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One Baptism in Ephesians 4:5

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The meaning of “one baptism” in Ephesians 4:5 and whether it refers to water or Spirit baptism has been much debated through the years, and although there are exceptions, the scholarly consensus is that this refers to water baptism. It is this author’s contention, however, that this conclusion is based primarily on a misunderstanding of the role of the Spirit in Spirit baptism.1

Arguments for Water Baptism2

A study of the exegetical commentaries and theological journals reveals a common approach to verses 4-6 which is foundational to their understanding of the e}n bavptisma.Rather than take the list of seven unities as one unit, these three verses are divided into three sections paralleling the Trinity. Thus Barth writes, “in the course of NT exegesis and church history, the trinitarian structure and contents of Eph 4:4-6 have received much greater attention.”3 In other words, verse 4 is seen as a reference to the Holy Spirit, verse 5 as a reference to Christ and verse 6 as a reference to the Father.

This division seems legitimate, but because verse 5 is seen as a reference to Christ, these authors see a conflict if e}n bavptisma is a reference to Spirit baptism. If the author of Ephesians had meant Spirit baptism, they conclude that e}n bavptisma would have been listed in verse 4. Thus Barth writes,

After the “Spirit” has been mentioned in vs. 4, and after his creative, animating, unifying power over the “body” has been sufficiently intimated, there is no need for the author to insist again, in vs. 5, that the gift of the Spirit makes the Christians one body (Cf. I Cor 12:13).4

And Bruce writes, “If the ‘one baptism’ here had meant Spirit-baptism to the exclusion of water-baptism, it would surely have been associated with ‘one Spirit’ and not ‘one Lord.’”5 Perhaps the clearest elucidation of this argument for water baptism comes from one of the more popular commentaries. John MacArthur writes,

The one baptism of verse 5 is best taken to refer to water baptism, the common New Testament means of a believer’s publicly confessing Jesus as Savior and Lord. This is preferred because of the way Paul has spoken specifically of each member of the Trinity in succession. This is the Lord Jesus Christ’s verse, as it were.6

Further support for interpreting e}n bavptisma as water baptism typically follows the line of argument that water baptism logically and chronologically follows the profession of faith just discussed in the previous phrase miva pivsti" .7 Thus, as Lincoln says, water baptism is “the public rite of confession of the one faith in the one Lord.”8 This is a true statement about water baptism, but there are problems with taking this as a reference to water baptism.

Lincoln recognizes this and immediately qualifies the “oneness” of the water baptism by saying, “This baptism is one, not because it has a single form or is administered on only one occasion, but because it is the initiation into Christ, into the one body, which all have undergone and as such is a unifying factor.”9 The question might also be asked if “all have undergone” water baptism. Though it certainly was the expected procedure in the early church, at least one man (the thief on the cross) is recorded in scripture as not undergoing this ritual.

Additionally, any reference to water baptism is typically followed by a discussion and defense of possible reasons for omitting the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. After all, if the sacrament of water baptism is meant, why did Paul not mention the Lord’s Supper?10

Thus the primary reason for taking this to be water baptism is that it resolves an apparent conflict with the Trinitarian grouping of verses 4-6. The Spirit was mentioned in verse 4, and it seems inconsistent to mention Spirit baptism in this verse about Christ.

Arguments for Spirit Baptism

In contrast to the critical scholars many other commentaries hold that this is Spirit baptism. The common denominator among this group is that the seven unities listed in verses 4-6 are seen as one group and not divided into sections corresponding to the Trinity. Most fail to explain how they derived this to be Spirit baptism. The statement is simply made, and then they move on to the next topic, but there are numerous reasons this could be taken as Spirit baptism:

First, the unities listed here have a certain emphasis on the supernatural. Water baptism on the other hand is performed by man.11

Second, water baptism is not necessarily unifying because this issue has actually divided Christians. Even in Paul’s time there were misunderstandings. For example, Paul was glad that he had not baptized many in 1 Cor. 1:13 because it was a partial source of disunity. And most would agree that Ephesians was written after First Corinthians.

Third, as already mentioned, if water baptism is meant, why not mention the other sacrament, the Lord’s Supper?

