Click here to listen to an audio recoding MP3 of this material.
In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus commanded all people of all nations to be baptized.
Clearly baptism is an important requirement, yet it is also one of the most misunderstood topics in the gospel. What did Jesus mean when He said to baptize people?
The purpose of this study is to consider the action or "mode" involved in baptism.
Physically, what should be done when one is baptized? Is baptism sprinkling, pouring, or immersion?
Some churches sprinkle or pour water on the person's head. Most churches say there are several acceptable choices regarding the action involved in baptism. Others only immerse. Consider statements from various "Christian" denominations:
"Baptism may be administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, according to the choice of the applicant" - Church of the Nazarene Manual, 1972 ed., p. 33.
"What is the meaning of the word 'baptize'? 'Baptize' means to apply water by washing, pouring, sprinkling, or immersing" - Luther's Small Catechism, par. 244, p. 170.
"Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; the Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person" - "Westminster Confession of Faith," par. 6.141, Presbyterian Book of Confessions, 1967 ed.
"How is baptism given? It is given by pouring water over the forehead of the person to be baptized ..." - A Catechism for Adults (Catholic), 1975 ed., p. 63.
"Luther urged, in opposition to the standard practice of pouring, that baptism should be by immersion. He pointed out that the word in the Greek language means 'To plunge something entirely into the water, so that the water closes over it,' and urged that immersion should be the mode of baptism. Today, however, the general practice of the Lutheran Church is to administer baptism by pouring, although immersion is also permitted" - A Compend of Luther's Theology, p. 167, via Handbook of Religious Quotations, p. 11.
John Calvin stated: "The word baptize signifies to immerse, and the rite of immersion was practiced by the ancient church" - quoted by Brents, p. 230f.
“The Scripture makes it clear enough that water is to be used, but it is not so plain at first sight that sprinkling or pouring of water will suffice. In Apostolic times the body of the baptized person was immersed, for St. Paul looks on this immersion as typifying burial with Christ, and speaks of baptism as a bath … [But the belief] that baptism can be validly given by immersion, infusion, or aspersion, is fully justified by tradition … Anciently … baptism was constantly given to adults and the rite of immersion prevailed …” – The Catholic Dictionary on “baptism” and “baptistery,” pp 60-64.
These quotations do not constitute conclusive evidence of the action of baptism, but should give people who practice sprinkling or pouring cause to consider the question we are studying.
This is used to prove the claim the word can mean sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. But modern dictionaries just define the word as used today. This does not prove what the word means in the language of the Bible.
Even our English words change meaning over time. "Gay" refers almost exclusively today to homosexuality, but it had no such meaning a century ago.
According to modern English dictionaries, the origin of the word "baptize" was a Greek word meaning "to immerse" (Random House College Dictionary). This describes the meaning used in Biblical Greek.
Thayer's lexicon on BAPTIZO says: "to dip, immerge, submerge."
Many other dictionaries show the basic, root meaning of the Bible word is to immerse. (See Vine, Arndt and Gingrich, etc.)
There are other Greek words for "sprinkle" (RANTIZO) or "pour" (CHEO). Had God wanted to authorize these, the words were available; but instead He chose a word the never means sprinkle or pour.
The Bible word for "baptism" means immersion, not sprinkling or pouring. But most people cannot study Greek to prove this. And dictionaries are written by fallible men. We need to search further, but surely we have reason to suspect modern sprinkling and pouring may not be correct.
Matthew 28:18-20 - Jesus' command to be baptized is based on His authority over heaven and earth.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 - The Scriptures instruct us in righteousness and provide us to all good works. (James 1:25; 2 Peter 1:3; Ephesians 3:3-5)
Matthew 15:9 - Following the doctrines of men in such matters makes our worship vain.
Galatians 1:8,9 - Anyone who preaches differently from the gospel is accursed.
This issue can only be settled on the basis of Bible teaching, not on church creeds or traditions.
