Yesterday we observed Pentecost, the day we celebrate as the birthday of the Church, the body of true believers and the Bride of Christ. As described in Acts 2:1-3, it was quite a day! The twelve apostles “… were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the spirit enabled them.” What a day! Wouldn’t you have loved to be there on that day! Better yet, wouldn’t you have loved to be one of those with the tongue of fire on your head! Just imagine the excitement they must have felt! Don’t you feel the excitment just reading about it?! I do.
Something my husband said in his sermon yesterday reminded me once again of where I came from and how I got here. He was talking about the wind and the tongues of fire and then he asked, “What are we missing?” When it comes to the Holy Spirit today – what are we missing? His answer – – ”nothing but the wind and the flames.” Huh? What do we expect to happen when we receive the Holy Spirit? I suppose the first question would be “how do we receive the Holy Spirit?”
Different denominations teach different things about this. This question is a source of great controversy among Christians.
I know someone who belongs to a church that calls themselves “non-denominational”. This church teaches that the Holy Spirit comes to a person at the moment they begin speaking in tongues (languages known only to God). They do not believe that the Holy Spirit is given to all who ‘decide’ to follow Christ. I know that Pentecostals believe something very similar to that. This belief can be traced back to the first Pentecost. But the Holy Spirit was around long before Pentecost and he revealed himself in other ways prior to that day. So why would God withold his Holy Spirit from some who believe and not others?
I should point out that when the Apostles spoke in other tongues at Pentecost, they spoke in other earthly languages. The languages (tongues) spoke in Pentecostal-type churches are unknown ‘languages’ that according to Scripture (I Corinthians 14:2), should not be done in worship. While you’re in I Corinthians, feel free to read that entire chapter. How appropriate that it follows what is written in Chapter 13.
Evangelical protestant Christians believe the Holy Spirit comes to them the moment they pray what they call the “sinner’s prayer”. But they have to be sincere about it once they’ve made the ‘decision’ to do so. So salvation and receiving the Holy Spirit requires that a person rightly and perfectly exercise their will. So what becomes of those who are like the soldier who said, “… I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)? Not possible, for there is always some degree of unbelief in the human heart.
What do Lutherans believe? We know that we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and through the Gospel, the preaching of the Word.
So why the conflicting beliefs? God never changes, that’s probably one thing we all agree on. So how do we receive the Holy Spirit?
First, what do we know about the Holy Spirit? We know that He is part of the Trinity – – the Triune God. We know that Christ and the Holy Spirit are present with God throughout the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. In Genesis we read of the Triune God before the world was ever created (Gen. 1:26). And in Revelation we read of the Triune God at the end of days (Rev. 22:16-18). Jesus tells us of the Triune God in John 10:30 and John 14:6 – 9 and Matthew 28:19. The Holy Spirit was with John the Baptizer while he was an infant in the womb (Luke 1:44). The Holy Spirit is revealed to us in Christ’s conception (Matthew 1:18), in His Baptism (Matthew 3:16), in His tempation (Matthew 4:1). So we see that the Holy Spirit was with Christ throughout His life on earth. So how do we know when and how we receive the Holy Spirit and salvation? We know the Holy Spirit serves to convict us of our sin. We know that He is also called The Comforter. Which comes first? What is the evidence? Shouldn’t there be some physical sign and shouldn’t we feel something when we receive the Holy Spirit?
That’s exactly what Baptism is when it is done in the name of the Triune God – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit! Whether you believe it or not, that is exactly what Baptism is. Jesus instituted Baptism for us as a means of grace, a way to distribute the salvation from sin, death, and the devil, that he won for us when he died on the Cross.
In Mark 1:8 John says, “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit decended on him from heaven in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:9). So why then, do we expect our Baptism to work anything less than the Baptism of Christ, the Baptism he institued for us? Is that too much to believe? As I said earlier, there is always some degree of unbelief in the human heart. No one is capable of perfect faith all the time. Another example of human logic and reason diverting us from the pure and simple work of God. Why must we continue to make ourselves greater than God by refusing to believe his promises to us? Why do we put more trust and faith in our own understanding of what Christ said rather than take him at his plain and simple Word?
Jesus didn’t need forgiveness of sins; he was without sin. So why did he want John’s Baptism of repentance? For us. He wanted it for us. In his own baptism, Christ made himself present in Baptism – for us. By commanding that we “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew 28:19) he took a baptism of repentance and transformed it into a means of grace by attaching his promise to it.
Both of the Sacraments we observe in The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, Baptism and Communion, were given to us by Christ, for us, for the forgiveness of sins and for life and salvation.
And so I ask you: If these two Sacraments are only symbolic and if God works nothing in them, why did Christ establish them? And why did he Command us to continue observing them until he comes again? If Baptism is only symbolic and works nothing, why is it done in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? Insisting that Baptism works nothing and is only symbolic amounts to profaning the name of Christ, doesn’t it… ?
We do not receive the Holy Spirit in flames of fire dancing on our heads, or speaking in languages known only to God. This is why Jesus left us with Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and the Scriptures.
And of course, in adults who have heard the preached Word of the Gospel prior to baptism, this is when they receive the Holy Spirit which works faith in their hearts. So baptism is the next step.
Further, we cannot rely on any feelings of the corrupt human heart for certainty of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Surely, our hearts, minds, and souls are corrupted by sin from the moment of conception. But we can rely on God’s promises which he has attached to the common earthly element of water, when combined with the Word, established by Christ for us.
Interestingly, I am actually finishing up this post on May 31st, the date of my own baptism in 1970 when I was eleven years old. And so I celebrate this day.