adapted from an article by Jack D. Kinneer, July 2000 New Horizons
We practice baptism by pouring or sprinkling water on the person being baptised. Some Christian brethren object that “everyone knows that ‘baptise’ means ‘to immerse’.” They point out that if you look up the Greek word “to baptise” in a Greek Lexicon (a dictionary of Greek words), then you will find that it lists “to immerse” as one of the meanings. And that is true.
So why don’t we immerse people when we baptise? Aren’t we supposed to be committed to following God’s Word? We are! But that is precisely why we do not immerse as our mode of baptising.
Does “baptise” mean “to immerse”?
Even though “to immerse” is one meaning of “baptise,” it was never the only meaning. Classical Greek used the words “to baptise” and “baptism” with a range of meanings. Neither of these words always meant “to immerse” or “immersion.” The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) used the word “baptise” in such a way that it cannot possibly always mean “to immerse.” For example, Daniel 4:23 in the Septuagint says that Nebuchadnezzar was “baptised” with dew. Obviously, he was not “immersed” in dew.
It is equally the case that the word “baptise” cannot always mean “to immerse” in the New Testament. For example, Hebrews 9:10 speaks of “various washings, regulations for the body until the time of reformation.” Our English version translates this “washings,” but the Greek text says “baptisings.” This verse refers to Old Testament cleansing rites such as the red heifer or the Day of Atonement. These Old Testament “baptisings” were never by immersion; they were always by sprinkling. The very context of this verse emphasizes that these Old Testament “baptisms” were by sprinkling (Heb. 9:19, 21).
In fact, as we study the God-inspired New Testament, we note that it never uses the words “to baptise” and “baptism” in the sense of “immerse” or “immersion.” “To baptise” mostly means “to wash.” In a secondary sense, “to baptise” also means “to be joined to” or “to be united to.” This meaning stemmed from ancient Jewish cleansing rites. For example, Gentile converts were received into the Jewish nation by a washing rite. In the Old Testament, the priests were ordained, that is, joined to their priestly calling by sprinkling. Likewise, a person barred from the camp because of leprosy, would be reunited to the people of God by a sprinkling rite when his disease had been healed. These cleansing rites were called “baptisms” (Mk. 7:4; Heb. 9:10). Consequently, the word “to baptise” came to mean “to be united to.” Therefore, in the New Testament, “to baptise” means either “to wash” or “to unite.”
Not only does the New Testament never use the words “to baptise” and “baptism” in the sense of “immerse” or “immersion,” but also it sometimes uses “baptise” in such a way that it cannot possibly mean “to immerse.” In 1 Peter 3:18–22, for example, God’s Word compares the flood of Noah to Christian baptism. He writes,
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…
God’s Word says that the water that saved Noah corresponds to baptism, which pictures our salvation. Just as Noah was saved through water, so Christians are now saved through the water of baptism. Could immersion in water correspond to Noah’s salvation through water? Of course not! Noah and his family were not immersed; the wicked were immersed! Immersion under water is not a sign of salvation. Immersion under water is a sign of God’s wrath! Immersion under water does not picture what happened to Noah; rather it pictures what happened to the rebellious human race.
Likewise, 1 Corinthians 10:1–4 says:
For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
If “baptise” always means “to immerse,” then this Scripture would have to mean, “all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” But that cannot possibly be correct. The Israelites were not immersed; the Egyptian army was immersed! Immersion under water does not picture what happened to God’s people; it pictures what happened to the rebellious Egyptians.
Sprinkling or pouring best expresses the symbolism of baptism
God’s people were never immersed as a means (or sign) of salvation. Immersion spelled divine destruction, whether for the unbelievers in Noah’s day or for Pharaoh’s army. Immersion under water is a sign of condemnation. Christian baptism, however, is a sign of salvation. Therefore its proper mode is not immersion; rather its proper mode is pouring or sprinkling. Throughout the Old Testament God’s people were cleansed and prepared to meet God by being sprinkled with water (or sometimes with blood).
Isaiah announced salvation this way:
For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants (44:3).
Similarly, Ezekiel proclaimed God’s salvation:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you (36:25).
According to God’s word, the most fitting mode of baptism is pouring or sprinkling water.
But doesn’t baptism signify burial with Christ?
Some object, however, that since God’s Word says that baptism pictures our burial with Christ; therefore immersion is a more fitting symbol. Romans 6:3–4 says:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised 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.
But a closer look at this Scripture shows that this objection misses the mark. First, it reflects our tendency to read our own experiences into God’s Word. We are used to burying people by “immersing” them in the earth— we dig a hole in the ground, we put the body in it, then we fill it with dirt. But Jesus was not “immersed” under the ground. Instead, he was buried in a cave in the side of a hill with a rock in front of the entrance. When we stop reading into God’s Word and simply read out of it what is there, then immersion is not really an obvious symbol of Christ’s burial in a cave.
Second, the word “baptise” in this passage is not used in its common meaning of “wash” (whether by immersion or by pouring), but in its secondary sense of “to be united to.” As we read this Scripture in its context, does it not clearly mean that all who were united to Christ Jesus were united to his death and resurrection? That is why free grace will not lead God’s redeemed children to continue in sin. Baptism signifies their union with Christ. Because they are joined to Christ, they are therefore joined to him in his death and in his resurrection. Accordingly, they will die to sin and walk in newness of life. Here, “baptise” clearly means “to be united to.”
Immersion contradicts the symbolism of baptism
According to God’s Word, therefore, immersion is actually inappropriate as a sign of salvation because immersion pictures destruction. Instead, we practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring water because we believe that this is the biblical mode of baptism. This portrays the spiritual reality of which God himself spoke when he said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you.” (Ezekiel 36:25)