The Holy Spirit’s Work (No. 6): The Gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38)

By Johnny Stringer

A False View

Peter promised his audience on the day of Pentecost that if they would repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This fact is used by many to teach that the Spirit automatically comes to all Christians at their conversion and operates miraculously through them. This position can be proven conclusively to be false. In our second article, we discussed the Samaritans (Acts 8:12-19). They believed and were baptized (v. 12), yet did not automatically receive the Spirit. In fact, it is clearly stated that when the apostles later came to Jerusalem, the Spirit had not come to the Samaritans (vv. 14-16); and they did not receive the Spirit until the apostles laid their hands on them (vv. 17-18). Nothing could be plainer than the fact that the Spirit did not automatically come on these Christians at their conversion, and that their reception of the Spirit was contingent on the laying on of apostolic hands.

Furthermore, Acts 2:38 must be interpreted in the light of the fact that the miraculous powers were for a limited period of time, so that they now have ceased. This has been demonstrated in previous articles. While we can be certain that Acts 2:38 does not teach that Christians today receive miraculous endowments, there is some room for disagreement as to what Peter actually did refer to when he spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Faithful Christians who reject the anti-Biblical idea that Christians presently are miraculously endowed hold differing views regarding this particular point.

Two Views Held by Faithful Saints

Some faithful brethren believe that the phrase, “gift of the Holy Spirit,” means the Holy Spirit’s gift, the gift given or promised by the Holy Spirit – namely, eternal life. Greek scholars inform us that from a grammatical standpoint, the phrase could mean either that the gift is the Holy Spirit or that the gift comes from the Holy Spirit. From a grammatical standpoint, therefore, these brethren could be right. While I cannot prove that they are wrong, however, I do not share their view. I believe that the Spirit is the gift which Peter promised. There are two facts which support the view that the gift is the Spirit: (1) Peter later said that the Holy Spirit was given to those who obeyed (Acts 5:32). Since this is the same as saying that the Spirit was given to those who repented and were baptized, it does not seem unreasonable to think that this is what Peter was talking about in Acts 2:38. (2) The phrase, “gift of the Holy Spirit,” is found only one other time in the New Testament (Acts 10:45), and there it very obviously means that the Spirit was the gift. It is used in that verse with reference to Cornelius’ reception of the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that the people on Pentecost would receive the Spirit in the same manner that Cornelius did. I am simply discussing the meaning of the phrase, “gift of the Holy Spirit.” Regardless of how the people in Acts 2 would receive the gift, the gift they would receive was the Holy Spirit, if the phrase means the same thing in Acts 2:38 that it does in Acts 10:45.

Another view that has been held by faithful brethren is that the Holy Spirit comes personally into the Christian at conversion to dwell within him, but that He does so without miraculous manifestations. This view is in harmony with the fact that the miraculous endowments have ceased; nevertheless, I cannot agree with it. I believe that the case of the Samaritans (Acts 8:12-19) disproves it. Remember that Acts 8:16 clearly says that the Holy Spirit had not fallen on any of them, and that this was some time after they had become Christians. It does not say merely that they had not been miraculously empowered by the Spirit; it says that they had not received the Spirit. If the Spirit had personally come to them to dwell within them -even without miraculous manifestations – then they had received the Spirit and it would be erroneous to say that they had not received Him. Furthermore, there is no scriptural proof that there was such a thing as a personal indwelling of the Spirit apart from miraculous manifestations.

This Writer’s View

Now we come to the position which I espouse. In Acts 2:38 we see that the Spirit was promised to those who would obey; and in Acts 8:12-19 and Acts 19:5-6, we see how that promise was fulfilled – that is, through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Note that when Peter made the promise, he did not say that the reception of the gift would be immediately after their baptism. He did not tell them how or when they would receive it. The when and how are explained in Acts 8 and 19. In Acts 2:38 Peter promised the Holy Spirit to those who were baptized. Later on in Acts we have two examples of the reception of the Holy Spirit by those who had been baptized, and both times it involved the miraculous manifestations received through the laying on of apostolic hands. Hence, I believe that it was this to which Peter referred, and that the gift of the Holy Spirit was, therefore, limited to the time in which the Spirit’s miraculous manifestations continued.

