Must One Have The Holy Spirit To Understand The Bible?

After having discussed several subjects with an e-mail correspondent, he finally resorted to an old ploy that those who claim to have been baptized in the Holy Spirit often resort to. He wrote: “If a person is not regenerated or baptized in the Holy Spirit they are not saved (Romans 8:9). This is a key to why you are not able to rightly interpret Scripture.”

This person possessed as poor an understanding of the Scriptures as anyone I have ever met. He could not explain his own position and therefore could only copy what someone else wrote. The way he dealt with any Scriptures presented to him was to say, “It doesn’t say that,” when a 5th-grader would have understood it easily. In the absence of anything to say, he finally decided to make the statement recorded above, which is a copout for those who have no Biblical verses to sustain their erroneous positions.

Although capital punishment was not the topic under consideration, this is the way the conversation would have gone if someone argued in the style that this correspondent did. He would begin by saying, “Show me just one Scripture that authorizes the death penalty.”

“All right. Romans 13:4 says that the civil government ‘is God’s minister, an avenger on him who practices evil.’”

“That can’t be true because the Bible says not to kill, and the Bible cannot contradict itself.”

“The Bible does not contradict itself. Killing an innocent man is wrong, but God authorized capital punishment under the same Law of Moses that forbade killing, and He authorizes it in the New Testament, also. He expects the guilty to be punished.”

“Well, you don’t have the Holy Spirit; so you’re not qualified to interpret Scripture.”

The Old Testament

The first question is, “Where does the Bible teach that someone must have the Holy Spirit in order to understand the Scriptures?” When God gave His people the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai in the Old Testament, did they need the Holy Spirit to understand what He told them? Let’s take the 7th commandment, for example: “You shall not commit adultery.” Anyone with a dictionary knows that this sin involves a married person engaging in sex with someone to whom he or she is not married. Does one need to be baptized in the Holy Spirit to understand Exodus 20:14?

Likewise, God clearly explained that on the Sabbath day no work was to be done. The Israelites understood the meaning of Exodus 20:8-11. Who would argue that they needed the Holy Spirit in order to obey this commandment? If anyone took this position, it would not help his case because God also forbade any stranger who was within their gates to work (Ex. 20:10). Could not the stranger understand those words?

The claim that a person must have the Holy Spirit to understand what the Holy Spirit revealed is nonsense. It overlooks the fact that God created us in His image (Gen. 1:26-28), that He knows what is in us (John 2:24-25), and that He is fully capable of communicating with us in such a way that we understand. Did Adam and Eve comprehend the command that God gave them in the Garden of Eden? Did He first need to baptize them in the Holy Spirit so they could grasp what He said? To argue such a preposterous notion is to say that God cannot communicate with us unless He also “interprets” what He said. And if that were the case, why would we not need an interpretation of the interpretation, and then a further interpretation of that one, ad infinitum?

Psalm 119 contains two verses that explain clearly how communication works:

Through Your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way (Ps. 119:104).

The entrance of Your words gives light;
It gives understanding to the simple (Ps. 119:130).

Reading the Word of God is Divine communication—God to us; since the Holy Spirit inspired the Word (2 Tim. 3:16-17), this is the Holy Spirit explaining truth to us. The Word provides understanding. Even the simple can understand God’s will. Notice that the simple are not the same as the stubborn. No special baptism of the Holy Spirit was required by people in those times to understand what God said.

Imagine the people of Nineveh, who certainly were not filled with the Holy Spirit, reacting to Jonah’s preaching. Jonah’s message was: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). The Assyrians did not say, “Oh, what manner of speech is this? How can we understand these words? If only there were a Holy Spirit to interpret these things for us!” Of course, this is absurd. They understood the message thoroughly without any need for special interpretation. They repented from the greatest to the least of them.


