What Is the “One Baptism” in Ephesians 4:5?

What Is the “One Baptism” in Ephesians 4:5?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, January 8, 2010 at 8:18pm

A RECENT QUESTION: Does 1 Cor. 12:13 teach that water baptism or Spirit baptism brings a sinner into union with Jesus Christ? What about Gal. 3:27 – is it water or Spirit baptism? What is the ONE baptism of Eph. 4:5?

MY REPLY: Though some (such as mid-Acts dispensationalists) deny it, water baptism has been the church’s practice from its beginning on the Day of Pentecost. (We cannot infer this from John’s practice of baptizing in the Jordan River, since John’s baptism and Christian baptism are NOT the same thing.) The baptism Jesus commanded in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19) must be water baptism, since he commanded his disciples to administer it. Water is specifically mentioned in connection with baptism in Acts 8:36 and 10:47. Paul personally baptized some of his converts (1 Cor. 1:14-16), which shows that this baptism was with water.

It is also true that every Christian has been baptized in the Holy Spirit, as 1 Cor. 12:13 says: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” In chapter 8 of my book on the Holy Spirit, “Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit” (College Press, 2007), I show that Holy Spirit baptism, as promised by John the Baptist and by Jesus, is the same as the universal promise of the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39). I also show that it has no necessary connection with speaking in tongues, contrary to the Pentecostal and Charismatic view, and contrary to the traditional “two-episode” view (Pentecost and Cornelius) which is popular in the Restoration Movement.

The conclusion is that every Christian has been baptized in water, and has also been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Thus it appears at first as if each of us has experienced two baptisms. How then can Paul assert in Eph. 4:5 that one of the unifying foundational pillars of the church is that we have just “one baptism”? The only reasonable and biblical answer is that water baptism and Spirit baptism are not two separate baptisms, but simply two aspects or two sides of a single act. The “one baptism” in Eph. 4:5 is the convert’s baptism in water, which is also at the same time baptism in the Holy Spirit. As an analogy, in the same verse Paul asserts that Christians have but “one Lord,” and we know that he has two natures: human and divine. Likewise the one baptism has two sides: human and divine, physical and spiritual, water and Spirit. This is consistent with John 3:5, which says we are “born of water and the Spirit.” Heb. 10:22 likewise says that we have had “our hearts [=spirits] sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The 19th century Restoration scholar Moses Lard says, “At the instant when the body is immersed in water,… the immersion of the human spirit takes place in the Holy Spirit. The inner man is then immersed as well as the outer, [the former] in Spirit, [the latter] in water” (“Baptism in One Spirit into One Body,” ín “Lard’s Quarterly,” I, March 1864).

Why is it, then, that most of the Protestant world, contrary to Paul’s clear statement in Eph. 4:5, assumes and teaches that there are actually TWO separate baptisms in a Christian’s experience, one a baptism in the Spirit and the other a baptism in water? Because they are under the sway of Zwingli’s new doctrine of baptism, created in A.D. 1525, which totally separated water baptism from conversion and salvation. Zwingli is the actual originator of the modern “faith only” approach to salvation, which says that the sinner is saved the moment he believes, which is also the time when Spirit baptism occurs. Then at some later time water baptism is applied as a testimony to the salvation that has already been received.

So, if modern Protestants distinguish two entirely separate acts called baptism, which one is in view in Eph. 4:5? The most common answer is that this verse refers to Spirit baptism. As Alfred Martin says, “The one baptism is undoubtedly the baptism of the Holy Spirit” (“The Wycliffe Bible Commentary,” Moody 1962, p. 1310). Merrill Unger declares that Paul, “in speaking of the ‘one baptism’ in Ephesians 4:5, is speaking of Spirit baptism” (“Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” Moody 1974, p. 33). The idea that this verse refers to water baptism, he says, “teeters perilously on the precipice of the error of baptismal regeneration” (ibid., 118). Once these folks have separated Spirit baptism (the saving event) from water baptism (the subsequent testimony), they then proceed to identify every NT text that connects baptism with salvation as a reference to Spirit baptism only. They usually do this with texts such as Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:12; and obviously 1 Cor. 12:13.

This approach is, of course, in direct contradiction with the simple affirmation of Paul in Eph. 4:5 that there is ONLY “one baptism.” In opposition to this false approach, we must recognize that whenever the NT speaks of Christian baptism, it is speaking of the one event that combines baptism in water with baptism in the Holy Spirit. My conclusion to the section on this subject in my book, “Power from on High,” is as follows (pp. 330-331): “We must stop dividing the one baptism into two events; it is one event with two distinct aspects. Also, we must stop dividing the biblical texts about baptism into two separate lists, i.e., one with references to water baptism and the other with references to Spirit baptism. There is only one Christian baptism. Whenever baptism is mentioned in the NT in the context of the church, it is WATER baptism; and it is also SPIRIT baptism.”

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