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4. Baptism and the Gift of the Spirit

Chapter 4

Baptism and the
Gift of the Spirit

Acts 2:38
Montreal, March 25, 1979


What is the connection between baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit? The other day a brother asked me, “When do we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? Before baptism? At baptism? Or after baptism?” I am grateful to him for his question. I answered him only briefly, but after pon­dering the matter, I felt that he raised an im­portant question, the answer to which ought to be given to everyone here today. Hence I would like to expound the matter more fully.

The true Christian has the Holy Spirit

The question of when we receive the Spirit is important because it is tied to another question: What is a Christian? Is a Christian some­one who goes to church every Sunday, accepts the church doctrines, and puts on a Pepsodent smile?

To the question, What makes you a Christian?, Paul gives the answer: A Christian is one who has the Holy Spirit, for “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). You may accept the church creeds, uphold the infalli­bility of the Bible, attend church regularly, and take up church activ­ities, but none of these makes you a Christian. In the Bible, you are a Christ­ian—one who belongs to God—if and only if you have the Holy Spirit.[1]

Living by the power of the Spirit

Why is it important for us to have the Spirit? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible would know that you have spiritual life only if you have the Spirit, also called the “Spirit of life” (Rom.8:2). Then you will have the power to live the Christian life.

We are not called to live the Christian life or meet the high standards of the Sermon on the Mount in our own strength. Many scholars who study the Sermon on the Mount say that it is impossi­ble for us to fulfill it. And they are correct. Who has ever suggested that we can fulfill it? That is why God gives us the Holy Spirit, to em­power us to fulfill that high calling. God has never said that we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps to become the kind of Christian that Jesus speaks of.

Hence the true Christian is a supernatural person. So it is ironic and unfortunate that Paul had to rebuke the Christians at Corinth: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men?” (1Cor.3:3, RSV). But what is wrong with being “ordinary” people? Yet the fact remains that we ordinary people have to become super­nat­ural people if we are to be Christians in the biblical sense. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for being ordinary people who are not living as Christians ought to live, in the power of the Spirit.

The Spirit is a key topic in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, notably in the first letter. The Corinthians had a keen interest in the Spirit, but mainly for the gifts of the Spirit rather than the indwelling power of the Spirit. They stressed the external manifest­at­ions of the Spirit rather than the inner power by the Spirit to live the Christian life. Going for externals is the mark of the natural man, and is a common pitfall for Christians.

The spiritual man is not preoccupied with purely external manifestat­ions such as speaking in tongues. What matters is whether you have the fruit of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit in you.

So the question, Do you have the Holy Spirit?, is vital. We could just as well have asked, Are you a Christian?, but this would be prob­lematic in this era when few people understand the true meaning of Christian. To many people, a Christian is someone goes to church, accept the church creeds, and do pious things.

Do you have the Holy Spirit? Are you a Christian in the biblical sense of the word “Christian”?

When do we receive the Holy Spirit?

It is crucial to know at what point we receive the Spirit. If you have been a Christian for 15 or 20 years, where is your starting point? Are you counting from the day you accepted Jesus as your savior (as is often taught today) or from the day of your baptism?

In the Bible, the question that truly matters is: When did you receive the Holy Spirit? I am not asking you whether you have raised your hand at a gospel rally. You may have done this in sincerity, but does it automat­ically mean that you have the Spirit? That is some­thing we need to investigate from the Scriptures. My answer counts for nothing. What matters is what the Bible teaches.

Repent and be baptized for the gift of the Holy Spirit

When do we receive the Holy Spirit? What is the biblical answer? We will use Acts 2:38 as the basis of our study. The background of this verse is the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost which caused a commo­tion among the people of Jerusalem. Peter then addresses the crowds:

For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:34-36, ESV)

Here Peter proclaims Jesus as “Lord and Christ”. The title “Christ” means the Anointed One, the promised king of Israel. Peter’s state­ment cuts to the hearts of the hearers, so they ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (v.37). Peter replies:

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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. (Acts 2:38-39)

Peter tells them of “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and this is together with “the promise”. If we don’t have the Spirit, we won’t have God’s promises which come to us by faith just as the gift of the Spirit comes to us by faith. When we have faith, God gives us the Spirit, and all His promises become a reality. There are no promises from God apart from the Spirit of God.

