Like A Dove II

In the previous article in this series, I drew attention to the threefold meaning of the Spirit of God descending as a dove on Jesus at His baptism. On a related note, I also argued that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Titus 3:3-7 were parallel passages that addressed the same issues in very similar language. One feature of these passages that I emphasized was Paul’s speaking of baptism as a “washing.” In Acts 22:16, in his testimony before the Jewish mob in Jerusalem, Paul spoke of baptism as a washing away of sin. The language in 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Titus 3:5 is analogous. Baptism is a washing. Let’s consider that first.

In 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul speaks of being washed “in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. In the Greek, as in the English, each phrase is introduced by a preposition, indicating that there are two different notions here. To be washed in the name of Jesus is an expression that parallels language which speaks of being baptized in the name of Jesus (compare Acts 2:38; 8:12, 16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16). To be washed by the Spirit is also an expression that points to baptism, for it is the gift of the Spirit that distinguished Christian baptism from John the baptizer’s baptism. This seems relatively clear and obvious.

In Titus 3:5, the two expressions, “the washing of regeneration” and “renewing of the Holy Spirit” are two ways of saying the same thing. Baptism is a washing that makes us new persons — not, of course, by the water itself, but by the work of the Holy Spirit, who is “poured out upon us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:6).

I believe Paul speaks of baptism as a washing because this is language that fits the basic idea of a water rite, but also because it provides a general picture of an important aspect of this water rite. If my sins are washed away in baptism, then baptism is related, as in 1 Corinthians 6:11, both to sanctification and justification. I know that we usually order these two blessings as justification followed by sanctification, but Paul puts them in the unusual order: “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11). The three expressions in this verse point to a single working of God the Spirit in the name of Jesus. Baptism “is” sanctification “is” justification.

I am not denying distinctions between these words. Justification is a judicial declaration that our sins are forgiven and that we are therefore righteous before God. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit by which He transforms us into the image of Christ Himself. But the public — even with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch there were at least two people present, though no doubt more, given the eunuch’s status — declaration that our sins have been forgiven and that we are now right before God happens in and through our baptism.

What has been called “definitive sanctification” also happens in baptism, for, as Peter promised the crowds at Pentecost, if one is baptized, he will receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes us new men. His holiness sanctifies us. Paul puts the washing of baptism as a public covenantal rite that openly manifests both justification and sanctification.

Titus 3:5-7 speaks the same way. Baptism is a washing of regeneration by the Holy Spirit that shows that “having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This passage includes adoption as sons to become heirs, another aspect of baptism. But regeneration, the beginning of sanctification, and justification are both spoken of here in relation to baptism, as in 1 Corinthians 6:11.

Supposing my interpretation here to be basically correct, two questions emerge. One what, then, does all this have to do with faith? Two, how does this relate to the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the dove?

First, many evangelicals become uncomfortable with statements that seem to imply that baptism does anything at all. Baptism is often thought to be just a ceremony. It is a public confession of an individual’s faith — usually an adult’s faith — before men, not a rite in which God the Spirit is profoundly active. I believe that one source of the confusion is that our practice of baptism is rather removed from the New Testament practice. Consider, for example, Paul’s baptism of the Philippian jailor and his family. They professed faith in Jesus not long after midnight and immediately in their home Paul baptized them (Acts 16:25-34). As in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, a profession of faith is followed by baptism so soon that the notions of believing in Jesus and being baptized in Jesus’ name are virtually identical. Everything that the New Testament ascribes to faith is also ascribed to baptism because in apostolic days one who professed to believe in Jesus was immediately baptized. The two things were one. Once we understand this, we will not imagine that water apart from faith saves or that water alone is doing a miracle.

Second, the dove descended on Jesus as a symbol of humility, just as the Spirit is given to us to make us humble like Jesus. The gift of the dove-Spirit to us is the beginning of our sanctification. This means that the dove-Spirit is given to us to make us a new creation in Christ, to renew us unto eternal life. The gift of the dove-Spirit points also to Jesus’ death for our sins, the cross by which our sins are taken away, the basis of our justification. Baptism is a dove-Spirit washing that takes away our sins to make us righteous before God and renews us to become humble like Jesus as new creatures.

What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and Titus 3:3-7 is not just something about what happened long ago when we were baptized. It relates to our weekly worship in a foundational manner, as we see in the book of Hebrews: “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:19-25)

Each Lord’s Day, we can look back to our baptism as a washing that has sprinkled our hearts from an evil conscience because in baptism, God has declared us forgiven and righteous before Him. Baptism is our public covenantal confession of faith in God and God’s answer in covenantal love — though the initiative was with Him. Because we have been baptized in the name of Jesus and been given the gift of the Spirit, we have been washed with pure water and, so, pure and sanctified before God. With the confidence that our baptism gives us — not confidence in our faith or goodness, but confidence in the faithful God’s promise — we can draw near with boldness each week and praise the thrice Holy Creator with full assurance that He loves and accepts us, which He testifies over and over by giving us His Son in the Lord’s Supper.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.