What role does the Holy Spirit play in our lives before our baptism? How does our connection to God’s Spirit change pre- and post-baptism?
The apostle Peter laid out a clear road map for Christians who want to follow God: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Our journey as Christians begins by acknowledging and repenting of our sins. That repentance leads us to baptism, and baptism leads us to receiving the Spirit of God.
The Bible says that once we receive God’s Spirit, that Spirit dwells in us (Romans 8:11). Our physical bodies become “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Corinthians 6:19, English Standard Version), at which point God’s Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).
The functions of the Holy Spirit
The Scriptures show us that God places His Spirit within repentant, baptized Christians. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), and Paul explained that it helps us to search “all things, yes, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10), helping us to “know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (verse 12).
But what about before baptism? Do we have any connection to the Holy Spirit before we repent of our sins?
It turns out that God’s Spirit plays a huge role in our lives before baptism. To understand that role, we first need to understand what the Bible says about the process of repentance.
How God leads us to repentance
The common Greek words for repentance, metanoia (G3341) and metanoeō (G3340), “denote a radical, moral turn of the whole person from sin and to God” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p. 580).
Repentance is more than feeling sorry about something wrong we’ve done. It’s a serious change in how we live our lives. It starts with recognizing a sinful lifestyle that sets us at odds with God, then taking steps to turn away from that sin and toward God.
But how do we get to that change?
Not by ourselves—that’s for sure. The Bible says that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). The carnal mind is the default state of the human mind without God. It cannot search or understand “the deep things of God”—in fact, its sinful desires often bring it into direct opposition with God.
In point of fact, it’s God Himself who brings us to a state of repentance. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). God is the One who helps us bridge the gap between our carnal minds and His own spiritual mind. Paul explained, “The goodness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4, emphasis added).
The goodness of God. Not us. The process of repentance doesn’t start with us; it starts with a desire and an understanding that God places in us. Other scriptures show us that God grants repentance to those He is working with (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25), helping them see, understand and desire the need for change in their lives.
God’s Spirit is active all over—not just in baptized Christians
Although God’s Spirit is not in us until after baptism, it is around us. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit is not a being, but the power and the essence of God. (See more in our article “What Is the Holy Spirit?”)
If you believe God’s Spirit is actively at work in your life, helping you to understand “the deep things of God,” then it’s time to consider the next step.When God gave form and shape to the earth, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). When God established extra leadership for the Israelites in the wilderness, He “took of the Spirit that was upon [Moses], and placed the same upon the seventy elders” (Numbers 11:25).
When Balaam prophesied about Israel, “the Spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). That same Spirit also came upon King Saul, King David and many of the judges of Israel (1 Samuel 10:10; 16:13; Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14).
Ahab’s servant Obadiah was worried that “the Spirit of the LORD” would carry Elijah to “a place I do not know” (1 Kings 18:12). Elihu told Job, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1).
God used His Spirit to shape the world, and He continues to use that Spirit to accomplish His will within that world. He leads, inspires, directs and interacts with His creation through that Spirit—even when the people involved aren’t baptized.
The role of God’s Spirit in repentance
Let’s put the pieces together, then:
The Holy Spirit is the power and essence of God. It is the primary means through which He interacts with His creation. Baptism is an integral step in receiving that Spirit within us, repentance is a requirement for baptism, and God works with us to bring us to a place of repentance.
What do you think He uses to help bring us there?
That’s right: the same power He’s been using since He formed the earth all those ages ago. If God is working with you—if He’s drawing you to Him, bringing you to understand His truths and the need for repentance—then He’s doing that through His Holy Spirit. He’s guiding you into a deeper relationship with Him, opening your mind to things you could never understand on your own.
Ultimately, He wants to place that Spirit within you and begin the process of transforming you into His own image.
The Spirit is key to our Christian transformation
That’s what this whole process is all about. It’s not enough just to have God’s Spirit near us—we need God’s Spirit to be part of us. Physically, we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), but that was only step one. God’s ultimate goal is to make us fully and completely like Him (1 John 3:2)—spirit beings living forever in the God family (John 4:24).
In other words, even if you aren’t baptized yet, God’s Spirit is still active in your life. Through that Spirit, He’s beginning to help you understand and live life-changing truths that are hidden from the natural human mind.
Paul explained that, without God’s intervention, there’s a spiritual veil that makes it impossible for us to understand God’s truths, but that “the veil is taken away in Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:14). He continued, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (verse 18).
Repentance is only the first step in our walk with God
If you believe God’s Spirit is actively at work in your life, helping you to understand “the deep things of God,” then it’s time to consider the next step.
If you’ve begun to see the sins that are separating you from God (Isaiah 59:2), and if God is leading you to repent of those sins, then baptism and the laying on of hands is all that stands between having God’s Spirit around you and having God’s Spirit within you.
The difference between these two states of being is extreme. Paul wrote to baptized Christians, saying, “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, [which] is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Receiving God’s Spirit is both a seal of authenticity for us and a guarantee (or “down payment”) of our inheritance as sons and daughters of God.
The process of coming to understand our need for the transformative power of God’s Spirit within us is a huge part of being a Christian in progress, but it’s far from the final step. Once we receive God’s Spirit, our job is to allow God to reshape us from the inside out as we “go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1, ESV).
Through Peter, God promised us, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). And the Bible is clear that the Spirit of God is directly involved in bringing us to the threshold of receiving it in the first place.
But the choice we make at that threshold—and the choice we make with every step that follows—is entirely up to us.
(See our “7 Steps of the Christian Calling Infographic” for a visual map of what it means to follow God.)