In the Nicene Creed, we confess “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Behind that confession is what Paul tells the Ephesians: “there is . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4–5). But a few places in the New Testament seem to suggest that Christians had more than one baptism.

One such place is Acts 8:1–25, Luke’s account of Philip’s ministry in Samaria. Philip came to Samaria and preached Christ to them (8:5). Those who professed faith in Christ “were baptized, both men and women” (8:12). When the apostles in Jerusalem heard the news, they sent a two-man delegation to Samaria—Peter and John. These two apostles arrived and “prayed for [the Samaritan believers] that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:16). Peter and John then “laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (8:17).

Though Acts 8 doesn’t call this experience “Holy Spirit baptism,” similar passages do. For example, Acts 1:5 refers to the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 as a baptism, and Acts 11:16 does the same for Acts 10. We may therefore refer to what the Samaritans experienced as Spirit baptism.

Though Acts 8 doesn’t call this experience ‘Holy Spirit baptism,’ similar passages do.

This passage raises a number of questions: How many baptisms do believers need? Why is there a time gap between water baptism and Spirit baptism? Did the Samaritans believe in Christ without the help of the Holy Spirit? Why did the apostles have to come to Samaria for the Samaritans to receive Spirit baptism?

To answer these questions, let’s start by asking two big-picture questions.

What Is the Spirit’s Work in a Believer’s Salvation?

Acts tells us that repentance is the gift of Christ to the sinner (Acts 5:31; 11:18). Lydia receives Paul’s preaching because “the Lord opened her heart” (16:14). Like repentance, then, faith is the free gift of God to the sinner (see Eph. 2:8Phil. 1:29). Therefore, when the Samaritans believed in Christ, they believed by the sovereign grace of God through his Spirit.

Whatever we make of Spirit baptism, we need to stress that the Spirit of Christ was already at work in these Samaritans’ lives. The Samaritans only repented and believed because the Spirit had enabled them to repent and to believe.

What Do We Make of the Spirit Baptism in Acts 8:16–17?

Note the similarities among what happens in Samaria (Acts 8), what happened in Jerusalem (Acts 2), and what will happen in the Gentile Cornelius’s household (Acts 10); namely, men and women experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (i.e., Spirit baptism). The sequence of Jerusalem, Samaria, Gentiles corresponds to the sequence of the mission in Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (i.e., to the Gentiles, cf. Acts 13:47).

This [Acts 1:8] sequence describes the once-for-all and irreversible movement of the gospel from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile.

This sequence describes the once-for-all and irreversible movement of the gospel from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile. For the first time in redemptive history, God is sending the good news of salvation out to all the nations. In Acts, Luke chronicles this invincible and “unhindered” gospel advance (Acts 28:31).

This pattern helps us to understand the Spirit baptisms of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Cornelius’s household. They show the blessings of Pentecost falling first upon the Jews (Acts 2), then extended to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and then finally to the Gentiles (Acts 10). By the ministry of the Holy Spirit, all nations have a share in the saving work of Christ!

How This Redemptive-Historical Pattern Helps Us Understand Acts 8

When we understand this pattern, other puzzling details of Acts 8 fall into place. First, why do the apostles come to Samaria? Well, they were present at Jerusalem (Acts 2), and Peter will later be present in Cornelius’s household (Acts 10). Their presence in all three instances certifies that the Spirit is genuinely working to extend the gospel from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile. God wants us to have complete confidence that the gospel is for all nations.

Second, in Samaria, the order is water baptism and then Spirit baptism. But in Cornelius’s household, the order is Spirit baptism and then water baptism. We could observe other differences. There’s no mention of tongues in Acts 8, but in Acts 10 the recipients of Spirit baptism speak in tongues (10:46). In Acts 8 we see the laying on of hands (8:17), but in Acts 10 there’s no mention of it.

God wants us to have complete confidence that the gospel is for all nations.

These differences tell us that God does not intend for the kind of Spirit baptism described in Acts 2, 8, and 10 to be an ongoing experience of believers in every age. To be sure, as Richard Gaffin comments on 1 Corinthians 12:13, “The experience of being united to Christ (being incorporated into his body) involves an experiential share in the gift of the Spirit with which he baptized the church at Pentecost.” But the Spirit baptisms in Acts 2, 8, and 10 point to something unique in redemptive history: the progression of the gospel to all nations, by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even the similar but unusual experience described in Acts 19:1–7 fits this pattern. There the disciples who had been baptized only into John’s baptism were still living as though the Mosaic covenant were in effect. The Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, is bringing them into the present era of fulfillment. Such persons, of course, are no longer found in the church today.

Still Relevant Today

Acts 8 presents its challenges, but its message is rich and rewarding for the contemporary church. Our Savior wants us to know that the gospel is for all the nations. And he wants us to know that the Spirit works in the hearts of all kinds of people to bring them to a saving understanding of Jesus Christ as he’s offered to them in the gospel. The mission that Christ has given to the church cannot fail. He gives us every confidence and encouragement to devote ourselves to that work.

And Acts 8 reminds us that, for all our differences, believers are one in Christ. We have “one baptism.” In a world that’s fraying and fragmenting along ethnic and racial lines, the church—“one new man” in Christ (Eph. 2:15)—has a unity not of this world. Let’s resolve in this New Year to live out this unity, not least in our commitment to take the gospel to the world!

Guy Waters (PhD, Duke University) is the James M. Baird Jr. professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of numerous books, including What Is the Bible? (P&R, 2013), A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Justification: Being Made Right with God? (Christian Focus, 2010), and How Jesus Runs the Church (P&R, 2011).