What is Baptism?

“To be baptized is the first step of obedience as a Christian, implying a commitment to live a life of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.”[1] While Christians from many denominations may agree with this statement, the answer to the question “what is baptism” finds much less unity. Some believe it is sprinkling, others pouring, but Baptists and other baptistic churches believe it is immersion.

Baptism is part of the Great Commission given to the New Testament Church (Matt 28:19). It is clearly a duty of local congregations to baptize (Matt 28:19, Acts 2:41) and of Christians to be baptized (Acts 2:38, 10:48). What “baptism” is, then, is of great significance to our Ecclesiology and to the Christian life in general.

The Christian life was never meant to be practiced alone. Converts are immediately (passively) added to the Body of Christ (Acts 12:13), and are supposed to (actively) identify themselves with a local assembly of that body (Acts 2:28). Any concept of regenerate believers roaming solo would have been completely foreign in the early Church. Alva J. McClain writes, “Had we asked the believers of the Apostolic period whether it was essential to join a church, they would not have known what we were talking about. Every believer became a member of a church. It was involved in the very profession he made in Christ.”[2]

One can see this from the very inception of the Church. Acts 2:41-42 gives a condensed view of the chronological progression: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were saved (“those who received his word” was a “euphemistic expression for regeneration, repentance, and faith”[3]), baptized, “added” (church membership), and devoted themselves to doctrine, fellowship, communion, and prayer. Notice that this is an umbrella statement of all who were saved—it does not say “and some of those who were saved decided to stick around, get baptized, and some even joined the church.” All who were saved identified with the congregation through baptism, and continued on in fellowship and communion. Anything less would have been unthinkable.[4]

If, then, local church membership is a requirement for all believers, and baptism is its prerequisite, one should know exactly what “baptism” is, and how it is supposed to be administered. In other words, what is the “mode” of baptism. The “mode” matters because God does not give us empty doctrines or words to which we can attach or fill in our own meanings. Every doctrine—every word!—has an intentional meaning, and to misunderstand its meaning is potentially to disobey.

The English word “baptism” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word βαπτίζω (baptizo) which means “dip,” “submerge,” or “immerse.”[5] Rolland McCune states that this is a fact “recognized by all Greek lexicons.”[6] Thomas J. Nettles agrees, “That the word translated ‘baptize’ (Greek baptizo) literally means ‘immerse’ is a matter of little, if any, dispute.”[7] Even Gerald Bray (an Anglican) admits that it “means ‘dipping’ or ‘immersion,’” yet denies that immersion is the only valid mode.[8] Similarly, John Calvin writes, “it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse,” but does not believe it matters much what mode a church adopts; he continues, “Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence.”[9] But to admit that the word “baptize” means “immerse” and then to continue speaking of sprinkling as “baptism” is disingenuous. The word is the mode. Once the word is defined, the only questions one could have about “mode” would concern, “such things as whether it should be in a tank, a stream, or a lake and, probably by extension to today, whether the candidate should lean back, sit on a chair or get on his knees.”[10] To speak of “immersion by sprinkling,” or “immersion by pouring” is nonsense.

In Baptism: Three Views, Bruce Ware points out that “When washing or sprinkling are in view, the more common words used are louo, nipto or rhaino.”[11] Even if we grant that βαπτίζω had other, lesser-used meanings, no reason can be found for why the writers of scripture (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews) would consistently use βαπτίζω (or derivatives) when better words existed to express their intended meaning (if, in fact, sprinkling was in view).

It seems that if the translators of the early English Bibles would have simply translated the word βαπτίζω, instead of transliterating it, the challenges to baptism today would be far fewer. In spite of the unanimity of lexicons regarding βαπτίζω, and the existence of other, more appropriate words for sprinkling, many still are not convinced. Richard L. Pratt Jr. says that, “scholars continue to debate the precise meaning of [the word] baptism because the evidence is not entirely clear.”[12] It is difficult to imagine what type of evidence he is looking for, or how he can accept any of Scripture’s teachings with such an unappeasable requirement for clarity. Nevertheless, there are further, non-grammatical, evidences for immersion.