Note that we do not need a verse that expressly says, "Do not sprinkle or pour." If the Bible teaches us to immerse and never authorizes sprinkling or pouring, then the latter should be rejected as being human in origin and different from the gospel
[2 John 9-11; Colossians 3:17; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12; 3:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19; 1 Timothy 1:3; 2 Timothy 1:13]
The best way to understand a Bible command is to study the passages that refer to it in context comparing them to other passages on the subject. This is especially how we learn the meaning of words (children do this, so do authors of dictionaries).
Notice what baptism requires and consider what action fits what the Bible says.
The element or substance used is not inherent in the word "baptize." But the element used in the baptism of the Great Commission - the baptism Jesus commanded everyone to receive - is water.
Acts 10:47,48 - "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized..." The command to be baptized refers to baptism in water.
Suppose someone wanted to be baptized in rose petals. Would that be obeying the command, or would that be changing it and following human doctrine? Note that no passage expressly says not to use rose petals, yet that would violate Scripture.
Other verses listed below also show the element in baptism should be water.
John 3:23 - John baptized near Salim because there was much water there. John chose this particular location because baptism involves "much water."
Do sprinkling or pouring require much water? No! Baptism according to the Bible requires "much water." But sprinkling and pouring do not require much water.
Does immersion require much water? Yes, it requires enough to immerse someone in.
So Bible baptism requires "much water." Immersion fits, because it requires much water. Sprinkling and pouring do not fit, because they do not require much water. This helps us understand the meaning of "baptism" in the New Testament.
Acts 8:36-39 - They came to some water (v36).
Some folks think the eunuch pulled out a bottle of water and Philip used some of it to baptize him. Not so! The water used to baptize the eunuch was a body of water they came to as they traveled. Other Bible examples also confirm that people who were baptized went to the water. (See John 3:23; Mark 1:9; etc.)
When people receive sprinkling or pouring, do they need to go to the water? No, the water can come to them, because not much is required.
When people are immersed, do they need to go to the water? Yes.
Again, immersion fits the Bible description of baptism. Sprinkling and pouring do not fit.
Acts 8:38 - Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and he baptized him. This shows why baptism involves "much water" - it must be enough for the people to go down into!
Do sprinkling or pouring require going down into the water? No. When denominations practice sprinkling or pouring, does the person go down into the water? No. But Bible baptism requires going down into the water.
When a person is immersed, must the person go down into the water? Yes, so immersion fits the Bible description of baptism, but sprinkling and pouring do not.
This is how Jesus' baptism is sometimes pictured.
But is this what denominations do? Does the person go down into the water, then water is sprinkled on him? No! Why argue about what could be done if you are not doing it? This "argument" simply does not defend what denominations do!
Why don't denominational preachers take the candidate down into the water to sprinkle or pour? Because it does not make sense to go to all the trouble. And it would not have made sense in Bible times either. If Bible baptism was sprinkling or pouring, preachers would have done what preachers do today when they sprinkle or pour.
Bible examples help us see what the "baptism" means. The fact is that denominations that sprinkle or pour do not do what the Bible says baptism involves. Only immersion fits the description.
Acts 8:39 - After the eunuch had been baptized, he came up out of the water. In order to come up out of the water, he first had to be down in the water.
Mark 1:9,10 - Jesus was baptized "in" the Jordan River, then came up from ("out of" - footnote) the water.
When denominations sprinkle or pour, does the person then come up out of (or from) the water? No, because they never went down into it!
When people are immersed, do they come up out of the water? Yes!
Bible baptism requires coming to the water, going down into it, and coming up out of it. None of these are involved in sprinkling or pouring, but immersion requires all of them. Immersion fits the pattern of Bible baptism, but sprinkling and pouring do not.
In baptism we are buried with Jesus and raised with Him. As He was buried in the earth, we are buried in baptism.
Are people buried and raised in sprinkling or pouring? When Jesus was buried, did they sprinkle a little dirt on Him, like folks do in sprinkling or pouring?
Matthew 12:40 - He was buried in the heart of the earth.
Matthew 27:60,66 - He was laid in a tomb hewn out of rock and a great stone covered the opening. He was completely enclosed in the element.
