The Spirit of Baptism: Sharing Christ’s Identity and Vocation

The Spirit of Baptism: Sharing Christ’s Identity and Vocation

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“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3.17).

We are accustomed to hearing these words as affirmation of Jesus’ identity. And, of course, they are. But they are also words of commissioning, a divine announcement of Jesus’ vocation. He, Israel-in-person, is called to fulfill Israel’s purposes for the sake of the world (as NT Wright and others have shown). This is why as soon as he emerges from the ritual waters he is driven by the Spirit into the frontier of his mission.

As it was with him, so it is with us. Sin not only distorts our identity as children of God but also alienates us from our vocation as kingly priests of creation. Through our sharing in Christ’s baptism, we are restored to our identity in our creaturely vocation. As we emerge from the ritual waters, the Father speaks the word of blessing over us, avowing our share in the Son’s identity and announcing our participation in his calling. Through the washing of the Word-as-water (Eph. 5.26) we receive, just as Jesus did, an affirmation of who we are and a declaration of what it is that we are to do. In fact, we receive the very same affirmation and declaration, because we share in the very same identity-in-vocation. What the Father says of him, the Father says of us. To be ‘accepted in the Beloved’ (Eph. 1.6) is to be so identified with him as to be taken up into the mission he embodies. The ‘one baptism’ births us into ‘the one hope of our calling’ (Eph. 4.4-5) and connects us to ‘the work of the ministry’ (Eph. 4.12).

We see, then, that salvation (identity) cannot be separated from mission (vocation) any more than the Spirit can be divided from the Son. Peter Leithart has it exactly right:

The Son and Spirit are sent, and [since] we are in the Son and the Spirit, then we are caught up into their sending. There is no union with the God of Israel that is not also a sending, no deliverance that is not also a commissioning.

Thinking along these lines makes possible a clearer understanding of the relationship of water baptism and the fullness of the Spirit.

Pentecostal/charismatics have tended to understand Spirit baptism as empowerment for last-days witness. But as a rule, we have failed to recognize water baptism as itself already a summons to and effectual sign of the same intimacy and the same empowerment. In truth, however, the sacrament of washing marks the beginning of our journey into God just because it is the means God uses to initiate us as co-participants into Jesus’ priestly kingdom-bringing work. As those who are baptized into Christ, we receive the Spirit with and in him through baptism. That is, we are given a share in his Pentecostal identity-in-mission.

We might say, then, that the distinctive Pentecostal/charismatic experience of Spirit baptism both reveals (in the form of a sign) this hidden nature of water baptism and also renews its mysterious realities. On this point, we should be as clear as possible: it is not as if the Spirit has been absent from or only fleetingly present to believers before their experience of Spirit baptism. The Spirit always has been fully present with, in, and upon them from their entry into Christ in the sacramental washing. Paul is emphatic: anyone who belongs to Christ has been indwelt by and lives in the Spirit (Rom. 8.9-11). Therefore, in the moment of being “filled with the Spirit,” believers are experiencing what Frank Macchia in his Baptized in the Spirit describes as the “release” of an “already-indwelling Spirit.” And it is the kind of “release” that confirms, as Macchia says, “the intimate relationship between water baptism and Spirit baptism.”

For some of us, talking about water baptism in these terms seems passing strange. But the mothers and fathers of our tradition knew what we have now mostly forgotten. As Steve Land says, they recognized water baptism as “the acceptance of the call to become a holy witness in the power of the Holy Spirit.” They knew that the same Spirit who rested upon Christ so that he could “work the works of God” (Jn 9.4), rests upon and abides with us, always to the same end. Given the problems with out theology and practice of baptism, we desperately need to rediscover this understanding.


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