Fourth, this is not consistent with the baptismal formula of Matt 28:19 which associates water baptism with “the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although Paul wrote before Matthew,12 Matthew surely recorded what was the prevalent and accepted practice.

Thus there are several reasons why Spirit baptism should be considered. If one could resolve the apparent conflict in the trinitarian grouping, perhaps this would allow those who place an emphasis on structure to consider these reasons. It is this author’s conclusion that a proper understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in Spirit baptism is essential to this.

The Role of the
Holy Spirit in Spirit Baptism

1 Cor. 12:13 is perhaps one key to understanding what the author means in Eph. 4:5. In 1 Cor. 12:13 it is clear that the baptism is Spirit baptism. The context of the Corinthian passage is the unity of Jew and Greek in the body of Christ as it is in Ephesians 4. 1 Cor. 12:13 says, “For by one Spirit we were baptized into one body,” and thus we see the words “Spirit,” “one body” and “baptism” together as in Eph. 4:4-5 which seems to indicate a similar topic. The key is in understanding the ejn eJniV pneu`mati in 1 Cor. 12:13.

A common misconception is that because the Holy Spirit is involved, it is the Spirit who is doing the baptizing. This misconception is aggravated by the ambiguity of the English word “by” which is typically used in translation of e}n pneu`mati. But an understanding of the grammar is essential. eJnrequires the dative, and the function of the dative,pneu`mati, is to express means or instrument.13 This construction is similar to the phrase ejn tw'/ ai{mati tou' Cristou'. in which the blood is the instrument Christ used to purchase the Christian. It is possibly because the label “means” or “instrument” sounds so impersonal that people hesitate to label the actions of a very personal Holy Spirit as such, but ejn can also designate a personal agent.14 Thus persons can be used as an instrument, and the person of the Holy Spirit is in fact the instrument used by Christ to baptize the believer, just as water was the instrument used by John to baptize believers (cf. Acts 1:5).

This concept is also consistent with John the Baptist’s prophesy that Christ would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. In Mark 1:8 John says, “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And Luke also records his words. “John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’” (Luke 3:16). Concerning this Tom Woodward writes:

Six of seven passages on Spirit-baptism are a quotation of John’s prophecy or Jesus’ restatement of it. … Since the literal baptism of John involved an immersion in…water, it follows that Christ’s baptism in the Holy Spirit is a vivid metaphor picturing immersion in an outpoured river of the Holy Spirit.15

He goes on to say,

Unfortunately, Paul does not carry on the parallel with water baptism when writing the Corinthian church about Spirit-baptism. For this reason, translators and expositors have felt a freedom to cast the Spirit in the role of the Baptizer—something they cannot do in the other six passages because of his clearly fixed role as the metaphorical element of baptism.16

Thus when we read statements like that of one author who says, “Note, the Spirit is the baptizer and the Body of Christ is that into which the person was injected”17 or when Barth writes, “After the ‘Spirit’ has been mentioned in vs. 4,… there is no need for the author to insist again, in vs. 5, that the gift of the Spirit makes the Christians one body,”18 they have missed the point. The Spirit is not the Baptizer and does not give the gift. Christ is the Baptizer, and Christ gives the gift. The Spirit is the gift.

After all that has been said, though, it is essential that this concept not be misconstrued so as to degrade the person and work of the Holy Spirit because it is certainly not the intent of this author. The Holy Spirit is certainly not an inanimate object like the water of John’s baptism. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s personal agent and obviously takes an active role in the baptism of the believer.


If the Spirit is understood as being the instrument and Christ is actually the one who baptizes, then Spirit baptism is actually Christ’s baptism,19 and consequently, there is no conflict with the trinitarian grouping of verses 4-6 and with the contents of verse 5 (particularly a reference to Spirit-baptism) being associated with the second person of the Trinity. Perhaps alleviation of this conflict will open the door for consideration of the other reasons that this might indeed be a reference to Spirit baptism.

1 I would like to express much appreciation to Professor Dan Wallace who looked at a preliminary draft and made many helpful suggestions.

