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No. 85: Baptism and the Spirit

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 85
May, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

Pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, is often formulated along dispensational lines. The Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament, we tend to think, was earthly, concerned with political and military leadership, while in the New Testament the Spirit’s work has to do with mediating salvation achieved by Christ. The Spirit’s work in the Old Testament was functional, oficial, and earthly; His work in the New is spiritual, soteriological, and heavenly. I am far from denying that there are discontinuities in the Spirit’s work; clearly, before Christ died and rose again, the Spirit could not have communicated to us the power of His resurrection or given us a share in the New Creation. Indeed the Spirit’s presence and work is so dramatically enhanced by the "glorification" of the Son in His death and resurrection that John can comment that the Spirit "was not yet because Jesus was not yet glorified" (Jn. 7:39). Still, it is a basic error to introduce too sharp an historical discontinuity in the work of the Spirit. A covenantal approach insists, on the contrary, that the pattern of His working in the Old Covenant provides the framework for understanding His working now.

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit "came" upon individuals to equip them for particular tasks, for ministry within Israel. The Spirit on Moses was distributed to seventy of the elders of Israel so they could share in the burden of leading the people (Num. 11:16-17). Yahweh’s Spirit was on Othniel when he served as a judge (Jud. 3:10), on Gideon to resist the invasion of Midianites, Amalekites, and the sons of the East (Jud. 6:34), and on Jephthah when he fought the Ammonites (Jud. 11:29). At the Spirit’s incitement, Samson burned against and defeated the Philistines (Jud. 13:25; 14:19; 15:14). The Spirit came on Saul when he met a group of prophets and later when he heard about the Ammonite attack on Jabesh-Gilead. In the latter case, he moved in the power of the Spirit to deliver the city (1 Sam. 10:10; 11:6). When David was anointed as king-designate by Samuel, the Spirit came on him mightily (1 Sam. 16:13), and it was in the power of the Spirit that David defeated Goliath, sparking a great Israelite victory, and later rose to the throne of Israel. In these and other cases in the Old Testament, the Spirit’s work is to equip the leaders of God’s people for service to the community of God’s people.

In the New Covenant, there is certainly a "democratization" of the Spirit’s ministry. Pentecost announces the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit would be poured out upon "all flesh." Through the Spirit, all believers have been made not only prophets, but priests and kings in Christ. Though the gifts of the Spirit are distributed more widely, they are not different in kind and purpose from what they were under the Old Testament. It is still the Spirit’s work to equip men and women for service in Israel. By the Spirit we are incorporated into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), and equipped for ministry to the body (1 Cor. 12:4-7). As Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas has pointed out, the body of Christ as described in 1 Corinthians 12 consists of the various ministries and ministers of the church. It is not that there is an organization or community called the church, to which certain functions and gifts are later added; the community is constituted by the variously gifted ministers equipped by the same Spirit to serve the common good. It is not that we possess the Spirit who gives life, and then the Spirit later adds gifts for service; there is no such thing as membership in the church that is not also ministry to the church.

Membership in the body of Christ by the Spirit does not merely mean that we have a status or position but also that we have a vocation to service. We are not prophets, priests, and kings for ourselves but for one another. As prophets, we have access to the Lord’s council to offer intercession and to receive the word that can edify others; as priests, we are called to guard and maintain the house of God; as kings, we are equipped for battle and called to self-sacrificing service. Even the fruits of the Spirit are not merely moral virtues that we possess for ourselves – whatever could that mean in any case? – but are the virtues required for peaceful, righteous, and truthful living in the new human race that is the church. The Spirit mediates salvation to us, but being saved is inseparable from a life of ministry. It is not that we are saved and then at some second stage begin to serve. Service in the power of the Spirit is the very form of life in Christ (Phil. 2:5-11).

Taking the Old Testament pattern as our guide, we should understand too that the Spirit is not a guaranteed endowment, if that is taken to mean that we cannot lose the Spirit no matter how we live. If we assume that there is a sharp difference between the Spirit’s work in the Old Covenant and His work in the New, then the Spirit’s departure from Saul in the Old Testament presents no problem. If Saul was clothed in the Spirit "only" in an "oficial" capacity, then the Spirit’s desertion of him does not have implications for the Spirit’s work under the New Covenant. Saul had the Spirit temporarily and conditionally; we have the Spirit permanently and unconditionally. In fact, 1 Samuel makes it clear that the gift of the Spirit affected Saul’s heart; the Spirit was not "only" given for official business. As Saul left Samuel following his anointing, "God changed his heart" (10:9); Saul hated and fought against the Lord’s enemies (11:6-11); and Saul dealt mercifully with those who had opposed his coronation (11:12-13). Saul did not persevere, refusing to listen to the voice of the Lord’s prophet and eventually dining at the table of demons in the house of the witch of Endor. From the evidence of Scripture we are led to surmise that Saul was not eternally elect, but that is not our business. The fact that he did not persevere does not cancel the witness of Scripture that the Spirit’s coming on him "changed his heart." With Saul, the Spirit’s work was oriented both to "personal transformation" and to "ministry," and indeed the two were inseparable. Again, the Spirit’s work in the New Testament is on the same model. The Spirit both gives us new hearts and equips us for ministry, but if we, like Saul, grieve the Spirit with our impenitence and ingratitude, He will leave us (1 Sam. 16:14; cf. Eph. 4:30).

