The Baptism Debate
One of the main debates in regards to baptism is the how the baptism is carried out. Some churches fully submerge the candidate into water and raise them out again. Others sprinkle water over the head. Does the Bible give us a clear and definitive formula? I think so, and there are at least three reasons why.
The Meaning of the Word
The first reason stems from the meaning of the word baptize. It’s interesting that our English word is not translated, but transliterated from the Greek. That is to say that we don’t have another word that we use to mean the same thing, we actually have the same word and its meaning. The Greek word baptizo was transliterated into English as baptize. The meaning never changed.
So what does it mean? Simply said, it means, “to dip completely.” It is the word “to drown.” So linguistically, the term always refers to immersion or submerging in water. So every time you find the word or form of the word (like bapto, baptizo, baptismos) you should translate it as immerse or immersion.
To take it one step further, the word is never used in a passive sense. In other words, the water is never baptizing someone. Someone is always baptized into water. This is important because it strengthens the point of submerging and weakens the argument for sprinkling.
The meaning of the word is not really argued otherwise. Even those who practice sprinkling will agree with this meaning. In fact, John Calvin, considered to be at the heart of the Presbyterian church who sprinkles instead of submerging, said that “the word baptize means to immerse” and “it is certain that immersion was the practice of the early church.” i Even in the ancient Greek literature outside of the Bible this is true. And lastly, the Roman Catholic Church practice immersion until the 14th century (except in unusual cases).
The Narratives of the New Testament
The second reason is found in the context of the Scriptures where the word is used. In every occasion the most accurate meaning is to submerge. Let’s first see that it was indeed water that was used. In Acts 10:47 Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” This is similar to what John the Baptist said in Mark 1:8 and the event with the Philip and the eunuch in Acts 8:36.
Now, if sprinkling is what it means than little water would be needed. But this is not so. Earlier than this event was the time when John the Baptist was baptizing. John 3:23 says that he was “baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.”
To extinguish the idea that John might have been near the water to gather it in his hand, Mark 1:5 and 9 say that he baptized “in the river Jordan” and not beside it. In verse 10 where Mark writes of Jesus’ baptism. He describes Jesus as coming “up out of the water” indicating a complete submerging. The eunuch who was baptized by Philip also “came up out of the water” in Acts 8:39.
These prepositions are there in the Greek text. They are not English contortions. As little as they are, they make a profound difference to the mode by which baptism was administered. It was always into water and the coming out of water.
The Symbol of the Truth
Water baptism is a metaphor or object lesson. It pictures the spiritual reality of one being buried with Christ and raised again. It teaches us of regeneration and our need for Jesus as Savior. Paul describes it in Romans 6:3-4:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
So as we are baptized in the water, completely submerged, we are identifying ourselves as being one with Christ in his death and burial. Jesus was buried in earth. In baptism, we are buried in water. Following the progression, Jesus was raised from the grave victor over sin and death. In baptism, we are raised in His victory. In Christ we have newness of life.
Thus, we proclaim our identity as a Christ follower and one who is been adopted into His body as one of His own. This is the conversion experience of the believer. It is the regeneration of the soul. And for this reason, baptism must symbolize the truth that it points to. Sprinkling does not picture this wonderful truth. There is no burial and there is no rising out of the grave. There is no passing through or changing from. It simply does not symbolize the reality it represents.
These three reasons give us sufficient arguments for submerging and against sprinkling. Imagine the effect it is suppose to bring about. Imagine a younger brother in church watching his older brother be baptized as part of their worship service. In wonder, he would be tempted to ask his father, “Why is he doing that?” The father responds by teaching his son that “we are all sinners and desperately need the cleansing from sin that comes from Jesus.”
This is the purpose of baptism. It is to pass on spiritual truth to the next generation. Submerging pictures this truth more accurately than sprinkling.
- Allen translation of Calvin’s Institutes, p. 599.