I know this could be a controversial issue which is why I’ve struggled not to specifically write about it. I did mention some of my thoughts in a previous blog, however, I wanted to devote a post specifically to this topic. First, I want to state that I have no problem if people feel led by the Spirit to have a water baptism. When it becomes a requirement for salvation though, it starts resembling old law methods of external conformance.
First, we see John the Baptist performing water baptisms in preparation for Jesus’ coming. He states that he indeed was baptizing with water, but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11). Likewise, John was the last of the Old Covenant prophets pointing the way to the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus states that his water baptism was to fulfill all righteous. Similarly, he fulfilled the Law and the Prophets as he mentions a couple of chapters later and gives us the fulfillment of all of these things. It seems in this instant that water baptism was a temporary symbol (or shadow) of what was to come–baptism by Jesus into the Holy Spirit. In addition, if baptism is required because Jesus did it, so would circumcision as Jesus was also circumcised (Luke 2:21).
So, what about all the Acts verses and the directions of Peter that the early church should be baptized in water? Very early in Acts 1:5, we see Jesus repeat that John the Baptist used water, but that the disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit, which they were at Pentecost. Peter goes on to preach the three standards for entering the Kingdom–believe in Jesus, be baptized (in water), and receive the Holy Spirit. Now, this seems pretty cut and dry at this point. Peter preached the requirement for water baptism and therefore we must be baptized by water. Many stop right here and insist that water baptism is necessary and we should just go ahead and do it. This would be a legitimate conclusion if Jesus didn’t step in again to remind Peter of what he said in Acts 1:5. In Acts 11:15-17, the Holy Spirit falls onto the listeners of this Cesarean household. This happens when Peter is still speaking before he ever has a chance to baptize with water. He’s then reminded (v16) that this is exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate, and God’s mandate supersedes human ones (v17).
The ways I’ve seen water baptism presented today sound a lot like what the old law followers were trying to do to the early church (Act 15:5,10-11; Galatians 5:1-2). They were stating that the gentile converts should just go ahead and get circumcised and get it over with so there would be unity (but what they really meant was conformity). I’ve heard this same thing stated about water baptism. This is a forceful attempt to bind people to external actions to gain a foothold of control by presenting an artificial standard that promotes “more” righteousness (Galatians 3:2-3). People seem to be manipulated to feel they aren’t a “real” Christian unless they are baptized by water. Then they can be manipulated to other political, financial, and societal agendas to further an organization’s goals. Those who don’t accept the popular view of water baptism are labeled as divisive, backsliders, sinners, or otherwise pointed to as the standard not to be. This is, of coarse, a worse case scenario, but I’ve witnessed it played out on several occasions and often in very subtle ways.
As stated before, I don’t have a problem if people desire a water baptism based on the leading of the Holy Spirit. However, when it becomes a requirement, it is turned into a mandate that must be followed to become a Christian similar to how the Pharisees defined the Old Covenant laws. Christians can be spiritually unified without having to be conformed externally to artificial standards.