Spirit Baptism and Water Baptism

Baptism and the Spirit

In the New Testament, we recognize the word “baptism” is not only used to refer to physical water. For example, John the Baptist says in Mark 1:8 that Jesus is coming to “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Or, in 1 Corinthians 12:13 Paul says, “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.”

Undoubtedly then, there is a “baptism” in the New Testament that refers to the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Titus 3:5).[1] The Spirit’s baptism happens to us at conversion whereby we are united to Christ, including His death, burial, and resurrection. MacArthur notes, “That singular Spirit baptism occurs at conversion, when the believer is born again and placed into the sphere of the Spirit’s sanctifying power and indwelling presence.”[2]

Water baptism is intricately connected to this, not because it’s what brings about these things, but because it is the outward and visible sign of these inward realities. R.C. Sproul writes, “even though there is a distinction between water baptism and Spirit baptism, one of the things the new covenant sign of baptism indicates is the participation of every believer in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is a sign of Spirit baptism.”[3]

There is “one baptism” (cf. Eph. 4:5). And we certainly must keep its parts, if you will, distinct, as in the difference and efficacy of Spirit baptism versus water baptism. At the same time, they are also closely connected in the New Testament. One is internal and one is external. Christians, thus, have been born again and united to Christ. The Holy Spirit has done this work of immersing us, that’s what the word “baptism” means, into Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection. And this is signified in the church’s ordinance of water baptism which is an outward symbol of an inward reality.[4]

Water Baptism

The 17th century Baptists of England defined water baptism this way in the 1644 London Baptist Confession of Faith:

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispensed only upon persons professing faith…The way and manner of the dispensing of this ordinance the Scripture holds out to be…plunging the whole body under water: it being a sign, must answer the thing signified, which are these: first, the washing the whole soul in the blood of Christ; secondly, that interest the saints have in death, burial, and resurrection (of Christ) ; thirdly, together with a confirmation of out faith, that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and rises again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints by raised by the power of Christ, in the day of the resurrection, to reign with Christ.[5]

Water baptism is an external sign and symbol of what has already happened internally. 1 Peter 3:21-22 says, “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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”

I’m going to use an illustration I adapted only slightly from my friend, Jeff Johnson. Imagine a hostage situation in a foreign country. And the U.S. Army is called in, and they rescue a young lady. She doesn’t speak English all that well, but a reporter tries to ask her later, “Who saved you?”

She looks around and notices an American flag waving on top of the U.S. Embassy, and she remembers when she was rescued that she saw that flag on the troops’ uniforms. And so, she points up to the flag on the top of the building.

Now, does the young lady mean that the flag itself saved her? That that flag is what rescued her from her oppression? Of course not. She is pointing to what the flag symbolizes. This is how baptism is used in the New Testament. It is a physical symbol of spiritual realities. It is in this sense that Peter says baptism saves.


[1] John Frame writes, “Some people think that the baptism of the Spirit is an experience that comes after conversion. But 1 Corinthians 12:13 and other texts show that that is not so. Everybody who is converted, everyone who is a Christian, is baptized in the Spirit. There are not two groups in the church, one baptized in the Spirit and the other not. If that were true, it would be a basis for disunity rather than, as Paul says, a basis for unity. Nor is this a repeated experience. It happens at regeneration, at the new birth. And as we shall see, the new birth happens only once. In the baptism of the Spirit, the Spirit comes on us with power to serve Jesus as his covenant people. He unites us to all the other people in his body, so that together with them we may do God’s work in the world.” Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 164.

[2] John MacArthur, Biblical Doctrine, 783.

[3] R. C. Sproul, What Is Baptism?, First edition., vol. 11, The Crucial Questions Series (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), 46.

[4] John MacArthur: “Water baptism is…an external demonstration of what has already occurred in the heart through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.” Biblical Doctrine, 786.

[5] See also Chapter 29 of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.

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