© Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
The Mode of Christian Baptism
By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
The controversies surrounding the sacrament of baptism have been legion in church history -- especially since the Reformation and the rise of the Anabaptists. The issues regarding baptism are multi-faceted:
(1) Is baptism necessary to salvation?
(2) To whom is it to be administered?
(3) How many times may it be administered?
(4) Who may properly administer it?
(5) How is it to be administered?
Over the first question the debate has raged between the Reformed churches and their opponents, the Roman Catholic Church and various cults and sects (Campbellites, Armstrongites, Mormons). Over the second question much polemical energy has been expended between the Reformers on the one hand and the Anabaptists on the other. The third question has received exaggerated expression in the Mormon Church in their innumerable proxy baptisms. Also in churches such as the Baptist churches who generally re-administer baptism upon transferral of one=s church membership. The fourth question has those of Campbellite persuasion in a quandary. Since it is taught that baptism is a necessity for salvation, and since it must be administered by a truly regenerate, properly baptized person, then one who is of this persuasion must always fear lest perhaps the one who baptized him was not saved and properly baptized (and, in turn, the one who baptized him must have been truly saved and baptized, and so on, ad infinitum). However, it is toward the fifth question at which this paper will be aimed.
The question of the proper mode of baptism is one to which the present writer has been frequently obligated to respond. In being a Presbyterian in the South one finds himself significantly outnumbered by Southern and fundamentalist Baptist churches. The baptism issue therefore does not arise as a simple question of passing interest or mere curiosity. Quite frequently the Presbyterian position on baptism has been either shrugged off as deference to traditionalism or anathematized as a perversion of the “clear teaching of Scripture.” Therefore, the question of the mode of baptism assumes an apologetic character in defense of the Presbyterian’s faithfulness to Scripture.
This paper is not written in a confrontive or condemning vein in respect to the immersionist’s position. Rather it presents the issue in a positive light, setting forth the case for the administration of baptism by sprinkling/pouring (affusion/aspersion). The design and format of the paper is so constructed as to provide a tool for Presbyterian laymen so that they might better understand their church’s scriptural position. Consequently, Greek words will be transliterated and technical footnoting will be kept to a minimum. Also it should be noted at the outset that because of the greater clarity and precision of the New American Standard Bible it will serve as the source for biblical quotations.
The Westminster Standards are contain the doctrinal statement of Presbyterian churches. These Standards are not elevated to a position of parity with the Scripture. Never has Presbyterianism done such. Rather, the Confession represents a serious, scholarly condensation of some of the important truths of God’s infallible Word. These truths were distilled from the Scriptures and organized by a large representative body of godly men long ago in the 1640s. Presbyterians set forth their key doctrinal beliefs in a clear and organized fashion for all to see. Therefore in dealing with a Presbyterian on most important theological issues it is a simple task to discover the Church’s official position by referring to the Westminster Standards. Concerning the official position of the Presbyterian Church on the mode of baptism, the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary, but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or by sprinkling” (WCF 28:3)
The query which often arises is: “Is the mode of baptism important?” The answer given by the Presbyterian is in the affirmative. Mode is important. However, some caution should be urged in this regard. The manner in which one baptizes does not decide whether one is or is not faithful to Christ. Nevertheless, mode is important for at least three practical reasons:
(1) Presbyterians are serious in their worship of God in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Innovation and creativity do not characterize the Presbyterian approach to the holy and sovereign God. If the Scriptures speak to a particular issue (especially one as important as the sacraments) they must be heeded as the infallible rule of faith and practice.
(2) Following upon this consideration it is instructive to consider the meticulous care in which God prescribed the old Testament sacrifices and rituals (see Exodus 12, the entire book of Leviticus, etc.). God is concerned that His worship be performed in accordance with His own standards. He alone determines how men are to approach him; He does not leave man to his inventive genius in matters of faith and practice.
(3) The very purpose underlying a sacrament is that it is to serve as an outward, visible sign and seal of an inward, spiritual grace. Logically, therefore, a wrong symbolic picture will either defectively teaches a spiritual truth at best, or at worst it may even distort the truth altogether.
All this having been said, it should be noted that the Presbyterian Church will accept the baptism of a person from another branch of evangelical Christendom as long as his Church is a legitimate Church baptizing in the name of the Trinity. However, such is not generally the case with immersionistic churches. Generally, full compliance with and submission to the immersionist’s mode of baptism is required for admission into the fellowship of the local congregation. The Presbyterian puts a high value on baptism which has been reverently administered in the name of and in the presence of the glorious Triune God, even though the mode might not have been patterned exactly according to Scriptural teaching. As a sign of entry into the kingdom of God, baptism is to be administered but once before God Almighty.
Within the Presbyterian camp are widely divergent approaches to the matter of the mode of baptism. Some Presbyterian theologians see sprinkling/pouring as implied in Scripture but not expressly stated, e.g. B.B. Warfield. Others are very dogmatic in their claim for an expressly formulated statement of the mode in Scripture, e.g. Jay Adams. The present writer seeks to set forth a position mediating between these two extremes.
