In this essay we are taking up the issue of when the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit. We easily could have skipped a discussion of this subject; and I admit I hesitated to get into it, because it is complicated and difficult. But as you will see, the issue has very significant implications for the history of the Church. So let’s look at it.
We will begin at chapter eight verse five. The persecution led Philip to go to the city of Samaria (v. 5), where he preached the word of God. His preaching included preaching Jesus as the Messiah (v. 5). The Samaritans believed Philip and were baptized (verse 12). Then we are told that the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria to check out what was going on (verse 14). They discovered that the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on the Samaritans; they only had been baptized in the name of Jesus (verse 16). So Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritans, and they received the Holy Spirit (verse 17).
The reason this is a problem is because the larger revelation of the New Testament clearly teaches that when one repents, believes in Jesus, and is baptized, one receives the Holy Spirit. That is, the Spirit comes in to dwell within every new Christian (Rom. 5:5; 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 6:19, 12:3-13; Eph. 1:13, 4:30). Indeed Peter himself said on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, my emphasis).
These Scriptures have caused a great debate among Christian scholars about whether or not the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit when they believed Philip and were baptized, or if they received the Holy Spirit when Peter and John laid hands on them. If they received the Spirit when they believed Philip, then what was the Spirit they received with the laying on of Peter and John’s hands? If they didn’t receive the Spirit when they believed Philip, then according to Rom. 8:9 they were not Christians; and they did not become Christians until Peter and John laid hands on them. If that is the case, then what did it mean for them to have believed Philip’s preaching about Jesus and been baptized in the name of Jesus? Now I have said all of that and asked all of those questions simply to explain the problem.
Now then, there are far-reaching theological implications for various Christian denominations that arise from various interpretations of this passage. For example, Roman Catholics, because they are a sacramental church, believe that the passage teaches about two of their sacraments. They believe in baptismal regeneration. That is, they believe the sacrament of Baptism imparts the grace of salvation. Thus they believe that the Samaritans, like all Christians, were saved at their Baptism. Catholics also believe that the Holy Spirit is received by means of the laying on of hands by bishops who are successors to the apostles. This impartation of the Holy Spirit occurs during the sacrament of Confirmation. Thus Roman Catholics would say that the situation of the Samaritans in Acts eight teaches the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
On the other hand, most Pentecostals and many Charismatics, believe in what Stott calls a “two-stage initiation.” I would prefer the language, “two works of grace,” but we aren’t going to quibble about the language used. The first stage or work is conversion. One repents of sin and believes in Jesus; and God ‘s Holy Spirit comes in to dwell creating the new life within called the new birth. Then one is baptized in water to symbolize that conversion. Of course one’s sins are forgiven in this process. This Pentecostal theology would say that when the Samaritans believed Philip and were baptized, they were converted. But they had not yet been baptized in the Spirit.
When Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritans, they experienced the second stage or work, which is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to Pentecostal theology, the purpose of baptism with the Spirit is to empower believers for ministry. And gifts of the Spirit are given for that purpose. It was this anointing with the Spirit for ministry that the Samaritans received when Peter and John laid hands on them. So the first work is the birth of the Spirit and the second work is the baptism of the Spirit.
The Wesleyan tradition (the various Methodist denominations) holds a similar view, though with a different emphasis and one major difference. As a United Methodist, this is my tradition. Like the Pentecostals, we believe that one becomes a Christian at conversion. We would say that conversion involves the new birth (regeneration), forgiveness of sins (justification), adoption into the family of God, and what is called initial sanctification. Initial sanctification is the beginning of the process of one’s being made holy. This holiness process begins because the Holy Spirit comes in to dwell when one believes. Therefore we Wesleyans would agree that the Samaritans were converted. However they were not filled with the Spirit. Like the Pentecostals, we believe that the infilling of the Spirit is a second work of grace normally subsequent to conversion. And we would identify the reception of the Spirit experienced by the Samaritans when Peter and John laid hands on them (vv. 15-16) with the infilling with the Spirit.
Earlier I said that the Wesleyan view is similar to the Pentecostal, but with a different emphasis. The different emphasis in the Wesleyan and Pentecostal views is that the Pentecostals emphasize the spiritual gifts and power that Spirit baptism brings to Christians. Wesleyans agree that one receives this power and these gifts when filled with the Spirit. But Wesleyans do not emphasize that aspect. Instead Wesleyans emphasize the ethical aspects of cleansing from sin and perfection in love.
The major difference between the two traditions is that classic Pentecostal theology declares that the evidence of Spirit baptism is speaking in tongues. Wesleyan theology never has embraced that thinking.
One common criticism of this two works of grace theology is that it divides Christians into two groups: ordinary Christians and Spirit-filled Christians. The implication is that the Spirit-filled Christians are, or think they are, superior to the ordinary Christians. Pentecostals sometimes have encouraged this attitude because of their belief that the evidence of Spirit baptism is speaking in tongues. They implied that persons who had not spoken in tongues were somehow inferior. Even though some Christians occasionally have expressed that attitude, it is not the intention of the theology. All Christians are on a growth journey. Some grow more rapidly than others. And all of us are found along a continuum of becoming more like Christ. The moment of infilling with the Holy Spirit is simply one step along the way. Therefore there are not two classes of Christians; there are only growing Christians.
The Reformed tradition and some others reject this two-stage, or two-work process. They hold to what Stott calls a “one stage initiation.” They deny that the Samaritans were converted when they believed Philip and were baptized. That means that the Samaritans were not converted until Peter and John laid hands on them. Stott suggests that God uncharacteristically chose to delay the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans until the apostles could get on board with the idea. His reasoning is that the Samaritans were a mixed race who hated the Jews, and the Jews hated them. Therefore the church might have been divided by acceptance of the Samaritans. So it was important for the apostles to investigate the situation and to endorse Philip’s evangelism of the Samaritans before the Holy Spirit was given to them.
Most Christians follow their denominational tradition and accept the position that is advanced by their denomination. This is not a problem, because no one has been able to establish with certainty which view is correct, even though most scholars tend to defend their particular view with passion.