Spirit Baptism According to Peter

Is Spirit baptism a separate concept from water baptism?

Painting by Jen Norton, taken from fineartamerica.com

What does the New Testament mean by the word “baptism”? It at least means a ritual involving water, but scriptures also seem to apply the word to an act of the Holy Spirit. Is the ritual performed by Christians also an act of the Holy Spirit in some sense? Or are these two different but related things?

In Acts 1:5, Jesus repeats a statement said by John the Baptizer in all four gospels (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33). Jesus says that while John baptized with water, Jesus will baptize his disciples with the Holy Spirit. Water is contrasted with the Holy Spirit. Instead of water, the baptism Jesus baptizes us with is of the Holy Spirit. But perhaps Jesus is not contrasting, but adding to John’s water? Perhaps a paraphrase could be, “John baptized merely with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit also.” It stretches the grammar, but it’s at least plausible.

Jesus adds (Acts 1:5), “not many days from now.” Soon after He says this, Jesus ascends into Heaven, and then soon after His ascension, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The narrative of Acts shows that what occurred in the upper room on the day of Pentecost is the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. This would seem to indicate that Jesus meant to contrast “water” with “Holy Spirit” and that Spirit baptism is indeed distinct from ritual baptism. But an argument from narrative and silence (the text just doesn’t mention water), is by nature a weak argument. Thankfully, Peter provides helpful commentary a few chapters later.

In Acts chapter 11, the Apostle Peter comments both on the events of the previous chapter and the events of Pentecost. The Lord had spoken to Peter in a vision and sent him to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter preached the gospel (Acts 10:34-43), and “while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.” When Peter came to Jerusalem some of his fellow Jews, having heard about these events, accused Peter of eating with uncircumcised men. In response, Peter retells the vision, of being summoned to Cornelius’s house, and of the events inside:

 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?

Acts 11:15-17

This silences his accusers and “they glorified God” for showing mercy to Gentiles. Peter realized God was acting and to refuse fellowship with these uncircumcised Gentiles was to oppose God. In chapter 10 we read that Peter’s immediate response to the Holy Spirit falling upon the Gentiles was to baptize them with water. “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” In other words, for Peter to forbid them the rite of water baptism was to withstand God.  God had saved and poured out His Holy Spirit on them, showing no distinction between the Jewish disciples in Acts 2, and these new disciples in Acts 10. Who was Peter to rebuild a wall that God had torn down?

Peter confirms that the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a baptism. He logically connects the Holy Spirit falling with Jesus’s promise to baptize them with the Holy Spirit. By recognizing his own Spirit baptism in the event which took place in Cornelius’s house, Peter is calling that event also, “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” He recognizes them as the same baptism, one baptism: “God gave them the same gift as He gave us” (11:17). Paul would confirm this later when he writes to the Ephesian church: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Jesus’s promise to baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit was realized in Jews and Gentiles alike.

What Peter understands to be a “baptism” happened before Peter baptized them with water. The reason that Peter water-baptizes them is that they were already baptized with the Spirit. It is noteworthy that this Spirit Baptism occurred, “as I began to speak” (11:15), “while Peter was still speaking these words” (10:44). It occurred as Peter spoke “words by which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14), which were none other than an explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So at least in this case, Spirit baptism is closely associated with hearing and believing the gospel.

This Spirit baptism (coupled with the vision of the sheet) is the reason Peter welcomes them into fellowship on equal grounds, eating with them, staying with them. This is the climax of his response to his accusers in Jerusalem. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”

If Spirit baptism is an act of the Holy Spirit, which at least in principle can occur prior to, and independently of ritual baptism, then ritual baptism and Spirit baptism are two different things, however closely related they may be. Which act the word “baptism” refers to in a particular passage becomes an important question of interpretation. It may be that Mark 16:16 refers to Spirit baptism, not the ritual. Or perhaps Romans 6:3 also has in mind Spirit baptism, as Chafer concludes:

No ritual baptism ever so joins a person to Christ as that he is made to share vitally and perfectly in all that Christ is and all that He has done, but this is precisely what the baptism with the Spirit accomplishes. Thus by being baptized into Christ by the Spirit, an actual participation in crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection is secured.

Chafer, Systematic Theology Vol III page 100

Those who agree with Chafer would marshal many more arguments to support their view of baptism. Those arguments may succeed or fail. Acts records many events that are unique, the events in Cornelius’s household might not be descriptive of every person baptized into the one body of Christ. Perhaps this is the exception, and the rule is that the Spirit baptizes a person into Christ simultaneously with ritual baptism, and not when the person believes. But Acts 10 and 11 prove beyond a doubt that the two are distinct things in principle, even if, hypothetically, they sometimes occur simultaneously. And if they are distinct and separable acts, we cannot assume without argument that a given passage refers to the rite. It may refer to the act of the Spirit.

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