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The more I reflected about my earlier post, my mind went to this verse, spoken by John the Baptist:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matt. 3:11, my emphasis)

Notice that John the Baptist draws a distinction between how he baptizes with water and how Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. From this, I think it seems reasonable to speak of a difference between the physical baptism of water and the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit, just as the Bible makes a distinction between physical circumcision and spiritual circumcision.

But, when the Scriptures speak of spiritual (i.e., “heart”) circumcision, no one assumes that those writers are speaking of all physical circumcision, as though physical circumcision automatically equates with heart circumcision. In fact, Paul goes out of his way to emphasize the difference between physical and spiritual circumcision: “For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). Of course, the physical and the spiritual circumcisions are linked, but my point is simply that they are not exactly the same thing.

Here is what I am trying to say: when we read texts where baptism is spoken of spiritually, we should not therefore automatically equate that spiritual baptism with water baptism. As with the two types of circumcision, I think there is a connection between water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism, but I am simply arguing that not all who have received water baptism have necessarily received Holy Spirit baptism, just as not all who received physical circumcision were heart circumcised. Consider the following texts:

  • 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
  • For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:13, my emphasis)
  • For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:27)
  • 11In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11-12)
  • Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Pet. 3:21)

I would argue that each of these texts should be interpreted as referring to spiritual, Holy Spirit baptism rather than physical, water baptism. In this way, the verses are always true–every single person who has been spiritually baptized in the Holy Spirit has:

  • been baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3-4)
  • been baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13)
  • put on Christ (Gal. 3:27)
  • been buried with Christ (Col. 2:11-12)
  • been saved (1 Pet. 3:21)

I make this point (i.e., that these verses are true for everyone who has been spiritually baptized) because it is a common baptist argument to point to these verses and say, “How can these verses be true of all who are [water] baptized if we [water] baptize people who are unable to give a profession of faith?” I think the problem with this question is now clear–Scripture understands a difference between those who have been baptized with water and those who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and these texts are referring to those who have received the latter. In fact, this interpretation is even more consistent than the baptist’s interpretation, since there are obviously people who make false professions of faith, but who are nevertheless baptized. (This will always happen no matter what we might try to do to separate the sheep from the goats, since we simply have no way of knowing whom exactly God chooses to save.)


In my mind, understanding baptism this way has three implications:

  1. This interpretation prevents baptists from claiming as proof that baptism should be restricted to those who can profess faith, since such a claim would confuse the spiritual baptism meant in the passages with their conception of what physical baptism should be.
  2. This interpretation gives a good reason to avoid what I would call the “hyper-sacramentalist” understanding of baptism in parts of the early church, where baptism was seen as so important–being the actual mechanism for washing away sins–that some considered it necessary for salvation. Their belief stems directly from an interpretation of the above passages which understands the spiritual benefits as coming through physical baptism.
  3. Finally, I think that this interpretation further demonstrates that we should understand baptism largely through an understanding of what circumcision was meant to be. In the Old Testament, we see that physical circumcision points to the goal of heart circumcision; in the New Testament (beginning with the distinction John the Baptist draws), we see that physical/water baptism points to the goal of Holy Spirit baptism. This high level of continuity from circumcision to baptism strongly suggests the validity of infant baptism.

So, how is water baptism related to spiritual baptism? Or, for that matter, how is physical circumcision related to heart circumcision? I’ll try to pick up that topic soon.

Note: This is the second of three posts on this subject. Read Part One and Part Three.

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