The idea of the sacraments, especially how, which and why to do them, has been an issue for the Church since the beginning. One of the most debated has been baptism, as it is perhaps one of the most ambiguous, yet obvious commands in Scripture. Baptism is described as “for repentance” (Matt. 3:11), for the removal of sins (Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5), purification “with fire” (Luke 3:16; Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8), the act of being born again by the Spirit (John 3:5), the guarantee of being risen with Christ (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-4), the act of being grafted into the body of Christ (Eph 4:5; 1 Cor 12:13) and being filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). However, none of these really explain the way in which this occurs. If one is to go by Jesus’ example, then one must be baptized in the water of the Jordan by John the Baptist. Since these are unavailable to believers today, does this mean that they shouldn’t be baptized? Of course not, Jesus commands baptism in John 3:5, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” Thus, the Spirit must also play a role. However, which role this is (whether the Spirit enters before, after or during baptism) has caused difficulties.
There are many verses that require the Spirit, as He is the guider and the inheritance of believers, but when does he enter the realm of baptism? Furthermore, given that Christ is to “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16, Mark 1:8), then what is the purpose of water baptism? Eventually, many have come to the conclusion, at least within the Baptist denomination and many non-denominational churches and somewhat for the sake of unity, that both water and the Spirit are required for baptism.
The importance of this issue rests in the fact that it deals with one’s eternal salvation. No one wants to accidentally take a chance with their eternal destiny by mistakenly administering a sacrament. To be honest, I understand the desire for explanation, but the divisiveness of the issue is unsettling to the Church and Jesus’ call for unity. As baptism offers the possibility for absolution (Mark 1:5), fills one with the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), offers admittance into the Kingdom of God (John 3:5), washes away sins (Titus 3:5), and offers safety from death (Rom 6:3-4), wouldn’t one want to take all precautions necessary for this rather than divide the Church over what are and are not necessary? If faith alone is the mantra of the Protestant movement, there is no reason for an act, commanded by God to be both by water and by Spirit, to be such a divisive issue.
Just as the thief on the cross was not able to receive baptism, he was still assured of his salvation by Christ. Likewise, those who were in the desert, unable to reach water sufficient for baptism, were not denied this sacrament (so far as one can be certain). The importance of the act lies within one’s faith in the Spirit, baptism acting as an outward showing of what has already occurred within the believer’s heart: a death to this world, and a renewal of life in Christ.