The Baptism with the Holy Spirit: the Seal and the River

If there is one doctrine that I think has united the church and unfortunately, divided it along denominational lines for decades, it would be the teaching regarding the baptism with the Holy Spirit. This doctrine still remains controversial in several denominations today, and yes, a flash point point of mordant disagreements.

My experience reading and listening to pneumatological positions, polemics and musings – on both sides of the fence – leaves me with an impression that many who reject the reality of the baptism with the Holy Spirit today are largely influenced by denominational tenets, wrong teachings, misunderstandings and selective attention to Scripture, which have all ossified into “traditions” over the years.

In some cases, many believers have been burned by fanatical teachings and practices espoused by movements that have gone off the ditch with spiritual experiences and then ended up in an opposing extreme position – becoming a cessationist and rejecting all spiritual experiences altogether.

It seems we all struggle with this anomaly of going off into a doctrinal ditch on one side only to come out of it and swerve right into the ditch on the other side of the road.

But we need to find a biblical middle ground on this, because if something is clearly set forth in God’s Word, we have no right to deny or dilute it.

In a bid to rightly critique the Word of Faith movement, a theological reference work made a statement that denied the baptism with the Holy Spirit as a distinct experience subsequent to salvation:

The command to “ask Jesus for a baptism in the Holy Spirit” is not found in Scripture. The Holy Spirit baptizes all believers into the body of Christ at the moment of salvation (1 Cor. 12:13). (Paul Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Publishers Chicago, 2008, p. 677)

Let’s first look at this verse:

“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 Cor. 12:13).

Our attention needs to be drawn to three things here. First, the context of this verse points more to the unity of the body of Christ, than a doctrine.

Second, if we followed the rendering in the original Greek, the first part of this verse would read as: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” The Greek preposition here is en which means “in,” not “by.” Another Greek preposition that usually follows the verb baptizo is eis meaning “into.”

The clarity of the verse in question was hampered by translational dynamics.

Third, the word baptized in this verse in the past tense (not the perfect tense) and it refers to a single event that already took place at a certain moment in our past experience.

Granted, some Christians have jumped on this verse and inferred that unless you have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, you’re not yet in the body of Christ. This interpretation stems from flawed bible hermeneutics.

To understand what that verse was saying when it used the words “baptized into,” we need to consider four parallel passages in the New Testament where the same terms were used. (All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from the NKJV)

Baptism into repentance

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance…” (Matthew 3:11)

The Greek preposition rendered “unto” (or “for” in other bible versions) is eis which means “into.” So literally, it reads as: “I indeed baptize you with water into repentance.”

The people whom John baptized had already repented before they were baptized into repentance.

That baptism was only an outward acknowledgement of the repentance that had occurred inwardly. In fact, John the Baptist abruptly refused to baptize those who didn’t show any proof of inner repentance:

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Matt. 3:7-8)

Baptism into the forgiveness of sins

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:37-38 NIV)

Be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” in the Greek is literally “be baptized…into the forgiveness of sins.”

As explained earlier, their sins were already forgiven by their repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t the baptism at Pentecost that washed away their sins, it was only an outward testimony of the forgiveness of sins they had received.

Baptism into Christ

“Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 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.” (Galatians 3:24-27)

Again, we see that they were already children of God through their faith in Jesus. They were already in Christ before they were baptized into Christ. Their baptism was simply a public acknowledgement of the spiritual adoption they had received.

Baptism into death

“How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:2-4)

Here, we see that being “baptized into” is used in connection with being baptized into the death of Jesus Christ. Baptism is then spoken of as a burial which indicates that the person first dies to sin through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ before baptism (“the burial”) which publicly acknowledges that spiritual state.

Now, in the light of this understanding, let’s look again at 1 Cor. 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.”

It means we were already in the body of Christ, regardless of our race or class, just as the people whom John baptized were already in repentance, just as the people baptized on the day of Pentecost were already forgiven of their sins, just as the people referred to in Galatians were already in Christ, and just as the people referred to in Romans were already dead to sin before they were buried in baptism into Christ death.

So, the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a public acknowledgement of our membership in the body of Christ. Therefore, it can be defined as the supernatural seal that is given to each individual member of the body of Jesus Christ by which He acknowledges them as a part of Him.

Now, I am going to provide another definition of the baptism with the Holy Spirit as I address the second aspect of the quote from Paul Enns earlier. He argued that nowhere in the Bible do we find an express command that Jesus should baptize anyone with the Holy Spirit.

But this argument is specious in the sense that there are several Christian doctrines that we adhere to today that were not expressly commanded, but merely implied from biblical narrations, descriptions and deductions.

The Bible presents doctrines into two ways: as commands or statements, and as description of events or experiences. When we combine both statements and events, we then have a complete picture of what the Bible is saying.

Even from the NT, we see many different men baptized with water, but John pointed at Jesus Christ and declared, “this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33 RSV). Jesus alone has been given the privilege to confer this supernatural seal on the members of His body.

The term “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is an instructive description, because one of the symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is water.

God knew some people would confuse the New Birth – which places us in the body of Christ – with the distinct experience subsequent to it, called the baptism with the Holy Spirit, which confers its outward acknowledgement on us.

Thus, in the NT, Jesus used the image of water to picture both the Holy Spirit dwelling presence in the New Birth and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. First, in John 4, Jesus told the woman at the well of Samaria:

10 If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

13… Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

Here, Jesus is talking about receiving eternal life – just as he told Nicodemus in John 3. The work of the Holy Spirit in us when we become saved is what Jesus likens to a fountain of living water. This well of salvation is for our personal benefit.

But in John 7, Jesus speaks of another experience in the Holy Spirit:

“On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:37-39)

He is comparing the receiving of the Holy Spirit to the act of drinking which then leads to an outflow of rivers (note the plural) of living water. This is an apt description of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, there are two experiences in the Holy Spirit. There is water in a fountain, and there is water in a river. The water is essentially the same, but they have their different purposes.

It’s from this ambit that we can also define the baptism with the Holy Spirit as the supernatural infilling and overflow of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer making him/her a channel of God’s power to others.

To confuse the New Birth with the Holy Spirit baptism would be as fatal as confusing justification with sanctification.

I will be continuing from here in a series of articles where I’ll be discussing the distinction, nature of the Holy Spirit baptism, the conditions of receiving it as well as respond to some objections to it.