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Which Comes First: the water or the Spirit?

Some of our friends in the baptist tradition are presently having a discussion over whether or not a paedobaptist (infant baptizer) should be allowed to be a member of a credobaptist (believer baptizer) local church. The discussion has also included the question as to whether or not a credobaptist local church should deny a paedobaptist access to Communion at our Lord’s Table. Some of the well known participants in the discussion include: John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan. Here is a link to a summary of the discussion. The conversation was kicked off when Piper came under the conviction that someone baptized as an infant who clearly believed in Christ as Lord should be allowed to be a member of his church without being rebaptized as a believer if he honestly believed his infant baptism to be valid. Piper, of course, does not believe infant baptism to be valid. However, he has come to the conviction that no child of God should be refused membership in a local church. He has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to have his local church’s constitution changed to allow those baptized as infants to become members. I applaud Piper’s convictions on this matter and hope that others will follow his lead so that we may begin to get beyond this rather sterile debate.

I am an intrigued outside observer and have little or nothing riding on the outcome of the discussion. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring up some helpful biblical observations regarding baptism. These comments will be brief. For those of you who are interested in more detailed work I recommend Troubled Waters by Ben Witherington. My upcoming comments will amount to summaries of his detailed work (credit where credit is due).

1. The book of Acts provides a variety of scenarios in which persons are baptized, and these scenarios give no prescriptive account for whether or not one must first be a Christian. In fact, Acts 2:38 indicates that one may be baptized prior to receiving the Spirit. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (NRSV). The order is clearly repentance followed by water baptism followed by the gift of the Spirit. It must be stressed that without the Spirit no one is a Christian. Thus, Peter is saying that one may be baptized prior to becoming a Christian. Acts 8:15-17 gives us an example of some men whom the apostles had baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus but who had not yet received the Spirit. Conclusion: the apostles baptized these persons prior to their becoming Christians.

Some will certainly point out that the mention of repentance prior to water baptism in Acts 2:38 rules out infant baptism. However, I am not making a case for infant baptism from this text. Rather, I am merely trying to indicate that the sign (water) may precede the thing signified (Spirit). This text has nothing to do with infant baptism. It is about the initial missionary baptisms after Pentecost. It does not speak to the issue of what to do with children born to Christian parents. I take it to be descriptive and not prescriptive.

In Acts 10:44-48 we are given an account of an occasion where water baptism comes after the reception of the Spirit. The Judeans with Peter were amazed that the Spirit had been given to Gentiles. But they could not refuse the evidence nor could they withhold water baptism from those on whom the Spirit had fallen.

The point is this: Acts presents us with accounts of water baptism preceding Spirit reception as well as Spirit reception preceding water baptism. This should substantiate my earlier point that Acts should not be read as prescriptive or normative in matters of baptism. Rather, it provides us with descriptive accounts of the first missionary efforts of the church. It should be clear though, from Acts 2 and 8, that water baptism may be thought of as a rite preparing one to receive the Spirit.

2. It is commonly said that the Greek verb baptizo means “to dip or immerse”. Thus, pouring or sprinkling are not true modes of baptism. This, however, is simply not the case. The meaning of a word is not found in the dictionary or lexicon. The meaning of a word is found in the contexts in which the word is used. The Didache, an early Christian document from the late first or second century, indicates that baptizo and its cognates can refer to immersion in water or the pouring of water on the head. The Greek baptizo refers to a ceremonial washing or water rite. It does not necessarily refer to immersion in water.

These observations are not intended as an argument for one theology of baptism or another. They are merely intended to demonstrate that the biblical evidence does not necessarily fit into our systematic categories. We need to do a better job of studying the texts themselves to understand what they do and do not say about baptism. My hope and prayer is that the current discussion will help to pave the way out of this debate.

Grace and peace,


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