Submerge or Sprinkle?

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.


  1. Allen translation of Calvin’s Institutes, p. 599.
Posted by Jacob Abshire on October 13th, 2008 - 6:39 pm
Categories: Articles
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12 Comments on “Submerge or Sprinkle?”

  • Jeremy, August 11, 20104:16 am

    I love this article. This is the truth. I would like for you to go on and give your understanding of what name we should use to baptize ourselves in?

  • kempay, October 21, 201111:15 pm

    In Christianity, baptism (from the Greek noun baptisma; itself derived from baptismos, washing)is for the majority the rite of admission (or adoption, almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally and also membership of a particular church tradition. Baptism has been called a sacrament and an ordinance of Jesus Christ.
    In some traditions, baptism is also called christening, but for others the word “christening” is reserved for the baptism of infants.
    The New Testament reports that Jesus himself was baptized. The usual form of baptism among the earliest Christians was for the candidate to be immersed totally (submersion) or partially (standing or kneeling in water while water was poured on him or her). While John the Baptist’s use of a deep river for his baptism suggests immersion, pictorial and archaeological evidence of Christian baptism from the 3rd century onward indicates that a normal form was to have the candidate stand in water while water was poured over the upper body.Other common forms of baptism now in use include pouring water three times on the forehead.
    • baptein—to wash something
    • baptizein—to wash, often a person in a ritual context
    • baptismos—Jewish ritual washing
    • baptisma—the new Christian rite
    The Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott gives the primary meaning of the verb baptizein (1st Person βαπτίζω baptizô), from which the English verb “baptize” is derived, as “dip, plunge”, and indicates that the dipping or plunging need not be complete, as when a sword is plunged into a throat or into a foetus or when wine is drawn by dipping a cup in the bowl; for New Testament usage it gives two meanings: “baptize”, with which it associates the Septuagint mention of Naaman dipping himself in the Jordan River, and “perform ablutions”, as in Luke 11:38.
    Two passages in the New Testament indicate that the verb baptizein when applied to washing in a context unrelated to Christian baptism, did not always indicate submersion. The first is Luke 11:38which tells how a Pharisee, at whose house Jesus ate, “was astonished to see that he did not first wash (ἐβαπτίσθη, aorist passive of βαπτίζω—literally, “be baptized”) before dinner.” This is the passage that Liddell and Scott cites as an instance of the use of βαπτίζω to mean perform ablutions. Jesus’ omission of this action is similar to that of his disciples: “Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash (νίπτω) not their hands when they eat bread.”[Mt 15:1–2] The other New Testament passage pointed to is: “The Pharisees…do not eat unless they wash (νίπτω, the ordinary word for washing) their hands thoroughly, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash themselves (literally, “baptize themselves”—βαπτίσωνται, passive or middle voice of βαπτίζω)”.

    what matter isn’t how the baptism be practised, but the baptism of the Spirit and in who’s name the baptism is being given.
    Your article seems to judge other denominations, meanwhile there is a greater purpose of baptism, which is the salvation itself. What’s the use of submerge or sprinkle baptism if the person himself doesn’t experience the completeness of the Spirit?

  • Jacob Abshire, October 22, 201111:59 am


    I drew distinctions in the method because this is “one of the main debates in regards to baptism” as mentioned in the beginning. It is not the only distinction that I made (see Believers or Babies? and Symbolize or Save?). I also wrote on Water Baptism and Spirit Baptism more fully. So, it was not my intention to speak exclusively to one part of the debate while leaving all others, including more important ones, alone. Nor was it my intention to be judgmental. No where in this article do I find some judgmental remarks. In fact, the aim of the article was to speak to the matter of submerging or sprinkling from the biblical perspective.

    I understand that denominations differ on this quite often which is why I called it a “main debate” among churches. I have learned a great deal about the Presbyterian view as R.C. Sproul has communicated and he makes some great points. I never raised claim against any denomination.

