“The dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” —Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 28:3
I’m done with dunking. I will never again perform an immersion baptism for a Christian, but will henceforth be true to the biblical and confessional standards of my Presbyterian faith. To say this is the final step on my long sacramental journey from being a credo-baptist to being fully Reformed. I myself experienced an immersion baptism in a charismatic Methodist church a year after my conversion and spent the first decade of my Christian life in churches that only did immersion baptism.
As a Presbyterian minister, I once borrowed the baptismal facilities of a Baptist church in order to immerse a family of teenagers who attended my church. In my last Presbyterian parish in the country, I was willing to accommodate the preferences of Baptists in my church and go down to the local lake to immerse their believing children. I’m done with that now.
The Baptist belief is that immersion (the total submerging of the person underwater) and emersion (the coming up out of the water) is necessary in order to have a true baptism. Presbyterians hold an immersion baptism is valid before God when it meets the essential criteria of water applied by a minister in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that it is unnecessary. The correct administration of baptism actually is “by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” For me, to practice immersion baptism is to replace a superior mode with an inferior one and to endorse error.
The Baptist contention that the only valid mode of baptism is by immersion rests upon three flawed lines of argumentation: the meaning of the word “baptism” itself, New Testament accounts of baptisms, and the imagery of death, burial, and resurrection.
First, Baptists hold that the Greek word baptizo, “to baptise,” exclusively means “to dip” or “to immerse,” thus all baptisms must be by immersion. As with most words, baptizo has a range of senses, one of which is “to dip.” Baptists argue that “to dip” is the core meaning of the word which controls every use. I will spare you an exhaustive exposition on semantic theory, etymology, and every example of baptizo in the Bible and ancient literature and simply state, in contradiction, that baptizo primarily conveys the senses of wash, cleanse, or unite which can take place through dipping, pouring, sprinkling, or wiping.
The main point is to apply water to something or someone to cleanse it. The Baptist might say then that only bathing or immersion truly conveys the cleansing of a person, and that sprinkling or pouring water over the head does not cleanse the body. Really? In that case, we should get rid of all our bathroom showers and commit to taking baths every day. Using showers, faucets, basins and towels, as well as bathing in rivers and lakes, has been used to wash bodies for millennia. Jesus seemed quite satisfied with a few wet teardrops and some long hair when his feet were cleansed (Luke 7:44).
Secondly, the supposed New Testament accounts of immersion baptism in the Gospels and Acts are examples of the use of sloppy eisegesis. When Jesus came “up from the water” (Matt. 3:16) or “up out of the water” (Mark 1:10) he was not necessarily emerging from beneath the water but walking out of the water or up from the river bed. The same action is enacted with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who saw water and stop the chariot. The text says “they both went down into the water” and then “they came out of the water.” (Acts 8:38-39). Did Philip perform a tandem baptism by both going beneath the water? Obviously not, they both walked down into the pool of water and then both walked out.
In both the cases of Jesus and the eunuch they could have stood or kneeled in the water while water was poured over them. It is supposed that John the Baptist chose the desert of Aenon near Salim because the “much water” or “plentiful water” provided deep water for immersion (John 3:23). A better reading is that these many springs of waters were where people gathered to retrieve water—and were usually quite shallow—but the springs also served John’s purpose for baptizing.
Other baptisms in the book of Acts were more likely accomplished by applying water than by immersing people. The three thousand at the feast of Pentecost could have been baptised using the lavers of water used in Old Testament ceremonial cleaning. Paul and Cornelius and his Gentile guests were baptised inside houses where it was uncommon to have a deep bathtub.
Within the house of Cornelius the question, “Can anyone withhold water for baptising these people?” (Acts 10:47) implies that water would be brought to the new converts. Lydia’s baptism does allow for an immersion baptism in a river (Acts 16:13-15), but the Philippian jailor was present in his house, not the river when he and all his household heard the word of God and were baptised (Acts 16:32-33). The New Testament Christian baptisms simply do not prove a case for exclusive, immersion-only baptism, but instead, demonstrate the probability of a pouring or sprinkling mode.
Thirdly, and most importantly within the Baptist perspective, the act of baptism supposedly depicts the imagery of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The go-to verse for Baptists to prove that baptism is essentially an immersion and emersion act is Romans 6:3, “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.” When the convert goes down into the water his old man dies with the crucified Christ, but then he rises up out of the water as a new man with the resurrected Christ.
This up and down imagery is so vital to Baptist thinking that I once heard a Reformed Baptist professor teach that if there was not sufficient water available for a baptism he would replace the water with straw in order to recreate the burial-resurrection motif. Being buried and resurrected was more important than using water! However, the attempt to make baptism fit with this image is like trying to make a round peg fit in a square hole. Jesus died on the cross, not in the grave, and he wasn’t buried underground; he was placed in a tomb. In order for the imagery to match, a baptised person would have to also depict Christ’s death on the cross as well as his burial and resurrection.
Baptists make a fundamental error in mistaking the essential meaning and imagery of the two sacraments of the Christian church. The Lord’s Supper depicts the saving work of Christ on the cross—redemption accomplished. Christian baptism depicts the saving work of the Holy Spirit—redemption applied. Baptism thus focuses on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in joining a believer to the finished work of Christ.
The primary imagery of baptism should not depict the death and resurrection of Jesus—the elements of the Lord’s Supper point to that. Instead, baptism depicts Christ “pouring out” the Spirit upon his sanctified church. The Lord’s Supper was instituted on the day of Christ’s death and the first Christian baptism occurred on the day of the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost. The symbolism of each sacrament correlates to the two roles the 2nd and 3rd Persons of the Trinity perform in perfecting our redemption. These two distinct sacraments serve as a perpetual reminder to the church of how God saves his covenant people.
