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Rodman Williams: The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today: Means

It is surely clear by now that water baptism is not a precondition. The very fact, for example, that Saul of Tarsus and the Caesareans received the Holy Spirit before they were water baptized rules out the idea of any precondition. Hence Peter’s words, “Repent, and be baptized …and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” cannot be viewed as a rule that water baptism must occur before the reception of the Spirit. His words, while pointing to what may be the usual pattern, do not establish water baptism as a precondition. Furthermore, if Peter’s words were the rule, the rule had just been broken in his case! For as one of the 120 he had received the Holy Spirit with no prior water baptism in Jesus’ name.

Many people in the spiritual renewal of our day bear testimony to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit without a prior Christian baptism. Especially is this the case for those who, like the Caesareans, received the Holy Spirit at the very inception of faith. Everything happened so fast and powerfully that there was no opportunity for any ritual action!

The one precondition (as we have earlier noted) for receiving the Holy Spirit is faith: not faith and something else.14  Baptism, for all its importance, cannot function as a precondition or prerequisite for the reception of the Holy Spirit.15

Now we need to add that neither is water baptism to be understood as a channel for the gift of the Holy Spirit. In none of the narratives in Acts is there representation of the Holy Spirit as being given through water baptism. Though there may be a close approximation of water baptism to the gift of the Spirit, there is no suggestion that such baptism is the medium or channel. Even less is there any picture of water baptism as conferring the gift of the Spirit, there is no suggestion that such baptism is the medium or channel. Even less is there any picture of water baptism as conferring the gift of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes from the exalted Lord who Himself confers the gift, and surely does not relegate such to a rite conducted by man.

Indeed, we should add, there is obviously no essential connection between water baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It might be supposed that, though water baptism is not a precondition for the gift of the Holy Spirit, whenever such baptism occurs it is the outward form for the occurrence of the inward spiritual reality. From this perspective it is not so much that water baptism conveys or confers the gift of the Spirit as that the two are related as the outward to the inward; accordingly, water baptism and the gift of the Spirit, or Spirit baptism, make one united whole. According to this view, wherever there is water baptism there is also Spirit baptism: the visible action and the spiritual grace are essentially one.16  However, to answer, we must emphasize strongly: there is no essential connection between water baptism and Spirit baptism,17 no relation of one to the other as outward to inward. The reason: they are dealing with two closely related but nonetheless different spiritual realities. Water baptism is for another purpose than the reception of the Holy Spirit, and unless such is clearly seen there will be continuing confusion. We now turn to this matter.

Fourth, water baptism is connected with the forgiveness of sins. Here we arrive at the important point that water baptism is related primarily to the forgiveness of sins. To use the language of Peter at Pentecost: it is “for” the forgiveness of sins. “Repent and be baptized …in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” The climactic spiritual reality Peter attests to is the gift of the Spirit, but there is also the reality of forgiveness of sins which is first mentioned, and it is with the spiritual reality that water baptism is directly connected.

What then is the connection? We turn again to the statement of Peter in Acts 2:38 that baptism in Jesus’ name is “for the forgiveness of your sins.” The word eis, “for,” could suggest “for the purpose of,” “in order to obtain,” thus requirement for forgiveness to be received. However, eis may also be translated “concerning,” “with respect to,” “with reference to,” “with regard to,”18 and thus designates baptism as having to do with forgiveness but not necessarily for the purpose of obtaining it. Either translation is possible, although the latter would seem more likely in that there is no suggestion elsewhere in Acts that water baptism of itself obtains forgiveness. The point then of Acts 2:38 is not to specify water baptism as a requirement for forgiveness of sins; for forgiveness of sins comes by faith not by baptism, but when baptism does occur it is specifically related to that forgiveness.

What then is the nature of the relationship? The answer would seem to be, first, that while water baptism does not of itself obtain forgiveness—hence, is not required for that purpose—it does serve as a means. Forgiveness comes from faith in the exalted Lord; thus it is He who grants forgiveness; it can be obtained no other way. Nonetheless, the channel or means for this forgiveness to be received is water baptism. This doubtless was the case for the 3000 who responded affirmatively to Peter’s message: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Being baptized, each one of them, was a visible, tangible expression of faith and repentance, an outward cleansing, through which forgiveness was mediated. Thus water baptism was the means of receiving the grace of forgiveness and new life.

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Category: Fall 2003, Spirit

About the Author: J. Rodman Williams (1918-2008), Ph.D., is considered to be the father of renewal theology. He served as a chaplain in the Second World War, he was a church pastor, college professor, and key figure in the charismatic movement of the 1960s. Beginning in 1982, he taught theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and became Professor of Renewal Theology Emeritus there in 2002. Author of numerous books, he is perhaps best known for his three volume Renewal Theology (Zondervan, 1996).

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