The problem of discerning the core issues involved is manifest when one considers how divided the visible Church is over the matter. A representative sampling of churches which allow that only immersion is the proper and acceptable mode of baptism include: all Baptists, Churches of Christ, Churches of God, Brethren, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Armstrongites (Worldwide Church of God), etc. However, the numerical majority of professing Christendom teaches that sprinkling/pouring are the best modes of baptism: Presbyterians, Reformed Churches, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and Mennonites. Some Christian churches do not even practice baptism (or communion) at all: Quakers, The Salvation Army, etc. Therefore, key issues in the debate concerning the proper mode must be brought to light.
The writer has chosen to deal with three fundamental claims urged to prove immersion:
(1) The lexical connotation of the Greek word Baptizo;
(2) The supposed symbolism of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection;
(3) The alleged indications that Scripture describes those being baptized as actually being immersed in water.
These claims represent the heart of the immersionist’s system. If these three assertions can be disproved then the immersionist’s argument falls to the ground.
The Meaning and Usage of Baptizo: Historical Development
In another article by the present writer the developmental fluidity of language was discussed. Two paragraphs from that article throw some light on the present problem under discussion as well:
The evidence of language development is important to grammatical studies--not just in this case (i.e. “foreknowledge” problem) but throughout the New Testament as well. Language is fluid. Its constant shifts in nuance are primarily the results of changes within society due to cultural impacts from within and without, and from the effects of passing time. It is an historical fact that Christianity has greatly affected the course of history; it is only natural that this influence would carry over into language development as well.
Robertson explains the historical significance of the transitions within Greek that were resultant from the rise of Christianity: “The Christian spirit put a new flavour into this vernacular koine and lifted it to a new elevation of thought and dignity of style. . . . The new and victorious spirit, which seized the best of Jew and Greek, knew how to use the Greek language with freedom and power.”
The primary source for the following discussion was J. W. Dale’s Classic Baptism. Dale notes that the very ancient Greek term baptizo meant “dip, or immerse.” However, as is the case with language in flux, as time passed the term took on new connotations -- especially (as mentioned above) as it was adopted for religious usage. Though new aspects of the term were added to it the ideas of “immerse,dip” never disappeared from the realm of possibility.
For instance, the related verb bapto went through the following stages of developmental accretion: First, it meant “dip”, pure and simple. Secondly, as it was so frequently used as a household term, it took on the idea of “to dip into dye; effect; dye.” Thirdly, it meant simply to affect by coloring or dying in any manner -- whether by dipping the cloth into the dye or by pouring the dye on the cloth. The development is quite natural and logical. The verb baptize itself followed a similar pattern: First, “to merse.” Secondly, “to merse in order to influence.” For example, when a white cloth is mersed in a red dye, the action causes the white cloth to be influenced or affected by the dye. Thirdly, it came to mean to affect by any controlling influence whether in the case of dying a piece of cloth, washing clothes, defeating enemies, gathering followers, etc.
Though “immerse, dip” is the primary and root meaning of baptize, the idea of “influence” and “identification” are strong secondary connotations. As Dale has well said: “Whatever is capable of thoroughly changing the character, state, or condition of any object, is capable of baptizing that object.”
This phenomenon of lexical development is not peculiar to this term alone. Many theologically significant words have followed the same pattern. Briefly notice the following examples:
(1) The Greek and Hebrew words for “sin” originally meant “miss the mark.” (For example, Judges 20:16 employs the Hebrew word chata to speak of men who could use a sling so well that they “did not miss the mark.”) It is simple to follow the growth of the term into a religiously significant word: “to sin” was to “miss the mark of God’s perfection,” i.e. the law (1 John 3:4).
(2) The Greek and Hebrew words for “holy” meant in mundane usage “set apart, separate.” It is quite clear how “holy” came to signify a state of purity: God is “separate” from the world of iniquity (Hab. 1:13), thus “holy.”
(3) The Greek word presbuteros meant “elder,” that is, “an old person.” It was adopted to signify an officer in the church because it is generally the old man who is wiser and more capable of ruling the church.
(4) The Greek word for “church” meant “a called out gathering of people.” But in Scripture it came to speak of the church whether locally gathered or spread throughout the world. Many more examples could be solicited but these should suffice to provide a familiarity with the common phenomenon of lexical development.
The various Greek lexicons give the definition of baptizo and cognate terms as generally: (1) “to dip, submerge,” and (2) “to wash, cleanse.” As is evident to anyone, washing and cleansing may be performed by immersing, pouring, or sprinkling. An interesting sidelight to this issue regards the world renowned Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson. It is recorded that he noted that there had been (up to his time) only eighteen worthy New Testament lexicographers and every one of them was a clergyman who practiced sprinkling/pouring.
Now the question arises as to which aspect of the various nuances of baptizo is to be brought to bear of the New Testament usages. Exactly how is baptizo used in Holy Writ? For the purpose of the present study only New Testament occurrences will be surveyed. As a Presbyterian and a student of Greek it is the present writer’s opinion that two rather bold claims can be made:
(1) There is no place in the New Testament where the word baptizo of necessity must mean “immerse.” (This is not to say that there are no places where it could possibly mean “immerse.”)
(2) There are several places where baptizo (or one of its related terms) cannot mean “immerse” and where it must be understood in relation to a pouring or sprinkling action.
These two claims are obviously significant. If true, they in themselves could break the back of the immersionist’s position. In passing, it is interesting to note there are two words in the Greek language which exclusively deal with mode: kataduo, which means “immerse,” and rhantizo, which can only mean “sprinkle.” However, neither of these words were employed by the Holy Spirit to denote the idea of baptism because the secondary meaning of
the word baptize are so vital to the concept.
