Baptism: Water or Spirit?

This past week I had a great discussion (yeah, we’ll call it a discussion) about baptism in two separate ACGs (one on Union with Christ and one on Eternal Security).  I stated that baptism is the initiatory rite of the New Covenant. Those who are baptized into Christ are members of the New Covenant people of God, the church, and are Christians. That doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily the elect, that they’ll come to faith or that they’ll be saved in the end; instead, it means that they have [been] identified with the people of the new covenant, the church, associate themselves with the name of Christ, and bear the external mark of a Christian.

A fair bit of discussion revolved around the meaning of baptism in the NT – is it baptism in water or baptism in the Spirit that is referred to. So…here’s the list of passages referring to baptism or baptize or baptized (though not washed or cleansed).  I’ve sorted them as best I could in the time I had. On the ‘hinge’ texts, I’ve included comments from scholars – both those I agree with and those I don’t (basically, any I had access to in my office).  I’ve commented here or there, but I’ll not that in red type.  Have fun!

John the Baptist baptized in water

Matthew 3:6-7; 3:13-16, 21:25

Mark 1:4-5, 9; 11:30

Luke 3:3, 7, 12, 21; 7:29

John 1:31, 10:40

Acts 1:22; 10:37; 13:24; 18:25;

Both water and spirit baptism mentioned

Matthew 3:11

Mark 1:8

Luke 3:16

John 1:33

Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16;

Water baptism clearly, unavoidably indicated

Matthew 28:19

John 3:22-23; 4:1-2

Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-16, 36-38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15, 33; 18:18, 19:3-5; 22:16

1 Corinthians 1:13-17

1 Peter 3:21

1 Corinthians 15:29;

Water baptism indicated, but could be debated

Mark 16:16: since this is a part of the ‘maybe it’s original/maybe it’s not’ longer ending of Mark, I’ll skip comment

Baptism in the Spirit:

1 Corinthians 12:13;


Baptized into Moses (still water): 1 Corinthians 10:2

Into Christ’s suffering (must be supplied, not explicit): Mark 10:38-39

Hinge texts

Romans 6:3-4

Galatians 3:27;

Ephesians 4:5

Colossians 2:12;

Romans 6:3-4

On this passage, Stott says, “baptism means water baptism unless in the context it is stated to the contrary. Some commentators have suggested that Paul here is referring to baptism with the Spirit as uniting us with Christ, and have quoted 1 Corinthians 12:13 as a parallel. But it is safe to say that whenever the terms ‘baptism’ and ‘being baptized’ occur, without mention of the element in which the baptism takes place, the reference is to water baptism.”

Doug Moo, “Paul’s reference is to the Roman Christians water baptism as their outward initiation in to Christian existence. To be sure, a few scholars have denied any reference to water baptism here, arguing that ‘baptize’ means ‘immerse’ in a metaphorical sense, or that Paul refers to ‘baptism in the Spirit’, or that he uses ‘baptize’ as a metaphor for incorporation into the body of Christ. But, without discounting the possibility of allusions to one or more of these ideas, a reference to water baptism is primary. By the date of Romans, ‘baptize’ had become almost a technical expression for the rite of Christian initiation by water, and this is surely the meaning the Roman Christians would have given the word.”

FF Bruce takes it to be water baptism also, writing, “He took it for granted that the Roman Christians, who were not his converts, had been as certainly baptized as his own converts were…In apostolic times baptism appears to have followed immediately on confession of faith in Christ.” He doesn’t, at least here, speak to infant baptism as that is a different issue, but of convert baptism.

Everret Harris (Expositors Bible Commentary) goes in a slightly different direction, “It [Death to sin] was accomplished by being “baptized into Christ Jesus.” What is being described is a spiritual reality of the deepest import—not a ceremony, not even a sacrament.” As someone who interprets this passage to mean water baptism, I agree with Harris – it isn’t simply the washing in the water (so 1 Peter 3:21). The rite of baptism unites us to the covenant, but not all the blessings of the covenant automatically. Faith is required, and when exercised, faith receives the blessings which the sacrament points to – namely union with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Galatians 3:27

Stott contends this does mean water baptism but argues, “Our baptism sets forth visibly this union with Christ. This cannot possibly mean that the act of baptism itself unites a person to Christ, that the mere administration of water makes him a child of God. We must give Paul credit for a consistent theology…Faith secures the union; baptism signifies it outwardly and visibly. Thus in Christ, by faith inwardly and baptism outwardly, we are all sons of God”

Ridderbos agrees that this refers to water baptism, “This close relationship which baptism establishes between Christ and the believers is also designated by the expression ‘baptized into Christ’. The expression is not to be construed as mystical so much as corporative or federal. The baptized person is added to Christ as His own, is reckoned to His account, share in His benefits…We are not to take this in a magical or automatic sense…What happens at baptism is a confirmation and sealing, a visible manifestation of what is given to the church by faith. So much is true, however, that Paul wants to indicate by his objective-sacramental mode of expression, and by appealing especially to baptism for establishing sonship of the believers, that the reality of becoming one with Christ is nowhere so clearly revealed or so firmly founded in the Christian consciousness of faith, as precisely in this baptism.”

Fung, “Baptism is here regarded as the rite of initiation into Christ, that is, into union with Christ, or what amounts to the same thing, of incorporation into Christ as the Head of the new humanity…The baptism in view in Gal 3:27 is almost certainly water baptism…raising the question of the relationship between the two [faith and baptism]…the logical relationship between faith and baptism is represented by the statement that ‘St. Paul saw in baptism the normal but not necessary, the helpful but not indispensable sign and seal put upon the act of faith appropriating the gift of God in Christ’…Probably Paul mentions baptism here because he is about to emphasize the oneness of those who are in Christ: the visible sign of this oneness is not faith but baptism; the oneness with Christ that is symbolized in baptism is the basis for the oneness in Christ. There is an appeal in the presence of those who were in danger of forgetting spiritual facts, to the external sign which no one could forget.”

