"In" or "By" One Spirit?

Written by Drew on August 17th, 2005

Studies of the Holy Spirit come to a grinding halt at 1 Corinthians 12:13. The problem hinges on the Greek preposition en, which is described by Daniel Wallace as “the workhorse of prepositions in the NT” (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 372). En is one of those flexible words that paints with broad strokes. Also, it always takes the dative case, leaving translators little or no grammatical clues for understanding the text. Consequently, context is essential in understanding the meaning of the word.

In the case of 1 Corinthians 12:13, the translation of en carries with it important implications. The KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, et al read something like this: “For by [en] one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” On the other hand, the ASV and ESV read, “For in [en] one Spirit….” Which is it, “in” or “by” one Spirit? If it is “by” one Spirit, then the Holy Spirit is the instrument God uses to teach sinners to be baptized “into one body.” However, if it is “in” one Spirit, then the phrase is to be understood spatially, in the locative sense—the Holy Spirit is the element in which we are baptized.

As I see it, three contextual arguments can be made to support the rendering, “by one Spirit.”

1. The verse states that we are “all” baptized in this manner. While it is true that we have some cases of believers receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit (i.e., being baptized “in” the Spirit) in the holy record (Acts 2; 10), these are the exception and not the rule. Every conversion in the book of Acts, for example, employs water baptism, including those conversions involving the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

2. Paul adds we are baptized “into one body.” Nowhere is it said that being baptized “in” the Spirit gets you into the “one body,” the church (Col. 1:18). In fact, when Cornelius and his household were baptized “in” the Spirit, they were later commanded to be baptized “by” the Spirit in water (Acts 10:48).

Water baptism is obviously the final step towards being added to the Lord’s body (Acts 2:38, 41, 47; Rom. 6:3-4). And the Spirit is the One who teaches us to take this step through the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:21). Thus, a person is converted by the water of baptism and the direction of the Spirit.

A parallel statement to 1 Corinthians 12:13 is found in John 3:5, where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). The “kingdom of God” is the equivalent of “the body of Christ,” since Christ used the terms “kingdom” and “church” interchangeably (Mt. 16:18-19). Therefore, Christ concurred with Paul, saying, “Unless a man is led by the Spirit in God’s Word to be baptized in water, he cannot enter into My body.”

Paul offers another parallel in his letter to Titus: “He saved us [i.e., put us into His body, D.K.], not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration [baptism, D.K.] and the renewal of the Holy Spirit [or “by one Spirit,” D.K.]” (Titus 3:5).

3. As far as the New Testament Christian is concerned, there is only “one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-6). Water baptism, being the only baptism required in the New Testament for salvation, has to be that “one baptism” (Acts 8:36-39; Eph. 5:26; 1 Pet. 3:21). Therefore, Paul cannot mean we are baptized “in” the Holy Spirit into one body. He has to be referring to the Spirit’s direction in our being immersed in water for the remission of sins (Acts 22:16).


3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Andy says:

    Your conclusion on 1 Corinthians 12:13 is certianly in harmony with all of the teaching of the New Testament. This verse is helpful to our understanding of exactly how one gets into the body of Christ.

    If the Greek preposition en (translated “in”)is understood to refer to an instrumental use of the Holy Spirit rather than a locative use (or location), then the verse makes perfect sense and (as you said) is in perfect harmony with other New Testament passages. It is clear to me that Paul said, “For certainly by the leading or teaching of the one Spirit, we are all lead to be baptized into one body, and then we are all given the one Spirit to drink.”

    If this is true, then Paul tells us that one’s relationship with the Holy Spirit changes at his baptism into Christ for the remission of sins (cf. Acts 2:38, 39). Before he becomes a Christian, he is taught by the word of God the Holy Spirit delivered from God to man (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10-13). Then after his/her baptism, God gives the Holy Spirit to him/her as a blessing (cf. Acts 2:38, 39; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 1:13, 14).

    Thanks for your help on the study of this passage.

  2. charles cochran says:

    Drew, Thanks for the study of this passage used by so many to teach “Holy Spirit” baptism. If all would consider the context of Paul’s teachings regarding “one baptism” in Ephesians 4:5 and compare it to the statement in I Peter 3:20-21, then it becomes evident that the one baptism today is water baptism and not Holy Spirit baptism. Thanks, again, for your approach to this difficult text. Charles Cochran

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