What Does it Mean to be Pentecostal?

Dr. John Wagner

people with flames of fire on heads


When we first began our ministry in Virginia Beach a Navy chaplain asked me the question: “What’s a ‘Pentecostal’ hospitality house?” He then added in jest, “Does your house speak in tongues?” My immediate tongue in cheek response was, “Not the last time I checked.”

Is being Pentecostal a particular worship style?

Many critics of the Pentecostal experience argue that Pentecostals are only about ‘tongues’; others contend that being Pentecostal is simply about a particular style of religious worship. Still others say Pentecostals have an inordinate focus on the Holy Spirit. Even people who attend Pentecostal churches, when asked the purpose of the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’, respond with the same two purposes: to speak in tongues and for lively worship. The problem is, that while the Pentecostal experience includes speaking in tongues, the gifts of the Spirit, and in many instances is associated with a particular worship style, this is not the primary focus of Spirit baptism as recorded in the Scriptures.

By maintaining the debate at the level of whether or not tongues have ceased, or whether one should or should not clap or raise their hands in a worship setting, the heart of the Pentecostal experience often gets lost and buried beneath heated and divisive rhetoric.

1. Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ

First and foremost being Pentecostal is about having a relationship: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ! That relationship was made possible because God the Father loved the world – people (you and me) – so much that He sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world to take the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross of Calvary – John 3:16. But Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. He came back to life again; He rose from the dead; and He is alive today!

The Word of God says that whoever receives Jesus Christ as their Saviour receives eternal life. The person who receives Jesus becomes a child of God the moment they invite Him into their lives – Rev. 3:20 and John 1:12. The relationship with Jesus begins at the moment an individual opens the door to their heart and invites Jesus into their life.

If you have never invited Jesus Christ into your life, and would like to know how to do that, read the article entitled Have You Ever Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws

But it is not just saying the “prayer” that saves a person. That is just the beginning of the relationship – 1 John 1:6-7! It is the vital, ongoing, personal relationship with Jesus Christ that makes us and keeps us Christian.

If you have invited Jesus into your life, and would like to learn how to develop your relationship with Him, check out my article called “A Prescription For Spiritual Health”

While Jesus was on earth even His disciples didn’t understand this concept fully. At Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist the voice of God the Father said “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).” On the Mount of Transfiguration when Peter, in his enthusiasm and fear, suggested building three “booths”, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah, again the voice of God the Father was heard saying: “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him (Matthew 17:5)!”

God The Father’s focus was on Jesus Christ, His Son. He intended the disciples’ focus to be on Jesus as well. The apostle Paul talks about the mystery that was hidden from the ages, but which was revealed, being “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27).

Jesus foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John. The Holy Spirit was to have two distinct functions: to convict the world (non-believers) of sin, righteousness, and judgement to come (John 16:8); and to teach believers and remind them of everything Jesus’ said (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit’s focus was to be on Jesus Christ; to convict unbelievers and draw them to Jesus Christ, and to teach believers and remind them of Jesus’ words.

Jesus focus was also on Himself. He knew why He was in the world. He said He did not come into the world to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for sin. He also said that He came to seek and to save that which was lost. He said that when He was lifted up from the earth He would draw all people to Himself.

So, first and foremost, being Pentecostal is about being focused on Jesus Christ – the author and finisher of our faith! (Hebrews 12:2).

2. Being intentionally evangelistic

When Jesus was still on earth He said that His followers would “do the works He had done” and “greater works” as well (John 14:12). What were the works Jesus did? He went about preaching the Kingdom of Heaven, evangelizing, healing the sick, casting out demons, bringing the message of salvation to lost people.

Before leaving this earth Jesus gave His followers this mandate:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

They were to evangelize, making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ.

So second, being Pentecostal is about being intentionally evangelistic.

This mandate was repeated with an interesting addition in Mark 16:15-20

“He said to them ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’ After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” NIV

This addition is clearly parallel to Jesus’ own ministry and is a direct repetition of His declaration that His followers would do the works He had done in John 14. In the course of going into all the world and preaching the good news, “those who believe” would have these signs accompany them. Jesus’ followers went out and preached the Good news, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed His word by the signs which accompanied it.

3. Being divinely empowered

This evangelistic mandate is again repeated in Luke 24:46-49.

“He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'” NIV

Here Jesus clearly connects His follower’s proclamation of the gospel message: repentance and forgiveness of sins, with the reception of the promised Holy Spirit to divinely enable them to carry out Jesus’ mandate to evangelize the world. They were to wait until they had been divinely empowered before going out to preach.

This is very similar to what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

In Acts 1:4-8 Luke connects Jesus’ words about their receiving the promised Holy Spirit, and the divine power to preach the good news, with the prophecy of John the Baptist at Jesus’ water baptism, that believers in Jesus Christ would be baptized with the Holy Spirit, by Jesus. Jesus told his followers that they would soon be baptized in the Holy Spirit, and that when that happened they would receive power to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Third, and finally, being Pentecostal is about being divinely empowered to carry out Jesus’ mandate to evangelize the lost.

So, is being Pentecostal about speaking in tongues? Yes. Is being Pentecostal about a particular exuberant style of worship? Yes. But it is about so much more than that! It is about being divinely empowered to reach the lost for Jesus Christ!