What is meant by the “Pentecostal Experience”? Is it Biblical?
I once sat with a Pentecostal evangelist discussing what he preached and considered to be the Pentecostal experience, and I was surprised to hear a different explanation than what I previously learned from my experience in New England. I realized that not all Pentecostals believe the same thing about the so-called “Pentecostal experience”. His answer wasn’t nearly as ambiguous as you would expect most churches in New England. But his answer was still left found wanting in regard to biblical evidence, and I fear that has become the norm, at least in the charismatic circle.
So,what exactly is the “Pentecostal experience?” Most proponents answer with a disproportionate view of the events in Acts 2, but Acts 2 was only the fulfillment of Pentecost.
(The length of this post is necessary so there is greater understanding. Also note that I am willing to have a discussion with anyone who believes contrary to what is written here and be corrected. But know that nothing less than Scripture will persuade me.)
History of Pentecost
The Feast of Pentecost (Shavuot) of the Old Covenant
In the days of Moses and Joshua, God required all Jewish males to travel to Jerusalem to attend the Feast of Weeks; Pentecost. This feast began seven full weeks (exactly 50 days) after Pesach, which is Passover (Easter). In fact, this is why the feast is called “Pentecost” (from the Greek, meaning “fiftieth”.) According to Leviticus 23, these males would present a new grain offering, including two loaves of bread, seven young unblemished lambs no more than a year old, a bull, and two rams as burnt offerings. This particular feast would be treated much like a sabbath, in that no laborious work would be done. The feast was in celebration of the first harvest. God commanded them not to gather portions of their fruit and leave it for the needy and foreigner.
See more at Exodus 34:22, Leviticus 23:15-22, Deuteronomy 16:16, 2 Chronicles 8:13, and Ezekiel 1.
Fulfillment of the Feast in the New Covenant
Each of the seven feasts are ordinances included within the Mosaic Law, the Law which has been fulfilled in the work, death, and resurrection of Christ. Hebrews says that the Law only had a shadow of the good things to come and were not, themselves, the very form of those things. Thus, this feast was instituted and destined to fade as its fulfillment came.
In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascended, He instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the feast of Pentecost where He would reigning in the fulfillment as God had promised (Joel 2:28-32). They did as they were instructed, and according to Acts 2, on the day of the feast, the disciples were all gathered together when a sound of a mighty wind came from heaven and filled the house they were in. They were each filled with the spirit and began to speak in other languages (or tongues). Those in Jerusalem, men from every nation came at this sound and heard the disciples speaking in their own languages so that they could understand what the disciples were saying. They were bewildered by this miraculous display of God. Nearly sixteen different nations were listed in Acts as being present, each hearing the gospel in their own language. Others mocked them claiming that they were drunk. But Peter warned them saying that this was the fulfillment of what God promised through Joel (Acts 2:1-21).
See more about Pentecost in the New Testament in Acts 20:16, 1 Corinthians 16:8, and James 1:18
(Post-)Modern and Classical Pentecostalism
Pentecostalism as practiced today is a fairly recent renewal movement within Christianity. In the late 19th century, a movement began sweeping within Methodism which included a number of evangelical denominations and parachurch organizations. It emphasized John Wesley’s second work of grace – sanctification, or “holiness” – which is how the Holiness Movement came by its name. Followers believed that the Pentecost was being restored proven through the experience they referred to as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Reports of people speaking in tongues first surfaced in revival in January 1900 Topeka, Kansas led by Charles Parham. It was followed by the 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles led by one of Charles Parham’s students, William Seymour. Many consider the Azusa Street Revival to be the birthplace of modern Pentecostalism. This is interesting because eventually, Parham and Seymour parted ways because Parham believed the events on Azusa street were not manifestations of the Spirit, but of the flesh.
