PART 3: Pentecostal View of the Christian Life
Charles J. Terpstra
The movement known as Pentecostalism continues to be very popular and powerful in this country and, indeed, throughout the world. It is considered to be part of mainstream Christianity and has been accepted as such by most churches and Christians. Pentecostalism has had its critics, but it seems to have weathered the storm of protest that initially came against it. It still has its critics, at least of its extreme forms, but by far the majority of the church world approve and even laud what it represents and has brought to the church.
But we in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) are not part of that majority. We belong to a minority that is still highly critical of this movement and its fundamental teachings. We find Pentecostalism seriously defective, not just in its practices, but also in its principles; not just in its doings, but also in its doctrines. We posit that it is at odds with the Scriptures and with the historic Christian faith, with Protestantism and the Reformed faith. Hence this series of papers.
Pentecostalism is as varied and diverse as Protestantism and modem Evangelicalism. It has many sub-streams running off its main river. Yet some basic themes and teachings have been established. Some of these have already been dealt with in the preceding papers. In this presentation, we want to examine a few more of these as they relate specifically to Pentecostalism’s view of the Christian life.
Pentecostalism has developed a distinctive view of the Christian life too. That stands to reason. Doctrine and life, principles and practice, always go together. What one teaches by way of Christian doctrine will always produce a certain way of life, a form of practical Christianity. That is certainly true of the Reformed faith. The doctrines of sovereign grace we believe and teach bear the fruit of a distinctive view of the Christian life. So too does Pentecostalism. Because of her emphasis on the Holy Spirit and special gifts and blessings, Pentecostalism in general promotes a Christian life that is marked by spiritual experience—deeper, higher, fuller, richer spiritual life. In a word, Pentecostals crave more through the Holy Spirit. And the life Pentecostals live is marked by the seeking of and the striving for that “more” of the holy Spirit.
There are many areas we could go into in connection with this subject of the Christian life: charismatic worship, prayer, spiritual warfare, guidance, etc. But we will limit ourselves to three areas: First, the idea that there is a special post-salvation blessing called the baptism with the Holy Spirit, which Christians are to seek and strive for. Second, the element of perfectionism, i.e., that Christians should be and can be perfectly holy (sinless) in this life. And third, the Pentecostal concept of what true Christian joy is. We will put these in the form of three questions, which we will then answer in the light of the holy Scriptures, and in the tight of the historic Reformed, Christian faith as summed in the church’s great creeds.
I. Should Christians Seek the Second Baptism?
The first matter to consider is a vitally important one. It lies at the very heart of Pentecostal teaching. It controls and colors their whole view of the Christian life. It is the doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. According to them this is the blessing to be sought, the experience to strive for, the greatest and highest achievement of the Christian man and woman.
What is this great spiritual blessing? It is a special post-conversion gift and experience in which the Holy Spirit is poured out on you in all His fullness, with special power to enable you to have things and do things you cannot have and do otherwise.
Pentecostals teach of course, as we do, that all believers have the Holy Spirit. You cannot be saved without His indwelling and inward work (cf. Rom. 8:9). According to them, all Christians are regenerated and sanctified by the Spirit when they are converted.
But there is something better and greater than this for the believer, a blessing higher and deeper— the baptism of the Holy Spirit! A special outpouring it is, like that which came on the disciples at Pentecost, filling them and empowering them in a special, unique way.
It is then a tremendous spiritual experience, available to all who seek it and strive after it. And according to them, that’s what you must do. As one Pentecostal has put it, “Most Christians have the pilot-light burning; I want to run on all the burners.” The problem is that only some actually attain to and receive this blessing. And according to them, the initial evidence of this baptism is speaking in tongues.
It would be good at this point to quote from some Pentecostal documents on this supposed great “extra” blessing which some believers obtain. Let us hear first from the Assemblies of God Churches, a major Pentecostal denomination. This is taken from their home page (www.ag.org), Point 7 on “The Baptism of the HG”:
All believers are entitled to and should ardently expect and earnestly seek the promise of the Father, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the normal experience of all in the early church. With it comes the enduement of power for life and service, the bestowment of the gifts and their uses in the work of the ministry.
Second, we quote from the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, as also set forth on their web page:
The baptism in the Holy Spirit is an experience in which the believer yields control of himself to the Holy Spirit. Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:5; Eph. 5:18. Through this he comes to know Christ in a more intimate way, John 16:13-15, and receives power to witness and grow spiritually, 2 Cor. 3:18; Acts 1:8. Believers should earnestly seek the baptism in the Holy Spirit according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4,8. The initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance, Acts 2:1-4, 39; 9:17; 1 Cor. 14:18. This experience is distinct from, and subsequent to, the experience of the new birth, Acts 8:12-17; 10:44-46.