The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the time then present, according to which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they only relate to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb 9:10)
The word translated “washings” in verse 10 is the Greek word baptismois which is the plural noun, form of the verb baptize. The book of Hebrews has as its theme to demonstrate the superiority of Christ over the Old Testament institutions and ceremonial rituals. In chapter 9 the first seven verses deal with the tabernacle and the priesthood. The priests were continually performing sacrificial rituals for sin. Verse 8 begins explaining that the tabernacle and priesthood were but shadows of the true Holy of Holies and the Great High Priest in Heaven. This being so, verse 9 explains that these acts could not really affect the conscience of the worshiper; they were prophetic previews of the final redemptive work of Christ which would actually perfect the conscience. Verse 10 says the ritual symbols were “only food and drink and various washings” (baptismois, “baptisms”). To what “baptisms” is he here referring?
If the Greek word baptize (and the cognate nominal form baptismois) must mean “immerse” as the Baptist claims, then these baptisms should have been performed by immersion. However, a close reading of the context states explicitly that these “washing-baptisms” were performed by sprinkling (rhantizo). Verses 13,19, and 21 clearly define the “washings” (baptisms) that cannot perfect the conscience as sprinklings that only symbolically “cleanse the conscience.” Verse 13 speaks of the sprinkling of the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of an heifer (see Num. 19:17-18 for the original institution). Verse 19 speaks of Moses’s performing a cleansing act by sprinkling the people with the blood of calves and goats (Exo. 24:6-8). Also verse 21 reiterates this same thought of ceremonial sprinkling (Lev. 8:19; 16:14). Then verse 22 again emphasizes that these sprinklings were cleansings, i.e. washings. Thus it is evident that the cleansing baptisms of verse 9 were sprinklings.
The general conclusion regarding the lexical meaning of baptize is obvious: it cannot be so delimited in its scope of meaning that it is exhausted with the concept of “immersion.” As a cleansing rite sprinkling was the mode used for the Abaptisms@ here mentioned in Scripture.
1 Corinthians 10:1,2 employs the verb baptize to speak of an act which cannot mean “immerse”: “For I do not want you to be unaware brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, And all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea . . . .” Israel was baptized “into Moses.” The connotation of the term “baptize” here is important. In Exodus 14, where the original account is given, verse 11 and 12 tell how the people feared Pharoah’s army and cried out in anger to Moses. They claimed he had led them away from Egypt only to meet their doom and Perish by the sword in the wilderness. But God miraculously intervened, parted the Red Sea, and led them safely through.
Following upon this great event a different attitude is expressed in Exodus 14:31: “And when Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people revered the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and His servant Moses.” In other words they became identified with or united with Moses in his commitment to the Lord. They became one with him in spirit. This was effected by their trustingly following him through the Red Sea: they were “baptized into Moses.”
Immersion had nothing whatever to do with this statement. Exodus 14:28 clearly says that it was the Egyptians who were immersed! Israel under the influence and leadership of Moses and his God crossed the Rod Sea on dry land (Exo. 14:22). Their crossing the Red Sea is called a baptism by Paul; a baptismal identification is obviously meant; a union with Moses in contrast to their previous fear and distrust.
Another instance of the term “baptism” in Scripture which expressly militates against understanding it as immersion is its usage in regard to Holy Spirit baptism.
All Christians are baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13, cp. Rom. 8:9). The Holy Spirit enacts a vital or living union of the believer with Christ. By His redemptive work we are spiritually identified and united with Christ and His life-giving power. When this work of the Spirit is pictured in Scripture, it is never called an “immersion” by the Spirit but rather a “pouring out” of the Spirit.
Pentecost was the initial “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost’s baptism was prophesied by Joel (Joel 2:28f), John the Baptist (Matt. 3:11), and Christ (Acts 1:5). In Acts 1:5 Christ says the disciples would “be baptized with the Holy Spirit 11not many days from now.” Obviously Pentecost was in view (cf. Acts 2; 11:15,16). At Pentecost this spiritual event of Holy Spirit baptism was called a “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:15-17,33). Later, Peter looked back on this event and called it a “pouring” (Acts 10:44, 45).
Water baptism is frequently associated with Spirit baptism. It is the physical picture of the spiritual reality. Notice their frequent association together: Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; John 1:33; Acts 1:4,5; 10:44-48; 11:15,16. Both are called a “baptism” by use of the same term, “baptize.” These pourings out of the Spirit certainly should not be pictured by an
immersion in water.
The foregoing discussion demonstrated the fallacy of the immersionist argument based on the lexical connotation of the term baptize. As shown above this term can mean: (1) a washing performed by sprinkling, (2) an identification or union performed by an act of trusting obedience, and (3) a pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The two-fold claim prefixing this argument seems to be biblically warranted and logically valid.
Is there any historical background to Christ’s divinely ordained sacrament? Did the Lord simply create de novo an altogether different rite when He commanded baptism? If there is an historical background then perhaps it will shed light on the mode of baptism.
