Holy Spirit Baptism vs. Water Baptism
Updated: May 13, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
Some Protestant Christians will deny that the Holy Spirit is infused into a believer when he is water baptized. They might quote Matthew 3:11 and Acts 1:5 which differentiate water baptism from Holy Spirit/fire baptism. They also might quote Acts 2:1-4, where the apostles received the Holy Spirit/fire without any sort of water involved. These passages all seem to indicate that the apostles did not receive the Spirit when they were water baptized, but only when they were filled with the Spirit (and tongues of fire came down upon them) on Pentecost. For some Protestants, this is a sign that all Christians need to receive a Pentecost-type of baptism, a Holy Spirit baptism or religious conversion, and not a water baptism. For them, water baptism does not bestow the Spirit. Such a theology would mimic the example of the apostles, would it not?
In response to this, I would point out that it is true that the apostles did not receive the Holy Spirit when they were water baptized. The apostles probably had received water baptism at some point before Pentecost, even though it was never recorded, for some of them had been followers of St. John the Baptizer (John 1:37). They all also baptized people with Jesus (John 3:22), so how could they do that if they had not been water baptized? Yet if they received water baptism, then why did they not receive the Holy Spirit from water baptism, but only later on during Pentecost?
The reason they did not receive the Spirit back then is because they received only the water baptism of John the Baptist from the Old Covenant. Nobody could receive the Spirit through that baptism. As John said, “I baptize you with water…He [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11) and Jesus said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Ac. 1:5). The former baptism is purely symbolic, while the latter baptism is spiritually effectual. So, the apostles must have received John the Baptist’s baptism which he himself acknowledged did not bestow the Spirit. Even St. Paul understood this distinction in Acts 19:1-7.
When St. Paul came upon twelve Christians in Acts 19, he knew about the distinction between John’s baptism and Jesus’s baptism post-Pentecost. He said to them in Acts 19:2-5, “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John's baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Notice that St. Paul understood the difference between the Old Covenant and New Covenant baptisms. One gave the Spirit, the other did not.
At this point, it is clear that the apostles received the non-Spirit granting baptism of John, yet is the Holy Spirit baptism referenced in Matt. 3:11 and Ac. 1:5 truly about the fires of Pentecost, and not water baptism? Yes, at least initially. For both reference fire, which occurred in Ac. 2:1-4's description of Pentecost. However, the falling of the Spirit upon the apostles on Pentecost does not mean that all future Christians only receive the Spirit through a religious conversion.
Even though water was not involved in the tongues of fire of Pentecost, the apostles did make clear that same day that the New Covenant water baptism was the sacramental ceremony to receive the Holy Spirit. Initially, Mt. 3:11 was about Pentecost, but ultimately it would refer to water baptism. This can be seen in the words of Peter after he had received the fiery Spirit on Pentecost. For when God bestowed the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way upon the apostles via fire, St. Peter understood it to be a sign that water baptism would now bestow the Holy Spirit.
Peter preached to the Jews that day, telling them that those who received water baptism would immediately receive the Spirit, “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’” (Acts 2:38). The New Covenant water baptism of Jesus Christ, not John the Baptist’s, is what brings the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:38's reference to baptism has always been understood in Christianity to refer to water baptism. This is because of the context. A few verses later, Ac. 2:41 says, “So those who received [Peter's] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” It seems that Peter is the one who baptized those 3,000 people, which suggests a water baptism. It does not suggest the Holy Spirit's tongues of fire like the apostles had experienced in Ac. 2:1-4, or some kind of religious conversion as some Protestants assume. The fire baptism of the apostles on Pentecost in Ac. 2:1-4 happened suddenly and without any human causation; whereas the baptism mentioned by Peter in Ac. 2:38 occurred through the preaching and human mediation of Peter. The Jews voluntarily agreed to Peter's exhortation, which is what occurs through water baptism, not a fiery Pentecost baptism. So, Ac. 2:38 clarifies that the Holy Spirit is received by ordinary Christians through the New Covenant Sacrament of water baptism.
At this point, some will wonder to themselves whether the apostles ever received this New Covenant water baptism that bestows the Holy Spirit. The answer is no. The apostles had no need too, for during Pentecost (Ac. 2:1-4), the apostles were baptized in the miraculous explosion of the Spirit into their lives. The fire hydrant of God’s Spirit was opened on Pentecost, and God wanted to demonstrate the full gravity of the Spirit without water. God demonstrated visibly what would be communicated invisibly through the Sacrament of water baptism. The apostles completely received the Spirit in one event via the tongues of fire. They, however, understood that this was not the norm for everybody. They recognized that the Spirit would ultimately only come to future Christians through the New Covenant water baptism.
To sum up, although Protestants claim that Mt. 3:11, Ac. 1:5, and the baptism of the apostles shows that the Holy Spirit is not received via water baptism, they are missing a few details. The Old Covenant water baptism did not bestow the Spirit; only the New Covenant water baptism bestows the Holy Spirit. The apostles never received this New Covenant water baptism, for that was instituted on Pentecost. St. Peter made it clear in Ac. 2:38 that the Spirit would come upon those who received water baptism. To learn about how the Sacrament of confirmation completes baptism and also bestows the Holy Spirit, see this article.