In baptism we are buried (completely enclosed and surrounded) in water, as Jesus was buried in the earth.
Some say baptism is "just a symbol" of Jesus' burial, so it does not matter how it is done. There is a symbolic element in baptism, but how does that prove that the action does not matter?
Do the passages say Jesus was buried, but it doesn't matter whether or not we are buried? It says we are buried and we are raised in baptism. The one to be baptized must be buried and raised. When denominations sprinkle or pour, is the person himself buried and raised? No. In immersion is the person buried and raised? Yes!
Actually, symbols are important. We have no right to change the symbols Jesus' authorized.
In the Lord's supper, Jesus authorized bread and fruit of the vine as symbols of Jesus' flesh and blood. This involves symbolism, but may we say the symbols do not matter so we may use hamburger and Coke?
Also, in baptism we are buried in water. If this is just symbolic and symbols don't matter, may we use milk or rose petals?
When God ordains actions, even if they involve symbolism, we must respect the act as God commanded it, instead of changing it. Baptism involves a burial and a resurrection like Jesus' burial and resurrection. Immersion fits both God's command and the symbolism He ordained. How can sprinkling or pouring symbolize a burial and a resurrection?
If we are going to change God's command to bury a person in baptism and raise him up, then we may as well use hamburger and Coke in communion and baptize people in rose petals.
The fact remains that immersion fits the Bible description of baptism. Sprinkling and pouring do not fit.
The same passages that say we are buried in baptism also say we are raised in baptism.
Colossians 2:12 - Buried with Him in baptism in which you also were raised with Him.
Romans 6:4 - Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
Sprinkling and pouring are not Scriptural baptism, because they involve neither a burial nor a resurrection. Only immersion fits.
Hebrews 10:22 - We have our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Note the contrast between the sprinkling of the heart and the washing of the body.
Hebrews contrasts the Old Testament to the New Testament. The Old Testament involved sprinkling of animal blood and ceremonial washings. [Heb. 9:13; Lev. 14:1-9; chap. 15; 16:4,24; 22:6; Ex. 29:4,21; etc.]
In the New Testament, the blood of Jesus is sprinkled on our heart to cleanse us from sin. This must be spiritual, since it cannot be physical. [Heb. 9:14]
But what is washed with water? The body! Clearly, this refers to baptism. Just as with the Lord's supper, baptism involves both an inner meaning and an outer action. In baptism the heart is cleansed of sin when the body is washed in baptism.
Denominations sprinkle or pour water on the head. But Bible baptism involves washing the body. In immersion, the body is washed. Immersion fits the Bible descriptions of baptism. Sprinkling and pouring do not fit.
|Scriptural baptism requires all the following:|
* Much water
* Coming to the water
* Going down into the water
* Coming up out of the water
* Washing the body
Surely this shows us what "baptism" involves. Sprinkling and pouring fit only the first point (water); they do not fit any of the other points. Only immersion fits the Bible description of baptism.
Sprinkling and pouring are human in origin. They are changes from God's plan. Only complete immersion can be practiced according to Jesus' authority.
What if you once received sprinkling or pouring instead of immersion? Gospel baptism is immersion, not sprinkling or pouring. If you have not been immersed, then you have not obeyed Jesus' command! You have followed only the doctrine of men.
If you now wish to obey Jesus, you must do what He said to do: be baptized (immersed) as described in the passages studied above. He who believes and is baptized will be saved - Mark 16:16.
Copyright 2002, David E. Pratte
Local churches and individuals may, within limits, distribute this Bible study guide for free, but not for sale. Web sites may link to this page but not reproduce it. For details click here for our copyright guidelines.
Things that Are Essential to Salvation
Is Obedience Essential to Salvation?
The Purpose of Baptism
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Importance of Repentance
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Is Baptism Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Should Alien Sinners Pray for Forgiveness
What about the Thief on the Cross?
To enroll in a free online Bible course or to receive free Bible study materials by e-mail or to read other online Bible studies, click on the links below.
Use your "back" button to return to the previous page.
Go to the Bible Study Online Library (the Gospel Way)
Free audio Bible
Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.