At the outset of this portion of the discussion it should be evident that our Lord is not given to novelty. As a matter of fact, He is concerned with fully keeping the Old Testament law. In Matthew 5:17-20 He emphatically confirms the abiding validity of the entire law in exhaustive detail (that is, He confirms every jot and tittle). In the verses immediately following (Matt. 5:21-48), Christ rebukes the teaching of those who teach contrary to the Old Testament law. Contemporary religious leaders are teaching contrary to the long established law of God, but Jesus reaffirms it. When He quotes the Old Testament He always says, “it stands written,” or some other such confirmational statement (e.g. Matt. 4:4, 6, 7, 10). When He refutes false interpretations, emphases, additions to, or out of context treatments of the law, He says: “You have heard it said,” (e.g. Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43).
With this in mind remember that the Lord institutes two sacraments: baptism and communion. Communion is clearly the New Testament counter-part to the Passover of the Old Testament. Significantly, Christ institutes it in conjunction with the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-26). The Passover was a prophetic look at the finished work of Christ; communion is a remembering look back at that work. Also Christ is called our “Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7). The similarities between the two are purposely obvious. Thus, it can be taught with some confidence by way of analogy that there should be an Old Testament counterpart to Christian baptism. For now however, this implication will be left to stand alone; later the precise teaching of Scripture on this point will be explicated.
Some feel that baptism is conceived by John the Baptist, but this is equally a misunderstanding of the facts. The very silence of the New Testament in explaining the mode suggests that the Jews of the day are familiar with the idea of baptism. Also the heresy-hunting Pharisees would certainly condemn John if he were engaging in a novel religious act. Instead, when they see him performing baptism, they immediately thought of the Old Testament promises. They asked him if he was the Christ on this basis (John 1:25). Thus the origin of baptism must certainly be rooted in the Old Testament.
In reflecting upon Hebrews 9:10ff, it becomes apparent that the Old Testament is filled with baptismal washings. And indeed it is: Exodus 24:6-8; Leviticus 8:19; 13:44; 14:4-7; 15:11; 16:14-19; Numbers 8:5-7; 19:18,19; Psalm 51:7. These are baptisms expressing symbolic cleansing. Every adult Jew would be quite familiar with these washings. All of these washings are performed by sprinkling. There is only one possible exception to the fact that Old Testament baptismal washings are performed by sprinkling: that possible exception involves the case of Naaman the Leper in 2 Kings 5:14. However, it is by no means clear that immersion is here alluded to, especially in light of the fact that all other cleansings were by sprinkling (see: John Murray, Christian Baptism, 13).
Additional evidence in this regard might be garnered from John 3:22-26. According to this passage John’s disciples have a controversy with some other Jews involving purification. As noted above Old Testament washings are purifications performed by sprinkling. The controversy surrounds John’s baptism. Though it cannot be ascertained precisely what problem John’s disciples face, it is obvious that his baptism brings to mind Old Testament purification. There must be a connection between his baptism and Old Testament baptisms, therefore. John 2:6 gives evidence that the Jewish purifies are not performed by immersion, because there we read of “waterpots of stone. . . for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each.” These waterpots are only about the size of a gas tank on a full-sized American car -- few things could be immersed in this. Also the waterpots are undoubtedly the common kind with a long, thin tapered neck to allow for pouring.
It would seem beyond dispute that the Lord employs previously sanctioned baptismal cleansings and brings them all together into the one act of Christian baptism. Though Christian baptism is not exactly the same as John’s baptism, its meaning and symbolism would not be radically different. The difference between the two baptism would include the following:
(1) The formula: John’s baptism is “unto repentance” (Matt. 3:11), Christ’s is “into the Trinity” (Matt, 28:19).
(2) The sufficiency: converted disciples of John the Baptist are rebaptized with Christian baptism (Acts 19:3-5).
(3) The initiation: Christian baptism is not initiated until after Christ’s resurrection.
Thus, it is evident that Christian baptism is not an entirely new rite. It employs Old Testament baptisms with a revitalized and fuller meaning in the light of the clearer and final revelation of God’s redemption in Christ Jesus (cp. John 1:18; 14:9; Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:12). Nevertheless, the continuity undergirding the old and New Testaments would require that the Old Testament heritage of sprinkling be preserved.
The Symbolism of Christian Baptism
What exactly do Presbyterians teach that baptism symbolizes? In asking this question a distinction should be born in mind between what baptism portrays and what it effects. That is, the idea that baptism is the sealing rite of the covenant of grace, a claiming by God of the baptized person for the visible church, will not be discussed. The present issue (mode) requires only that due consideration be given to the symbolic representation of the act of baptism.
In answer to the above question a reply with a two-fold emphasis must be offered, for water baptism has a negative and a positive aspect. First, the negative significance deals with purification or cleansing from sin. The actual cleansing is accomplished by Christ’s sacrificial death being imputed to us and the Holy Spirit’s regenerating activity being performed in us. Second, the positive aspect of baptism speaks of union with Christ, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). This, of course, necessarily implies union and communion with the complete Trinity as well (Matt. 28:19).
That baptism pictures cleansing from sin will be demonstrated by the use of three significant and pertinent analogies:
(1) Analogy with Old Testament baptism in general.
(2) Analogy with Old Testament circumcision in particular.
(3) Analogy with the spiritual benefits of redemption especially.
That Old Testament ritual washings were called “baptisms” has already been demonstrated. There it was shown that in Hebrews 9:10 the Greek word baptismois occurred in relation to the rituals of sprinkling with water and blood. These sprinklings represented cleansings, as is clearly seen in verses 13, 14, 22, 23. This alone should establish the fact that Old Testament baptisms are for ceremonial cleansing. However, additional demonstrations of the fact will be outlined below.