The crowds ask, What shall we do?, to which Peter gives a simple answer: Repent. Repentance is a complete change in the direction of one’s life. The Greek word metanoia (repent­ance) means a complete change of the mind, a complete change of attitude, and a complete change in the direction of one’s life.

Repentance is not just saying, “I feel sorry for my sins.” That is not good enough. Repentance means that I am finished with sin, not just feel sorry about it. I am sorry enough to break completely with my old life, and to change the direction of my life.

But repentance alone is not enough, for Peter also speaks of baptism: “Repent and be baptized”. Today the church does with baptism as it pleases, treat­ing it the way it treats many other things of God, just as the way people treated John the Baptist as they pleased (Mt.17:12-13). Today we do as we please with baptism, with God’s Word, and with many other things.

Some will argue, “Baptism is just an external act, so it doesn’t matter whether you are baptized or not.” It doesn’t matter? It is not I but God’s Word that says, “Repent and be baptized”. Since God’s Word is our final authority, if it says that baptism does matter, I will say the same.

“Repent and be baptized.” Repentance alone is not enough, baptism alone is not enough. You need the internal repentance as well as the exter­nal confession of that repentance before all men at baptism. You will need to publicly confess that which is within. Jesus says, “Whoever confesses me before men, I will confess him before my Father” (Mt.10:32). We don’t just believe in Jesus but also confess him before men. It is important to con­fess Jesus if he is to confess you before the Father. Yet many in the church say, “Believing is enough, confession doesn’t matter,” as if one could be a secret disciple.

Why is baptism important? Isn’t baptism just a religious cere­mony? Not at all, for Peter continues: “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” That is the point. How then do I receive the gift of the Spirit? The Bible makes it clear and simple: Repent and be baptized, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Repent, so that your life may be changed. Be baptized, so that your sins may be washed away, and you receive the gift of the Spirit.

As for our original question, When do you receive the gift of the Spirit?, many think that the gift comes when you raise your hand to accept Jesus. But is that what the Bible teaches? Does it ever say that you receive the Spirit when you believe, kneel down, and repent? Repen­tance is certainly needed, yet the Bible also says, “Repent and be baptized, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

If we say that we receive the Holy Spirit after baptism, how long after? Three days? Five days? A week? The Bible says it is specifically at bap­tism that we receive the Spirit, which is why baptism was important to the early church.

The Holy Spirit: a seal, an anointing, a pledge

We can understand the Holy Spirit as a gift in three ways. First, the Holy Spirit is given to us as a seal. Second, the Holy Spirit is an anointing. Third, the Holy Spirit is a pledge (or, in some Bibles, a guarantee, down pay­ment, deposit). The words anointed, seal, and guarantee are all found in the following passage:

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2Corinthians 1:21-22, ESV)

God anoints us and puts His seal upon us. This seal is the Holy Spirit whom God has given as a guarantee or a down payment. So we have all three words—anointed, seal, guarantee—in one sentence. God does three things to us when He gives us the Holy Spirit: He seals us, anoints us, and gives us a guarantee—or, better, a “down payment” or “first install­ment”.

When you buy a house, you don’t pay the whole sum initially but a down payment. That is the meaning of the Greek arrabōn. The down payment is your pledge or guarantee of paying the rest.

The Holy Spirit is a gift of life; it is God’s pledge of giving us the fullness of eternal life on the day we see Him face to face. We don’t have the fullness of eternal life yet, but only a pledge. Yet even now it is already a gift of life, a pledge of the fullness that is to come. It is like receiving a seed as an emblem of the full plant to come.

The seal marks God’s ownership and protection

We are sealed with the Spirit who is given to us as a down payment. The word “seal” is also found in Eph.1:13, 4:30, and Rev.7:3. The verse in Revelation speaks of the seal on the foreheads of the servants of God, or, more accurately, the slaves of God.