The Pentecostal arguments defending this special blessing are interesting and important. They refer first of all to the biblical passages that speak of this baptism, namely, John the Baptist’s words about the work of Christ, Matthew 3:11 (cf. the parallels in Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33): “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”
Then they go to the book of Acts and the promise Jesus gave His disciples just before His ascension. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (1:5). From there, they point to the accounts of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the 120 disciples on Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and on various people after Pentecost (8:1 4ff., Peter and John with the Samaritans; 10 & 11, Peter and Cornelius; 19:1 ff, Paul and about twelve Ephesian believers).
In all these cases, Pentecostalism argues, people received the baptism of the Holy Spirit after believing, as a separate, special gift and experience. And in addition it says that all these cases are normative for today. This is still the way the Holy Spirit works. This is what every Christian may receive, i.e., if certain spiritual conditions are met.
In fact, Pentecostals even argue from the life and experience of Jesus Himself! They say that He too received His special baptism after He trusted in God, prayed, and obeyed (cf. Matt. 3:16,17). Besides, they also make appeal to the experience of the believers in Corinth, namely, to the special blessings these Christians received even after they were already converted. And for further proof they refer to Ephesians 5:18, “… Be filled with the Spirit.”
Therefore, because this is its teaching, this is what Pentecostalism tells its followers to seek. They are really taught not to be content with “ordinary” salvation. “Seek this, pray for this, do all you can to obtain this baptism of the Holy Spirit! Get to the next level of blessing and experience! If you truly want to have it all, go after this!”
Now this teaching concerning what is to be expected in the Christian life has gained wide acceptance in Protestantism, even in the Reformed camp. Most of the mainline churches endorse and allow this view: Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist; even the Roman Catholic Church. And some Reformed denominations have shown great sympathy for this position.
The family of the Rev. Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not do the Reformed faith any favour either when they published his defence of this doctrine in Joy Unspeakable (Shaw, 1984). That has proved to be very influential in many Evangelical and Reformed circles.
What must we say about this doctrine by way of evaluation? Should Christians be seeking this second blessing, this baptism with the Holy Spirit? Is there something more for us? We say a resounding no! This is emphatically not something to be sought, because it is not a blessing God has promised His people! This Pentecostal teaching is a deception of the most serious sort! It has confused, misled, and shaken the faith of many. It is to be condemned and rejected, categorically!
Why? First of all, because the Bible simply does not support this position. What John the Baptist promised in connection with the work of Christ was promised to each and every believer, not to a select few. When the elect are saved, they are all baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire. That is their one and only baptism with the Holy Spirit. At that moment they are purified and empowered to lead sanctified lives and to serve God for whatever He calls them to do and wherever He places them. At the moment of conversion, believers are filled with the Spirit, fully equipped with all they need for living the Christian life of holiness. They are in need of no second blessing; no further, greater, better salvation; no other baptism to seek for. They are complete in Christ, Colossians 2:10; they are given “all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (II Pet. 1:3).
To be sure, they must “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), but that’s not to obtain something they do not have. That is to live in accordance with what they already have received through the Spirit of Christ. This is similar to every other admonition the believer receives. The imperatives of Scripture are always based on the indicatives. That is, we are admonished to do something based on what the gospel says we have been given in Christ. So we are called to be holy, because we are holy in Christ (cf. I Pet. 1:2 with vv. 15, 16). So we are called to walk in the Spirit, because we already live in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25).
But what about those instances in Acts? We must understand these in connection with the once for all event of Pentecost. Pentecost was the fulfilment of John’s promise concerning Christ, and of Christ’s own promise in Acts 1:5 (as well as in John 14-16). On Pentecost Christ baptized His church with the Holy Spirit. Through His other Comforter He filled her with all the blessings of salvation He had purchased for her. And that Holy Spirit and those blessings came on all; not on some only.
Let it be remembered, that that great baptism of Pentecost can never be repeated, any more than Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension can be. The things that happened to those special groups of people following Pentecost were simply further manifestations or applications of that once-for-all event. These were indeed special events, because it needed to be demonstrated outwardly and visibly that the Spirit had indeed come. And it needed to be shown that others besides the Jews were now to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit and the blessings of salvation (hence, the coming of the Spirit on the Samaritans, Cornelius, the Ephesians, etc.).