Leviticus 14 details a ceremonial cleansing of a leprous person (cf. Lev. 14: 2,7,9,11). Leprosy is ceremonially cleansed by sprinkling (14:7,16). Leprosy is a type of sin, as is obvious in its requiring ceremonial cleansing followed up with a sin offering (14:13) and a guilt offering (14:13,14). The idea is that sin needs to be removed; that removal is performed ceremonially by cleansing; this cleansing is in the form of a baptismal sprinkling.
Leviticus 16 deals with the law of atonement. This most serious annual, national sacrifice symbolizes cleansing as well; see verses dealing with the removal of impurity (16:16, 19)which is called “cleansing” (16:19,30). This key, annual sacrifice provides cleansing from sin; this cleansing is performed typically by sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice (16:14,15,19).
Other passages which clearly speak of ritual baptisms as cleansings performed by sprinkling are: Leviticus 7:14; Numbers 8:7; 19:18-19; Exodus 24:8; 29:16. These cleansings cast a prophetic glance to the future: ultimate cleansing from sin by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ.
The New Testament counterparts will be dealt with shortly, but for now let it suffice in closing the present discussion to notice one last reference in the Old Testament to the future cleansing. Ezekiel 36:24-26 reads: “For 1 will take you (the covenant people) from the nations, gather you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all you idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart. . . .”
The obvious reference here is to the completed salvation through the final, real atonement in the Lord Jesus Christ. His work of applying that cleansing redemption is spoken of in terms of sprinkling clean water upon the people. Thus, the Old Testament looked forward to the ministry of the Messiah in terms of His cleansing the people. The cleansing is effected by sprinkling. This can easily be tied into the sacrament which He commands to be performed upon the nations to whom the gospel is preached: baptism (Matt. 28:19).
Paul clearly relates circumcision to baptism in Colossians 2:11,12: “In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism . . . .” This intentional splicing of Old Testament circumcision into New Testament baptism is significant. If the two rites stand mutually related then it should follow that they represent the same spiritual truth.
In the Old Testament one who is not circumcised is unclean (Isa. 52:1). Bringing an uncircumcised person into the sanctuary profanes it (Eze. 44:7). Physical circumcision removes an area of potential filth from the male at the very source of procreation and life. Likewise spiritual circumcision speaks of the cleansing of the heart which is naturally filthy with evil (cf. Jer. 17:9). To be holy, righteous, faithful to God’s law, etc., is to be of a cleansed, circumcised heart: Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25,26; Ezekiel 44:7-9.
Therefore since circumcision pictures spiritual cleansing and renewal.... And since the New Testament substitutes baptism in the place of circumcision.... By proper analogy baptism symbolizes cleansing. The fact that baptism is once again related to the Old Testament offers additional proof of its Old Testament origin, and consequently its Old Testament mode: sprinkling.
That baptism symbolizes salvation should be apparent to all. Salvation was purchased by Christ’s death and applied by the Holy Spirit’s activity which is called a washing (1 Cor. 6:11). The Spirit’s renewing power is its cleansing power: He washes the recipient of sin as He is poured out into his life: “He saved us. . . according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly” (Tit. 3:5,6). The Spirit’s work is repeatedly referred to as a pouring or sprinkling, never an immersion; see Psalm 72:6; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3, etc.
In conjunction with the Spirit’s cleansing is the application of the blood of Christ. This application is spoken of as a cleansing sprinkling. 1 Peter 1:2 says, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood.” Hebrews 10:22 speaks of “having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” which is referring to verse 19 and Christ’s blood.
These two cleansing elements in salvation come to bear upon the issue of the mode of baptism. This is because water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism are associated in Scripture (see previous discussion). If the blood of Christ is “sprinkled,” and if the Holy Spirit is “poured out,” and if there is but “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), it should follow that water baptism would best be administered by sprinkling/pouring.
The positive aspect of salvation is union with Christ. Union with Christ is a significant aspect of water baptism as can be seen in the following:
First, he very term baptizo carries with it the idea of union or identification. This is simply a de facto lexical connotation of the word (see above).
Second, the formula “baptize into the name of” implies union with someone (compare with above discussion on 1 Cor. 10:1, 2). The preposition “into” in the Greek is eis which suggests a movement “into” the name of that person. Paul alludes to this in 1 Corinthians 1:13 where he rebukes the divisions in the Corinthian church. Some of the Corinthians are following Paul, others Apollos, others Cephas (1:12). Paul asks, “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1:13). The implication is clear: they are not. They, are not united with Paul but with Christ. On the basis of this identification with Christ it is wrong for the Corinthians to act as if they are identified/united with Paul or anyone else. In Matthew 28:19,20 Christ commands that believers be symbolically united by baptism “into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This would be a testimony to God’s claim upon the people or their union with Him.
Third, Holy Spirit baptism is the real, spiritual baptism of which water baptism is the symbol. The water symbolizes not only cleansing but union: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). There are many varieties of gifts (12:4), ministries (12:5), effects (12:6), and people (12:12-20), but there is one Spirit who unites all of these into one body. Union with Christ is clearly taught here.