Many churches began cropping up emphasizing the Holy Spirit baptism with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues. Today, Pentecostalism makes up 3.6 % of the Christian Church in America and are comprised of over 700 denominations. This is because debates ensued early on whether or not sanctification was a one-time experience or an ongoing quest. It led to a major schism within the first few years of the movement resulting in the “Holiness” Pentecostals and the “Finished Work” Pentecostals. A second schism occurred between 1907 and 1916 when debates over the exact formula of the baptism of the Holy Spirits encouraged many group to embrace an modalist understanding of the Godhead – “Oneness” Pentecostalism. These three divisions within Pentecostalism still exist today: “Holiness”, “Finished Work,” and “Oneness.”
It seems that Parham recognized that Christianity ought to result in visible changes in a person’s life. But the events at the Azusa Street Revival brought focus onto the signs and wonders of God, which incidentally took focus from God (Hebrews 12:1).
The baptism of the Holy Spirit began to take on a different appearance in America in 1948 at the beginning of the Latter Rain Movement (1948-1952, ands again in 1994, in Toronto, Canada. It was argued that the practices were akin to Hinduism’s kundalini. Originally, it was argued that trembling, groaning, screaming and falling to the ground “as dead” were signs of divine power in those who were becoming aware of their own sinfulness. But the Latter Rain Movement practiced this “prostrate trance” as as natural human responses to God’s love. Historian Grant Wacker argued that early Pentecostals replaced the liturgies and sacraments of traditional churches with the “disciplined use of ecstasy”, including the regular occurrence of slaying in the Spirit.
This movement nearly resulted in a third schism within Pentecostalism, and yet the resurfacing of these practices in 1994 saw a wide embrace among Pentecostals and their leaders. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was suddenly referred to as “slain in the spirit,” first introduced by the Latter Rain Movement and spiritist teachers such as William Branham, and Jack Coe. It was brought back for another round through the Rhema/Word-Faith Movement by the likes of Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, etc. Soon the movement birthed the Vineyard Church chain, the Pensacola “outpouring,” the Brownsville Revival, the Lakeland Revival, and others.
The “Pentecostal Experience” and the Bible
For most today who use this expression, the emphasis is on the experience and emotionalism, often marked by great spontaneity. They lay special stress on the practice of the gifts of the Spirit, especially speaking in tongues. Some make a distinction between the tongues listed in the gifts, and tongues they claim every believer receives after the baptism experience. So the following a list of arguments made by Pentecostal leaders:
Leaders claim that Christians ought to seek this “second baptism”; the first is water and the second is the Holy Spirit.
This lies at the very heart of Pentecostal teaching, upon which hangs every other exclusively Pentecostal doctrine. But there are biblical prerogatives to dismiss this teaching.
[Ephesians 4:4-6, NASB] There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
From the outright, there is only one baptism, not two. This means that either the baptism of the Holy Spirit happens at the same time as the baptism into the faith, or it doesn’t happen at all.
[1 Corinthians 12:13, NASB] For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
[Romans 8:9, NASB] However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.
All Christians embody the Spirit, and all Christians are Christian after believing on the Son and following Him. Of course, Pentecostals teach that all believers have the Holy Spirit, as does mainstream and traditional Christianity. They believe that all Christians have the Spirit at conversion, but they also believe that something better and greater, higher and deeper is for the believer in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But this above passage is further proof that anyone who doesn’t have the Spirit dwelling within Him does not belong to Him. And so, either we must believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit happens at conversion (one baptism), or that Christians only become Christian once they are baptized in the Holy Spirit and not when they begin to believe and follow. But both possibilities are denied by Pentecostals, just as is the passage which expressively says that there is only one baptism. And so most are left in the corner defending their position with subjective anecdotal evidence.
Still, many argue from the narrative in Acts that believers received the baptism after they were already saved. Some even argue that Jesus, Himself, was baptized in the Holy Spirit after He trusted God and prayed. Did Jesus not trust God before? This teaching has confused and shaken the faith of many because it has lead believers to believe that they are incomplete without this special baptism, that they aren’t complete in Christ (Col. 2:10) or that at conversion they aren’t given “all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).