Philip Ryken writes, “Here Paul is referring to the inward reality of spiritual cleansing by faith, and not simply to the outward sign of water baptism.” On the surface this might seem to be a dissenting voice from the opinion I articulated on Sunday, and it may be, but not by much. He doesn’t say “it’s not water baptism.” Instead, it’s not ‘simply’ water baptism. In other words, it’s not just water baptism that unites us vitally to Christ, but the inward reality to which water baptism points that must be received by faith. My gloss: It’s not merely the outward sign of water baptism, but the internal reality that is summoned by it.

James Montgomery Boice, “This is not water baptism…Baptism signifies this transforming identification with Christ. So Paul refers to it here. Paul is not now contradicting all he has previously taught about the means of salvation, as if he were suggesting that baptism will now replace circumcision as a saving sacrament or ordinance. No one is saved by baptism. Indeed, Paul mentions baptism only once in the paragraph, but faith five times. Rather baptism is an outward sign of the union that already exists through faith. To be “clothed with Christ” means to become like Christ.”

Ephesians 4:5

A. Skevington Wood comments (Expositors Bible Commentary), “‘One baptism’ is the external seal of incorporation into the body of Christ. Falling as it does in the second triad (related to Christ) and not in the first (related to the Spirit), it appears to indicate water baptism and not primarily the baptism with the Spirit of which water baptism is the sign. Baptism is regarded as the sacrament of unity. In the Christian church baptisms are not multiplied as with the Jews (Heb 6:2). There are not even two baptisms—one of John and one of Jesus. There is “one baptism” symbolizing identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, sealing with the Spirit, and incorporation into the body of Christ, so that all Christians become one person in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:13; 2:5, 6; 3:15). Baptism is one because it makes one. It provides the evidence that all Christians, without discrimination as to color, race, sex, age, or class, share the grace of Christ. If we ask why Paul does not at this point mention the other dominical sacrament, that of the Lord’s Supper (cf. “one bread” in 1 Cor 10:17), the answer may be that he regards the Eucharist not as a prerequisite of unity but an expression of it.”

Peter O’Brien, “there is only one baptism because there is one Lord Jesus Christ in whom believers are united, one body into which all Christians are incorporated…the apostle is not making distinctions as to whether it is water baptism or baptism in the Spirit that is in view. The one without the other was an anomaly.”

Simpson, “Christ occupies the central place, and with Him are linked the inward and outward signs that bind His people to the Savior. Faith may signify the instrument of justification or carry the more objective sense of Christian doctrine. The initiatory rite of baptism seems selected to represent all external ordinances of worship, such as prayer, praise, preaching, the Lord’s Supper and His Day, in the practice of which, broadly speaking, all branches of the church, despite its fissures, may be said to coincide.”

Chapell, “by our baptism [water] we testify that we are cleansed of sin and united to him by his grace alone”

Foulkes, “The outward sign of this faith and the ‘visible word’ expressing the work of Christ was baptism. Instituted by the Lord himself, it was an experience that every Christian shared. All had passed through the same initiation. All had been ‘baptized into Christ’ not into a variety of leaders such as Paul, Peter or Apollos, nor into a plurality of churches…The sacrament is therefore a sacrament of unity.”

Colossians 2:12

Curtis Vaughan, “Here Paul gives a further explanation of the spiritual circumcision he affirmed in the preceding verse. The context suggests that Christian baptism is the outward counterpart to that experience and as such is the means by which it is openly declared. The emphasis of the verse, however, is not on the analogy between circumcision and baptism but that of baptism as symbolizing the believer’s participation in the burial and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom 6:3ff.). Being “buried” and “raised” with Christ conveys the thought not simply of burying an old way of life and rising to a new kind of life but of sharing in the experience of Christ’s own death and resurrection. That Paul did not think of baptism as actually effecting participation in that experience is made clear when he adds that the Colossians were raised through their “faith in the power of God.” Baptism, then, is not a magic rite, but an act of obedience in which we confess our faith and symbolize the essence of our spiritual experience. Faith is the instrumental cause of that experience and, apart from real faith, baptism is an empty, meaningless ceremony.”

NT Wright, “In becoming a Christian, he [Paul] transferred to the church the idea that the people of God was indeed a people – not now drawn from one race only, but made up from every family under heaven. This people [the people of God] is not merely an invisible family known to God alone, but is an actual company of people in space and time, the church in which Christ is confessed as Lord: outward and visible entry into this outward and visible family is accomplished through the rite of baptism. This explains Paul’s frequent appeal that the church should become in fact what it is in theory, should put into detailed operation the life to which it has been committed in baptism. 1 Corinthians 10 shows that it is possible, in Paul’s mind, for people to be baptized and yet to be in danger of losing all. This does not make baptism a mere empty ritual. The candidate, being placed into the family where Christ is loved and served, is in the best possible position to grow into mature Christian faith and life. If we find Paul’s definite statements about the effects of baptism hard to understand, it is probably because we have lost his vision of the church as the loving and welcoming family of God, the people who, by support, example and teaching, enable one another to accept the gospel down to the depths of their being, and so to make real for themselves the rich statements of Col 2:12

Eade, “the reference is plainly to the ordinance of baptism and to its spiritual meaning.”

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