The Mode of Baptism
There are typically three ways to baptize a person: immersion, sprinkling, and pouring. We believe baptism should reflect what the Scirpture says, which is less simple than it sounds. The problem is that Scirpture seems to point to all three options. We have settled on pouring as our normal practice, though we have also immersed in certain circumstances. Here are some things to consider as you look at the subject.
The word "Baptize" in the Bible
The typical arguments about the mode of baptism revolve around two little words in the Greek language (bapto & baptizo). These words occur 20 times in the Old Testament. As you will see from a few examples, the words are as versatile as our word “wash.”
- Leviticus 11:32 – this verse gives commands about various materials that have become unclean. The instructions are to put the materials into water; which seems obvious that this would be immersion.
- Leviticus 14:6–here we see the messy instructions of dipping a live bird in the blood of a bird that has died. Unless the dead bird was huge, it is hard to make this text refer to full immersion.
- Daniel 5:21 – here Daniel is talking about the King’s body being wet with dew. There is no way this can mean any kind of immersion – whether partial or full.
- Mark 7:4–the word simply means wash but it is used twice in the same sentence; the first time it may imply pouring and the second probably implies immersion
- Luke 11:38 – does not mean immersion and probably means a bathing by pouring
- Luke16:24–obviously means to dip since it is talking about Lazarus dipping his finger in water.
Both of these words simply mean to wash. Disappointing though it may be, the word does not refer to any one mode of washing at all – just as our word wash doesn’t. You would hardly wash your car in the same mode you would wash your clothes – immersing your car in soapy water might make it clean, but you would have a hard time driving it afterwards! In other words, there is no good argument that strictly comes from the words themselves. The Greek words have various uses and meanings.
The Meaning of Baptism
If the words themselves don't help us decide how to baptize then we should go to the meaning of baptism and see how that helps.
What does baptism represent? Here is where the arguments begin to diverge. This is an important point: each mode of baptism captures a different image of what is happening at salvation. This is why it is not a simple argument. We believe all three to be reasonable options, here's why:
Immersion– the argument for immersion comes primarily from Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. Both of these texts refer to the same thing: that we have been buried and raised with Christ through baptism. The image of going into the water a child of wrath and coming out of the water a child of God is central to this mode. People are usually buried by being laid in the ground – completely covered – and so this mode gives us a stark picture of the death and resurrection we have in Christ. If death and resurrection is to be the ground for our baptismal imagery, then immersion is the right one.
Sprinkling – this view takes a much more sweeping approach to the question. It seeks to ground the mode of baptism in the idea of ritual cleanliness, and to this effort the book of Hebrews and much of the Old Testament comes flying to the rescue. The book, the tent, and the vessels of worship are said to be sprinkled and made clean in Hebrews 9 and Hebrews 10:25 says that our hearts have been made clean by the sprinkling of pure water. So again, if all the sprinkling of blood in the Old Testament rituals and the sprinkling of Christ’s blood (1Peter 1:2) is the image we are after, then sprinkling is the correct mode.
Why we pour instead of immerse or sprinkle?
How was Jesus baptized? Not by John the Baptist, but by God? Put another way, when Jesus was baptized, what did he receive? According to Luke 3:22, when Jesus was baptized the Spirit descended on him – in other words, Jesus received the Holy Spirit at baptism. And this is exactly what we see projected into the future when God baptizes his church. John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16) and we get the fulfillment of that prophecy when the Holy Spirit falls as tongues of fire on the believers at Pentecost (Acts 1:5, 2:1-4).
So here it is, baptism is linked with the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was not standing in the Jordan River symbolizing his death to the old man and future life with God. Nor was Jesus there to be ritually cleansed by the washing of pure water. Jesus was in the Jordan River to receive the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Christ baptized his church in Acts 2 not with death/resurrection or ritual cleansing; he baptizes his church with the Spirit and with fire.
So if baptism is critically linked with the giving of the Spirit, then the way we baptize should represent what is really happening in baptism. That is what a sacrament is: it is an earthly representation of a heavenly reality. And what is God doing in heaven? God is pouring out his Spirit!
- Acts 2:17-18 – God pours out the Spirit on all flesh
- Acts 2:33 – the exalted Christ pours out his Spirit on the church
- Acts 10:45 – the Spirit is poured out on Gentiles
- Romans 5:5 – God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit
- Titus 3:5-6 – the washing of regeneration and the Spirit poured out
This is why we pour. Because God is pouring.
Again, the concepts we see in the other modes are correct, but we believe pouring is the most sound and the most meaningful.