2 The following authors hold to water baptism as the proper interpretation of 㮠b䰴isma: T.K. Abbot, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), pp. 108-109; Marcus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), p. 469; F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 335-338; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters From Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 73; John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Chatham, England: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), p. 331; R.W. Dale, The Epistle to the Ephesians (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1893), p. 268; John Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), p. 275; Charles J. Ellicot, Ephesians, p. 87; A Critical and Grammatical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Minneapolis, Minn: The James Family Christian Publishers, 1978); Josef Ernst, Die Brief an die Philipper, an Philemon, an die Kolosser, an die Epheser (Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 1974), p. 348. G.G. Findlay, The Epistle to the Ephesians (New York: George H Doran Company, nd), p. 224; Francis Foulkes, Ephesians (Tyndale NT Commentaries), p. 113; William Hendriksen, Exposition of Ephesians, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 187; Harold Hoehner, “Ephesians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament Edition, ed. Walvoord and Zuck (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1983), p. 633; A.T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), p. 240; John MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1986), p. 130; John MacPherson, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1892), p. 290. Adolf Schlatter, Die Briefe an die Galater, Epheser, Kolosser und Philemon (Stuttgart: Calver, 1963), p. 205. Rudolf Schnackenburg, Der Brief an die Epheser, Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (Z? Benziger, 1982), p. 168; Brooke Foss Westcott, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), pp. 58-59; Lange, The Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 141; W. E. Moore, “One Baptism,” New Testament Studies, Vol. 10(4), 1964, pp. 504-516.

3 Marcus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, p. 463 (italics mine).

4 Ibid., p. 469.

5 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Toronto: Pickering & Inglis LTD, 1961), pp. 79-80.

6 John MacArthur, Jr., Ephesians, p. 130 (italics mine).

7 Abbot, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, p. 109; Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 80; Schnackenburg comments that, “Die Taufe >>auf den (oder im) Namen des Herrn (Jesus)<< unterstellt die Glaubenden dem einen Herrn und wendet ihnen das Christusheil zu.” Rudolf Schnackenburg, Der Brief an die Epheser, p. 168. And Schlatter says, “Zu dem inneren Vorgang, der unsere Verbindung mit dem einen Herrn Herstellt, f?ulus den 䵟eren Akt, der sie uns verschafft, die Taufe, mit der die Gnade des Christus uns erfaߴ und uns den Zutritt zu ihm und zu seiner Gemeinde schenkt.” Adolf Schlatter, Die Briefe an die Galater, Epheser, Kolosser und Philemon, p. 205.

8 A.T. Lincon, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1990) p. 240. Ellicott, p. 87.

9 Ibid.

10 MacPherson points out a common answer which is that “only the initial or inaugural acts are taken into account.” John MacPherson, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 290. The following authors also dealt with the absence of the Lord’s Supper with similar conclusions: Abbot, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, p. 109; Barth, Ephesians, p. 470; F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, p. 337. G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters From Prison, p. 73; Eadie, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 275; Ellicot, Ephesians, p. 87; Josef Ernst, Die Brief an die Philipper, an Philemon, an die Kolosser, an die Epheser, p. 348. Lincoln, Ephesians, p. 240; Wescott, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, p. 58.

11 Stanley Toussaint, class notes on Ephesians taken at Dallas Theological Seminary, 1966. Lewis Sperry Chafer, The Ephesian letter (New York: Loizeax Brothers, 1935), pp. 124-25.

12 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1990), pp. 54 & 536.

13 Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Second ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 260.

14 F. Blas and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament, Trans. by Robert W. Funk (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 117-18.

15 Tom Woodward, “The Roles of Christ and the Spirit in Spirit-Baptism,” Master’s Thesis Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979, p. 41.

16 Ibid., p. 43.

17 Earnest R. Campbell, Ephesians (Silverton, Oregon: Canyonview Press, 1986), p. 143. Campbell does take Eph 4:5 to refer to Spirit-baptism, but he also does not mention the trinitarian grouping of verses 4-6.

18 Markus Barth, Ephesians, 4-6, p. 469.

19 Willard H. Taylor also recognized this principle and used the phrase “Christ’s Baptism” to explain the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Willard H. Taylor, Ephesians, Beacon Bible Expositions Vol 8, Editors: William Greathouse and Willard Taylor (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 1981), p. 172.

Related Topics: Baptism

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