If Christian baptism portrays the Holy Spirit’s role in sanctification, the right mode of baptism is pouring or sprinkling. On the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed to the crowds that after Jesus was raised and exalted he had received from God the promised Holy Spirit whom “he has poured out” (Acts 2:33). Peter explained that this was a fulfilment of the Joel prophecy that God would “pour out” his Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18).
This sanctifying work of the Spirit fulfilled other prophecies that the Spirit of God would sanctify God’s people by “sprinkling” them with water to cleanse them of their uncleanness and give them a new heart to obey God (Ezek 36:25-27). The Ethiopian eunuch beseeched to be baptised because he had just been reading about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who would “sprinkle many nations” (Isa 52:15; Acts 8:32-37).
The mode of sprinkled blood was the primary means by which the Old Testament temple was ceremonially cleansed. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this truth by arguing that just as the blood of bulls and goats purified the temple, priests, and worshippers, the sprinkled blood of Jesus Christ purifies Christian worshippers (Heb 9:12-14; 10:20-22): “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The superior “sprinkled blood” of Jesus serves as the basis of the new covenant (Heb 12:24). The baptismal sign ought to signify the pouring out of the Spirit and the sanctifying effect of Christ’s sprinkled blood on his people.
The additional sanctifying images of Christ’s baptism by “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11; Acts 2:3; see also Mal. 3:2-3) who came down in flaming tongues upon the people at Pentecost and the concept of the anointing of the Holy Spirit like poured-out oil upon the head support the imagery of top-down instead of down-up. The pouring or sprinkling of water on a person which symbolises this sanctifying work of Christ by the Spirit is to be preferred over the misappropriated imagery of death and resurrection.
How then should we interpret the correlation of baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ to which both Romans 3:3-4 and Colossians 2:12-13 allude? Each of these texts refers to the experience of regeneration within a believer tied to the finished work of Christ. When a person is actually regenerated by the Holy Spirit, Christ is applying his atoning work on them. Christ died as a “sinner” but then was made alive. Likewise, when Christians are sanctified by the Holy Spirit they experience the “circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11) whereby their old sinful man dies and the new spiritual man comes alive. This experience correlates to their new birth by the Spirit. The primary focus is still on how Christ applies his accomplished redemptive work onto believers by the Holy Spirit, thus the main image of baptism is still purification by the Spirit.
From a practical and worship stand-point, it is not a good idea for Presbyterians to perform immersion baptisms. Unlike established Baptist churches, our buildings are not built for immersion baptisms. Instead of using our basin to sprinkle the person in the church during the regular Lord’s Day worship service, we then have to reassemble at some later time by a lake, beach, river, or swimming pool. Weather permitting, the participants descend into the water wearing a bathing suit or wet-suit; this is not a good look on a middle-aged minister, and doesn’t a wet-suit defeat the idea of being thoroughly washed?
Our family attended a friend’s baptism by the ocean as part of a charismatic church. When the pastor attempted to lower the boy down into the ocean, the surf went out and he only went down to his waist. Someone cried out, “He didn’t go all the way under!” The pastor laughed and asked the boy, “Should I baptise you again?” He didn’t, and it was finished. So, from a Baptist perspective, did it really count? This amusing example simply illustrates the truth that the Lord has not complicated the governance of his church with impractical and burdensome rites.
Why would God initiate a sacrament to be administered across the globe that requires deep pools of water? Give a Presbyterian minister a go-bag containing a Bible, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and a flask of water and he has every element needed to conduct a complete worship service anytime and anywhere for the people of God.
The Baptist position on the mode of baptism is exclusive, erroneous, and detrimental to the unity of the wider church. According to Baptist ecclesiology—and I include all credo-immersion-baptistic evangelical churches in this category—if a Christian has not experienced a post-conversion baptism by means of immersion their baptism is not valid. Though not stated explicitly, the Baptist position implicitly holds that in order to be designated as a true Christian and a member of the church sprinkled babies or adults must be baptised again.
[Though in a Baptist’s eyes they never were really baptised the first time.] Thus Baptists do not recognise the validity of the baptisms performed in Orthodox, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican churches. Such a view undermines the ancient Nicene confession: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Presbyterian church is more accommodating to Baptist practice than Baptists are to them, but it is time to take a stand on how we do baptism. Has it not dawned on Presbyterians that Baptist beliefs delegitimise the Presbyterian church? By accommodating or affirming baptist practices in Presbyterian churches we are undermining our very existence as a denomination.
I experienced the truth of this in my former parish when I discovered the baptismal fount in a back storage room covered with dust and cobwebs. This country Presbyterian church was so populated with Baptists, Brethren, and Pentecostals that the practice of pouring or sprinkling had been abandoned. Instead of continually accommodating Baptists in our church, now is the time for Presbyterian ministers to courageously correct.
Don’t allow the “pastoral approach” or “being peaceable” to justify your unwillingness to instruct your people in the right way to do baptism. It is time for Presbyterian ministers, along with elders, to affirm their ordination vows by using the right and biblical administration of baptism. As for me I am done with dunking, and I will boldly proclaim that “baptism is rightly administered with pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.”
 I am borrowing the language of “redemption accomplish” and “redemption applied” from John Murray, Redemption—Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1955) I am indebted to Robert L. Reymond’s comment that each sacrament depicts the distinctive redemptive work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 935.