The Acts of the Spirit, Part. 7
The Conversion of the Ephesian Twelve
Joseph D. McPherson
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2011. Volume 29.
Date Posted July, 2011

Among all of Luke's accounts in the book of Acts concerning the progress of evangelization in the primitive church, the opening verses of chapter 19 provide a most unique narrative of special significance, though sometimes misunderstood and theologically misapplied.

The Apostle Paul, "having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus." It was there that he came in contact with "certain disciples" to whom he asked, "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" They answered, "We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost." Paul followed with yet another question. "Unto what then were ye baptized?" They readily testified to having been baptized "unto John's baptism." The apostle responded by explaining that, "John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus." We then read that "When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came upon them.... And all the men were about twelve" (vv. 1-7).

Some wish to persuade us that these twelve Ephesians were already born again Christians when met by Paul because they are referred to as disciples. The terms disciple and regenerated Christian, however, are not necessarily synonymous, especially in this case. The twelve Ephesians were truly disciples in the sense that they were sincere followers of evangelical truth as they then knew it. To go so far, however, as to say that they were Christians in the sense of being regenerated believers, is unsubstantiated, for Christian regeneration is not without an inward possession of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, we see that Paul baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus. Robert Lyon is persuaded that this was "an act he would hardly have performed had he regarded them as Christians."

According to the testimony of the twelve Ephesian disciples they had not experienced the receiving of the Holy Ghost. Rather, they were conscious of having been baptized only "unto John's baptism." In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul assures us that "if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his" (8:9). Having received the baptism of repentance, they had been prepared to believe in the coming of Christ, whom John had proclaimed, but evidently had not received any further instruction in the Christian religion.

According to F. F. Bruce, "the baptism of John was a baptism of expectation and preparation rather than one of fulfillment. The major difference," says he, "between John's baptism and Christ's baptism was that the Holy Ghost was imparted through Christ's baptism. John's water baptism was only a shadow and symbol of Christ's Spirit baptism. Thus the superiority of Christian baptism demonstrates that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John" (Luke 7:28).

Reference to the "aorist participle" is sometimes urged in support of the King James translation of Paul's question. It is true that the word believed in verse 2 is an aorist participle, but in light of the best scholarship of New Testament Greek, the action of an aorist participle may be before, after, or simultaneous with the main verb. Most commentators recognize this as a coincident aorist which is best translated when rather than since. Randy Maddox wrote a paper in the Wesleyan Theological Journal entitled, "The Use of the Aorist Tense in Holiness Exegesis" (Fall 1981), in which he argued that understanding of the aorist tense was inadequate among many in the holiness movement.

W. B. Pope, sometimes referred to as the Prince of Theologians, assures us that Paul's question literally means, "Did ye receive the Holy Ghost when ye believed?" He further assures us that possession of the Holy Spirit is not reserved to those only who are sanctified wholly. "This kingdom of God," says he, "is already within [regenerate believers], if we would let it come in its perfection. Neither since in this passage [KJV], nor the after in 'after that ye believed' (Eph. 1:13), has anything corresponding in the original Greek. The teaching tends to diminish the value of regeneration, which is itself a life hid with Christ in God."

Pope lived some years after early Methodism's original leaders and personally witnessed the early rise and development of the modern holiness movement. He is found giving warning concerning some of the new teachings he was then observing: "There has been a tendency among some teachers of religion in modern times," writes Pope, "so to speak of Christian perfection as to seem to make it the entrance into a new order of life, one namely of higher consecration under the influence of the Holy Ghost. That this higher life is the secret of entire consecration there can be no doubt. But there is no warrant in Scripture for making it a new dispensation of the Spirit, or a Pentecostal visitation superadded to the state of conversion."

To His disciples shortly before His ascension, Jesus declared: "Ye shall be baptized by the Holy Ghost." In his Notes, Mr. Wesley assures the reader: "And so are all true believers, unto the end of the world."

