How are baptism with the Holy Spirit and baptism in water related? Are they separate and distinct acts? Does one sequentially or logically follow the other? In some church traditions, the answers are precise and dogmatic.
Roman Catholics, for instance, equate water baptism with Spirit baptism. To be baptized in water is to be born again. The churches of Christ call upon those who hear the gospel to repent and be baptized as a precondition for receiving the Holy Spirit. Other traditions treat water baptism as an initial act of confession that follows conversion or the baptism with the Holy Spirit. All cannot be right. Either: a) one is correct and the others are wrong; b) they are all wrong; or c) each/some may possess partial truth.
While opinions vary, all Christian traditions require members to be baptized with both the Spirit and water.
Karl Barth spent many years of his life trying to sort out this doctrinal dilemma and finally concluded that they were two sides of the same coin or two aspects of one solitary baptism. As Paul taught, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6-8). Just as there can be no more than one God, one Lord, or one body, so there is only one baptism.
As such, he held that Spirit baptism is the divine side and water baptism is the human side. One is God’s doing and thus is objective in nature; the other is man’s doing and is subjective in character. He believed that Spirit Baptism is what God does in and to Christ for humankind. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, which Barth identified as the initial act of Spirit baptism, God begins to create a new human race of which all may be a part. When the good news is preached and finds root in the individual, man’s will is freed to respond to the gospel in repentance. The proper response is a request to be baptized in water and to identify with the Christian community.
Barth believed that God gives the Holy Spirit to every repentant believer, before, after or at the point of water baptism. This bestowal by God applies the Baptism of the Spirit found in Christ to the individual, when the two become one and the believer actually becomes part of the new creation.
In future entries we will examine Barth’s views of baptism, using his last volume of Church Dogmatics as our guide, and comparing them to the Scriptures. Since Barth waited to the end of his life to speak a final word on baptism, one might conclude he had more time to ponder this subject than all others and that he wanted to get it right.