This particular doctrine has created an elitist atmosphere separating common believers with those with power. It is of the same guilt befallen upon the Jewish believers who attempted to burden new believers by claiming that they were only saved if they became physically circumcised and directed to observe the Law of Moses. They, therefore, deserve the same rebuke given by Paul, Silas, Barnabas, James, and Peter (Acts 15).
The baptism of the Holy Spirit will be accompanied by the initial evidence of speaking in other tongues (either linguistic or superficial depending on the side of the debate the specific church decides to take).
This tenant suggests that since all believers should be ardently seeking after the baptism that all believers should receive the initial gift of tongues. As I said, there are two sides to what kind of tongues may be received. Some believe in a personal prayer language, while others believe that it is the spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:8-11), while others believe that they are the same thing.
[1 Cor. 12:27, 30-31, NASB] Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it… All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.
Obviously, not all are gifted with tongues any more than all are given the gift of healing. And so many claim that it is a prayer language. Disregarding the above verse which still says that not all have the gift, let’s look at the verse they use in order to defend a prayer language.
[1 Cor. 13:1, NASB] If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
[1 Cor. 14:4, NASB] One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.
The first passage is used to claim that while the language spoken may be unknown and not a language found on earth, it may be an angelic tongue. But this is not the most obvious assumption. This passage includes what is called a hyperbole, a common enough tactic of exaggeration used by Paul to emphasize something of great importance. In this case, Paul was emphasizing love, not tongues.
For example, if you were to tell your wife that if you hired the next door neighbor’s daughter, your own mother, or Satan, himself, to babysit your child, you want them in bed by 9:00 pm, are you claiming that it is possible to hire Satan to babysit your child? Of course not! You’re emphasizing the imperative to have your child in bed by 9:00 pm.
The second passage is used to claim that those who are gifted with the initial evidence of baptism can speak in tongues as a prayer language and is not meant for corporate speak like that of the spiritual gift. But notice two things. First, Paul claims here that prophecy is a gift with a greater purpose, which shows that Paul never meant that tongues were a greater gift (1 Cor. 12:31). The second thing you should notice is that contextually, this passage is referring to the gift of tongues in a corporate and public setting, not a private setting.
[ 1 Cor. 14:18-19, NASB] I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Indeed, Paul was a multilingual scholar; one of very few in that day. This does not mean that Paul was gifted with a prayer language, but rather that he could speak in various languages, perhaps or probably a true manifestation of the gift of tongues. Paul spoke at least Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and probably Latin. But if he were to speak “ten thousand words in a tongue” unknown to the listener, it would do no good. In fact, that is why he required that if a tongue were to be spoken, that a translator must translate or else the speaker must remain silent (1 Cor. 14:27-33).
So what is the “Pentecostal experience”? It’s an ambiguous umbrella term which carries different weight depending on the user. Overall, however, it refers to an experience that should be avoided and highly scrutinized by bible-believing Christians. The accompanying signs are enticing and deceptive and they are growing as a result of the expanding new age movement. There is little support for such an experience, and much support to the contrary. The function of the Holy Spirit, according to the Text has little to do with immersing believers into trances of ecstasy and far more to do with convicting the world of sin (John 16:8), and making believers into disciples who are witnesses of Jesus Christ (John 15:26).
After interrogating many Pentecostal evangelists, I found their evidence lacking, and that they couldn’t defend their position without creating empty reconciliations between the Scriptures and their doctrine. Some, recognizing this, resolved to saying that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is a personally held belief which they will continue to preach. This is why it is essential to be, as the Bereans, students of Scripture so that we are not drawn away from the Word of God for some fleeting fancy. Test and examine everything – even this article!
 Wacker, Grant (2001). Heaven Below : Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.