A slave is one who has been bought with a price. In ancient times, you would go to a slave market to buy a slave, and he becomes your prop­erty. To signify that he belongs to you, you would put a seal on him in much the same way you seal or brand a cow. Cattle raisers in Alberta and other places would burn a brand on the animal, signifying that the cow or steer belongs to a certain farm.

Likewise you receive the Holy Spirit as a seal to signify that you belong to God. You bear His seal, so you are God’s possess­ion. Paul says, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1Cor.6:19-20), namely, the price of the blood of Jesus, the Son of God.

The seal not only marks the slave as the owner’s property, but declares that anything you do against the slave is done against his master. If you hurt a slave, you will be in trouble not with the slave but with his master. The seal then becomes a protect­ion for God’s people. Those who carry God’s seal will be protected by God, and won’t be harmed by God’s judgment (Rev.7:3; 9:4). But if you don’t have the seal, you don’t belong to God, and you will come under His judgment or under the power of Satan, the Evil One, who will do with you as he wishes, since you are not under God’s protection.

So at what point are we sealed with the Holy Spirit? In asking this question, bear in mind that Jesus himself was sealed by God: “For on him God the Father has set his seal” (John 6:27). When did this take place? At his birth? At the start of his ministry? Or was it at his baptism?

Since the seal is the Holy Spirit, we can ask, When did Jesus receive the Spirit? It was at Jesus’ baptism that the Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove (Luke 3:22). A few verses later, it is said that Jesus was full of the Spirit: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilder­ness” (Luke 4:1).

Circumcision and the seal

There is another aspect to the seal of the Spirit. Paul says that in the case of Abraham, circumcis­ion is a seal (Romans 4:11). Abraham received a special kind of seal, the seal of circumcision:

He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. (Romans 4:11, RSV)

Since circumcision is a seal, we too have the seal because we too have been circumcised—not in the flesh but in the heart:

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

Paul also says:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ. And you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12, RSV)

Paul links circumcision to baptism. We are not circumcised phy­sic­ally as was Abraham, but circum­cised in heart, the sign of which is baptism. At baptism we receive the seal of the Spirit, the sign of the circumcision of the heart.

We are not saved by baptism alone, for there must be both baptism and repentance. What saves us is not baptism itself but what it signifies: the circum­cision of the heart. No one is saved just by being dipped in water. What matters is the heart trans­form­ation at baptism. That is why we ask every baptismal candidate about his repent­ance, his change of mind, and his commitment to God. Repentance is not just feel­ing sorry for sin, but a complete change of the heart and mind that turn­s away from the old life, putting off the “body of the flesh” (Col.2:11) to “put on Christ” (Gal.3:27).

Baptism: A washing for new life by the Holy Spirit

Paul gives a further connection of baptism and the Holy Spirit:

But you were washed, you were sancti­fied, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1Cor.6:11)

And also:

[God] saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renew­al in the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5, RSV)

God saves us not because of our deeds but by the washing of regener­ation and renewal in the Holy Spirit. We see again the link between baptism (“washing”) and the Spirit, and the use of the words renewal and righteous­ness which express the circumcis­ion of the heart.

Anyone who has not repented, or is untransformed in his heart, should refrain from baptism. But the one who has turned away from his old life and is bap­tized will experience the circumcision of the heart and the wash­ing of regeneration. In the Greek of Titus 3:5, the word washing is a descrip­tive genitive, indicating the type of washing, namely, one that has to do with “regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit”.

Noah saved by baptism in the ark

An important passage on baptism is found in 1 Peter 3:20-21:

… to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:20-21, NIV)

Peter says that baptism, which corresponds to entering the ark in the days of Noah, now saves you. You might exclaim, “Baptism saves you? Really?” Baptism saves, not by removing dirt from the body in going into the water, but as a pledge of a clear conscience toward God (which signifies repentance) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Peter is speaking of Noah and the ark. In the days of Noah, it rained forty days and forty nights after “the fountains of the great deep had burst forth” (Gen.7:11-12). Water came out from below, and water poured down from above. This is a picture of baptism.

