The term second blessing is understood in two ways by Christians—one with reference to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and one with reference to sinless perfection. While the concept of a second blessing is taught in a wide variety of churches, the phrase is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does speak often of the baptism of the Spirit, as well as the sanctification of believers, but not in the context of a second blessing or a second stage of the life of faith.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, is generally credited with originating the term second blessing. He taught that the second blessing was an act of God whereby a believer was granted deliverance from both inward and actual sin. While his language can at times be confusing, it is apparent that Wesley did not hold to the modern concept of sinless perfection, but rather acknowledged that believers should grow to a point of being wholeheartedly devoted and obedient to Christ. He believed this “perfection” could be attained either by a gradual growth in grace or by an instantaneous second work of grace. Wesley was clear that even the instantaneous blessing was both preceded and followed by gradual growth in grace. His emphasis was on the need for individuals to desire and pursue God’s work in their hearts, so that their every thought and act would be according to His will.
The modern teaching of sanctification as the second blessing is rooted in Wesley’s writings but deviates from both his and the Scripture’s intent. Scripture is clear that God has done the work of sanctification for all Christians. In Hebrews 10:10 we are told, “By [God’s] will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” It is a finished act, done for us on the cross. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), he addressed them as “the church of God . . . those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” To be sanctified is to be set apart, dedicated, and made holy. That is a once-for-all-time occurrence that is part of the package of salvation. We stand before God in a position of holiness through Christ’s one-time sacrifice for us.
Scripture also speaks of a process of sanctification which is ongoing in this life. In Leviticus 20:8, God taught that obedience to His statutes is a part of how we practice sanctification, and Jesus prayed in John 17:17 that God would sanctify us through His Word of truth. Paul prayed in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 that the believers would be sanctified completely and be kept blameless until Christ’s coming. These passages all refer to the ongoing process of growing to be like Christ, sometimes called practical sanctification. It is not a second blessing but a fulfillment of what God started when we received Christ.
The other meaning of “second blessing” is rooted in the Pentecostal doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. This is described variously as the crucial blessing to be sought, the ultimate experience to strive for, and the greatest achievement of the Christian. According to Pentecostals, the initial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance. The Assemblies of God website states, “All believers are entitled to and should ardently expect and earnestly seek the promise of the Father, the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, according to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the normal experience of all in the early church.” They further teach that “this experience is distinct from and subsequent to the experience of the new birth.”
There are only a few passages of Scripture that refer directly to the baptism of the Spirit. John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33), and Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were baptized with the Spirit (Acts 1:5). When the disciples were gathered on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), the Holy Spirit filled them all, and they began to speak in other languages. These were not “heavenly” or “unknown” tongues but human languages known by those in the audience (Acts 2:6–11). There is no doubt that the disciples were baptized with the Spirit then, but they were also filled with the Spirit. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told the disciples they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, so they could become witnesses to the world.
The filling of the Spirit is found many times in Scripture and always refers to an endowment of power to accomplish a task. The Spirit came on Samson (Judges 14:6,19) to give him power to defeat the Philistines. The Spirit came on Mary and empowered her in the birth of the Messiah (Luke 1:35). When Peter was arrested and brought before the council (Acts 4:8), he was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and declared with boldness and clarity the truth about Jesus.
Confusion about the baptism and the filling of the Spirit leads to confusion in doctrine. The baptism of the Holy Spirit (also known as sealing or indwelling) happens at salvation and is for all believers (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 1:13). We are never commanded to seek it or pray for it. The filling of the Spirit can happen both at and subsequent to salvation, based on our responses to God. We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). This brings us back to Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification. It is God’s will that we be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15–16), and we become holy as we submit ourselves to His direction in our lives, as revealed in His Word. The Holy Spirit was given to all believers to indwell us so He can assist us in obeying the Father’s will. Can we call this a “second blessing”? Perhaps, but it is really just the continuation of that good thing He started when He sent His Son to be our Savior.