Is baptism necessary?

I was asked recently if there are two baptisms for Christians, because in scripture it looks like we need both a baptism with water and a baptism with the Spirit. And I can see why a person would think that, because in Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me will come one who is more powerful than I….(who) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Two baptisms are mentioned.

And then in Acts 19, Paul bumps into some disciples in Ephesus who’d been baptized with water by John the Baptist but hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet, so he had them “baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verses 1-6. Two baptisms again, first with water, and then with the Holy Spirit.

But then in Ephesians 4:5 Paul talks of Christians having “one Lord, one faith and one baptism,” not two baptisms, so which baptism is he referring to – baptism with water or baptism with the Spirit? It can’t be just baptism with water, because Paul made it clear in Acts 19 that baptism with water wasn’t enough for receiving the Holy Spirit. But if he meant only baptism with the Spirit in Ephesians 4, why do so many Christians feel a baptism by water is necessary too?

And when Christians talk about “the sacrament of baptism,” do they mean water baptism or baptism with the Spirit, or both?

Christian tradition leans towards both baptisms, including water baptism, due to several examples of water baptism in the New Testament – Jesus himself being baptized in water (Matthew 3:13-16), Jesus’ disciples baptizing people in water (John 4:1-3), and Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in water (Acts 8:36-38). There are several other verses leaning toward baptism with water too, like Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38, but all these verses about water baptism occur in the early stages of the New Testament church. By Ephesians 4, however, written by Paul near the end of his life, there was just “one baptism,” and that, according to Paul in Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27 was being “baptized into Christ.” And Paul made it clear in Acts 19 that water baptism did not baptize those disciples into Christ. Only a baptism with the Holy Spirit could do that (Acts 1:5, 8, Acts 8:14-17). 

Did Paul’s understanding of baptism evolve, therefore, as it dawned on him that it was only immersion or baptism into Christ – and all that God had accomplished in Christ for him – that counted in his life, and not anything that he did himself, including being baptized with water? 

Paul stated clearly that “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2:20. And he knew this understanding had been given to him by “the grace of God” (through baptism with the Holy Spirit), verse 21, and not by anything he did, whether it be his obedience to God, his faith, or being baptized with water.  

He realized that Jesus was his life (Colossians 3:4), meaning there was nothing he need do to help, complete or add to what Jesus had done for him, including water baptism. His life was immersed in Christ, not in water.   

There is just one baptism, therefore, and that is the one with the Holy Spirit, that immerses us in the life of Christ, the life that Jesus himself lives in relationship with his Father, made real in and to us by the Holy Spirit.

Water baptism, therefore, is not necessary for a Christian to become a Christian, but if a person wishes to be baptized with water to acknowledge and respect all that Jesus has done for him, then be baptized in water, but not as a requirement or a magic bullet that suddenly makes a person Christian. 

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