The Bible is a big book — the Book of books. Though its truths are plain and simple in many respects, it can be complex and difficult, too. Let’s settle for simple here.
The main message of Scripture can be summed up in two easy-to-grasp points: 1) God has shown His love for all people best through Christ’s earthly life, death, and resurrection, so 2) we are called to trust and obey Him and to lovingly serve others in Jesus’ name as we wait for His return.
These summary statements give rise to many and more difficult issues, to be sure. Still, Christian teaching and practice can be easily understood at this core level. At this level also, it is unified: one faith! Paul makes this point when he writes, “one body, one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
We’ll get a feel for what’s true about each of these seven simple “ones” as we explore “one baptism.” What might this seemingly simple phrase imply if we had no more Scripture to learn from? Does “one baptism,” for example, mean that no difference exists between water baptism and Spirit baptism? Does it mean no one should ever be immersed in water more than once? In what sense is the Christian ordinance of baptism “one”? The answers proposed below are intended to maintain a simple, basic unity among the many texts bearing on this subject.
Of water and Spirit
Water baptism happens when one believer is immersed by another — in water, naturally. Baptism in water is one earthy, outward action reflecting inward reality. This inner truth is that a sinner has been converted, has confessed his sins to, and his faith in, the Lord Jesus, and has believed in his heart that God raised Christ His Son from the dead.
Keeping with Bible words, we say that this sinner has been forgiven of his sins and is thus delivered (saved) from the penalty of death. No longer liable to God’s condemnation at judgment, the new believer is given life instead. This gift consists of new and improved existence now and endless existence in God’s great tomorrow.
All this, we freely declare, is not our work as sinners but the work of God’s Spirit inside us. By the Spirit, we hear the message of Christ in our hearts, not just in our ears. By the Spirit, we are moved past the dominant darkness of our unbelief into the dawn of God’s love. And by the Spirit we are immersed into Christ’s spiritual body, the Father’s family of faith on earth (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Scripture says all this takes place precisely when faith mixes with the Word of God in our hearts and minds. All of it is encompassed by the one thing that may be called Spirit baptism. It is one awesome thing that we will attempt to summarize again below.
Where does water baptism fit into this marvelous spiritual paradigm of a life transformed for time and destined for eternity? It fits not as the dynamic of life now and forever; that dynamic role belongs to God’s Spirit. Rather, water baptism serves as illustration and preview of the transformed life. More than once in Scripture, water serves as a type, or shadow, of God’s Spirit.
Baptism in water is one thing that, right at the start, previews and reviews Christian conversion. In its dramatic representation, by faith we see the death of Christ and our own death to sin, as that death is confirmed by burial. And by faith we see the raising of Christ and our own resurrection from a watery grave to a renewed and upgraded life of trusting obedience with the Lord.
Water baptism is one notable and memorable thing that conforms fully to our Lord’s example and teaching. It is one right thing that changes some things. It strengthens our confidence and courage to stand up for Christ in every situation, now that we have publicly confessed our faith and our sins by passing through the water.
Baptism also changes our standing with the local church by qualifying us for membership in it. Faith is the invisible door into God’s church as a universal body. Baptism is the visible door into that church as represented in a local congregation.
Yes, baptism in water is one right thing. Ideally, it coincides closely with that baptism the Holy Spirit performed by immersing us into Christ, into His body. Realistically, however, few of us knew precisely the day or hour when we entered the invisible body of Christ by an invisible faith and our names were written in an invisible book that’s in an invisible heaven.
If the date of our water baptism is not as near the time of our spiritual change as it might have been, still that date stands as an external reminder and sign of inward action known fully to God alone. As such, it never needs to be repeated.
What if it is repeated?
As a teenager, I followed the call of my elders and the lead of my friends by being baptized in water — not once but twice. Why? I think I expected more from water baptism than it was intended to deliver. I thought baptism would put a positive end to most of my struggles against sin. When that didn’t happen, I tried again, hoping the second “going under” would make me a better “over-comer.”
It didn’t — at least not right away. More time and Bible study, though, brought me to understand the nature of conversion and of Christian life. Gradually I learned that new babies have a lot of growing to do, that none of Jesus’ people are perfect — though forgiven — and that water baptism is not a pre-paid ticket to the holy lands of life that we seek.
So which of my two baptisms in water does God recognize among the steps to salvation and obedience? I don’t know, and I’m no longer concerned about that part of it. I’ve come to see that “one baptism” in Ephesians 4 was not meant as much to prohibit multiple visits to the watery grave as it was to stress the organic unity in God’s complete work through the Spirit. He calls us to Christ, converts us to Christ, and conforms us to Christ’s character — little by little, one step at a time.
Often we stumble, but we get up and go on, repeating steps as necessary, living and learning to lean on Jesus all the way home. His grace-filled and truth-saturated response to our life’s adventure — and our misadventures — has gotten us safe thus far and will get us safely home.
Spirit’s simplicity and unity
Immersion by the Holy Spirit into Christ and His church is baptism’s “one” reality. Immersion in water is an insightful, essential, and dramatic reflection of that reality. While baptism in water changes a few things, the Holy Spirit changes more important things now and changes everything eventually. Water is the medium for an inspiring illustration; Spirit is the dynamic of an inspired and eternal life. Working together, Spirit and water achieve a single divine purpose in those who trust and obey.
No human can baptize anyone into a spiritual, heavenly body, but the Spirit of God can. And He does, when we admit our inward need, believe that Jesus Christ is who and what we need, and confess our sins and our faith in His name. These are the human actions that Scripture links closely with “baptism by the Holy Spirit.” Admit, believe, and confess: These human responses to the initiative of God’s Spirit may or may not be immediately recognizable on the outside. But the Holy Spirit recognizes them on earth and confirms them in heaven by baptizing us into the only true church, as we believe.
Though we may rightfully recognize and profitably discuss other aspects and details of baptism, we join our voices with all other Christ-followers in declaring “one baptism.” All other truths related to baptism in the Bible do not change the fact that the Holy Spirit, revealed in Paul’s words, says that baptism at its core is one thing, not many.
Reader, have you known the moving and transforming power of God’s Spirit in your life, and have you linked that awesome, heavenly work with an obedient, public, earthy declaration of your faith in Christ through the waters of baptism? Please don’t settle for a fractional response to the gospel. The baptism commended in Scripture is one complete package of water and the Spirit.