The majority of commentators throughout history understand 3:27 to refer to water baptism. But this results in some serious difficulties. Calvin states the difficulty well: “”But the argument, that, because they have been baptized, they have put on Christ, appears weak; for how far is baptism from being efficacious in all? Is it reasonable that the grace of the Holy Spirit should be so closely linked to an external symbol? Does not the uniform doctrine of Scripture, as well as experience, appear to confute this statement?” In other words, it is obvious under anyone’s theology, that not all who are water baptized are united to Christ. But this verse says, ”For as many of you as were,” or “All who were . . . .”
There are a number of ways of handling this difficulty. Peter Lombard notes a view ascribed to Augustine indicated that those who were baptized under a false confession had their sins forgiven “at the very moment of baptism.” But those sins “return immediately after baptism.” Lombard rejects this view, and he says that Augustine only reported the view. He did not hold it. Lombard himself suggested two resolutions. First, it may be that only “those who are baptized in Christ” have their sins forgiven. Or, Lombard suggested, it may be that the passage refers not to those who receive the sacrament alone but also the thing which it symbolizes.
This latter explanation has remained popular. It was the explanation Calvin offered: “It is customary with Paul to treat of the sacrament in two points of view. When he is dealing with hypocrites . . . he then proclaims loudly the emptiness and worthlessness of the outward symbol. . . . When, on the other hand, he addresses beleviers, who make a proper use of the symbols, he then views them in connexion with the truth—which they represent.”
Another approach is to argue that baptism is one part of “the complex of initiation events describing conversion.” Some make baptism an essential part of receiving the benefit. Beasley-Murray claims, “If Paul were pressed to define the relationship of the two statements in v. 26-27, I cannot see how he could preserve the force of both sentences apart from affirming that baptism is the moment of faith in which the adoption is realized . . . which is the same as saying that in baptism faith receives Christ in whom the adoption is effected.” Everett Ferguson similarly states, “If a distinction is to be made between the relation of faith and baptism to the blessings described, one might say that baptism is the time at which and faith is the reason why.” F. F. Bruce notes the problem with this approach: “The question arises here: if Paul makes baptism the gateway to ‘being-in-Christ’, is he not attaching soteriological efficacy to a rite which in itself is as external or ‘material’ as circumcision?” For this reason commentators often make qualifying comments such as these by Moo:
It was not, in and of itself, a means of salvation or incorporation into Christ (contra, e.g., Schlier 1989: 172; cf. Betz 1979: 187-88). Faith, which Paul repeatedly highlights in this passage and in his other letters, is the only means of coming into relationship with Jesus Christ. However, baptism is more than simply a symbol of that new relationship; it is the capstone of the process by which one is converted and initiated into the church. As such, Paul can appeal to baptism as ‘shorthand’ for the entire conversion experience.
The difficulty with all of these qualifications is that they seem to evade what the words of the verse actually say. The verse says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Moo says, “[Baptism] was not, in and of itself, a means of . . . incorporation into Christ (contra, e.g., Schlier . . .).” The verse says “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” But Lombard and Calvin say that is only true for those who receive the sacrament and the thing and not the sacrament alone. The qualifications are seeking to guard orthodox doctrine, but they seem to do so at the text’s expense.
But what if Paul is not referring to water baptism here? Bruce says, “It is difficult to suppose that readers would not have understood it as a statement about their initiatory baptism in water.” But is it so difficult? Both the Gospels and Acts anticipate and describe Spirit baptism. The distinction between these two kinds of baptism is present in apostolic teaching. Distinction between the sacrament and the thing or the symbol and the reality, however, are later theological developments. It seems more likely for Paul’s original readers to have distinguished between water baptism and Spirit baptism than between the sacrament and the thing.
What is more, Spirit baptism makes good sense in this context. In this context baptism is the proof that “Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female” are one in Christ through faith. Water baptism cannot serve as such a proof because, as Hunn notes, “it proves only that the baptizer found [these distinctions] irrelevant.” It does not provide a window into the mind of God. Spirit baptism, on the other hand, does provide such a proof. Indeed, this is Peter’s argument for accepting the Gentiles into the church. The Spirit baptized them just as he had baptized the Jews (Acts 11:15-17). Hunn also observes that Galatians 3:23-29 and 4:3-7 follow parallel lines of argumentation. In 3:27-28 the proof of sonship is baptism into Christ. In 4:6 the proof of sonship is the reception of the Spirit. This parallel indicates that Spirit baptism is in view in 3:27. Finally, 1 Corinthians 12:13 forms a close parallel to Galatians 3:27. In both passages there is baptism into Christ. In both there is the indication that this the case whether the person is Jew or Gentile, slave or free. In 1 Corinthians 12:13 the baptism is clearly Spirit baptism: “For [in] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” This confirms that the baptism in view in Galatians 3:27 is Spirit baptism.
To this position Schreiner objects, “Robert H. Stein shows that the attempt to separate water baptism from Spirit baptism fails to understand that water baptism is part of the complex of initiation events describing conversion.” But in taking this view there is no denial that water baptism was part of “the complex of initiation events.” Nor does this view dispute that water baptism is the symbol of Spirit baptism. This view simply recognizes that as many as are baptized in the Spirit are united to Christ but that not all who are baptized in water are so united.
 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. Willaim Pringle (1854; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 111.
 Peter Lombard, The Sentences, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010), 19-20 (bk. 4, dist. 4, ch. 2, n. 4-5).
 Ibid., 21 (bk. 4, dist. 4, ch. 3).
 Calvin, 111.
 Thomas Schreiner, Galatians, ZECNT, 257, n. 8; cf. Douglas Moo, Galatians, BECNT, 251.
 G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 151.
 Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 147.
 F. F. Bruce, Galatians, NIGTC, 185.
 Moo, 251.
 Debbie Hunn, “The Baptism of Galatians 3:27: A Contextual Approach,” ExpTim 115 (2005): 373-74.
 Ibid, 373.
 Ibid., 374-75.
 Schreiner, 257, n. 8.
 I would dispute, however, that Spirit baptism happens at the time of water baptism. I would argue the reality precedes the symbol.