    Lastly, I did intend on making the point that salvation is the greater purpose. Not that water saves, but that Spirit does and the water symbolizes it – as the later part of this article indicates. Therefore, and as a good way to close my comments off, I would agree with you in saying, “What’s the use of submerge or sprinkle baptism if the person himself doesn’t experience the completeness of the Spirit?” To reiterate, no matter how you are baptized, if you have not been spiritually baptized (saved) then the water baptism lies.

  • Bernard, March 10, 201310:05 pm

    “The eunuch who was baptized by Philip also “came up out of the water” in Acts 8:39.”

    Why isolate the eunuch? Philip also “came up out of the water”, by your logic “indicating a complete submerging” of Philip also.

    Why did Philip re-immerse himself?

  • Jacob Abshire, March 18, 20135:07 am


    Thanks for your question. It was not my intention to isolate the eunuch as the only one who went into the water. (I don’t see that I did.) You are correct, the text says that they both of the men “went down into the water” and they both “came up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39). By this, I didn’t take it as an inference of baptism. It appears to be a description of them walking “into” a river and “out of” the river, you might say. So the reference is to there travels, not there baptism.

    However, it still communicates something about baptism as a submersion. And this was my intention in quoting the passage. Had sprinkling been the choice of baptism, they would not have to stop at a body of water that was “along the side of the road” (Acts 8:36). Nor, would they have had to go “down into” the water to get a handful. They both traveled into the body of water in order to be fully submerged in it. Then they both came back out of the body of water. A reading of Acts 8:36-39 pictures it more fully:

    “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

  • texas, March 25, 20134:36 am

    Hey, I have a couple of questions.

    Preface about me: I don’t remember the exact date I accepted Christ, but I remember the day and moment — when the light bulb turned on. Childhood for me was a bit more severe than most, with abuse of every kind. For some reason I did get into the church. It never occurred to me that God and especially the Nice Man Jesus didn’t love me. It worked out well that in the end, seemingly Jesus remains the only person who hasn’t lied to me or abused me or hurt me. So when the actual ‘meat and potatoes’ of accepting Christ, becoming saved, however you say it, was preched to me — OF COURSE Jesus, be my God and my Savior and King and ruler and also my only true friend.

    I was sprinkled (Methodist) and I don’t know when, if it was before or after that. I remember going up with the parents for the wrong reasons. The right thing, maybe the wrong method, probably the wrong reason. I don’t remember if this was before or after the Light Bulb moment. My parents are finally out of my life, and decades and thousands of dollars of therapy later, there are some days I don’t want to die — physical, emotional, sexual abuse for years. That stuff kills children slowly and painfully from the inside out.

    Reading up on baptism, I’ve always wondered if I “did it right”. If Jesus came up out of the water, at the very least he got his feet wet. I want to go all the way, and I am worried I haven’t. I want to do the right thing for the right reason. It seems that I should probably get dunked, not to attain salvation but to declare my salvation. “Better safe than sorry” has served me well.

    So here is the basic question: Do you think I should go and get dunked, immersed? Or am I already baptized? My faith has never been as strong as I would like (whose is?) and I can get easily upset if I accidentally wander over to very extreme sites that tell me that if I get hit by a bus today, then I’m still going to hell no matter what because I didn’t get dunked.

    This brings me to a hypothetical question: What does happen if somebody dies without being baptized, either by sprinkling, pouring, immersion? I am not very mobile, I’m disabled and mostly housebound, and it is distressing to think that somebody in my position has stumbled upon the Bible, read it, finally sealed the deal with Jesus, and never got the chance to baptize — some of the churches here don’t do baptism every Sunday, they do it once a month or once every couple of months, especially after making sure the new believers go to classes to learn, confim, and verify to themselves that they know and understand the “truly true truth” as I like to call it.

    Any thoughts are appreciated.

  • Jacob Abshire, March 25, 20137:58 am

    My friend, baptism does not get you in or keep you out of heaven. Consider quickly the thief on the cross next to Jesus. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And to him, Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” This man expressed his belief in Jesus while on the cross and he died moments later still on the cross. There was no way for him to be baptized. Yet, he met the Lord in heaven.