How were the eight people including Noah saved? They were saved in the ark by a baptism that came from above and below. We too are saved at baptism, by a pledge to God of a clear conscience.

Noah was saved in the ark by baptism. Unlike his contempora­ries, he had repented of his sins and turned away from wickedness. “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. He walked with God” (Gen.6:9) and was quick to follow God’s commands (v.22). When God told him to make an ark, he made an ark. When God said, “Go into the ark,” he went in. Noah’s repentance was seen in his obedience, and this eventually led to his being baptized in the ark. He was baptized as the waters poured down, and the eight were saved through the floodwaters.

Peter says that you are saved in the same way, through repent­ance and finishing with the life of sin, just as Noah was finished with the world of sin. He had repented of sin, turning his back complete­ly to it, and obeyed God in going into the ark. Baptism saves in the same way.

Baptism is not a washing of the flesh but a confession of repent­ance “for a clear conscience before God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. It is Jesus’ resurrection that makes repent­ance mean­ingful and the new life possible. Without the resurrection, we can repent all we want, but where will we find the forgiveness of sins or the power to live the new life?

The outpouring of the Spirit

The Bible links baptism with the Holy Spirit by means of various pictures. For example, the Spirit is described as an outpouring of blessing which, like water, is poured on God’s people. When Peter spoke to the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost, he cited Joel 2:28-29 as the prophetic basis of the manifestations of the Spirit that the people had just witnessed:

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:16-18, ESV)

Peter was telling them that the pouring of the Spirit—the baptism of the Spirit—was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

Baptism and the Holy Spirit are often linked in the Bible, whether at Jesus’ baptism where the Spirit descended on him, or in a state­ment of a general nature such as, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” of Christ (1Cor.12:13).

There is also the statement by John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water for repentance … he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt.3:11). Again the link between baptism and the Spirit which is characteristic of the New Testament. John draws a contrast be­tween the baptism that he administers and the one Jesus will administer. The former is a baptism with a public declaration of repentance, but when Jesus comes, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

It doesn’t mean that water baptism doesn’t matter any more. In fact the disciples of Jesus baptized more people with water than did John the Baptist (John 4:1-2). In drawing the contrast between baptism for repent­ance and baptism with the Spirit, John is saying, “I cannot give you the new life, for only the Christ sent by God can do that. I admin­ister external cleansing upon your repentance, but when Jesus comes, he will give you internal cleansing—the washing of regeneration—to accom­pany the external cleansing.”

Anointed with the Spirit at baptism

We come to the word “anoint”. Many of us are already aware that the title “Christ” means the Anointed One. “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew for “Messiah,” which also means the Anointed One. In the New Testament, Jesus is said many times to be anointed, for example, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

We too have been anointed with the Holy Spirit. 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, which we have looked at, speaks of the anointing, the seal, and the pledge. There is also 1 John 2:20, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One,” and verse 27, “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you”. The anointing that we receive is the Holy Spirit who teaches us and leads us into all the truth (John 14:26; 16:13).

At what point are we anointed with the Spirit? Before baptism? At baptism? Or at some unspecified point after baptism such that we cannot tell for sure when we are anointed? Again the answer lies in Jesus’ baptism. It was at his baptism that the Holy Spirit des­cended on him like a dove (Mt.3:16; Mk.1:10; Lk.3:22; Jn.1:32).

The Spirit’s work prior to baptism

This leads to a crucial question: If Jesus was anointed at his baptism, does it mean that he didn’t have the Spirit before that? He certainly had the Spirit before baptism. As for you, did you have the Spirit in some sense before baptism? Of course you did, for how else could you have repented? It is the Spirit’s work in your heart and in your life that leads you to repentance. The Holy Spirit had been working in your life long before you became a Christian, for how else could you have become one? The Spirit had been working in your life from your childhood, per­haps even the day you were born. The Spirit had been working in our non-Christian days when we were still enemies of God. Looking back, I can see that God had been working in my life long before I believed in Him.

