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

It would be a mistake, however, to view this as baptismal regeneration in the sense that the water itself, or the act of baptism, brings about forgiveness and new birth. On a later occasion Peter says: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). Here though Peter again (as in Acts 2:38) refers to repentance and forgiveness, there is no mention of water baptism but only of the exalted Lord who gives both repentance and forgiveness, and therefore new birth. Hence, when—as in Acts 2:38—water baptism is specified, it is obvious that such a rite does not, and cannot, bring about forgiveness and regeneration. But—and this is important—whenever water baptism is administered in the context of genuine faith and repentance, that baptism does serve as the medium for forgiveness to be received.

A second answer to the matter of the relationship of water baptism brings about, and signifies becoming a new creation. It is a public demonstration of the totality of the divine forgiveness19 and the complete cleansing and renewal that Christ accomplishes. Such baptism, since it is in Christ’s name, testifies that in and with Him there is death and burial of the self and resurrection into newness of life.20  Forgiveness is the remission of sins—and remission is nothing less than a release from all that is past and the beginning of the wholly new. Water baptism thus is peculiarly the sign of the forgiveness of sins.

On the other hand, water baptism functions as a seal of faith and forgiveness. It is a tangible impression and certification of the reality of the remission of sins. In the waters of baptism there is “brought home” to a person the wonder of God’s total cleansing: the spiritual reality of complete forgiveness being mediated and confirmed in the totality of the baptismal experience. In the combination of the divine gift and the corporal action there is a sealing of the two: what is received in faith is confirmed in the waters of baptism. One who is so baptized in faith is a marked person—cleansed, forgiven, made new in Jesus Christ.21

Now we return to our original point, namely, that water baptism is directly connected with the forgiveness of sins. The specific nature of that relationship (which we have just been discussing) is less important for our concerns than the fact of the connection. The reason for emphasizing this point is that frequently this connection is not seen and water baptism is mistakenly viewed as having directly to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is quite important to keep this matter clear, or there will be continuing confusion in this vital area.

Before leaving the discussion of water baptism it is important to add that though such baptism is not directly connected with the gift of the Holy Spirit this does not mean that there is no relationship. On the contrary, where there is faith and forgiveness mediated through water baptism, the Holy Spirit is indubitably at work. It is the Holy Spirit who empowers the word of witness, convicts of sin, thus bringing about repentance. Here then by the Holy Spirit is the origin of faith that leads to the forgiveness of sins and baptism in the name of Christ. All of this is apparent, for example, in Acts 2:22-38 where the out-poured Spirit is the agent in each of these matters. Thus the Holy Spirit is very much involved in the whole process of salvation. Since this process may include water baptism, it is the Holy Spirit who gives spiritual significance to the act of baptism (otherwise it is nothing but an empty rite). It is clear then that water baptism is closely connected with the activity of the Holy Spirit.

However—and here is the critical matter—this just-described activity of the Holy Spirit is by no means the gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift ordinarily follows upon forgiveness and baptism, even as a promise attached thereto: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). The gift does not have to do with forgiveness, but with what is promised to those who repent and are baptized for forgiveness.22  It is a promise to all whom God calls to Himself—such calling implemented through the working of the Holy Spirit—that they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Another matter to discuss briefly concerns the formula for water baptism as set forth in Matthew 28:19 being different from that set forth in the book of Acts. We earlier have observed that water baptism is invariably depicted in Acts as being in the name of Jesus only, but we did not actually deal with the fact that in Matthew the formula is a triune one:23 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

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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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