We who grew up in the 20th Century Churches of Christ were taught that the Spirit is not received at baptism. The “gift of the Holy Spirit” is salvation. Or maybe it’s the “ordinary” indwelling — which doesn’t do all that much. Indeed, the point was hammered into me with such force that I at one time thought we received the Holy Spirit when we went to the bookstore and bought a New Testament!
Therefore, I shouldn’t be surprised that we often struggle to understand that very nearly everything that happens at baptism — other than the cleansing of the filth from the flesh — happens by the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s at God’s direction and by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice. But it’s by the Spirit.
Receipt of the Spirit means we belong to God.
(Rom 8:9 ESV) 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
We are given life when the Spirit indwells us.
(Rom 8:10-11 ESV) 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
The Spirit is the means by which God adopts us as his children.
(Rom 8:15 ESV) 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
The Spirit sanctifies us (makes us holy).
(Rom 15:15-16 ESV) 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit washes, justifies, and sanctifies —
(1Co 6:11 ESV) And such were some of you. 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.
The Spirit empowers us to say “Jesus is Lord.”
(1Co 12:3 ESV) 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit unites us.
(1Co 12:13 ESV) 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
(Eph 4:3 ESV) 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace
The Spirit gives life —
(John 6:63 ESV) 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
(2Co 3:5-6 ESV) Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(Gal 5:25 ESV) 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
The Spirit gives hope —
(Gal 5:5 ESV) 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
The Spirit frees us from law —
(Gal 5:18 ESV) 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The Spirit guarantees our inheritance —
(Eph 1:13-14 ESV) 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
The Spirit gives us access to God —
(Eph 2:18 ESV) 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
The Spirit saves and sanctifies —
(2Th 2:13 ESV) 13 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.
(1Pe 1:2 ESV) 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
God saves and justifies by the Spirit —
(Tit 3:4-7 ESV) 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 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, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The Spirit causes us to confess Jesus —
(1Jo 4:2-3 ESV) 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
We abide in Christ and he in us by the Spirit —
(1Jo 4:13 ESV) 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
This is, of course, why John the Baptist was so careful to distinguish his baptism (“of repentance into forgiveness of sins”) from the baptism of the Messiah (“with the Spirit”). The baptism Peter offers in Acts 2:38 would be little different from John’s but for the promise of the “gift of the Holy Spirit.” Both the baptism of John and the baptism of Pentecost were “into the forgiveness of sins.” But Peter made a point to explain the difference clearly —
(Act 2:17a ESV) 17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh …”
(Act 2:33 ESV) 33 “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
(Act 2:38-39 ESV) 38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Acts 2:38-39 is an allusion to —
(Isa 44:3 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.
The “promise” in 2:29 refers to the “promise” is 2:33 — the “promise of the Holy Spirit.” The reason salvation will come not only to those saved at Pentecost but also for generations to come is that the Spirit will be poured out on generations to come.
Therefore, when Cornelius received the Spirit, as an outpouring, before baptism, Cornelius was saved before baptism.
(Act 10:44-45 ESV) 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.
If you’ve read Acts 2 or Isaiah, then you know that the Jews were referring to the Spirit’s outpouring in terms of prophesy and Pentecost. This was no mere gifting with tongues. This was the fulfillment of prophecy to pour the Spirit out on the nations — “all flesh.” And the outpouring of the Spirit meant that Cornelius was just as saved as Peter. Indeed: read Peter’s sermon and it’s about Jesus and about the outpouring of the Spirit. It’s not about baptism — which isn’t mentioned but once.
Now, I argued that in that instance — in the extraordinary case of Cornelius — baptism did not save, but baptism did incorporate Cornelius into the saved community by the community’s acceptance of the Gentiles as brothers. Indeed, this is why the apostles and others had to gather and decide whether Peter had correctly decided to baptize them. The decision to baptize was incredibly important.
But that doesn’t make this account normative. It teaches that baptism in the Spirit and baptism in water do not have to happen at the same time. It doesn’t teach that they never happen at the same time. If the inconsistency bothers you, then you need to get over it, because Acts is filled with such inconsistencies.
God is not a rulebook. Indeed, if God wanted to follow the rules — his rules — we’d all be damned and would richly deserve it. That doesn’t mean we don’t know how to offer salvation to a convert. We do. They confess their faith in Jesus. We baptize them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
But it does mean we can’t be so very certain that God won’t save those who don’t follow our interpretation of the formula. God keeps his promises. All of them. But God often does more than he promises. And one promise he makes is to save all with faith.