    Sometimes, disabilities and other circumstances can keep us from obeying the Lord in baptism. But God’s grace is sufficient. Where we are unable, He is able to cover us. If you are unable to be baptized the biblical way (by immersion and after confession of salvation), then worry not about your eternity with Christ. As the thief on the cross saw Paradise because he truly believed, so will you see Paradise if you truly believe.

    Secondly, I am not a pastor (much less your pastor) so I can’t speak with authority to your question about whether you should be baptized today. This is a question for you pastor. Baptism, though it is an important doctrine, is not one for us to divide over. If you belong to a congregation where immersion is practiced, then do as your pastor and, especially, your conscience tell you. It may be that your pastor and some others gather in your home to baptize you there. Or maybe they assist you to be relocated for the purpose baptism elsewhere—both can be a strong testaments of God’s grace in your life (particularly to those who profess salvation and have no disabilities but refuse baptism).

    Finally, due as the Scriptures tell you and your conscience allows. Pray that God would help guide you. Seek the counsel of your church and act accordingly knowing that Christ’s death is sufficient for salvation.

    Good questions, my friend.

  • Rooster, May 22, 201310:54 am

    In your response to “texas”, I noticed you used the theif on the cross as a example of a person being saved without being baptized. I just wanted to raise a couple of points about this example.

    1) At this point in the story Jesus is still alive and is still under the old covenant. The new covenant will come into affect once he has died and the perfect sacrifice has been made…but not till his death. (Hebrews 9:16-17)

    2) While Jesus is alive on earth He surely has the authority to forgive this man’s sins (Mark 2:10) hence the statement “today you will be with me in paradise”…but we do not have the option to go talk to Jesus here on earth. We have the bible that gives us His will for us in our lives. In the new covenant (point 1) tells us that we must believe and be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:16)

    So, to answer “texas” question…I would suggest that we make 100% sure that we have done this right (according to God’s will). According to Matthew7:21-23 we must do things according to His will in order to go to heaven. Just make sure because we do not want to hear the three most terrifying words in the english language “Depart from me”.
    Please give your comments on the subject. Thank you.

  • Jacob Abshire, May 22, 201312:15 pm

    Rooster, thank you for writing. Your two points are well stated. I’ll try to respond to both.

    You mentioned that the New Covenant actually began at the time of Jesus’ death according to Hebrews 9:16-17. By this, I think you are inferring that baptism, since it was not required in the Old Covenant (at least, not in the same way as it was in the New Covenant), was therefore not required of the thief since Christ had yet to die.

    This logic seems confusing to me on many levels. First, what about those who had faith in God and died before Jesus, were they truly saved? Second, the thief believed before Jesus died and yet he lived after Jesus died, wasn’t he then in the New Covenant era? Third, if baptism is a sign of salvation and not what saves you, why draw the distinction and risk elevating baptism to an actual work of salvation? Fourth, what would this say to those who have genuine faith in Christ’s work today but cannot be baptized or die before they are able to be baptized? Fifth, what about all those who had genuine faith, but died after Jesus died and before Jesus commanded baptism?

    Your points bring me more questions than they do clarity. It sounds as though you believe that faith (and baptism) saves you. But this is not so (Eph. 2:1-9). Baptism is a sign of what has actually happened. It is not what actually saves. Nevertheless, I agree with you on this: we ought to be confident in our decision and seek to do what is biblically right. God will guide us through Scripture as you say. Thanks for your comments.

  • Rooster, May 28, 20133:16 pm

    Jacob, thank you for your quick response.

    I did not intend to make things confusing with the Old/New covenant point. The main point that I was trying to address is that Jesus had authority on earth to forgive people of their sins.(Mark 2:10) So, in the instance of the theif on the cross, Jesus was able to forgive this man of his sins hence the statement “today you will be with me in paradise”…but we do not have the option to go talk to Jesus here on earth. The only way we know what we must do to be saved today, is to read God’s word.

    In oreder to truely obey God’s word, we must take it as a whole…every verse must be taken into account. So when Jesus says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved;”(Mark 16:16)
    We must take that in ask ourselves, “Am I really saved if I disobey part of this verse?”

