There are many texts in the New Testament that attribute to Baptism great and wondrous things such as sanctification, justification and even salvation. For a tiny example there is Romans 6:4, 1 Peter 3:21, Col. 2:12ff, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:26, Titus 3:5-7, Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38-39, Acts 22:16, 1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:27. This poses a problem for those with a Baptist or even a reformed presupposition that baptism is our work and not God’s. To admit baptism does these things in their mind would be to adhere to works righteousness, and would undermine any reason they have for not baptizing children. The result of this has been to talk of two baptisms despite Ephesians 4 that maintains there is only one baptism. The two baptisms they talk about are that of the Spirit and that of water. Water baptism is ineffectual they maintain, and if there is a passage that talks of baptism accomplishing anything in the believer that is attributed to a baptism of the Spirit, not “water baptism.” Some have even gone so far to say that Christ did not institute “baptism” but only baptism of the Spirit. When one is done analyzing the texts in this manner though, one is left wondering then why baptize with water at all? It becomes obvious though that the disciple’s understood, however else the Spirit might fall on people etc., they were to baptize the people with water (it is actually redundant to say “with water” the word baptism itself implies water if you aren’t working in Lydia’s dye shop), and that the Spirit would be operative in that rite.
Christian baptism contrary to much popular belief does not get its start, whatever legitimate connections their might be, in John the Baptizer’s baptism through which Christ was dedicated and anointed for his mission in life, a mission he himself refers to in somewhat a figurative fashion as a baptism, that is His death and resurrection, a baptism we are baptized into ourselves. (Romans 6:4) Rather, Christian baptism does not find its institution until after Christ’s “baptism,” His death and resurrection, is accomplished. That is it is only after Christ rises from the dead and is given all authority on heaven and earth that Christian baptism is commanded as a means of grace. It is first and foremost in Matthew 28:18-19 that the Christian sacrament of initiation finds its impetus. Here Christ commanded his disciples to do something, namely to make other disciples by baptizing and teaching. And it is here in Christ’s command, his institution, his sending out his apostles to baptize that baptism finds its power to save. Because Christ commanded it, instituted it, it is His work on us, yes through disciples, but they no more get the credit for doing it, then Herod’s slaves got for building his palaces. This is Christ’s work. Yet Christ did command his disciples to do something, namely to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as well as teach the disciples to observe (keep) all that he has commanded them.
The question is how are the disciples to do this? It will be shown that the disciples took this to mean pouring, sprinkling, or even immersion of the person in water while reciting the Baptismal formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But just for a second I want to ponder what it would mean if what Christ was instituting was a baptism in the Spirit that was not associated with water. It has become popular today when people have some sort of a religious experience at youth camp to say they were “born again.” They read this as what Jesus is talking about to Nicodemus in John 3 while ignoring the water that goes along with the Spirit in that discourse, even as the Disciples are busy baptizing. Some actually refer to this experience as a baptism saying they have been “baptized by the Spirit.” This experience is supposed to then take precedence over any baptism done with water later on in life, or perhaps done earlier in life, which at best can only be a confession of faith or an “act of obedience” in their minds. But if this is what was meant in Matthew 28, how if ever would the Disciples know that they had done what Jesus had asked them to do? Indeed there are records of the Spirit descending on people who hear the apostolic preaching in Acts, yet the disciples don’t seem to think this is what Jesus meant, because they always follow this up with a baptism that uses water. Indeed the one time where you see the descension of the Spirit on anyone referred to as a “baptism in the Spirit” it is Pentecost morning and marked with tongues of fire resting on the heads of the Disciples. Coincidentally the disciples were totally passive in this, and had no control over it happening. But in Matthew they are told to do something, actually 2 distinct some things, baptize and teach. The Spirit does indeed come through the teaching and preaching of the disciples, but the disciples never take that to mean that their job of baptism is done. They never consider that to be done until after they have poured water on someone’s head, even as they claim that there the Spirit also is given.
