A number of years ago I was invited to preach a series of evangelistic events in Latvia. It’s a beautiful little country that found its freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union. By the time I went, it had warmed to the gospel message, and many young people were ready to believe. The trip lasted about two weeks. We focused our efforts on a small rural town called Cesis. Through public talks and Bible studies with locals, twenty-one Latvians believed in Jesus. In excitement, they wanted to get baptized right away. We could hardly be more thrilled to see the fruit.
Our mission team approached the local church with whom we had partnered. The healthiest way to get these new believers to grow would be to have them get connected with the church. However, to our chagrin, the church leadership refused to baptize them. They demanded that the new believers attend church for a year before they be baptized. They thought it would be inappropriate to baptize young people who hadn’t yet proved they were saved. Apparently, the way that they were supposed to prove they were saved was with good works and a year’s worth of church attendance. We were shocked, and I did my best to explain the mistake in their understanding. Ultimately we baptized the new believers ourselves when we saw that the church would not change their mind. The leadership of that church not only misunderstood the distinction between salvation and discipleship but even the role that baptism is supposed to play.
Baptism is an ancient tradition that dates back to before Christian times. The root word means, dip. This simple meaning makes it seem as if the word could never be misunderstood and misapplied. Despite its apparent simplicity, there is great confusion about what the role and purpose of baptism is in the life of a believer.
There are at least two main theological uses of the word baptize that are significant to us. In this chapter, we will explore the difference between Spirit baptism and water baptism. Let’s find out about Spirit baptism from 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.1
There is a word capitalized in the first line of the verse. Do you see it? Spirit starts with a capital S because it’s talking about a specific spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit that does the work of Spirit Baptism. As one of the three person’s of the trinity, the Holy Spirit has the authority and ability to bring the believer to life at the moment of their salvation.
This verse shows us that no matter the ethnic background, or social status, the believer has been immersed in, and made to drink the same Spirit. The effect of this Spirit baptism is that the believer has become part of one body.
What body? Obviously the church is in view here, when he later says,
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.2
It’s as if we are organs who get implanted in the body of Christ when we experience Spirit baptism. We become parts of the church. This means that we should play a part, and work together with the other members of the church. However, the fact that some members don’t work well together is exactly why he had need to give this teaching.
Paul daftly weaves this image of a body which is knit together by the spirit, one organ at a time. Spirit baptism, which happens at salvation by the power of God, makes that possible. So, Spirit baptism is not something that must be earned or worked for, it’s part of the present that we receive when we get everlasting life. Likewise, someone can’t get unbaptized anymore than someone can get unsaved. It’s a irrevocable event. Paul explained from another angle in Galatians 3:26-27.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.3
The condition for being a son, in this sense, is faith in Christ. This echos what John 1:12 tells us. After establishing that he goes on to explain that, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This means that there is no condition outside of faith to have this type of baptism. When one believes in Jesus for everlasting life he experiences the Spirit baptism, and by this act he also has put on Christ. It carries with the image of being clothed with Christ, or even covered by him. Thus, the eternal punishment of God will pass over and not effect the one who is covered with Christ in this manner.
Spirit baptism is connected to salvation, and happens automatically at the moment of faith in Christ. However, there is another event which carries a similar name that every Christian should undergo, but is not automatic. Water baptism is one of the main things that Jesus instructed his followers to do. Passages that teach a person how to have everlasting life do not present water baptism as a requirement for salvation.4 Though, anyone who wishes to be a committed disciple is expected to take this first public step.
Let’s take a look at Matthew 28-19-20 to see the difference.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”5
The first thing that we notice about this verse is that it’s a description of how to make disciples. We can’t disconnect the instructions found within from discipleship. There are certainly those who have placed their faith in Christ, who have not fulfilled the command of Jesus to undergo water baptism. In fact, the church where I grew up at had a piano player who was deathly afraid of water who never underwent water baptism. While someone can be saved apart from water baptism it would be hard to call a person who refuses baptism a disciple by Jesus’ definition.
Water baptism is exactly what it sounds like. The word, in Greek, means to immerse in water. Before Christianity, baptism was an act of conversion used for Gentiles converting to Judaism, it means initiating people to the faith.6 However, when Jesus instructs his followers to baptize others as disciples, he’s shifting the focus of what baptize would have meant to his hearers at the time. Although, new converts who wished to be initiated into the Jewish faith would be baptized, they would not be baptized into discipleship. That’s because, before Jesus only Rabbis made disciples. Discipleship was limited to a handful of students. The Rabbi would make disciples by fashioning his pupils to be like himself.
Jesus shifts the focus here and instead teaches that they were to make disciples, fashioned not in their own image, but instead their master’s. That all believers, even gentiles were supposed to become disciples was unique to Jesus. Secondly the idea that baptism would be initiation into discipleship was a fresh notion. All of this represents a shift from the pre-Christian meaning of discipleship and baptism.
He further explains the expectations after water baptism when he says, “…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” Therefore, the expectation for disciples is observance. The word observe in English can mean either to notice, or to obey. He means to obey in this context. Thus it could be said that water baptism is only the first step on a lifelong journey of discipleship.
Baptism, as it stands today is a public expression of what has already happened privately. Water baptism is a visual representation of the invisible Spirit baptism. All those who are saved have experienced Spirit baptism, but if one seeks to be a disciple, he will also obey Christ and publicly be baptized in water. Water baptism, like all the acts and works of a disciple, has no power to save from Hell. Being baptized in water is all about obeying Christ, and going public before mankind.
In this chapter we’ve seen that Spirit baptism automatically takes place at the moment salvation occurs. Water baptism is a voluntary act that publicly represents the new birth experienced by the believer.
1 1 Corinthians 12:13.
2 Corinthians 12:27.
3 Galations 3:26–27.
4 John 1:12, 3:16, 3:36, 5:24, 6:47, 11:26
5 Matthew 28:19–20.
6 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mt 28:19–20.