Fourth, the very sacramental act of baptism itself assumes a union with Christ. Galatians 3:27: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither slave nor free, male nor female, for ye are one in Christ.” Those united with Him therefore are dead to sin. Union implies this very fact. The rite of baptism is the outward, visible sign of the Holy Spirit’s true, spiritual baptism into union with Christ. This Holy Spirit baptism is called a pouring out in the New Testament: Acts 1:5; 2:15-17,33; Titus 3:5,6.
At the outset of this paper I noted that the immersionist’s arguments rested upon three basic assumptions (1) The meaning of the word baptize; (2) the supposed symbolism of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection; and (3) the alleged indication that the subjects of baptism in Scripture are immersed in water. These arguments will now be brought under close scrutiny.
Claim Number One: Lexical Necessity. The Baptist claim here revolves around the lexical connotation and employment of the Greek word baptize. This claim was previously answered above.
Claim Number Two: Symbolical Reference. This claim states that the reality of which baptism is the type or symbol is the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord according to Romans 6:3,4 and Colossians 2:12. This argument rests solely upon the preceding three verses with no support elsewhere in Scripture. Certainly the immediate appearance of these verses might seem to buttress this argument, but a closer examination reveals that the argument is fallacious.
First, by asserting that Romans 6 teaches a mode of baptism the whole thrust of Paul’s polemic is blunted. Paul’s argument is forced to speak to an issue for which it was never intended. The apostle is here dealing with a serious theologic-ethical problem in the church at Rome: antinomianism. The antinomian asserts that since he is saved by grace, he is kept by grace regardless of his striving for obedience to the law, that is. He affords himself a license to sin.
Paul asks on the basis of the teaching of grace: “Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Rom. 6:1). He answers very emphatically: “May it never be! How shall we who are dead to sin live in it?” (6:2). Verse 2 stresses that the believer is actually, spiritually dead to sin’s power. The following verses illustrate and expand this claim. Verse 3 speaks of baptism as a sign and seal of real, vital union with Christ which is effected by regeneration (new life, resurrection from spiritual death). Baptism pictures this union with Christ in all of His work in our behalf. Since the baptized person is supposed to be united with Christ (“baptized into Christ”), therefore they have been “baptized into His death.”
Jay Adams illustrates the matter for us: If a person is in Christ as his representative then he is in Christ in all that Christ is and does, including His dying to sin. Put in other terms, if a person is given ten pennies then he certainly has three pennies. There is no way one can have ten pennies without having three! Likewise, if a man is in Christ (in all of Christ in the sphere of His redemptive work), then he is in Christ in every single part of that redemptive work: one part which is death to sin. The whole equals the sum of all its parts. If one has been united with the whole of Christ he is united with Christ’s death to sin. One cannot live on in sin because he is in Christ -- this is the point at issue, not mode of baptism.
Second, the immersionist here claims the death, burial, and resurrection are represented by going under the water and rising up out of it. If the immersionist’s picture were carried out to its full scriptural warrant then it would be necessary for one to have his arms outstretched just as Christ’s were on the cross, because verse 6 says: Athe old self was crucified with Him.@ Where is this symbolized in immersion?
Third, as stated above, Paul is speaking of the work of Christ in redemption. He says that the believer actually undergoes a spiritual death, burial, and resurrection: this is regeneration (regeneration means “to live again”). If this is to be symbolized in baptism, why is it preferred over other figures of regeneration? The Scripture speaks of regeneration under several figures: (1) It is like crucifixion (Rom. 6:6). (2) It is like reclothing. In Galatians 3:27 baptism into Christ is spoken of as being clothed with Christ.(3) It is like laying side of old clothes. In Ephesians 4:22ff regeneration is likened to laying aside old garments so that new ones might be put on. (4) It is like a building process. In Ephesians 2:22 salvation’s work is spoken of as a building of a dwelling place. (5) It is like being grafted into a tree. John 15:3 treats regeneration in clear terms of union, i.e. being grafted into the True Vine, Christ. Are any of these aspects or figures of regeneration symbolized in immersion? Why not? Why is only burial symbolized?
Thus, immersion cannot be properly argued on the basis of symbolizing the burial of Christ. The argument based on Colossians 2:11, 12 falls to the same approach.
Claim Number Three: Scriptural Precedent. This claim insists that the recorded accounts of actual baptisms in Scripture represent an immersion of the convert in water. An argument of this sort rests primarily on the prepositions translated by “into” and “out of.” That is, the texts speak of the baptized person as going down into the water and coming up out of the water. A frequently forwarded verse in this regard is Acts 8:38,39 concerning Philip baptizing the eunuch: “They both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when, they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.” It is claimed that the preposition “into” proves immersion and “out of” proves emersion. But four arguments can be brought to bear against this interpretation:
First, prepositions are seldom useful as final courts of appeal. The preposition “into” is translated from the Greek: eis. Abbott-Smith in his lexicon gives as possible meaning: “into, unto, to, upon, towards, for, among.” The function of the preposition is dependent upon many factors and must necessarily be determined by the context. Eis cannot be urged to prove immersion in water. As a matter of fact, in the King James Version it is translated by “into” 573 times, whereas it is translated by “to” 281 times and “unto” 207 times for a total of 488 times. Obviously, then, the argument insisting that it indicates that the baptized person went all the way down into (and under) the water is spurious. It could just as well mean he went down “unto” or “to” the water, i.e. he went down to where the water was. Even if the word “into” were alone acceptable here it would prove nothing more than that he stepped into the water’s edge.