Jesus taught the multitudes on various occasions. Did He ever tell the people they could not understand Him without the Holy Spirit? The seriousness of His teaching was seen in verses such as Matthew 7:13-14, where He taught that most people were traveling the broad way that led to destruction rather than the narrow road which led to life. People grasped the point. When He said that, unless people repented, they would all perish, they got that, also (Luke 13:3).

To be sure, there were times He spoke in parables so as not to be understood by some (Matt. 13:13), but He did not attribute their inability to understand His teachings to a deficiency of the Holy Spirit but rather to hardness of heart (Matt. 13:14-15). For the most part, however, the people—including His enemies—knew what He was saying. They knew what He meant when He called them hypocrites and a brood of vipers. They certainly did not need the Holy Spirit to know what He meant when He said, “I AM,” to their question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61-62). They promptly determined to crucify Him, so well did they understand His confession (Mark 14:63-64). Is there anyone who thinks these Jewish leaders needed the Holy Spirit to “interpret” what Jesus said?

Even an atheist could understand the Scriptures if he studied the Word of God without prejudice. Probably, he would understand it better than many religious people—especially better than those who are “baptized in the Holy Spirit”—because he may never have been taught error and might have a more open mind. Of course, possessing knowledge is not necessarily related to obeying the gospel. The Sanhedrin (unbelievers) understood Jesus, but they did not obey Him.

Zacchaeus came to a knowledge of what he needed to do by listening to Jesus and the things He taught. He made the proper response (Luke 19:1-9). The rich young ruler likewise did not need the Holy Spirit to realize what Jesus meant when He told him: “Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). He was more interested in his earthly wealth than treasure in heaven. Every adult (not to mention, many 5th graders) who can understand language, period, can understand the Bible.

What Did Jesus Promise?

John made a promise to the people he was baptizing, which was that the one who came after him (Jesus), would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11). Those who bother to read the context know that the image of fire is used to indicate judgment. Verse 10 says that the trees that were not bearing good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. Verse 12 teaches that the threshing floor would be thoroughly purged and that the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire. Anyone who reads the context would surely not beg God to baptize with fire! Some would be baptized with the Holy Spirit; some would be baptized with the fire of judgment.

Nothing in the text, however, indicates what that baptism would accomplish. John 1:33 likewise records the promise of Jesus baptizing with the Holy Spirit, but it too does not state a purpose for that baptism. Jesus, however, declared four benefits to the apostles which they would receive upon receiving the Holy Spirit. John records them in the last conversation that Jesus had with His eleven apostles (Judas was in the act of betraying Him) on the night He was taken to be crucified (chapters 14-16). Jesus said that, when He departed, He would send them the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. For what purpose were they to receive Him?

First, He would teach them all things (John 14:26), which compares to the fact that they would be guided into all truth (John 16:13). Second, He would bring to their remembrance all the things that Jesus had said to them (John 14:26). Third, He would testify of Jesus (John 15:26-27). Fourth, He would show them things to come (John 16:13). Notice that the function of the Holy Spirit was not to interpret what had already been said but to provide them the message they needed. It is not said that the Holy Spirit would inspire the apostles to speak and then interpret those words for them.

Jesus also promised the eleven power after the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). We know that this power included speaking in tongues, working of miracles, and other things. They also spoke by inspiration, as the Lord previously promised. The purpose of being baptized with the Holy Spirit, however, was not “to rightly interpret Scripture.” If those who today claim baptism with the Holy Spirit actually had received it, they would not make so many blunders with respect to what the Bible teaches.

The Gospel

The baptism of the Holy Spirit was a promise that was made and fulfilled. No verse connects being baptized with the Holy Spirit to salvation. Although the apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), they did not command that the Holy Spirit descend on anyone else, nor did they tell anyone else to seek it. The baptism that was required was in water and for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:28; 8:36-39; 10:47; 22:16).

See (100s of articles, audios, PDFs, images, etc. dealing with the one subject of baptism—answers to every possible question on baptism).

