In an article titled “Spirit Baptism According to Peter,” an evangelical Christian named David attempts to argue against the classic baptismal regeneration “proof-texts.” He posits that when the NT writers clearly speak about “baptism” joining individuals to Christ, they’re not speaking about ritual/water baptism (as all Christians prior to the Reformation believed), but rather “Spirit baptism.” The main thrust of his argument revolves around the dichotomy between St. John the Forerunner baptizing with “water,” and Jesus baptizing with “the Spirit” (cf. Jn. 1:33). 

Naturally, David starts his argument in Acts 1, wherein Jesus explicitly states, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). As David rightly notes, this is clearly a prophecy of the Day of Pentecost, meaning that “Spirit baptism” refers (in some way) to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. With this, David cautiously posits that “this would seem to indicate that Jesus meant to contrast ‘water’ with ‘Holy Spirit’ and that Spirit baptism is indeed distinct from ritual baptism.” To David’s credit, he admits that this isn’t a very rock solid argument because it’s “an argument from narrative and silence (the text just doesn’t mention water), [and] by nature a weak argument.” 

However, I think this is where David makes his first serious mistake. Instead of thoroughly explaining what’s going on in Acts 2, and demonstrating how it actually supports his claim about baptism, he jumps right to Acts 10-11 to argue his point. But if, according to Jesus Himself, “Spirit baptism” is truly shown to us on the Day of Pentecost, then shouldn’t we really take our time with the question: what actually happened there? Because if it can be shown that Acts 2 is not actually divorced from ritual baptism, then this would undermine any other place David attempts to argue for this distinction. If it’s not present in Acts 2, the distinction cannot be present anywhere else (such as Acts 10-11). With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the NT’s portrayal of the Day of Pentecost. 

In Acts 2:1, we’re told that “they were all together in one place” on Pentecost. Who “they” refers to can be known from the prior context of Acts 1, wherein it refers to the 120 “brothers” who were involved in electing a successor for Judas (Acts 1:15-26). In other words, “they” refers to people who were already members of the Church; it was upon them and only them that the Spirit directly fell on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The non-Christians were those witnessing what was happening, and they explicitly affirmed that it was “Galileans,” i.e. the followers of Jesus, who were being filled with the Spirit, not them (Acts 2:7).

This is the context in which St. Peter preached his famous sermon, wherein he quotes the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 to explain to the people what’s going on, and how they too can participate in it. Importantly, this text prophesies the day when the Lord’s Spirit would be poured out on “all flesh” (כָּל־ בָּשָׂ֔ר). This specific phrase is an echo of Genesis 6:11-19, where it’s used four times to describe how “all flesh” was going to be killed by the waters of the Flood. The reason why prophet Joel alludes to this text in a discussion of the Holy Spirit is because of the role He plays in the Flood narrative. 

As I’ve described before, the Flood recapitulates the creation week in reverse, with the dove flying over the waters at the end of the Flood corresponding to the Spirit hovering the waters at the beginning of creation. This is done in order to portray the Flood as the de-creation and re-creation (death and resurrection) of the world God made in Genesis 1. Joel alludes to this in a prophecy of the Messianic age because, just as the antediluvian world was reborn through the Spirit-guided Flood, so too would the old covenant world be put to death and brought back to life through the Holy Spirit. 

Importantly, this “Flood imagery” of water and the Spirit (as a dove) is picked up in the NT where it’s explicitly tied to ritual/water baptism (Matt. 3:16). St. Peter, the one preaching at Pentecost, likewise makes this connection in 1 Peter 3:20-21 when he states that the Flood was a type of baptism. Just as the waters of the Flood killed all life on earth, so now do the waters of baptism bring new life to God’s creatures. Thus it comes as no surprise that at Pentecost, when telling others how they can participate in the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (that the Spirit-Flood would rain down on all flesh), Peter says that they must “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38).

That being “baptized” here refers to ritual baptism is clear not only from the broader context of Acts (cf. Acts 8:12-13, 15, 36-38, more on this below), but also the OT background at play. Recall that before Christ, the Feast of Pentecost was held (in part) to commemorate the Sinai covenant. This is why, just as God “descended in fire” on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18), so too did He descend in “tongues of fire” on the disciples (Acts 2:3). Understanding this connection sheds light on a detail given to us in Acts 2:41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” 

Why is it “about three thousand” people who were baptized at Pentecost? It’s because when Israel sinned against God at Mount Sinai, it was “about three thousand” people whom the Levites put to death (Ex. 32:28). This is important because the Levites’ slaying of the three thousand was a ritual act whereby they secured their ordination to the Lord’s priesthood (Ex. 32:39). This strongly suggests that the baptisms done in Acts 2 were also ritual acts performed by the new covenant’s ministerial priests (cf. my articles on the connection between Levitical and new covenant priests). And Peter’s quotation of Joel 2:32 confirms this beyond any doubt: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

In Scripture, “calling on the name of the Lord” is something that takes place in a ritual context. The first time we see it happen is after the birth of Abel’s priestly successor, Seth. In his days “people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26). After this it’s Abram who “build[s] an altar to the Lord and call[s] upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 12:8, 13:4), and his son Isaac does too (Gen. 26:5). Likewise, when prophet Elijah confronted the priests of Baal, he challenged them to “call on the names of their gods” at their altar, while he “called on the name of the Lord” at his altar (1 Kg. 18:24-38).

