The Role of the Holy Spirit in Baptism

This post is the 13th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read other parts of this study, click here.

What the Holy Spirit Does in Baptism

There is a sense in which all Christians are baptized in the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Moreover, this “Spirit” is more specifically identified as the “Spirit of God.”

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:11b

The three passive verbs (“washed… sanctified… justified”) imply the activity of God. Thus, according to Paul, baptism is not only an act which unified the Corinthians in Christ, it was specifically the Spirit of God who does the washing, sanctifying, and justifying.

Paul makes a similar statement in his letter to Titus.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Titus 3:4-7

Paul states that Christians are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”, which results in “being justified” so that we “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” The reference to “washing” and “renewal” is almost certainly intended as as reference to baptism. As was observed in the previous part of this study, Paul saw baptism as the moment when someone was united with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:1-4) and was put “into Christ” (Gal. 3:27). From Acts 2:38, 1 Corinthians 12:13, among other passages, we know this was closely connected to the work of the Spirit. Here, as in 1 Corinthians 6:11, we see that it is the Holy Spirit who does the washing, renewing, and justifying in baptism.

This parallels nicely with several other passages in the New Testament. The verses below refer to God’s act of sanctifying, cleansing, washing, or to the act of being “brought forth” or “born” again, all of which are terms closely connected with baptism.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.

Ephesians 5:25-26

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.

2 Thessalonians 2:13

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

James 1:18

Having purified your souls by obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.

1 Peter 1:22-23

Interestingly, with the exception of 2 Thessalonians 2:13, none of these verses mention the Spirit. Instead, they speak of the “washing of water with the word” or being “brought forth by the word of truth” or being “born again… through the living and abiding word of God.” From our earlier study on the Spirit (Parts 1, 3, and 4) it was observed that God’s “Spirit” or “Breath” was always closely connected to His “Word.” Whether, then, we speak of the “Spirit of God” or the “Breath of God” or the “Word of God”, He is the one who does the washing, sanctifying, justifying, cleansing, and purification in the new birth of baptism.

Pentecost Set the Stage for Baptism

Having surveyed the New Testament’s doctrinal explanations of the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we can now see why Peter would respond to the surprising events of Pentecost by saying

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.

Acts 2:38

Just as it is necessary for a swimming pool to be filled with water before someone can be immersed in the pool, and just as it is necessary for water to be poured out into a bathtub before someone can be washed in the bathtub, so it was necessary for the Holy Spirit to be poured out in order for believers to be washed, sanctified, and justified in the Holy Spirit. That is why Peter’s command of baptism was the logical response when the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, and why it was again the logical response when the Spirit was poured out on Cornelius’s household (Acts 10:46-47). Without Jesus sending the Holy Spirit, immersion in water would be no different than John’s baptism. But now that Jesus has ascended into heaven and has sent the Spirit, we too can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit when we believe and are baptized in Him (cf. Acts 19:2-6).

Or as Paul put it in Galatians 3:14:

In Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.