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The practice of baptizing infants has been sufficiently defended by many writers. (Bromiley’s Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants [1979] and Brownson’s The Promise of Baptism [2006] are both good examples.) So too, the supposed necessity of immersion has been well contested. What’s often overlooked is that our disagreements on infant baptism harbors a deeper division on the foundational meaning of baptism to begin with. I want to address this contentious issue in a new way, by rethinking the baptism of the Spirit. I will do this working mostly from Luke and Acts. You could almost call them First Luke and Second Luke, or, because of the relative prominence in them of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel of the Holy Spirit and the Acts of the Holy Spirit.

A shift in meaning

My first claim is that there is a movement in the New Testament from the baptism of John to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, of which the pivot is the baptism of the Lord Jesus. Our Lord went into his baptism as a baptism of John, which became, as he came out of it, the first baptism of the Spirit. At the point of his baptism his Father did a miracle – a sign and a wonder – in him, converting John’s baptism into the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This was a new thing, first manifested rightly in our Lord. For a while thereafter, John and even Jesus’ disciples continued to administer the baptism of John, but after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, he replaced the baptism of John with the baptism of the Spirit.

The baptism of John would never be administered to infants. It assumed an adult informed decision. It was a symbolic expression of human intention and personal repentance. It was not a miracle of God, and while it was a sign, it was not a wonder. It was a signal of human aspiration, of a personal desire to be admitted to the Kingdom of God when the coming Messiah would establish it. From this I make my second claim, that Protestants who deny infant baptism do so because they see baptism primarily in terms of the baptism of John.

The baptism of John would never be administered to infants.

The baptism of the Spirit is a Trinitarian event. As the Lord Jesus rises from the Jordan, with the voice of the Father from heaven and the Spirit as a dove upon him, the Holy Trinity is manifested for the first time in human history. It’s not that Jesus didn’t have the Spirit in him already, but the baptism of the Spirit is the sign of the wonder of the fullness of God within him.

Notice that I say the fullness of God. This is my third claim: When you receive this Spirit, you don’t receive one-third of God, but all of God, all three persons. Our Lord himself taught this in John 14-16, in the upper room, when he first promised the sending of the Spirit, so that he and his Father would come and make their home in us. It is from our Lord’s teaching that the church has developed the theological principle that in the work of any one person of the Trinity you always get all three persons in the mode of that one person (“opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.”)

One-third of God?

It is a far-too-common Protestant habit to treat the presence of the Holy Spirit as the presence of one-third of God. The baptism of the Spirit is not the indwelling of one-third of God but the indwelling of all three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the person of the Spirit. Which is why you are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. By the Spirit you are joined to the Son, standing at the Jordan, and your Father says from heaven, “You are my beloved.”

It is a far-too-common Protestant habit to treat the presence of the Holy Spirit as the presence of one-third of God.

Our Lord’s baptism of the Spirit is reported by Luke in his gospel, and from then on, in the Book of Acts, Luke develops this baptism of the Spirit over 10 occurrences. The first is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), which our Lord at his ascension had predicted as a baptism. The second was that same day (2:41), with the baptism of 3,000. Third is the baptism of the Samaritans (8:12-17). Fourth is the Ethiopian eunuch (8:36-38). Fifth is Saul of Tarsus (9:18), and sixth is the Centurion Cornelius and his soldiers (10:44-48). Seventh is Lydia and her household (16:15), and eighth, the Philippian jailer and his household (16:33). Ninth is the baptism of the Corinthians (18:8), and tenth, the baptism of the Ephesians (19:5), who had been baptized previously in the baptism of John but none were baptized into Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit as our Lord had promised in the Upper Room in John 14:23.

These ten baptisms should not be treated as discrete but as a succession of markers in the overarching and intertwining double story of Acts: as milestones and even beachheads in the story of the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Kingdom of Jesus yet at the same time as landmarks in the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world. Thus the baptisms of Lydia and the jailer within a Roman military city mark their crossing the boundary into the Kingdom of Jesus from right inside the empire, while the baptisms of the Samaritans, the Ethiopian and Cornelius and his regiment mark the coming of the Holy Spirit into ever widening circles of the world – as if to say, “These people too!” You get the sense that the Apostles keep racing to keep up with the Holy Spirit, who is always ahead of them. They do not dispense the Spirit – the Spirit moves first, and they respond to it.

