Acts 8: Is There A Difference Between Being Born Again and Receiving The Holy Spirit?

This past Sunday, I concluded our look at Acts 8:1-25 by briefly referring to what the text says about the work of the Holy Spirit. If you were there, you know that we focused upon the curious case of Simon Magus, the question of Simon’s conversion, and what other historical documents (outside the New Testament) tell us about what became of Simon (documents that confirm the inauthenticity of his conversion). I did not get into details concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in Samaria, noting that I could better explain that through a blog. Here is the first of a couple of entries that will seek to explain the work of the Spirit in Acts 8.

To begin this endeavor, I will introduce you to a word that you’ve likely never before heard of – the word ‘pneumatology’. (It’s a summary word to describe all that concerns what Christians believe about the Holy Spirit. The Greek word ‘pneuma’ is the word for spirit. At the risk of saying more than you ever wanted to know about the origins of words that are used to describe branches of Christian theology, I’ll get right to the point of why I bring up the word ‘pneumatology’.) On a gray winter day in 1998, ‘pneumatology’ was the subject of a lecture that one of my seminary professors was giving. He was explaining what we can understand about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. I remember this particular lecture not because of what my professor said that we could know, but because of what he specifically said that we could not know.

As he was explaining the work of the Spirit of God from Scripture, he said something that seemed fueled by a sense of resignation: “Do not use the book of Acts to make any conclusions about the work of the Holy Spirit. It will only create confusion.”

One the one hand, I was surprised to hear him say this. How could such a document as the book of Acts not be important for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit? On the other hand, I knew where he was going with that statement and I needed no further explanation. Over the previous 16 years, my church experience had journeyed from such Christian ‘tribes’ as the Methodists to the Pentecostals to the Southern Baptists and, finally, to a Presbyterian/Reformed camp (where I finally found a home going on 28 years now). This journey through a wide swath of denominational and theological camps involved spending a fair amount of time wrestling with what the Scriptures said about the Holy Spirit.

With all due respect to my esteemed seminary professor (who had a significant role in preparing me to become a pastor), I can still see why he said what he did about the book of Acts and the work of the Spirit. But I have also since come to what I think is a better understanding as to what was going on in Acts 8 and why this is such a confusing chapter. Speaking of those different Christian ‘tribes’ or denominations, I would suspect that one reason my professor made such a cynical statement about trying to understand the work of the Holy Spirit through the book of Acts was because the 8th chapter of Acts is a passage that has produced a number of very different conclusions amongst very well meaning Christians.

For example, Pentecostal or charismatic believers see Acts 8 as warranting a two-stage initiation into the Christian faith: 1) conversion (involving faith and repentance) and regeneration (God’s working in our hearts such that the person has become a new creation – i.e. born again) and 2) the baptism of the Holy Spirit (which carries the expectation to show itself in the manifestation of some type of supernatural gifts – i.e. speaking in tongues). That manifestation, of course, is what attracted Simon Magus to desire the ability to bestow the Spirit upon others. Suffice it to say, the emphasis in the Pentecostal camp is on an inward experience, and one can see, from a straight-forward reading of Acts 8:1-25, how the Pentecostals have arrived at their conclusions.

By contrast, the Roman Catholic position bears a more outward experience. John Stott described it this way: “Catholics believe that the first stage of initiation is baptism, and the second is confirmation by a bishop regarded as a successor of the apostles, through whose imposition of hands the Spirit is given. This position can be traced back to Hippolytus and Cyprian in the third century. Cyprian commented on the Samaritan incident thus: ‘Exactly the same thing happens with us today; those who have been baptized in the church are presented to the bishops of the church so that by our prayer and the imposition of our hands they may receive the Holy Spirit.’[1] [2]

Those of a Reformed view have typically taken a very different perspective on this, seeing what is described in Acts 8 as a one-stage experience with the idea that what the new Christians in Samaria received at the laying on of hands from the Apostles Peter and John was really a manifestation of what they had already received. As John Calvin says, “since the Samaritans had the Spirit of adoption conferred on them already [at conversion], the extraordinary graces of the Spirit are added as a culmination.”[3]

In other words, it is important to keep in mind that the New Testament Scriptures very much speak of the Spirit as having a major role to play in orchestrating salvation within an individual’s life and heart. Jesus stressed this very matter going back well in advance of the Day of Pentecost. 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:5-8 (ESV)]

So that leaves us with a question: To what extent was the Spirit of God manifesting itself in Acts 8? We’ll pick up there next week. Hint: There definitely seems to be a connection between Acts 2 and Acts 8.

[1] Cyprian, Letters, 73:9; from Early Latin Theology, translated and edited by S.L. Greenslade, vol. V of The Library of Christian Classics (SCM, 1956).

[2] Stott, John, The Message of Acts, Inter Varsity Press: Leicester, England/Downers Grove, IL, 1990, p. 152.

[3] Calvin, John, The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 1, p. 225.