Ever hear of a preacher telling his congregation, “The Spirit said to me…”? Or people attending a worship service falling to the ground and rolling in “holy” laughter or talking gibberish and claiming that to be “speaking in tongues”? Or both preacher and congregation busily engaged in “faith healing”?
These are the kinds of scenes and happenings one would find in a church worship service influenced by the Pentecostal movement of the past century.
A reputed scholar from the Pentecostal movement itself, Vinson Synan, traces the immediate origin of the movement to what took place at a “tumble-down shack” in Los Angeles in 1906 on Azusa Street. The Los Angeles Times, of April 18, 1906, reported what took place there as follows:
Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, near San Pedro Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the ‘gift of tongues’ and to be able to comprehend the babble. [quoted in VS, pp. 84-85].
This event on Azusa Street is “commonly regarded as the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement… Directly or indirectly, practically all of the Pentecostal groups in existence can trace their lineage to the Azusa Mission.” [VS, p. 105].
And yet, even though the Pentecostal movement has its immediate origin in the past century, its roots go far back to movements of Pietism and Mysticism in church history. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church movement, whose theology was thoroughly Arminian and who emphasized subjective religious experience, has been identified as “the spiritual and intellectual father” of the Pentecostal movement.
What is the Pentecostal movement, or Pentecostalism, all about? Pentecostalism is a heretical movement that has arisen out of the Christian church in the past century. In response to spiritual deadness found in the mainline Christian denominations of the 19th century in the United States, Pentecostalism emphasizes “religious” feelings and emotions at its worship services by claiming that the signs, miracles and wonders of Pentecost recorded in the book of Acts at the time of the infant New Testament church are repeatable and for the church today. Accordingly, and over and above other earlier and related movements of Pietism and Mysticism, Pentecostalism maintains a well-defined and distinctive idea of a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (BHS). A believer proves that he has the BHS if he is able to work a work that shows that he can and does speak in tongues, or display any other behavior that is supposedly a sign, miracle or wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Once he has this BHS, he is reckoned to have a second experience of sanctification or holiness that identifies him to be a truly spiritual believer in the church, over and above those who do not have the BHS experience.
While the movement was first frowned upon in Christian circles in its earlier days, Pentecostalism took off in the 1960s and onwards. It resulted not only in the formation of new Christian denominations and churches, but also penetrated into virtually every mainline denomination, from the Roman Catholics to the Presbyterian and Reformed. This is because what unites the movement is not so much doctrine and teaching, but its emphasis on the subjective–“religious” feelings and experiences. Living in a time and age when biblical doctrines and the study of the Word of God are frowned upon and appreciation for the historic creeds of the church has waned, Pentecostalism has grown and thrived in the church world in recent decades and still today.
How do we, as Reformed believers who love the Word of God, give a witness to Pentecostals today? In general, and to begin with, we make the same point as the Reformer, John Calvin, did in his day to people who claim willy-nilly, the authority of the Holy Spirit for what they teach, i.e., “The Spirit told me this and that….” And it is impossible to argue against such a person! Moreover, we ought to be highly suspicious of any religious movement that does away with doctrinal differences and rather unites people with vastly different doctrines, as Pentecostalism does.
Specifically, and firstly, let us point out that just as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a repeatable event, so also, Pentecost is not a repeatable event. The signs, miracles and wonders of the Spirit were temporary and have all passed away. And that is because Pentecost was the exalted Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit to his church, a gift given in rich and full measure. It was the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promise to his people that the Holy Spirit, given no longer as the Holy Spirit, but more fully as the Spirit of Jesus Christ (John 7:37-39), will be given to the New Testament church (Joel 2:28-30, Acts 2:17-21, Acts 2:38-39). Pentecost has now come and gone, just as the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, all one-time events. The apostolic period was a time of transition from the Old Testament (a church comprised mainly of Jews) to the New Testament church, which now includes mainly the Gentiles (Acts 8:5-24; 10:44-48; 11:15-18; 19:1-7). Once the New Testament church was established, Pentecost and all the signs, miracles and wonders connected with it came to an end. These signs, miracles and wonders came to an end with the end of the ministry of the apostles.
Secondly, let us point out that the Pentecostal teaching of the BHS is in error. To be sure, there is such a thing as a baptism with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). But this Christian baptism is not Pentecostalism’s second baptism and work, the BHS. And that is because there is only one Christian baptism, the baptism signified by the actual sacrament of sprinkling with water through an ordained minister of a church; and it is not limited only to a special class of Christians. Writing on the subject of the oneness of the church, the inspired apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:4-6 writes that there is “one body, and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism….” Moreover, the Pentecostal teaching of the BHS divides the church into two classes of believers—ones who have performed a work that shows that they have the BHS and ones who haven’t, ones who are “super” Christians and ones who are not. How does such a teaching square with the gospel of grace (Eph. 2:8-9) and the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ?
Young People, are you looking for true joy and delight in your religious life? Look not for it out there in the world. Nor look for it in Pentecostal churches. Rather, cultivate your religious life by devoting yourself to growth in knowing God in Christ, and by being sanctified through his Word (John 17:3, 17). Let your joy and delight daily be a joy and delight of thankful and loving obedience unto God according to his Word, a joy and delight that are expressed by the Psalmist in Psalm 119:9-16:
Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments. Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee. Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me thy statutes. With my lips have I declared all the judgments of thy mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways. I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word.
Let your joy and delight be found with God’s people and especially in God’s house on Sundays, where we glorify God, where we commune with God through his Word and by his Spirit, and where we find especially the spiritual renewal, nourishment and strengthening we need from week to week. Let the confession of our hearts and the fruit of our lips be that of the Psalmist in Psalm 27:4:
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.
And let preachers of the church continue to love fervently their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, by feeding the flock of God (John 21:15-17) especially through their biblical, expository and lively preaching of the gospel at the church’s worship services, and by being examples to their flock of ones who find their joy and delight in walking humbly and obediently with God in their daily lives.
VS: Vinson Synan, The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements In The Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997 (Second Edition))