true for the Jews themselves: seeing the Samaritans receive the Spirit at the hands of the apostles, they could not deny that they were all a part of the same body. God uniquely withheld the Spirit for a time in order to meet a unique need existing in that transitional period. Once that purpose was achieved, this unusual events would no longer occur.

The fact that this order of events (receiving the Spirit after salvation) was indeed unusual is emphasized in verse 16, which adds a note of explanation: "For as yet He was fallen upon none of them." The implication of the statement is that this order of events is different from the norm. Luke felt it necessary to give this explanatory note because the circumstances were so unusual. If this order of events were the norm, Luke's explanation here would be pointless.

Acts 10

The same problem existed in a greater degree in reference to the Gentiles. To a Jew, a Gentile was a dog; indeed, this is precisely why God needed to first teach Peter the lesson via the dream/vision of the descending white sheet. This passage shows that even Gentiles were a part of the same body as Jews, and it destroys the disunity between them: the Gentiles of the house of Cornelius believed and received the Spirit just as did the Jews. Their experience was identical, so the unity was too obvious to deny.

That this was the purpose involved is evident from Peter's testimony in chapter 11 in which he gives account to the Jerusalem church for these unprecedented happenings. They all agreed, for "the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning" (verse 15). This was the purpose in chapter 10 and in chapter 8 as well. A unique need was met during that transitional period.

Concerning the "pattern" of the book of Acts, discussed earlier, it is important to note that in this passage, 1) Salvation and Spirit baptism are simultaneous, and 2) Spirit baptism is spoken of as salvation itself (verse 47).

Acts 19

In Acts 19:1-7 the problem was simply that there were some believers (disciples of John the Baptist) who had not heard the message of the Holy Spirit. Being disciples of John the Baptist, they did, of course, know of the teaching of the coming of the Holy Spirit; this was one of the Baptist's themes (cf. Luke 3:16). They were faithfully awaiting the Messiah, but had not heard the entire message or that the Holy Spirit had, indeed, come. Evidently, they were not present at Pentecost. The apostles, then, gave them further teaching on the matter and ministered to them the Holy Spirit.


1. The Contrasting Claims

The Charismatics claim that the book of Acts supports their position that:

1) Spirit baptism occurs after salvation upon the meeting of certain conditions. But this is not the teaching of the book: Spirit baptism did occur subsequent to salvation a couple times but for obvious and unique reasons that cannot be repeated (i.e., to accommodate believers living through the transition and to demonstrate the unity of the body of Christ). Furthermore, it is not the consistent pattern of the book, and it is contrary to Peter's and Paul's teaching on the subject (Acts 10:47; I Corinthians 12:13), nor are any conditions for receiving the Spirit ever mentioned.

2) The evidence of Spirit baptism is speaking in tongues. This did happen in Acts 10 and 19 and possibly in chapter 8. That tongues did demonstrate the reception of the Holy Spirit cannot be denied, for tongues is a gift of the Spirit. But it was not the experience of all believers in Acts 2, only the apostles. Nor is it ever stated that it should continue to be the evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence.

2. The Pattern

The pattern of the book of Acts does not teach that Spirit baptism follows salvation. This did happen on occasion, but for very clear and unique reasons. The pattern is that, 1) those who were believers before Pentecost received the Spirit either on the day of Pentecost, if they were present (as the apostles), or at a later time when they heard the message and were ministered the Spirit by the apostolic company (as the disciples of John the Baptist; cf. Galatians 3:5); and 2) those saved on or after Pentecost received the Spirit at the same time (as the three thousand in Acts 2 and the house of Cornelius in Acts 10). The only exception to this was the Samaritans, from whom the Spirit was temporarily withheld to demonstrate their proper place in the body of Christ.

3. The Norm

The norm for today is Spirit baptism at the time of salvation, as was the case in Acts 2 and 10. Paul affirms this in I Corinthians 12:13, as does Peter in Acts 2:38 and 10:47.


The book of Acts covers a unique period of church history. It is a book of historical transition and as such should not be viewed as something given to by itself teach a "pattern" for the entire church age. A permanent "pattern" is discernable in the book but only through the apostolic teaching given concerning it (i.e., I Corinthians 12:13).