In Baptism the Holy Spirit gives to us the gift and promise of new life. We have all read Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus many many times and we remember how Jesus explains to this righteous, God-fearing Jew that there is something more required of him than simply submitting to Christ as a teacher. Jesus says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” This does not make sense to Nicodemus, he asks “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” And Jesus replies, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God”
To be born again, Jesus explains, is to be born of water and of Spirit. Jesus joins together two things that are necessary, then, for new life. Water and Spirit. To separate the two, to say that there is something to do with water that is essentially unrelated to something that the Spirit does, is to question Christ’s wisdom in putting the two together. If it was Jesus’ intent that we not mix our understanding of the application of water and the work of the Spirit, that we don’t see them as ordinarily one and the same work, he could have easily left out the water.
Yet he joined the two together and said that these two things must be present if you are to have the new birth. And when do we see these two things put together any time other than in Christian Baptism? There is only one time that He works in such a way through water. We can only confuse things to speak of an individual Spirit Baptism as being something that happens entirely separately from water Baptism. There is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
In Baptism we are joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Romans 6 – Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection. Galatians 3 – For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
In the New Testament, baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are almost always connected. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove at Jesus’ baptism. In Acts the gift of the Holy Spirit results in baptisms. Titus 3:5 – “He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” I Corinthians 6:11 “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” I Corinthians 12:13 “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one spirit.”
In baptism the Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus. The fact that the Spirit ordinarily does this in baptism gives us a great deal of assurance and comfort. Our feelings and affections and senses of where we are in relationship to Christ are always fluctuating. But our relationship to him does not depend up on our feelings, but upon the fact that at one time we came into contact with an outward, visible seal, ordained by Christ, and utilized by the Holy Spirit – our Comforter.
Because of the connection Jesus makes between water and the Spirit, the gift of the Holy Spirit and Baptism are indivisible. We are not ordinarily to think of one without the other. Our relationship to the Holy Spirit, the way He gifts us, comforts us, convicts us, and teaches us, is not to be thought of outside of the sacraments. We don’t have a relationship with the Holy Spirit that leaves the sacraments to the periphery.
To put it an other way, our relationship with the Holy Spirit runs through the water of Baptism.
When we include the Spirit’s work this way we understand that water alone does not incorporate us into Chirst. Water alone cannot create union with Christ, wash us of our sins or bring us into the Regeneration. But Baptism is not water alone – it is the means the Spirit uses to bring to us all the gifts and graces of the Regeneration. The Reformed confessions have always testified to the fact that the sacrament carries along with it what it symbolizes.