    I understand some people put baptism into a “works” category. Their logic is, If I have to “do” anything than it is a “work”. Then they would turn to (Eph. 2:1-9) and say see, you don’t have to do anything. So according to that logic, we don’t have to repent, confess, or be baptized.

    What I see in the new testiment church is the opposite. First, we have have the great commission before Jesus ascended into heaven. (Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:16) Where He commands us to make disciples. Here He says baptism is one of the requirements of doing this.

    Next we have Penticost (the first day of the church) As Peter stands up to give the first gospel sermon (Acts 2), they realize that they had just crucified the Christ(v36), and it says that they were cut to the heart(v37) (the same feeling a sinner feels when he realizes that he is not right with God). So they ask what must we do? (v38) Peter tells them they must “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins;””

    As the church grows this same pattern continues (Acts 2:41) and that day 3000 souls were added. This pattern continues all through the book of Acts as it tells of multiple conversion stories. (Acts 8:5-12; Acts 8:13; Acts 8:26-40; Acts 9:1-19; Acts 10-11; Acts 16:13-15; Acts 16:28-33; Acts 18:8; Acts 19:1-7; Acts 21:37-22:16)

    God has given us a clear pattern to follow, and we should have no reason to disobey any of the things he has laid out for us to do. Obedience is a must. We should not add our own label to try to dismiss His gospel plan for us to do. Nowhere in God’s word is baptism called a “sign” or a “work”. So, we should not force those things upon the text.

    Last I would like to give a little more to chew on…Acts 22 Paul is retelling his conversion story and he comes to the end at (v16) notice Ananias asks him “why are you waiting?” He tells him, “Arise and be baptised, and wash away yours sins, calling on the name of the Lord”. Notice his sins were not “washed away” till after baptism.

    Thank you so much for your comments on this subject. I am greatful to have the opportunity to discuss these things with you.

  • Jacob Abshire, May 28, 20136:09 pm

    Rooster, thanks for the kind clarification. Our differences, in one way or another, still find the person in heaven. In your case, salvation is found after belief and baptism. In my case, salvation is found after belief only, but belief is vindicated (outwardly expressed and witnessed) by baptism.

    When I take Mark 16:16 into account, I see two points communicated: (1) those who believe and are baptized will be saved, and (2) those who do not believe will not be saved. This verse, however, does not say anything about those who believe and are not baptized. And, to say that “those who believe are not baptized will be saved also” would not contradict the text—especially when there are more passages that only mention belief unto salvation.

    Moreover, Mark 16:16 provides only one requirement to not be saved—namely, to not believe. So you could say that all who believe are saved and all who do not believe are not saved. Additionally, those who believe and are baptized are saved. And, those who believe and are Texans are saved—just like those who believe and drive cars. Baptism is not made a necessity in this passage any more than being a Texan or driving a car. Mark 16:16 is a positive-negative statement and is found in other texts without baptism mentioned (John 3:16; John 3:18; John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:53-54; John 8:24; Acts 16:31).

    Another point, though not one I’m willing to hang my hat on, is this: Mark 16:9-20 are not found in the earlier manuscripts. So it is quite possible, even convincing that this text is not part of Scripture. But again, I see no contradictions in it that would require me to die on that hill.

    Even still, you mentioned Acts 10 as a proof text for baptism being necessary for salvation, but this passage says otherwise, according to Acts 10:44-46, those who believed showed signs of being saved (the deposited Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues) and after this, Peter desires to baptize them. Salvation first, then baptism.

    Finally, to reiterate this point, we shouldn’t put the time after the atonement in opposition to the time before the atonement. Jesus said before he died, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but passed from death to life.” According Christ, before he died on the cross, belief was good enough to get you into heaven.

    Again, thanks for the kind words and consideration. At least, we both will get there one day!

  • Lak by, July 12, 20131:09 pm

    I would like to know what you think about immersion of a young child. Nearly two ?

    Is this safe and is it normal