This ritual accent to “calling on the name of the Lord” is then explicitly tied to baptism in Acts 22:16. Here, we learn that during the conversion of Saul, Ananias told him to “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” Given the context of this story, it cannot be doubted that water baptism is in mind. Not only is the unique language of “washing” employed, but also consider how the conversion of Saul, which consisted of him walking down a “road” and eventually being “baptized” (Acts 9:17-18), happens immediately after the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. Like Saul, this man was walking down a “road” and got “baptized,” however it’s explicitly acknowledged that this was a water baptism (Acts 8:36-39); and St. Luke makes no effort to distinguish this from all of the other baptisms that were happening in the very same chapter (Acts 8:12-13, 16). Indeed, in Acts 8:16 we learn that there were people who were “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus,” yet they hadn’t received the Spirit. If “baptism” is supposed to refer to some vague “personal reception of the Spirit,” how would this state of affairs even be possible? The simplest reading of people being “baptized” in Acts 8-9, then, is that they were given water/ritual baptisms. Arguing for a different meaning whenever it’s exegetically convenient is simply an equivocation fallacy.  

Circling back to Acts 22:16, it’s clear that Paul was indeed given a ritual baptism, which enabled him to call on the name of the Lord. This confirms everything that was said above about Acts 2. Joel’s prophecy that all flesh would “call on the name of the Lord” through the outpouring of the Spirit, was fulfilled by the people at Pentecost being baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. It was this ritual baptism that allowed the people to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), thus fulfilling Jesus’ words that He would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). This establishes that the “Spirit baptism” spoken of by our Lord was accomplished in and through water baptism, and thus was not distinct from it.

However you may be asking yourself: what about the Christians who weren’t baptized at Pentecost? Well as I hinted at above, the reason why Jewish Christians in Acts 2 could simply receive the Spirit without being baptized was because they were already ritually baptized members of the Church (cf. Jn. 3:22, Matt. 28:19). This is why it was only the non-Christian Jews (the unbaptized) who needed to both be ritually baptized and receive the Spirit. In one way or another, all of the Jews at Pentecost ended up possessing both “water and the Spirit”; and this is because of what Jesus said in John 3:5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In a text that’s clearly about water baptism (and universally interpreted as such among all Christians prior to the middle ages), Jesus says that both water and the Spirit are required for baptismal entrance into God’s kingdom. 

And so this is the background we need to properly assess David’s argument: the Christian Jews prior to Pentecost had received water, but lacked the Spirit; the Jews who converted at Pentecost received both water and the Spirit; and in Acts 10-11 we see Gentiles who have the Spirit, but lack water:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word… Then Peter declared, “Can anyone prevent (κωλῦσαί) water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44, 46-48)

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on [the Gentiles] just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could prevent (κωλῦσαί) God? (Acts 11:15-17)

In his recollection of the events of Acts 10, St. Peter notes how the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles just as it had fallen upon “us,” i.e. the Jews. And what was his immediate response? It was to give them all ritual baptisms. This is because Peter knew that it was God’s will to give the Gentiles “the same gift” that He had given the Jews at Pentecost. Yet there’s only one “gift” mentioned in Acts 2, and that’s “the gift of the Holy Spirit” that the non-Christian Jews received through water baptism. As was said above, “the gift” that God gave all of the Jews at Pentecost, which He also desired the Gentiles to have, was water and the Spirit (cf. Acts 8:14-20). 

This is indeed why Peter remarks, “who was I that I could prevent God?” This same word was used by Peter during the very event he’s commenting on; after the Spirit came upon the Gentiles, Peter said, “who can prevent water from baptizing these people?” In Acts 11:17, then, Peter is effectively saying that if he were to have “prevented” the Gentiles from being ritually baptized, this would have “prevented” God from fully giving them Spirit baptisms. In other words, Peter affirms that ritual baptism was absolutely essential for the fulfillment of Jesus’ words that “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” As Adam McIntosh concludes, you cannot divorce ritual baptism from Spirit baptism; they truly are “two sides of the same coin,” and not “separable acts” as David considers them. 

Thus we can completely reject David’s conclusion that the baptismal regeneration “proof-texts” don’t necessarily refer to ritual baptism. We can be confident that St. Paul is indeed referring to ritual baptism when he says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). This is because, just a few chapters earlier, Paul noted how “you were washed (ἀπελούσασθε), you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). The word “wash” is only used one other time in the NT, and it’s in Acts 22:16 when Ananias told Paul to “wash away (ἀπόλουσαι)” his sins through being “baptized” into the “name” of the Lord Jesus Christ. This memory was undoubtedly in Paul’s mind as he was writing to the Corinthian Church, because it was the moment when he was buried with Christ, and began to walk in the newness of life as a member of His body (cf. Rom 6:4).