Sometimes, when these facts are pointed out, a person will say, “Well, the apostles continued to use water baptism because it was an old tradition.” This assertion overlooks the facts that the apostles actually did receive the Holy Spirit and that they were to speak the truth concerning salvation. To say that Peter or any other apostle taught an outdated tradition instead of the gospel on the Day of Pentecost is ludicrous. He knew full well that people needed to be baptized in water (Acts 10:47). When sinners asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” they were taught truth.

Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus. When Saul was convinced that the One whom he had been persecuting was, in fact, the Lord, he was shocked but ready to do whatever was required of him. Jesus told him to go into the city, and it would be told him what he must do (Acts 9:1-9). When Ananias came to him, he asked Saul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

Saul did not reply, “Come on, Ananias, get serious. Don’t give me an old Jewish tradition to do. I want to know what to do to be saved. I have already been repenting these three days. I have been praying earnestly. Now tell me what I should do.” Ananias would have replied, “I just told you what to do. Be baptized and wash away your sins.” Saul might have replied, “Look, I am in need of salvation, and all you can tell me to do is be baptized? Don’t you realize I’m lost? Don’t give me some useless tradition. Tell me what to do!” Who can believe that washing one’s sins away, which occurs when a person is baptized, is irrelevant? These words are not difficult to comprehend—except for some who think they have the Holy Spirit.

Neither did Saul say, “Wait! I need the Holy Spirit to understand what Ananias just said to me.” Saul simply arose and was baptized (Acts 9:18). Earlier, those on the Day of Pentecost understood Peter perfectly, when he told them to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38). They did not turn to each other and say, “What did he say? We sure wish we had the Holy Spirit so we could know the meaning.” The text tells us: “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized, and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (Acts 2:41). Sinners did not and do not need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand what to do in order to be saved. The gospel is clear to all who have open minds and hearts.


Some would argue that, although the Holy Spirit was not needed to understand the Old Testament, nor the plan of salvation, nevertheless it is needed to comprehend the New Testament. Really? At this period of the world’s history, did mankind suddenly lose its language skills? The fact is that people can still perceive what the Word of God means, and for that reason we use lexicons and word studies to derive the meaning of a text.

What about the verse cited—Romans 8:9? This verse says: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of Christ dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” First of all, the verse says nothing about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Second, it does not teach that one must have the Holy Spirit in order to “interpret” the Word of God. Other than those two deficiencies, it serves as a great prooftext, which only one “baptized” with the Holy Spirit could possibly understand.

Although space prohibits a full examination of this text, it does begin by contrasting those who live according to the Spirit with those who live according to the flesh (Rom. 8:1). A few verses later this thought continues: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). In Rom. 8:9 Paul asserts that Christians are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. In other words, they are neither walking after the flesh, nor have they set their minds on things of the flesh. Instead, they are walking and living according to the Spirit and have set their minds on the things of the Spirit. Through this means one is “led by the Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:14). Not a word in this entire text says anything about needing the Holy Spirit to understand the things that the Holy Spirit wrote.

That people who claim to be baptized in the Holy Spirit do not have any special insight into interpreting the Scriptures could be demonstrated quite easily. If 100 of them would volunteer to take part in an experiment, each of them should be given three verses of Scripture to explain or to answer questions concerning those verses. For example, concerning Acts 2:38, one could ask, “Are repent and be baptized joined by the conjunction and? Does that mean that both actions are required to receive salvation? By whose authority are sinners to be baptized? Does Peter here refer to baptism in water? What is the purpose that Peter gives for people to be baptized? How many people think that all 100 answers will agree with each other?

Yet if all 100 were truly baptized in the Holy Spirit, all the answers should be identical. If they knew the truth, as the apostles did, they would all be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). Those claiming Holy Spirit baptism have no more insight into the Scriptures than those not making that claim. Those who assert “special insight” into the Bible do so because they cannot prove what they are arguing. They have revealed their desperation.