Second, in Acts 8 eis occurs a total of eleven times. Only in this one verse (v. 38) do the translators render it “into.” It is translated “to” in verses 3, 5 ,25, 27, and 40b; “into” in verse 26; “in” in verse 16; and “at” in verse 40a. Thus, the very chapter in which the debate centers employs it predominantly to mean something other than “into.”
Third, the preposition ek, “out of,” is just as flexible as the other. It is translated “out of” by the King James Version 162 times, and “from” 181 times. Thus, it too can indicate simple direction, i.e., the baptized one came up “from” the water’s edge. No lexicographer would base an argument for mode on either of these two prepositions.
Fourth, over and above all that was said concerning the uses of the prepositions, there is here a conclusive evidence that the prepositions do not demand immersion in the water. If it be urged that going down into water and coming up out of the water proves immersion, then too much has been proved. The text says: “They both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water.” Did Philip immerse himself in the water? If the argument that the prepositions indicate immersion were accepted then it would logically follow that Philip baptized not only the eunuch but himself as well.
Claim Number Four: Exegetical Inference. This argument based on John 3:23 emphasizes that John the Baptist must have been baptizing by immersion because he purposely chose to minister in a place because of the amount of water available: “John was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there.” This can be answered in the following manner:
First, “much water” is from the Greek hudata polla. Hudata is the plural form of hudor, water. Polla according to Abbott Smith means, “much, many, great.” Thus the translation literally reads: “Many waters.” This “many waters” therefore would not be referring to one body of water but to many water sources, regardless of size.
Second, the name of the location of the “many waters” is Aenon which is the Hebrew word ayin which means “springs.” Aenon is a city named for its many clear, trickling, bubbling springs. Why does John go there? Matthew 3:6,13 tells of John’s ministry at the Jordan River, which is a large source of water suitable for immersion. Why would John leave this large river in f favor of a city with “many springs”?
The answer seems evident: John has a very popular ministry. As he begins preaching he starts drawing very large crowds from all over Palestine (Matt. 3:5; Mark 1:5). These crowds need water to drink for themselves and for their animals. The Jordan River is a turbulent muddy source of water. Therefore, to facilitate the crowds John removes to Aenon where many clean springs could readily and quickly serve the crowd’s needs. Certainly these springs would not allow for immersing of large crowds of people.
Claim Number Five: Historical Data. This claim insists that history teaches that the early post-apostolic church favored immersion. Therefore since these people are so close to the original scene they should know the proper mode. Three serious problems beset this claim:
First, the answer to the scriptural mode of baptism must be found in Scripture -- not in church history.
Second, history, if used uncritically, might lead into many serious errors. For instance, some early church fathers teach that baptism is necessary to salvation. Others baptized converts in the nude. Neither of these two “historical” doctrines are acceptable to evangelical practice today.
Third, the very argument itself is suspect. Hodge notes that archeological exploration has discovered very early Christian homes with baptismal founts in them.These founts are not big enough to admit a person into them for immersion. Schaff, the famous church historian, makes an interesting comment in his multi-volume History of the Christian Church: “Pouring or affusion. . . is found on pictures in the Roman catacombs, one of which DeRossi assigns to the second century. It is remarkable that in almost all the earliest representations of baptism that have been preserved to us, this (pouring) is the special act represented.”
Before closing it might be well to notice two brief accounts of baptism in Scripture where immersion seems to have been excluded because of sheer necessity.
Acts 2:41 reveals that 3000 persons are baptized in Jerusalem at the Pentecost celebration. It is extremely doubtful that immersion is the mode here for three basic reasons:
First, the large number of baptisms would require a great deal of time. It is more reasonable to assume they are very quickly, yet surely, baptized by sprinkling water on them with, perhaps, a branch of hyssop dipped in water. This sort of baptism might offer the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 52:15 and Ezekiel 36:25,26 in which Christ sprinkles the nations with water.
Second, to immerse so many people would require an enormous amount of water. However, Jerusalem is not a water-blessed city: “The city was off the beaten path of the great caravan routes, and was not, as most larger world capitals, on a navigable river or on a large body of water.” Not only is this so, but water is scarce in all of Palestine as a whole. Cisterns are necessary to collect and store water from which the entire city drinks. Especially in summer around the time of Pentecost is water scarce. Thus, 3000 people would have to be immersed in valued, stored water supplies in an arid land!
Third, in light of the scarcity of water we must remember that available water would be jealously guarded. Imagine the outrage that would ensue while 3000 followers of Christ storm the water supplies! Christ had been crucified in that very city only fifty days before as the populace cried out: “Crucify him! Crucify him! Give us Barrabus!” (John 19:6, 15). This is the city that Jesus weeps over for rejecting Him (Matt. 23:37). The Jews would never stand for 3000 converts away from Judaism to the despised Christ to bodily swarm their scarce water supplies in order to observe the Christian rite of initiation.
In Acts 16:33 Luke records the account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer. Immersion here is unlikely because: First, Paul is in the “inner prison” (v. 24). At the jailer’s conversion he is led from the inner prison to the jailer’s house (vv. 30,34). Evidence indicates that the jailer is an in-residence guard, i.e. his house is within the walls of the main prison. This is indicated by the language of verses 37 and 40 where Paul speaks as if he is still in the prison although he is in the jailer’s house. It is unlikely that the facilities there would accommodate immersion.
