Acts 8:14-17 NIV
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
This passage of scripture is a conundrum to many. After all, if receiving the Spirit is the same as conversion, how could these Samaritans who accepted the word of God and were baptized not have the Spirit? If it was automatic, what is wrong with this picture? Those who see something wrong usually say that this is simply the exception that proves the rule. But if an exception happens, this proves that an exception is possible. If possible, then receiving the Spirit at conversion is not automatic. If salvation – conversion – born again – is the same as receiving the Spirit, then this exception would not be possible. So if this is an exception, then it proves more than the rule, it proves that the reality is different than how some conceive it.
I am beginning to see the worms in the can. If conversion is a complex of events, including the confession of faith, water baptism, and receiving the Spirit, what of the thief on the cross? Or loved ones who pray the confession of faith in the Lordship of Jesus as they lay dying in bed? Maybe conversion is the whole process, from alpha to omega, from the precise moment of conception, through birth, growing and remaining faithful to the end of biological life – and maybe beyond? And this whole process is in the seed, the word received.
But what of the verse that says clearly that if anyone has not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his? (Rom 8:9) Does this mean that the Samaritans were not in Christ, or that just because they had accepted the word of truth and were baptized for the remission of their sins they were not His?
Today if we tell someone about Jesus, they believe and are baptized, what Evangelical could tell them that they do not have the Spirit? More than that, who would look for evidence that they had received the Spirit, evidence that would not have time to develop? What kind of evidence would that be?
The very fact that the Samaritans did not receive the Spirit when they accepted the word of God and were baptized can lead us into three directions. Either they were not converted yet, by something missing in their faith (like Dunn), or because of the special times (like Bruner) it was something that will never be repeated, or that they were converted yet had not yet received the Spirit. Their not having received the Spirit yet could be because their conversion was not yet complete or that it was and receiving the Spirit just had not happened. After all, who is converted through the laying on of hands?
The case for the Samaritans not yet being converted is, to my way of thinking, very weak. If in any other context in scripture we read of someone accepting the word of God and were baptized, no one would even dare to say that they were not converted. For example check out
Acts 11:1 NIV The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. If the Gentiles weren’t converted, what were they? But we know they were. So those who say that the Samaritans were not converted, or that there was a flaw in their conversion, are reading something into the text that is not there.
Another question is, how did they know that the Samaritans had not received the Spirit? What was their clue? After all, even Simon could see for himself when they received the Spirit. It was so impressive that he wanted to buy his way into this ministry. Peter knew that Cornelius and his group had received because they heard them speak in tongues and prophesy. That acts leaves the definite impression that when a person receives the Spirit something happens is unmistakable. Paul even had to ask those Ephesian disciples if they had received the Spirit when they believed. Why did he ask this? How could he ask this if it was automatic? So nothing had happened to those believing Samaritans and everyone knew that this was not right. I wonder if we could be so bold as to say that those who believe today and are baptized and nothing happens along the line of receiving the Holy Spirit like seen in the book of Acts that something is not right? You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.