The sacraments (43): More than one baptism?

This much is clear: baptism with water and the imparting of the gift of the Holy Spirit are closely linked. But how? Concerning this, the New Testament provides several answers at once. And they do not always fit together.

It is a must—this is something Jesus Himself made clear: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3: 5). Well, it’s quite logical that the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3: 5) is a reference to baptism with water—inherited as an unrepeatable act from John the Baptist, who merely used it as a confirmation of repentance. But how does the “renewing of the Holy Spirit” occur?

Passive and active

How does the believer gain access to the gift of the Holy Spirit? Through a spontaneous event or through a specific, intentional act? The Bible allows for both possibilities.

The great example—namely the moment when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove at His baptism—simply happened without the involvement of any human being. The same is true for the great event of Pentecost in Jerusalem or the events in the house of the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea. It is of special note that in the last two examples, the Spirit descended on those present before they were even baptised.

However, in the other accounts of baptism, the Holy Spirit is either not expressly mentioned or else His arrival occurs in connection with a human act. And it happens so clearly that observers see it as cause and effect: when Simon the sorcerer perceived that the Spirit was imparted when the Apostles acted, he asked to purchase this power from them.

One-part and two-part

Is this activity how we are to understand the practice of baptism with water? Or is there a second act involved? The Bible allows for belief in both possibilities.

For example, in his sermon on Pentecost, Peter first called upon his listeners to be baptised. “And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 38). This strongly suggests that baptism and the dispensation of the gift of the Holy Spirit happen at the same time.

It is, however, the same Peter who is sent to Samaria together with John specifically to finish something that had already been initiated, but was not yet complete. Philip had baptised some previous followers of Simon Mage there, but the Holy Spirit had as yet “fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8: 16). This only changed once the Apostles took action.

Gestures and signs

And what did Peter and John do in Samaria? The exact same thing as Paul did with the disciples of John whom he encountered in Ephesus: they laid their hands upon the baptised. This is the rite that the New Testament associates with the imparting of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is true that in the house of Cornelius, Peter preached about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10: 38). However, the Bible does not mention the use of anointing oil in association with baptism.

Thus the anointing is rather to be understood as an image—just like the sealing with the Holy Spirit mentioned in Ephesians 1: 13. After all, in antiquity, a seal represented a sign of belonging to an owner, which also implied that it stood under that owner’s protection.

Spontaneous event or intentional act, one-part or two-part, sealing or anointing: each of these aspects can be found more than once in the New Testament. Most baptismal accounts—for example, those involving the eunuch of Ethiopia, Lydia, the master of the prison in Philippi, and Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth—do not mention the Holy Spirit. The ambiguities and gaps left plenty of room for different rites to develop in the early church. And that will be the focus of the next issue of this series.


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Andreas Rother
7.10.2021
Bible, sacraments, Holy Baptism, Holy Sealing