In fact we begin to see this originally on the very same morning that the disciples are baptized in the Spirit. Already in Acts 2:38-39 the disciples tell people they need to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, this promise is for you and for your children.” Later on you hear that about three thousand were baptized. One wonders how they would have gotten a count if it was just a matter of the Spirit descending on them? How could they with such certainty extend the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit to their children if they were not talking about something concrete, undoubtedly that day there were people in the crowd that rejected Peter’s preaching. And though after this event the Spirit does come sometimes before (Cornelius’ household in Acts 10) and sometimes after (the Samaritans in Acts 8), and in neither of these cases should it be argued that the Spirit did not also come in Baptism, the disciples always baptize and do so with water, which they find necessary as seen in the words of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:36 “see here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” and even in Acts chapter 10 after the Spirit lites upon Cornelius and his household “can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy spirit just as we have? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10 47-48) The disciples it seems found baptism to be necessary whether or not the Spirit visibly manifested Himself. This indicates to me that the one baptism spoken of in Ephesians 4:5 is in fact referring to the Baptism Christ instituted in Matthew 28:18-19 which the disciples performed only when they had water necessary for baptizing.
This is further supported by a couple other arguments. Many maintain that there were all sorts of baptisms in play in different religions before Christ came along. This is almost true. There were various washings that the New Testament describes as baptisms here and there. But even the word Baptism, the nouning of a verb, was unknown before the New Testament. The verb was known, not the noun used in Ephesians 4. (Kittel Volume I, pg 545) And when it is used in the New Testament it is used in reference to that rite that Christ instituted. This shows that there is a marked difference for the Christian between what Christ had instituted and all other ceremonial washings that came before. Those very same ceremonies so many liberals and fundamentalists alike are so bent on trying to use to find the true meaning of Baptism to the chagrin of the New Testament's own testament concerning what it is.
The verb though is found in many different texts preceding and contemporary with the New Testament. In the New Testament it is used interchangeably with other words meaning to wash, such as in Mark 7: 2-4. In fact the word is also translated as wash in Luke 11:38, “The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (baptize) before dinner.”
This use of the verb baptize for wash also gives credence to the claim made in Kittel (volume 1 page 539) that “Baptidzein means technically to “baptize in water.” Making a specification of medium unnecessary unless some other medium is meant by the speaker. When another medium is mentioned it is never done so with the preposition eis that is translated as into where the Triune name or Jesus’ name follow. This all the more so because one hardly thinks that the Pharisee was astonished to see that Jesus was not washing with dye, blood, urine or other such substances surrounding the verb in cultic and secular literature. Being told to wash before dinner growing up, I always understood my mom meant water, even if she had to specify at times that I also use soap. Water is the given unless otherwise specified.
And why wouldn’t it be? The disciples obviously understood this to be, so they baptized into the name of the Triune God, always using water. In doing so they understood that the Holy Spirit was also conveyed, even if he had already visibly manifested himself in some other manner. To posit that what is meant by the one baptism in Ephesians 4 was Spirit baptism, you necessarily introduce two baptisms. We know that the disciples baptized with water, and even churches that claim this means “Spirit Baptism” and put great emphasis on having some such experience they call Spirit Baptism, still baptize with water as the disciples did. But the disciples nowhere differentiate between “spirit” and “water” baptism. They were told to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and they did so using water. This was, and still is, the initiation rite into God’s church, at least since Matthew 28, seeming to have replaced circumcision as a similar Old Testament rite of initiation. All who would be called believers, all who would join the early Christian church, the Jewish sect called “The Way” were baptized. When the disciples appeal in their epistles to baptisms and washings that effect regeneration, sanctification, justification etc. the first readers of those epistles would have automatically thought of their own baptisms where Christ’s name was given to them as water was poured over their heads, and in the case of some, they were even dunked. (That the word exclusively meant immersed is quite debatable, as I’m sure the Pharisee was not shocked to see that Jesus didn’t immerse himself before eating). It would have been natural for them to think of that event in such cases, and if the disciples meant by these words baptism, baptize and wash, something else it would have been incumbent on them to specify so, as they assuredly understood that that would be the natural reaction for their readers absent any other explanation. Only as an extreme reaction to the Roman Catholic “Ex Opere Operato” with the introduction of Platonic ideals of the separation between that which is physical and that which is spiritual that still haunts the western church where belief in the resurrection of the flesh is becoming rare, would any other explanation be thought of. But these explanations wholly ignore the common experience of these communities in being baptized. Often they do even worse, maintaining that a verse like Eph 5:26 does not at all refer to baptism, but failing to offer any other explanation of what it is referring to.