In my last post I reviewed the extraordinary steps God took to make His will known regarding Gentiles entering the Church, and that they did not need to first be circumcised and become Jews. As I mentioned, some want to use this example to profess that believers receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, rather than at Baptism and the sacrament of Confirmation. From the Catholic perspective this was clearly a one-time extraordinary event. God does not normally send an angel to a person (Cornelius), have another experience a vision (Peter) and then orchestrate a meeting between the two so they can receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 10).
In addition, there are two other events in the Book of Acts that show us something very different. These represent the “normative” way people are to receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the apostles hands – the sacrament of Confirmation. The first is in Acts 8, where the disciples in Samaria receive the Sacrament of Confirmation from the apostles after having been previously baptized. “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samar′ia had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:14-17).
From the Catholic perspective, this experience points to the “normative” way the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation occur. The sacrament of Confirmation is normally reserved to the Bishop to administer. As apostles, Peter and John are in the overseer role as are our current bishops. Even though these disciples had been baptized and would have received the Holy Spirit interiorly, the “laying on of hands” by the apostles brought forth the “fire” of the Holy Spirit.
This passage can be quite problematic for those who profess that salvation occurs and a person receives the Holy Spirit at the moment a person professes faith in Christ, and that Baptism or Confirmation is merely a symbolic representation of that. These are clearly believers and have been validly baptized, and Scripture tells us they received the Holy Spirit when the apostles laid their hands on them. In his study Bible, John MacArthur addresses the passage in this way — “’not yet fallen on any of them’ – This verse does not support the false notion that Christians receive the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation. This was a transitional period in which confirmation by the apostles was necessary to verify the inclusion of a new group of people into the church. Because of the animosity that existed between Jews and Samaritans, it was essential for the Samaritans to receive the Spirit, in the presence of the leaders of the Jerusalem church, for the purpose of maintaining a unified church. The delay also revealed the Samaritans’ need to come under apostolic authority. The same transitional event occurred when the Gentiles were added to the church.”
MacArthur’s theory is an interesting one, but lacks Biblical support. Is he saying that all others receive the Holy Spirit at the moment they profess faith in Christ but this group was excluded from that so that the apostles could officially include a new “group” or kind of people into the Church? He makes the statement that “the same transitional event occurred when the Gentiles were added to the church,” but that is false. The shock to Peter and those with him was that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles immediately when they heard and accepted the Gospel – there was no “transitional event” at all (Acts 10). If MacArthurs’s theory that a delay or transitional period was necessary when adding a new group to the Church is correct, then this should have applied to the Gentiles as well. And whatever the animosity that may have existed between the Samaritans and the Jews, even more problematic would have been the view of the Jews toward the Gentiles.
I would also comment on verse 16 where it references they had only been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 8:16) Some Christian groups have taken this to mean this should be the formula to use for Baptism – “I baptize you in the name of the Lord Jesus” instead of the Trinitarian form given to us by Christ in Matthew 28:19. From the Catholic perspective, this would not be a valid Baptism because we must use the words instructed by Christ. The reason for this comment – they had only been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” is to tell us they had indeed experienced a valid Christian Baptism. There was some confusion about Baptism in the early Church because many people had been baptized by John the Baptist, and didn’t realize this was not the same as being baptized “into Christ.” This passage tells us that these disciples had been validly baptized, which is why the apostles then administer the sacrament of Confirmation.
The second example of the “normative” way to receive the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of Confirmation that occurs in the book of Acts happens in Acts 19, where St. Paul runs into a group of believers that don’t realize they haven’t been validly baptized. Upon investigation Paul determines they were only baptized by John the Baptist. And his clue is they’ve never heard of the Holy Spirit, and if they had been baptized “into Christ” using the words Christ gave us, they would have known of the Holy Spirit. “While Apol′los was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, ’Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” Acts 19:1-6
As an apostle, St. Paul not only baptizes them but also confers the sacrament of Confirmation. And they receive this outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit from the laying on of hands. This is another example in Sacred Scripture Catholics view as the “normative” way the Holy Spirit is received.
This passage can be most problematic from the viewpoint represented by John MacArthur and his idea that it is a “false notion” that Christians do not receive the Holy Spirit at the moment they first profess faith in Christ. The commentary in his study Bible says this regarding this passage – “Paul’s question reflects his uncertainty about their spiritual status. Since all Christians receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, their answer revealed they were not yet fully Christians. ‘baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus’ – they believed Paul’s presentation of the gospel and came to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Although required of all Christians, baptism does not save. ‘Paul…laid his hands upon them’ – this signified their inclusion into the church….this served as proof they were part of the church.” MacArthur holds firm to his position that all Christians receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of their salvation, and this occurs when they express faith in Christ. His view is that Paul’s laying on of hands simply proves they were part of the Church. But the passage clearly tells us two things. First, it identifies them as believers. The only question St. Paul has is whether they’ve been confirmed. And when he finds out they don’t know who the Holy Spirit is, he then learns they were not validly baptized. But they have still been identified as disciples and believers who have expressed faith in Christ. So from MacArthur’s view they should already have received the Holy Spirit and been saved regardless if they had even been baptized at all. The passage also then clearly tells us that “when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them.” MacArthur’s position that the only meaning to Paul’s laying hands on them was to show their inclusion into the Church does not align with the clear words of Scripture.
From these examples, we can see the apostles were celebrating the sacrament of Confirmation with those who had been previously baptized, and this results in the Holy Spirit to be manifest in a visible and present way within them. The only exception is what happens when God orchestrates the events that open the doors of the Church to the Gentiles, and this is an extraordinary event where God clearly works outside the “norm” to bring about His plan. And centuries later, the Church continues to celebrate this sacrament in much the same fashion as we see in Sacred Scripture.