Another line of evidence that clearly points to baptism by immersion has to do with the attending circumstances in the various baptism accounts in the New Testament. One example comes from John 3:23, which reads, “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.” What was the reason they were baptizing in this particular location? Because the “water was plentiful there.” Baptists and Paedobaptists alike should be able to recognize that “plentiful” water is not needed for sprinkling water on foreheads.[13] A similar argument can be made from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. “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?” (8:36). Grudem comments, “Apparently neither of them thought that sprinkling or pouring a handful of water from the container of drinking water that would have been carried in the chariot was enough to constitute baptism …baptism by immersion is the only satisfactory explanation of this narrative.”[14]

It is helpful to return again to the grammar used in the New Testament when describing baptism. Not only does it consistently use the word βαπτίζω meaning “immerse,” it also consistently uses prepositions that point strongly towards baptism by immersion. Mark 1:5 reads, “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Just four verses later Mark says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Here, the propositions translated “in” are the Greek words έν (en vs. 5) and εἰς (eis vs. 6). While some legitamatly point out that έν (vs. 5) can sometimes mean “with,”[15] εἰς is more direct; It literally means “into,” or “in.” (In either case, both verses are good evidence for immersion). To say that someone “baptized with the river Jordan” would be awkward to say the least.

Gustave Dore's "The Baptism of Jesus"

Gustave Dore’s “The Baptism of Jesus”

If one continues reading in Mark’s Gospel he will find another evidence just one verse later. Mark 1:10 reads, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” That is ἀναβαίνω (anabainō “up”) and ἐκ (ek “out”). The only way one could remove immersion from this passage would be to have Jesus standing in the river when He was sprinkled (as many classic paintings do). But if this were the case than the Holy Spirit did not descend on Jesus until after he waded to the edge of the river, and climbed “up out of the water” onto the shore! If this were the case than the Spirit’s descent was not directly related to Christ’s baptism, but to his exiting of the river. What is the significance in that? Clearly, the prepositions used in conjunction with the baptism accounts point clearly to the fact that baptism in the New Testament was by immersion.

While various aspects of salvation can be pictured by baptism (e.g. “washing away of sins” Ac 22:16),[16] the most basic and central picture is that of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for our sins.[17] The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is explicitly linked with Spirit baptism in Romans 6:4, Gal 3:27, and Col 2:12 (compare I Cor 12:13). Water baptism corresponds to Spirit baptism in that it is an earthy symbol of a heavenly reality. McCune writes, “Spirit baptism places one into the body of Christ (I Cor 12:13); water baptism places one into the membership of the local church. Spirit baptism places one into the organism; water baptism admits one into the organization.”[18] Immersion, then, makes the most sense of this symbolism, in that the participant is “buried” and “raised” in the baptismal waters. Even Michael Horton (who holds to Presbyterian ecclesiology) admits this, writing, “Immersion does seem more suggestive of being buried and raised with Christ…”[19]

The evidence from Scripture is that baptism is exactly what the word means: immersion. Not only is this confirmed grammatically, but finds further confirmation in the circumstances surrounding New Testament baptism accounts, the prepositions used in describing those accounts, and the symbolism that is involved in the ordinance.

[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Regular Baptist Books, 2012), 60–61.

[2] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 225.

[3] Ibid., 227.

[4] Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, 61.

[5] David F. Wright, ed., Baptism: Three Views (IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[6] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 271.

[7] John H. Armstrong and Paul E. Engle, Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Zondervan, 2007), 26.

[8] Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Crossway, 2012), 634.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Revised (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2007), 868.

[10] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 271.

[11] Wright, Baptism, 21.

[12] Armstrong and Engle, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, 42.

[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994), 968.

[14] Ibid.

[15] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 272.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 969.

[17] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 272–273; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 968.

[18] McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3, 278.

[19] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 792.


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