Second, Paul and Silas’ physical condition militates against their handling several persons for an immersion. Verse23 notes that they are beaten with “many blows.” Their wounds are so bad that the jailer, after his conversion and before his baptism, take them and wash their wounds (v. 33).
The purpose of this paper is to give serious consideration to the mode of Christian baptism. The incentive for the study is to provide an apologetic against the disclaimers directed at the Presbyterian’s position. I feel that the immersionist’s arguments are not only inconclusive and unable to substantiate his dogmatic claims, but that the very proofs used for immersion can be turned around and used to defend affusion aspersion.
It is not necessary for Presbyterians to appeal to tradition for their practice, as is often claimed by the immersionists. There is ample evidence in Holy Writ to substantiate the Presbyterian mode of baptism. In closing we must remember that Christianity is a faith that is open to all people everywhere, in every condition. All those who repent and turn to Christ should receive the baptismal seal whether they be in arid deserts or in frozen wastelands, whether terminally ill or critically injured. A universal religion should admit of a universal sealing ordinance.
Abbott-Smith, G. Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1950.
Adams, Jay. The Meaning and Mode of Baptism. Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975.
Arndt, W. F. and Gingrich, F. W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957. .
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951.
Booth, Abraham. Paedobaptism Examined, vol. I, London, 1829.
Brown, Francis, et. al. Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1907.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Edited by John T. McNeill. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968.
Carson, Alexander. Baptism: Its Mode and Subjects. Grand Rapids: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1969.
Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Systematic Theology, vol. 8. Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947.
Dale, James W. Classic Baptism. An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word: BAPTIZO. Philadelphia: W. Rutter, 1867.
Gentry, Kenneth L., Jr., ARomans 8:29" in Baptist Reformation Review, vol. 4:2, 3 (1976),
Gill, John. A Body of Divinity. Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace, 1973.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973.
Murray, John. Christian Baptism. Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910.
Smith, J.B. Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament (Scottsdale: Penn.: Herald, 1955.
Souter, Alexander. A Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1925.
Strong, Augustus H. Systematic Theology. Old Tappen, N.J.: Revell, 1907.
Tenney, Merrill C. ed., Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.
Thayer, Joseph. A Greek-English Lexicon. New York: American Book, 1889.
Warfield, B. B. Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2. Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973.
See the discussions on the marks of a true Christian Church in John Calvin=s Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 4, section 1, paragraph 9. Also see AThe Book of Church Order@ of the Presbyterian Church in America, part 1, chapter 2.
B.B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2. Edited by John E. Meeter (Nutley, N.J.:Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 329 ff.
Jay E. Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Christian Baptism (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975), see entire work.
The first two arguments are employed by such Baptist scholars as: Abraham Booth, Paedobaptism Examined, vol. I (London:1829), 40 ff. Alexander Carson, Baptism: Its mode and Subjects (Grand Rapids, 1971), 19ff, 142ff. John Gill, A Body of Divinity (Grand Rapids, 1971), 909ff. A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappen, N.J.: 1910), 933 ff.
Kenneth L. Gentry, ARomans 8:29" in The Baptist Reformation Review, vol. 4:2/3, 114,115.
James Wilkinson Dale, Classic Baptism: An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word Baptizo, as Determined by the Usage of Classical Greek Writers(Philadelphia: W. Rutter, 1867).
It should be born in mind that Adip@ and Aimmerse@ do not express exactly the same action. A stick can be dipped in the water without being immersed (totally submerged) in it.
When an object or person AA@ is strongly influenced by an object or person AB@, then AA@ becomes identified in that particular area of influence with AB@. When the white cloth was Ainfluenced@ by the red dye it becomes identified with the red dye by taking on its color characteristic. The full implications of all of this will be explicated later.
Dale, Classic Baptism, 354.
See for example: G. Abbott-Smith, Manual Creek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1950), 74. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 131. Alexander Souter, A Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 46. Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1965), 94.
Noted in L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 7 (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 37.
It should be noted that this verse has a textual variant at the crucial word Abaptized.@ The text as it is translated above has been assigned a AC@ rating by the UBS textual committee. The Greek underlying the translation above is ebaptisthesen. The other major possibility is ebaptisanto: Athey received baptism.@ However, as far as the present discussion is concerned the lexical stem (which is represented in both words) is more significant that the syntactical function and form of the verb. The present problem is lexical, not Grammatik-syntactical.
Some Old Testament verses which speak of the Spirit=s work as a pouring or sprinkling are: Proverbs 1:23; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25-28.
For an excellent and compelling discussion of this passage see: Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, N.J: Craig Press, 1977), 39f.
 Arguments need not be forwarded here against the seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism or the three sacraments of footwashing groups, and other such aberrations. This would lead far outside the present scope of this paper.
It is difficult to conceive of any passages other than Isaiah 52:15 and Ezekiel 36:25 to which they would have been referring. Both of these speak of the Messiah in terms of His ministry of sprinkling clean water upon the people.
This oneness is in the sense of water baptism being the outward sign of the inward Spirit baptism. Thus, one baptism with two aspects.
Jay Adams, Baptism, 37.
Abbott-Smith, Lexicon, 133.
J. B. Smith, Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament (Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald, 1955), 105.
Abbott-Smith, Lexicon, 371.
Francis Brown, et al, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907), 745.
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 584ff.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 249.
Merrill C. Tenney, ed. Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1967), 419.