Therefore today, whenever a person is saved, the Spirit of Pentecost comes to dwell in him and fill him with all the blessings of salvation and service that are in Christ. Such a wonder of grace is not a repetition of Pentecost, but an application of it! And again we emphasize that this blessing is for all of God’s people. This is what the Scripture declares with unmistakable clarity in I Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” Hence also Ephesians 4:5 speaks of the church receiving “one baptism.” This is all the experience and blessing they need!
Interestingly, the Christian Reformed Church at one time took this strong position too. In a 1973 Synodical Statement she declared,
Synod affirms and testifies that according to the Scriptures a believer receives the baptism in or with the Holy Spirit at the time of his regeneration-conversion, as the apostle Paul declares …, I Cor. 12:13, so that in Christ we all ‘have access in one Spirit to the Father’ (Eph. 2:18) and ‘are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit’ (Eph. 2:22).
… Synod rejects, therefore, the teaching that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a second blessing distinct from and usually received after conversion, and declares that this doctrine is not to be taught or propagated in the Christian Reformed Church.
In this connection, there are other points of argument we might raise against the Pentecostal teaching. For example, if this is just an important teaching, why is it not found throughout the epistles, which set forth all the fundamental doctrines of the church? Why are there no plain explanations of this second blessing and no clear admonitions to seek for it? The obvious reason is that this doctrine was not revealed to the apostles. It simply is not the truth of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore our confessions say nothing of this either. Read the ecumenical creeds of the early church, and you will not find this doctrine. Read the great Reformed and Presbyterian creeds of the age of the Reformation, and you will find nothing of this teaching. It simply is not the historic teaching of the church.
Further, from a practical standpoint, consider what this two-level or two-tiered view of the Christian life results in! People searching and seeking for something that is not there! A chasing after the wind! Vanity of vanities! Such teaching also creates pride, envy, and competition among the saints. And it leads in many cases to false manifestations of the Spirit, as people pretend to get what they think is promised them.
What a different picture the Scriptures give to us of believers and the church! All baptized with the Holy Spirit of Christ, all equally blessed, all sharing in Christ’s great salvation, living together in love and humility and holiness to the glory of God. That’s the practical fruit of the truth concerning the baptism of the Spirit.
II. Can the Christian Be Perfectly Holy?
The next Pentecostal teaching we wish to examine is that of perfectionism. At first glance, this may not seem to be all that significant. And it must be admitted that perfectionism is certainly not stressed very much in modern Pentecostalism. It is not a foreground matter for them, and therefore we might be tempted to say that it should not be a foreground issue for us. This teaching has become buried under the rug of the baptism of the Spirit and the seeking with tongues and other special gifts.
But the fact is that perfectionism remains part of Pentecostal teaching, and it does surface in Pentecostal writings to this day. The writer also remembers a personal incident of this teaching in a former church member who became Pentecostal and within a short time claimed to go through periods of sinlessness.
This issue is important because it also touches on the heart of the Christian life, what we call sanctification or the life of holiness.
When we deal with this teaching in Pentecostalism, we must go back to its historical roots, because the doctrine of perfectionism was imbedded in Pentecostalism from the very beginning. Any historical study of Pentecostalism brings this out. Vinson Synan in his book, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) traces this quite clearly and extensively. He sees John Wesley, the eighteenth century Anglican minister and founder of Methodism, as “the spiritual and intellectual father of the modern holiness and Pentecostal movements” (p.1). This is significant because Wesley taught the doctrine of Christian perfectionism. As Synan sums his view, perfectionism was the second blessing or experience of the believer. The first was conversion, and the second was sanctification. The first blessing took care of one’s actual sins but still left him with “inbred sin.” The second blessing purified the believer of this indwelling sin and enabled him to have perfect love for God and the neighbour (p.6).
Synan points out what Wesley meant by this: not total sinlessness, but nevertheless “perfection of motives & desires.” “… The sanctified soul, through careful self-examination, godly discipline, and methodical devotion and avoidance of worldly pleasures, could live a life of victory over sin.” And this blessing could be achieved “instantly” by a second work of grace, or by “gradual growth in grace” (p. 7). This was known as “entire sanctification.”
This perfectionist doctrine of Wesley has been one major influence on Pentecostal teaching and practice. But it is not the only one with respect to this doctrine. Synan goes on to point out that this same teaching of perfectionism was brought into Pentecostalism by the American evangelist Charles Finney in the eighteenth century. According to Finney, “After a true experience of conversion a person could achieve the coveted state of Christian perfection or sanctification simply by exercising free will and cultivating ‘right intentions.’ Sin and holiness … could not exist in the same person” (p. 15). Interestingly, Finney is also the first one to tie this special blessing of perfectionism to the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, Synan traces the Pentecostal roots of perfectionism to the Keswick movement, another eighteenth century holiness movement that stressed the believer’s ability to attain to full sanctification of life, to consistent and continued victory over sin.
