Water Baptism and Baptism by the Spirit

We have been asked: “A church leader in Xian, China is teaching people that they do not have to receive water baptism because they have already received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. How should we think about and respond to this?”

The situation indicates that, unfortunately, this pastor in Xian is mistaken both about water baptism and the baptism of the Spirit.

Water baptism

From the time Jesus instituted baptism, sharing this sacrament with others has not been an option. “Go and make disciples…baptizing them…” (Matthew 28-19-20) is a gospel directive every disciple of Jesus seeks to obey. In addition, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that water baptism was a sacrament he urged for Christians (Romans 6:1-14, Galatians 3:27) and that he personally baptized others (Acts 16:33; 1 Corinthians 1:14-16). Peter, too, affirms the importance of baptism when he writes how the water of the Flood at Noah’s time, “symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Nowhere in the New Testament is there any indication that water baptism will ever be replaced by any other work of the Spirit. Rather, we are assured that, because God’s Word is the vehicle through which the Spirit works, in this sacrament he brings people to faith in Jesus or affirms the faith that already exists in their hearts. As a result in water baptism he provides forgiveness for all sins, deliverance from death and the devil, and eternal salvation.

Baptism by the Spirit

The term baptism by the Spirit as understood by Christians who promote such a baptism is at best a murky theological concept. We do not know exactly what the pastor in Xian is teaching about Spirit baptism, but most who promote this teaching view this baptism as necessary for salvation or as a confirmation of salvation. It’s effectiveness in the life of a Christian is said to show itself in speaking in tongues or other miraculous signs. The concept of Spirit baptism flows out of a branch of Christianity that downplays God communicating with us and working in us through Word and sacraments; instead, they teach, God directly contacts humans without using his Word as the means of communication. This idea of Spirit baptism is based on a faulty interpretation of John the Baptist’s promise to the people of his day, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). “Baptize” is used for two different, though closely related, things in this passage.

It describes John’s baptism, the application of water connected with God’s promise of forgiveness. It describes Christ’s bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon his people. Acts 1:5 makes clear that John’s words were fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. (We also note that two similar events took place in Acts 10:45, 19:6, to emphasize how the gospel was also for the Gentiles). There is no Bible promise that the Pentecost phenomenon would continue through the New Testament age or even that it normally happened in the First Century Church.

Rather the Spirit directs Christians to come to a relationship with the Triune God and to build that relationship through contact with his word and sacraments. For example, when Jesus teaches that he is the Bread of Life he says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). Even on Pentecost Sunday Peter exhorted, “Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive [as a result of contact with Word and sacrament] the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Objective, not Subjective, Assurance

Christians who teach Spirit baptism maintain that believers must have an outward sign to be sure they are right with God (speaking in tongues, ability to heal, etc.). These signs personally involve the believer. That means that his assurance is based upon something subjective, something personal, something the believer experiences within himself. God’s Word, however, directs us away from ourselves for assurance we are right with him. The Christian’s assurance is based upon the sure promises of God. The only sign a Christian really needs is the sign of the cross and of the empty tomb of Christ. We can always trust God. Our feelings or even our experience frequently mislead us.

For that reason we live according to the Spirit’s directive and pledge from long ago, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).