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Outward Sign, Inward Reality--Part Deux

The more I reflected about my earlier post, my mind went to this verse, spoken by John the Baptist:
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Matt. 3:11, my emphasis)
Notice that John the Baptist draws a distinction between how he baptizes with water and how Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. From this, I think it seems reasonable to speak of a difference between the physical baptism of water and the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit, just as the Bible makes a distinction between physical circumcision and spiritual circumcision.

But, when the Scriptures speak of spiritual (i.e., "heart") circumcision, no one assumes that those writers are speaking of all physical circumcision, as though physical circumcision automatically equates with heart circumcision. In fact, Paul goes out of his way to emphasize the difference between physical and spiritual circumcision: "For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3). Of course, the physical and the spiritual circumcisions are linked, but my point is simply that they are not exactly the same thing.

Here is what I am trying to say: when we read texts where baptism is spoken of spiritually, we should not therefore automatically equate that spiritual baptism with water baptism. As with the two types of circumcision, I think there is a connection between water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism, but I am simply arguing that not all who have received water baptism have necessarily received Holy Spirit baptism, just as not all who received physical circumcision were heart circumcised. Consider the following texts:

  • 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
  • For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:13, my emphasis)
  • For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:27)
  • 11In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11-12)
  • Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ... (1 Pet. 3:21)
I would argue that each of these texts should be interpreted as referring to spiritual, Holy Spirit baptism rather than physical, water baptism. In this way, the verses are always true--every single person who has been spiritually baptized in the Holy Spirit has:

  • been baptized into Christ's death (Rom. 6:3-4)
  • been baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13)
  • put on Christ (Gal. 3:27)
  • been buried with Christ (Col. 2:11-12)
  • been saved (1 Pet. 3:21)
I make this point (i.e., that these verses are true for everyone who has been spiritually baptized) because it is a common baptist argument to point to these verses and say, "How can these verses be true of all who are [water] baptized if we [water] baptize people who are unable to give a profession of faith?" I think the problem with this question is now clear--Scripture understands a difference between those who have been baptized with water and those who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and these texts are referring to those who have received the latter. In fact, this interpretation is even more consistent than the baptist's interpretation, since there are obviously people who make false professions of faith, but who are nevertheless baptized. (This will always happen no matter what we might try to do to separate the sheep from the goats, since we simply have no way of knowing whom exactly God chooses to save.)

In my mind, understanding baptism this way has three implications:

  1. This interpretation prevents baptists from claiming as proof that baptism should be restricted to those who can profess faith, since such a claim would confuse the spiritual baptism meant in the passages with their conception of what physical baptism should be.
  2. This interpretation gives a good reason to avoid what I would call the "hyper-sacramentalist" understanding of baptism in parts of the early church, where baptism was seen as so important--being the actual mechanism for washing away sins--that some considered it necessary for salvation. Their belief stems directly from an interpretation of the above passages which understands the spiritual benefits as coming through physical baptism.
  3. Finally, I think that this interpretation further demonstrates that we should understand baptism largely through an understanding of what circumcision was meant to be. In the Old Testament, we see that physical circumcision points to the goal of heart circumcision; in the New Testament (beginning with the distinction John the Baptist draws), we see that physical/water baptism points to the goal of Holy Spirit baptism. This high level of continuity from circumcision to baptism strongly suggests the validity of infant baptism.
So, how is water baptism related to spiritual baptism? Or, for that matter, how is physical circumcision related to heart circumcision? I'll try to pick up that topic soon.

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Yesterday Christy and I had been discussing one of the very questions you talk about: What does physical baptism mean when it is virtually certain that some people who have been water baptized are not believers? Thanks for the thoughts. I think it helps my understanding of this question.

You are very welcome! I'm glad this could be helpful; however, I haven't really even touched yet on what I think water baptism does mean. That's the next post that I will be working on.

What would be your approach then to an adult who was baptized as an infant, who asks to be baptized as a believer citing the many instances in scripture where adults believed and were baptized. We some of John's disciples later baptized as followers of Christ. I have been baptized 3 times... so far. Pastor B

That is a fair point--I believe you are referring to Acts 19:1-7?

To answer your question, I think that we need to move back a little further to a fundamental issue at stake in a baptist's conception of baptism. A baptism would say that only those who actually believe should be baptized. My question would be, is it the belief that is important, or is it the Holy Spirit regeneration that is the important factor?

Certainly, the two should be linked--otherwise, the belief isn't genuine. So, if push came to shove, I suppose baptists would probably say that the Holy Spirit regeneration is the important issue, lest anyone reduce "belief" to a mere intellectual thought, rather than the heart-changing faith that casts one's lot entirely with Christ, since the latter would necessarily include Holy Spirit regeneration, while the former would not. In other words, all Holy Spirit regeneration includes genuine faith, but not all "faith" includes real Holy Spirit regeneration. So, I would think that the work of the Holy Spirit is the main issue behind who should be baptized, according to a baptist.

Now, I think that it is probably important (I'm kind of thinking on the fly here) that the work of the Holy Spirit came after their rebaptism in Acts 19:1-7. The issue at stake, in my reading of Acts 19, is that those twelve men were baptized into John's baptism, but that they had not been baptized into Jesus.

Now, a lot of what we read in Acts is tricky, because it isn't necessarily the model for the church for all time, but rather the record of how the church transitioned from a group of people who watched the Messiah ascend to his Father's side at the beginning, to a Holy Spirit-empowered body of Christ throughout the known world by the end. I would not be comfortable absolutely pinning down what is going on in Acts 19, but I do think it important that the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives came after their baptism into Christ.

So, I affirm with all presbyterians that, "The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time" (Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.6). A baptist, on the other hand, sees a vital link between the moment of baptism and its efficacy.

I would be very interested to hear how a baptist would interpret the meaning of Acts 19 in this light. Maybe that the situation of these twelve men was similar to that of the disciples before Pentecost, where they had genuine belief, but no Holy Spirit?

Oh, I just noticed that you asked what my approach would be to someone asking to be rebaptized. I suppose I would encourage them not to. It has been the historic position of the church that there should only be one baptism, and that baptism is valid so long as it is done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (i.e., not in the name of John). My only exception *might* be if their conscience was genuinely bothered, even after counseling. I might suggest that, if the issue is so important to them, they join a baptist church.

Important in the development of this doctrine of single baptism was the Donatist heresy. Augustine pretty much ended the debate in the church by arguing for one baptism, and, until the 16th century, the church (even the early Protestants!) believed in one baptism. Only with the rise of the Anabaptists (lit., "re-baptizers") did the modern argument for believer baptism arise. Before then, such an argument was unheard of. Of course, since Scripture--not tradition--is our highest authority, the historical argument for the validity of infant baptism and single baptism doesn't make those positions right; however, I personally find it hard to believe that such an argument had been completely lost in the 2nd century, not to resurface until the 16th. Still, I suppose that I must admit that it is a possibility.

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