This then is what has found its way into the Pentecostal teaching concerning the Christian life. And this stream of perfectionism is still found. For example, we find this in the Assemblies of God statement of faith: “Sanctification is realized in the believer by recognizing his identification with Christ in His death and resurrection, and by faith reckoning daily upon the fact of that union, and my offering every faculty continually to the dominion of the Holy Spirit (emphasis mine, CJT). This last clause at least implies that the believer is able to attain to this at times in his life here and now.
We find this perfectionist statement from the United Pentecostal Church International: “After we are saved from sin, we are commanded, ‘Go, and sin no more’ (John 8:11) … We must present ourselves as holy unto God (Rom. 12:1), cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (II Cor. 7:1), and separate ourselves from all worldliness (James 4:4) … No one can live a holy life by his own power, but only through the Holy Spirit. Ye shall receive power, after the HG is come upon you (Acts 1:8).” Again, it is at least implied, if not explicitly expressed here, that the Christian is able to live sinlessly in this life.
Out of this teaching, then, comes the practical pursuit of the people. For this perfectionism becomes something they must seek and strive for. Pentecostalism says to them, “Aim for this special blessing too. Seek perfection, for it too is within your reach! With special power from the Holy Spirit you can also attain to this level of spirituality! Surrender to the Spirit completely and be without sin; yield to His power and you can be perfect!”
Of course, those who held to this doctrine always claimed that they had biblical support. They argued from the examples of Noah and Job and Hezekiah, whom the Scriptures describe as “perfect” men. They reasoned from the commands of Scripture to be perfect (Matt. 5:48; II Cor. 7:1). And they claimed that the perfect work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit demanded it.
What must be said about this teaching on sanctification? This doctrine too we must reject as being unbiblical as well as contrary to the historic position of the church as expressed in her creeds. The perfectionism of Pentecostalism is nowhere taught in the Word of God.
It is true that there is a sense in which the believers are already perfectly holy. Because of the work of Christ and by virtue of their position in Him, the elect are indeed already made perfect. They may be said to have the full victory over sin in Jesus Christ. But they are not personally and practically perfect in holiness. The holiness we are given and are able to practice through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is always placed alongside of the sin that remains in us until we die. This remaining sin is what the Bible calls the “flesh” and the “old man of sin,” and it is with every believer to the end of his life.
For this reason our life of sanctification is always described as a great struggle, conflict, and battle (cf. Gal. 5:16,17; Rom. 7:14ff.; Eph. 4:22-24; I John 1:8-10; the Heid. Cat., LD 44, Q&A 113-115). And this is the real spiritual experience of God’s people as long as they live. Not perfection, but imperfection. Always fighting, fleeing, falling back, and then going forward. O, they long to be perfect! They strive to be! But they never can or will be here. Only when they die, and their sinful nature dies with them, will they be perfect. Only when they arrive in the perfection of the life to come.
It is also true that we find commands to be perfect in Scripture and examples of saints who were said to be perfect. But this must be properly understood. Of course God is going to set perfection before His people and call them to it—for the reason that He is perfectly holy and cannot lower His standard of holiness because of our imperfection. We are His children, recreated in His image through the Holy Spirit; we ought to be like Him. Therefore He calls us to this: “Be ye holy as I am holy.”
As far as the saints being described as perfect is concerned, the word itself does not point to sinlessness, but to their being complete, whole, sound; people who were true, sincere, and full of integrity. In addition, the word points to the maturity of their faith, something we must all seek to develop. Yet, let us not forget that at the same time the Bible records the sins of these saints, showing us that they were not perfectly holy. As our catechism puts it, “even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q&A 114).
III. What Is the Nature of Christian Joy?
The third and final matter to be dealt with in connection with Pentecostalism’s view of the Christian life is that of the nature of true Christian joy.
Most are aware that much is made of this fruit of the Spirit by Pentecostals. It is not too much to say that they elevate this virtue to the primary spot. For Pentecostals, as for Reformed Christians, joy is a deep gladness in the Lord because of salvation. There is joy in the assurance of what the Lord is to us and has done for us.
But, typical of Pentecostalism, the emphasis falls on joy being yet another spiritual experience and emotional state you reach in the Holy Spirit by working yourself up into it; another higher, special state you attain, not a normal everyday condition. And therefore the emphasis falls on the outward manifestations of joy. This is evident from the way Pentecostals act in their assemblies as well as in every day life.