A holy variability

The baptisms in Acts don’t show a formal, ritual consistency. Why should they, if the Spirit blows where it wills? Sometimes the baptisms are quiet and peaceful, as with the Eunuch, with Saul of Tarsus, with Lydia and with the Jailer. Sometimes they’re accompanied by noisy manifestations of the Spirit. One time that manifestation comes before the baptism, with Cornelius, and one time it comes after, with the Ephesians. The baptism of Lydia could well have been by immersion, but the baptism of the eunuch in the desert and of the Philippian jailer in a guardhouse probably were not. The baptism of the 3,000 in Jerusalem could not have been immersion, if for no other reason than Jerusalem’s notoriously bad water supply. Whatever happened, the reports of baptisms in Luke and Acts are not to provide models for the church to imitate but markers on people, landmarks on individuals, milestones on groups of believers and beachheads in Roman cities of the intertwining stories of the invasion of the empire by the Kingdom of Jesus and the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, in whom the Holy Trinity resides.

The first and 10th baptisms in Acts frame all this. The first baptism, with tongues of fire, we call a baptism because that’s what our Lord called it when he predicted it just before his ascension. It also is what John the Baptist had prophesied three years earlier: that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. With the 10th and final baptism, of the Ephesians, Luke’s narrative expressly distinguishes between the baptism of John for repentance and the baptism in Christ, who sends the Holy Spirit among the Ephesians with a manifestation of a sign and wonder similar to Pentecost. The Holy Spirit does not act on her own, but always as trinitarian, for the ascended Lord Christ sends down the Holy Spirit. With the 10th and final baptism in the Book of Acts, the baptism of John is explicitly and finally superseded by the baptism of the Spirit.

The baptism of John is a personal sign of dedication to the future Kingdom whenever it may come. The baptism of the Spirit is the sign of the Kingdom already coming in the power and the presence of the Spirit, in whom we have not one-third of God, but the whole of God, the Holy Trinity. The baptism of the Spirit is God acting first, God initiating, God claiming, God gathering. God gathering not just into the church, but into the kingdom of the Lord Jesus, of which the church is the first fruit.

So then, if Luke reports the Lord Jesus saying that “to children belongs the kingdom of God, and whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (18:16-17), the wonder is not that we baptize infants, but that we don’t tell adults that the only way they can be baptized is if they find some way to enter it like little children. The deacons should wrap up adults in swaddling clothes, and the elders should pick them up and carry them to the font and plunge them into the water like babies into a bath. When the adults come out of the water, they should be crying like babies, and into their open mouths we should stuff the bread and wine.

The deacons should wrap up adults in swaddling clothes, and the elders should pick them up and carry them to the font and plunge them into the water.

I am equating what the church calls the baptism into the Holy Trinity with what in Luke is the baptism of the Spirit. In this baptism, the Spirit of God, the sovereign source of life, makes specific claims on human beings as part of her worldwide work. God comes down to inhabit them, and the baptized are marked and branded with a sign, a seal, a mark, a landmark of the Kingdom of God. It is a sign invisible to the world but visible to God, the sign that you belong to God and God will dwell in you. It is not a sign of the spiritual aspiration and human desire and intention that will be there. On the human side it is all reception and response, and it claims a whole life of response to God’s free and sovereign work. Such can be entirely appropriate to infants.

A miracle of the Spirit

Three last points. First, the foundational meaning of baptism rooted in both Trinity and Kingdom is implicit in the oldest form for baptism in the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America, which was in use among us from 1628 till 1906. It bears noticing that baptism was as much about kingdom as about the church – it was an act of the church but a miracle of the kingdom. This understanding has largely been lost.

Second, while Luke and Acts present baptism as a sign and wonder of the Holy Spirit, the epistles present it as a covenantal sign and seal connected to the atonement. There is much richness here: When correctly understood, this, too, celebrates God’s initiative, God’s gathering and God’s sovereignty, extending to children both biblically and naturally. This covenantal-sign-and-seal material also is in our ancient liturgy and in the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession. The sign is visible, and the wonder is invisible – a miracle of the Spirit who binds us to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Third, and finally, Luke again: In his gospel, he initiates his account of the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit with the pregnancy of Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” In this new age of the coming of the kingdom, even an infant may be filled with the Spirit. Then, to the Virgin Mary, the angel announces an even greater sign and wonder: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born of you will be called Holy, the Son of God.” The Holy Spirit rests upon the water of her womb, just as in Genesis it brooded on the primeval waters of the deep.

I treasure the mystery of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus because of all that it suggests about the Holy Spirit. The Annunciation is an early Pentecost. In the Lord Jesus is the new creation, though at this point as small as a fetus, an infant, a child, conceived by the Holy Spirit without male privilege. This is all miracle. This is all sign and wonder. And it begins with babies.

This essay is based on remarks given at the Reformed Church Center of New Brunswick Theological Seminary on Dec. 7, 2017.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is the pastor emeritus of the “Old First'' Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn NY. He and Melody have retired to New Paltz NY, where he does pulpit supply, some teaching, childcare of grandchildren, and feeding birds.