And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?”
They said, “Into John’s baptism.”
And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
(ESV: Acts 19:1-6)
The subject of Baptism is somewhat contentious in the Christian church, and has been since the church’s early history. There are two main views of Baptism: some consider it to be a symbol of man’s commitment to God and His commands, while others consider it to be God’s means of grace to man.
The first view of Baptism has at its core a belief in man’s ability to choose to have faith in God and to make a commitment to Him. Baptism in this reckoning is simply an outward sign of this commitment. Those who adhere to this viewpoint believe that only adults who believe in Christ as their savior and are capable of committing to Christ are to be Baptized; children are excluded because they are considered incapable of having an informed faith and in making this commitment. It is common to hear people speak of “committing to Christ,” “deciding for Christ,” and recalling the exact time that they made this commitment and were saved.
Against this view is the belief in Baptism as a means of God’s grace. This is a God-centered position, as it places the emphasis on what God does for man, rather than on what man does for God. Baptism is no mere outward sign of a believer’s commitment to Christ. Rather, Baptism does something: it delivers God’s saving grace through a physical means.
But, how can simple water be a mean’s of God’s grace? Isn’t this the same ordinary water drunk and washed in by even unbelievers? This low view of the simple means through which God often works is echoed in the Old Testament by Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He was a leper who heard of the prophet Elisha’s ability to heal him of his leprosy, so he went to visit the prophet in Israel. The Bible records:
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, Wash, and be clean?”
So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
(ESV: II Kings 5:9-14)
Naaman did not believe Elisha when told to wash in the Jordan River. How could the dirty waters of the Jordan cleanse him of his ailment? The same view is often held of Baptism; how can simple water cleanse man from his sins? Like the waters of the Jordan in the story of Naaman, however, Baptism is not just plain water. It is water combined with God’s Word. Naaman was not cleansed by the water of the Jordan itself, but by the combination of the water with God’s Word as spoken by the prophet Elisha, “according to the word of the man of God.” Likewise, in Baptism this combination of God’s Word with the water makes it a means by which God bestows His amazing grace upon the one baptized.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist contrasts his baptism of repentance with the baptism of Christ:
[Messengers from the Pharisees] asked [John], “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me. I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”
And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
(ESV: John 1:25-34)
In these verses, John compares his baptism of water with Christ’s baptism of the Holy Spirit that is bestowed by water and Christ’s Word. This baptism is that which Christ commanded his disciples to perform following his resurrection:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
(ESV: Matthew 28:18-20)
The baptism of the Holy Spirit provides the rebirth necessary for salvation; as Jesus explained to the Pharisee Nicodemus:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
(ESV: John 3:5-6)
Likewise, Paul (also known as Saul) was baptized following his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. On his journey to the city to persecute the early Christians residing there, a bright light shown on him from above and he heard the voice of the Lord. He was blinded by the light and led into the town by his companions. As Paul reports in the New Testament book of Acts:
And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, “Brother Saul, receive your sight.”
And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him.
And he said, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.
(ESV: Acts 22:12-16)
As these examples from the Old and New Testaments show, Baptism is not a human work that depends upon man’s abilities or commitment to God. Baptism is God’s work that combines His Word with water in the sacramental form; it bestows grace and forgiveness of sins and works faith through the Holy Spirit in the one baptized.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having 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.
(ESV: Col. 2:11-12)