For example, in worship Pentecostals display carefree exuberance, clapping, shouting, singing, etc., all supposed evidence of their joy in the Lord and their life in the Spirit. Some of them even have such joy that they exhibit “holy laughter” (the Toronto blessing)! But they also try to demonstrate this joy in their everyday lives. Pentecostals tend to be always smiley, apparently carefree, as they speak their “Praise the Lord’s” and “Hallelujah’s.”
Pentecostalism also applies this concept of joy to other areas involving the Christian life, for example, suffering. Many (not all) Pentecostals teach that God does not want His people to suffer, especially physical ailments. According to them, suffering does not come from the Lord but from the devil. Therefore believers do not have to be content and joyful in afflictions. Rather must they fight suffering and find joy in seeking to be delivered through some miracle of healing!
Prosperity is another area where this teaching is applied. Many Pentecostals argue that if you want to find real happiness, seek material blessings, because God wants you to have them and they are available for you. You can claim them in the name of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Such is the health and wealth gospel promoted by many Pentecostal TV preachers, most notably Paul Crouch and his TBN network.
But with this Pentecostal teaching we must also take issue. We reject their concept of joy and its application to the Christian life. It is our contention that this is not true Christian joy, not the real fruit of the Spirit.
According to Scripture, the Christian’s joy is not in external things. It is not based on our outward circumstances. Nor is it a mere emotion and experience. Neither is it a special ‘high’ attained only by some believers. Rather, true Christian joy is first of all an objective state the believer is in because of the grace of God to him in Jesus Christ. And then secondly, this joy is a condition of his heart because it is given to him and worked in him by the Holy Spirit. And therefore, thirdly, this joy is also the Christian’s personal, spiritual, and, yes, emotional experience. It is so for all Christians. Galatians 5:22 shows this is a fruit (blessing) given to every believer. Every Christian has joy in the Lord because of his saved position in Christ.
This true joy then is the Christian’s state of being glad in the Lord because of salvation, because he is a forgiven sinner, a justified sinner before the face of God, an adopted child of the heavenly Father! It is the joy of the personal assurance of salvation. It is gladness in the comfort and peace of the sovereignty of God at work in all his life and walk, such that all is well with his soul because Father’s hand is always working all things together for his good.
Such joy is present and real no matter what one’s outward circumstances may be, whether he is healthy or sick, whether rich or poor. Just call to mind Paul’s beautiful expression of the believer’s joy in his epistle to the Philippians. As he sits in prison, withheld from the regular work of his ministry, he is not sad and gloomy. No, he is rejoicing because of what he has personally in the Lord and because the Lord’s work goes on through others! And he keeps instructing these believers to be joyful too, for the same reasons!
Because this is the nature of Christian joy, we must also criticize the Pentecostal practice of joy. True joy is certainly expressed in outward actions and words. But not by the out-of-control, wild, chaotic behaviour displayed by many Pentecostals. Nor is its true expression found in artificial smiles and superficial phrases. We must remember that joy is in harmony with all the other aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, including temperance (self-control). True Christian joy is expressed in the believer’s normal, sanctified activities as he lives and moves in the various spheres of his walk. He rejoices in his worship, in his singing to the Lord, in his prayers to Him, in his fellowship with Him day by day. The Christian rejoices in his daily work and service to the Lord. He is glad in his marriage and home life. And he shows this gladness in his godly attitudes, sanctified emotions, and holy speech.
In the midst of his great joy in the Lord, the Christian also experiences real sorrows. Joy and sorrow are often mixed together in this life. That’s reality too. And therefore he looks forward to the day of perfect joy when all sin and suffering and sorrow is past, when every tear is wiped from his eye.
In this series of articles, we have tried the Pentecostal movement in its basic roots and tenets. We have considered its history and origin; its emphasis on the special gifts of the Holy Spirit; and now its view of the Christian life. And in every case, having been weighed in the Bible’s balances, it has been found wanting. It fails the test of what constitutes orthodox Christianity.
Therefore our conclusion has to be that this movement is not a great blessing for the church, but a dangerous heresy. This we say not lightly or hastily, but carefully and humbly. For we know that there are many professing Christians deceived by and ensnared in this movement.
Yet we also state this boldly—so that we warn Reformed church members, including our own, to be aware of and flee from these serious errors. And so that we call those caught up in the movement to examine it biblically and confessionally, and to return to the historic faith of Protestant Christianity. May God be pleased to shed the light of His truth on all our hearts and paths.