In 1 Samuel, there is a parallel between the Spirit’s presence in the tabernacle and His presence in the king. In chapters 1-4, we have an account of the perversity of the priests and the consequent capture of the ark, a story summarized by Phinehas’s wife as a story of "Ichabod," the departure of the glory-Spirit from Israel. In chapters 10-15, we have the same story at an individual level: The Spirit comes to dwell with Saul but Saul’s sins drive the Spirit out and Saul too becomes Ichabod, slain on the slopes of Gilboa. The parallel between the glory’s presence among the people in His house and the Spirit’s presence with the individual, Saul, works out the symbolism of the tabernacle. Since the Lord’s house is an architectural image of the person, the pattern of the Spirit’s presence in the tabernacle and temple manifests the pattern of His presence in and with persons. As the Spirit departed from Saul, so the Spirit departed from His dwelling place among the people, leaving the house desolate.

The fact that the Spirit can and will depart from impenitent individuals and communities does not undermine the promise of the Spirit’s perpetual presence with the church. It remains true, as Irenaeus said, that "where the church is, there is the Spirit." In 1 Samuel, the glory’s departure is not the end of the story: The Lord fights for Israel while the ark is in exile, and the ark is eventually returned and the glory enthroned in Jerusalem. At the individual level, the Spirit leaves Saul to dwell in one after God’s own heart. Similarly, in Ezekiel 11:22-25 the cloud abandons the defiled temple, but it moves east – to accompany the faithful remnant into exile. So too in the New Testament, the Spirit will abandon faithless individuals and unbelieving churches, and will go outside the gates, into the catacombs, to dwell with the rag-tag remnant of those who cleave to Him in humility and faith. The pattern is the same in both Testaments; the Spirit’s presence with the true Israel was as permanent and abiding in the Old Testament as in the New. The threat of the Spirit’s departure from the impenitent is just as real today as it was for Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

One benefit of seeing the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Covenant in the light of the Old Testament is the aid it gives us in understanding the relation of the Spirit and baptism. Baptism is associated consistently with the gift of the Spirit, but Reformed theology has hesitated to make an identification of the baptized with the Spirit-endowed. Primarily, this is done to protect the sovereignty of the Spirit who bloweth where He listeth. But does the Spirit want or need this kind of protection? To say that the Spirit is present and works apart from the instituted sacraments is different from saying that the Spirit is not always present and active in the instituted sacraments. The first is an affirmation of God’s sovereign freedom; the second seems a hypernominalist claim that God is free to violate His own promises. Is it a manifestation of God’s freedom for Him not to be where He promises to be? I hardly think so.

If the Spirit has promised that He will be present and active at the water of baptism, then we can be certain that He, the Spirit of truth, will be there. And there is indeed a promise of the Spirit’s presence with the water: Peter promised on Pentecost that those who were baptized would receive the Spirit (Acts 2:38); Paul says that we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13); by God’s grace He saved us by the "washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (Tit. 3:5). As G. R. Beasley-Murray puts it, for the New Testament "baptism is the supreme moment of the impartation of the Spirit and of the work of the Spirit in the believer" (Baptism in the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962], p. 275).

All this makes good sense in the light of the Old Testament pattern. We can affirm that the Spirit is active and present in baptism, that the Spirit comes to dwell in the baptized, without falling into the error of claiming that all who are baptized are eternally saved and secure regardless of their lack of faithfulness. The Spirit comes to dwell in us at baptism but the Spirit’s continuing presence in and with us is conditional, as it was with Saul, on our response of faithfulness (which is, in turn, dependent on the Spirit’s gift of persevering faith). In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul alludes to the temple/tabernacle model developed above and connects it with baptism. We are called to keep our bodies holy, undefiled by harlotry and fornication, because our bodies are "members of Christ" (6:15) and "a temple of the Holy Spirit" (6:19). When did we become "members of Christ" and "temples of the Holy Spirit"? According to 6:11, the transition from being unrighteous to being members of Christ is the moment when we were "washed, sanctified, and justified," the first of these evidently being a reference to baptism. Baptism is our consecration as temples, dwelling places of the glory-Spirit. (This characterization of baptism is hardly new: Gregory the Great insisted that every baptized Christian was a priest with the daily duty of stoking up the fire on the altar of his heart, and Pope Innocent III, among others, explicitly linked baptism to the dedication of the temple.) Thus, the Spirit comes to dwell in our bodily temple when we are baptized, but the temple of our body can become defiled – particularly, in 1 Corinthians 6:18, with fornication – and the Spirit, Ezekiel 9-11 makes clear, will not continue to dwell in a defiled house.

As in the Old Covenant, then, the endowment with the Spirit at baptism does not guarantee His permanent presence. We can grieve the Spirit. The Spirit can depart from us. It is possible to commit blasphemy against the Spirit, and remain unforgiven. It is only as we walk humbly, penitently, confessing and renouncing our sins, that the Spirit will remain with us.