There are quite a few religions today that claim to have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit and that only through their specific institution can a person receive a legitimate baptism. What did the earliest Christians discover about the gift of the Holy Spirit? And why did they baptize people with water?
A great story that answers these questions is found in the book of Acts (ch. 10-11) and deals with Peter and the household of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. Peter explained the gospel message of Jesus to Cornelius and then he and his whole household believed the gospel and received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
After witnessing this, Peter remarked “Surely noone can stand in the way of these people being baptized with water, they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Later in the story, Peter again remarked “if God gave them the same gift as He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder the work of God?”
The earliest leaders within Christianity recognized that God was the giver of the Holy Spirit upon genuine belief in Jesus Christ. This sacred gift was not vested in any institution or committee of men, but God alone.
Red flags should go up as soon as you hear any person make the claim about their religion that they hold the proper authority for people to receive something that only God can give.
What about water baptism, what’s the point?
Water baptism, from the beginning, was seen as a symbolic ritual done because of an inward transformation and was only performed after a person received the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is also symbolic of our identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection. While many rituals and ceremonies have developed over the past two millennia, water baptism was one of only two rituals that Jesus insisted his followers hold to, the other being the Lord’s Supper.
What is the point of maintaining these rituals? The primary reason is that they point us to Jesus, his sacrificial death and his resurrection from the dead. Other than that, there is no intrinsic qualities about the rituals that reward a person any amount of grace from God. They are only meant to enrich our focus and faith in jesus Christ, and by faith we receive God’s grace.
Why only one baptism?
In nearly every religion there are rituals for cleansing that typically use water. In fact, that is what the word “baptism” means, a ceremonial cleansing by immersion in water. Such ceremonial cleansing is done again and again in other religions, but not so in Christianity. Why is this?
Christians are baptized one time only, signifying their “rebirth” as a new creation and as a child of God. It is also because there is nothing about the water baptism that washes away sins or cleanses a person’s conscience. Jesus’ one time sacrifice and resurrection is what cleanses us from within, so in this sense our one time baptism is representative of what Jesus accomplished for us already.
Water baptism is also representative of our being “baptized” or immersed with the Holy Spirit. This is the baptism that is done by God alone and is the only baptism that truly saves us. Because the gift of the Holy Spirit is a one time gift, water baptism only needs to be performed one time.
When Peter wrote of baptism in his first letter, he wrote that it was not the cleansing by water that saves but the pledge of a good conscience towards God. It saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I think there is also a message that we can glean based on the fact that Jesus only instituted two rituals for Christians to practice (baptism and Lord’s Supper). In a hectic and pretentious world, simplicity can definitely be a good thing. These two rituals direct our attention to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and his resurrection. With all the rituals and ceremonies that many religions come up with today, it might be a good idea to scrap much or all of it and get back to a simplistic focus on Jesus Christ and what he has accomplished for us.