With like persuasion, Adam Clarke plainly demonstrates that "the disciples of Christ differed from those of John" by having been "baptized with the Holy Ghost. And to this day," continues Clarke, "the genuine disciples of Christ are distinguished from all false religionists, and from nominal Christians, by being made [at regeneration] partakers of this Spirit, which enlightens their minds, and convinces of sin, righteousness, and judgment; quickens their souls, witnesses to their conscience that they are the children of God, and purifies their hearts. Those who have not received these blessings from the Holy Spirit, whatever their profession may be, know nothing better than John's baptism: good, excellent in its kind, but ineffectual to the salvation of those who live under the meridian of Christianity."

John Wesley, John Fletcher, Adam Clarke, Richard Watson and W. B. Pope all taught that water baptism and Spirit baptism were both initiatory events in the life of a believer. Baptism in the Spirit was symbolized by water baptism. Historically, they were again in agreement with the Reformers before them and the earliest church Fathers.

One does not find a single religious movement the first eighteen-hundred and fifty years of church history whose teachings made the baptism of the Holy Spirit synonymous with a second work of grace. Such a view originated with the modern holiness movement. It is true that John Fletcher and others within early Methodism considered both regeneration and entire sanctification as being wrought by the "baptism of the Holy Spirit." In this way they looked upon the Holy Spirit's work in a holistic sense. Regeneration, however, was never considered to be accomplished without the "baptism of the Holy Spirit," nor was the "baptism of the Holy Spirit considered synonymous with entire sanctification and thus confined to a second work of grace.

The Fathers consistently understood water baptism as being symbolic of Spirit baptism by which regeneration is wrought in the heart of the believer. "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body," wrote St. Paul, "and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13).

The apostle hereby assures us that all true believers are baptized in the Holy Spirit and that this is an initial work of the Spirit by which they enter the mystical church of Christ. New Testament perfection was then taught by the Fathers and early Methodists as an advanced work of grace by the same Spirit. But baptism (both water and Spirit) was always considered the way of entrance into the Church and Body of Christ.

As Robert Lyon assures us: "From Pentecost on every one enters [the Church] upon receiving (i.e., the baptism) of the Spirit. The 3,000 at Pentecost, the Samaritans, Paul, Cornelius and his household, and the 12 in Ephesus all enter the body of Christ by virtue of the common experience of the Spirit.... To be baptized is to receive the Spirit as promised. From Pentecost on, not to have the Spirit is not to be a Christian (cf. Rom. 8:9)."

It is a mistake to equate regeneration with the experience of Christ's disciples prior to Pentecost as some do. Such a view sinks the standard of New Testament Christianity dreadfully low, making conversion or the new birth far less the miraculous heart transformation that the New Testament describes it to be. While with Christ in the flesh, the disciples lived in a time of transition between the old and new covenants; between the dispensation of the law and that of the Holy Spirit. The experience of the original disciples cannot, therefore, provide a model or pattern for today. "The model," writes Dr. Lyon, "is not followed elsewhere in Acts or the early Church [and] it fails to consider the ... significance of Pentecost as the once-for-all inaugurative event which establishes the Church."

It is also popular in today's holiness movement to speak of the disciples as being entirely sanctified on the day of Pentecost. But where in Scripture is this asserted? Generally speaking, it can be said that the Holy Spirit's presence in not without His sanctifying influence. So it is that the regenerated experience is what theologians identify as initial sanctification. To conclude, however, that the disciples experienced a second work of grace on that day is going beyond the plain revelation of Scripture. It is true that, according to Peter, their hearts were purified on that day by faith (Acts 15:9). Interestingly, this same Apostle in his first epistle, refers to "newborn babes" in the faith as "having purified your souls," which, according to Alex Deasley, is explained in the following verse as "being born again" (1 Peter 1:22-23). It must therefore be acknowledged that regeneration is not without its purifying influence (Titus 3:5).

Amazingly, some in the modern holiness movement have convinced themselves that they have made improvements on the teachings of early Methodism. However, while thus persuaded they would also have to believe and claim their views to be superior to all who came before the early Methodists, even those of the earliest church Fathers.