If your father and mother are not Christians, what are you really asking for when you pray for their salvation? You are asking God to work in their lives by His Spirit. You believe that the Spirit is willing to work in the hearts of non-Christians.

We do not teach salvation by works. None of those who will be bap­tized today would be here if the Spirit had not been working in their lives.

But to those who obey God, the Spirit is given as a gift (Acts 5:32), as a down payment, as a seal, as an anointing. At baptism they receive the seal of the Spirit to signify that they have been anointed by God and have become God’s possession.

The kings, priests, and prophets of Israel were anointed. The anointing is not just a religious ceremony but God’s way of confer­ring spiritual authority on them. A king has no authority unless it is given him by God. Jesus said to Pilate: “You would have no author­ity over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).

The kings of Israel, unlike the kings in the world today, were God’s repres­entatives, so they had to be anointed by God to be conferred with authority. The same can be said of priests, especially the high priest who is anointed by God to signif­y that he had received his calling and authority from God.

The prophets were also anointed for they needed the authority and the ability to prophesy. It is by God’s Spirit that a prophet declares God’s Word and foretells the future.

Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18, citing Isaiah 61:1). This anointing is the Spirit, which empowers Jesus to preach the gospel.

At what point in time did Jesus say those words in Luke 4:18? When he was twelve years old at the temple? No, it was soon after his baptism. At his baptism Jesus was anointed when the Holy Spirit descended on him. Soon after this and after being tempted by Satan, Jesus declared, “I have been anointed to preach the gospel.”

Likewise it is at baptism that we receive the anoint­ing of the Spirit. Jesus had the Spirit before he was baptized, but now he has been anointed to preach the gospel.

In summary, from the many connections between baptism and the Spirit that are found in Scripture, we see the following links: (1) the Spirit and the sealing at baptism; (2) the Spirit and the anointing at baptism; (3) the Spirit and the pledge or guarantee at baptism.

God generally gives the Spirit at baptism but is free to make exceptions

In Acts 2:38 which we have read—“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”—we have the general rule that the Spirit is given at baptism. Yet God is free to give the Spirit before or after baptism in order to fulfill His sove­reign purposes.

In the Bible there is one instance of God giving the Spirit before bap­tism (Acts 10:44-48) and another after baptism (8:12-17), both of which occurred in exceptional situations in the history of the church. But we cannot cite these two exceptions to reject a general rule, for in fact the exceptions prove the rule.

In the first case, Acts 10:44-48, the Spirit was given to Cornelius and others prior to baptism. That was because Cornelius was a Gentile, and because the Jews hesitated to accept Gentiles into the church. Peter later had to explain to the Jerusalem church why he had baptized the Gentiles, saying to them in effect: “While I was preach­ing, God poured the Spirit on them, so I had no choice but to baptize them” (cf. Acts 11:15-18; 15:6-9). This happened at a pivotal moment in the early church, when the church was about to admit Gentiles.

In the other case, Acts 8:12-17, some Samaritans were baptized but didn’t receive the Spirit. This special case arose in order to address the mutual hostility between Jews and Samaritans. To re­solve this hostility, God guided the leaders of the Jerusalem church, who were Jews, to person­ally receive the Samarit­ans into fellowship. The Samaritans had been bap­tized, yet God sent Peter and John to them, in order to lay hands on them for the gift of the Spirit.

These two exceptions indicate, firstly, that God is sovereign to give the Spirit before or after baptism as He chooses; and secondly that these two are exceptional cases in special situations in church history, indicating that the Spirit, as a general rule, is given at baptism. A third case is discussed in Appendix 1.

In closing, the key point of baptism is not that the water of baptism is efficacious for salvation, but that baptism signifies the internal repentance as well as the external obedience to Jesus. We in turn are commanded to baptize others: “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” (Mt.28:19).

[1] In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit usually called “the Spirit of Yahweh,” the predominant term for the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (e.g., seven times in Judges alone: 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14), rendered in most English Bibles as “the Spirit of the Lord,” but this is a paraphrase, not a translation.


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