In reply to this position it is sometimes said that if the gift of the Holy Spirit was limited in duration, then so is the remission of sins, which is promised in the same passage. However, Peter did not put the gift of the Holy Spirit on the same level with the remission of sins. He said that repentance and baptism were for the remission of sins; he did not say that repentance and baptism were for (in order to obtain) the gift of the Holy Spirit. He simply said that those who repented and were baptized for the remission of sins would also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition to receiving what the repentance and baptism were for, they would also receive this gift. Moreover, other passages which we have studied in previous articles show that this additional gift (the Holy Spirit in His miraculous manifestations) was for a limited period of time – the apostolic period. No other passages show that the remission of sins was limited to that period. To the contrary, the whole tenor of New Testament teaching is that remission of sins is what the gospel is all about, hence to endure throughout the gospel age until the end of time. As Acts 2:38 shows, remission of sins was the very purpose for which men and women werelto be baptized, hence would endure as long as the demand to repent and be baptized. Since the gift of the Holy Spirit was not the purpose for which men were to be baptized, it could cease even after baptism continued as a command; and other passages show that it has (if, as I believe, the gift was the Spirit in His miraculous manifestations).

Note the following chart which shows how, in my view, Acts 2:38 is parallel with certain other passages:

Acts 8:12-19 baptized believers Holy Spirit laying on of apostolic hands
Acts 19:5-6 those baptized Holy Spirit (miraculous manifestations) laying on of apostolic hands
Mk. 16:16-18 baptized believers signs, miraculous powers explained above (Acts 8, 19)
Acts 5:32 obedient Holy Spirit explained above (Acts 8, 19)
Acts 2:38 baptized repentants gift of the Holy Spirit explained above (Acts 8, 19)

Relation to Joel’s Prophecy

It is reasonable to understand Peter’s statement regarding the gift of the Holy Spirit in the light of the prophecy he had quoted regarding the Holy Spirit. Joel’s prophecy, which Peter had quoted earlier (Acts 2:16-18), predicted the Spirit’s coming upon people of all ages, classes, and ranks, endowing them with miraculous powers. It, obviously, had reference to the Christians on whom the apostles would lay hands. Acts 2:38 should be interpreted with that as its background. Try to put yourself in the place of the people on Pentecost. They had seen miraculous manifestations of the Spirit in the apostles. They had heard Peter quote a prophecy regarding the Spirit’s miraculous manifestations. Now what idea do you think they would naturally have gotten when Peter promised them that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? I find it difficult to picture them, following their baptism, asking the apostles about the gift of the Holy Spirit which they had been promised, and being told that they had already received it in a non-miraculous way and just did not know it. I can much more readily picture them asking about the gift (if they had to ask), with the apostles responding by laying their hands on them so that they received miraculous endowments.

In verse 39, Peter told them why they could expect to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, introducing the verse with “for.” They could expect to receive it because the promise was to them, their children, all afar off, as many as were called. To what promise did Peter refer, which was so inclusive? The promise which he had quoted – Joel’s promise. In verse 39 Peter summarized the thought of Joel’s prophecy regarding who would receive the Spirit. As Joel had said “your sons and daughters,” Peter said, “your children”; as Joel had said “all flesh,” Peter said, “all that are afar off”; as Joel had included all ages, ranks, and classes, naming young and old, servants and handmaidens, Peter summarized by saying, “as many as the Lord our God shall call.” According to Joel’s promise, all were eligible. The reception was contingent on the laying on of apostolic hands, but none was excluded because of who he was or what rank he occupied. In reading of the apostles’ action in Samaria, we do not read of any Samaritan being excluded. None was told that he could not receive the Spirit because he was too old, too young, or a mere servant. Thus, Peter told the people on Pentecost that they would receive the Spirit because they were included in the promise that had been made and that he had earlier quoted. Of course, other passages which we have already studied show that Joel’s promise pertained to the limited period of time that miracles were needed in connection with the revelation of the gospel. (Note: I arrived at this view of verse 39 through reading Franklin Camp’s discussion of it in his book, The Work of the Holy Spirit. Though I do not agree with his position on every passage he discusses in that book, I do agree with his view of Acts 2:38-39).

Without accepting the false doctrine that miraculous endowments continue to exist, there is room for disagreement regarding the meaning of Acts 2:38. Dogmatism is altogether out of order. I am certain that many will disagree with the position presented in this article, and that is fine; 1 simply submit it for your consideration.

Although the Spirit’s miraculous manifestations have ceased, the Spirit wields a very great influence in the lives of many people today. The manner in which the Spirit works within us and brings forth fruit in our lives will be discussed in our next article, the final one of this series.

Guardian of Truth XXV: 23, pp. 359-360
June 4, 1981