An Argument for Immersion as the Proper Mode of Baptism

I had another post planned for today about human nature, but I have changed my plans in light of a request I received. I will put my planned post on the shelf for another day.

My friend Steven Duke posed this query a few posts down in reference to the new book on baptism that I have promoted here. Steven wrote,

I’m interested in the evidence that supports the mode of immersion versus some other mode. When I lived in Connecticut, my (Baptist) church went through a process of determining who had the qualifications for membership in the church. We affirmed that we would only practice believer’s baptism by immersion, but concluded that those who had become believers in a different church tradition (and had subsequently been baptized) were qualified for membership, even if they were not baptized by immersion. We felt that if someone had been baptized as a believer once, that it was sufficient, even if their baptismal mode was not the one we practiced.

The argument of the book I have referenced pertains primarily to the subjects of baptism (i.e., believers and not infants), but a few of the contributors do make arguments about the mode as well (i.e., immersion). Here are some of the arguments:

1. The cluster of Greek words that refer to the practice of baptism in the New Testament (i.e., “bapto,” “baptizo,” etc.) literally mean, “dip” or “immerse.” I think this speaks in favor of immersion, but it is not an airtight case, because word usage often differs from etymology. In fact, sometimes related Greek words are used in the New Testament to refer to “washings.” Therefore, while etymology makes one lean toward immersion, by itself it is not enough to settle the matter.

2. The description of the actual practice of baptism in the NT points to immersion as the mode. Matthew 3:16 speaks of the baptism of Jesus, and it says, “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water. . .” Does this mean that Jesus had been plunged into the water and was subsequently coming up? That is possible. But again, this is not an airtight case, because we read in Acts 8:39, “When they [Philip and the eunuch] came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. . .” Obviously, this does not mean that both Philip and the eunuch were immersed at that time! The phrase, “came up out of the water” in Acts 8:39 refers to both men walking back up to the shore after having walked into the water. It is possible that this is what Matthew 3:16 means in the case of Jesus. So while these verses do indicate that baptism was performed in a body of water, they do not literally demand immersion as the mode.

But then you must ask why it would be necessary to wade into a body of water for baptism if immersion were not the proper mode. Neither sprinkling nor pouring requires wading into a body of water, but immersion certainly does. Therefore, in my opinion, while Matthew 3:16 may not refer to the act of immersion itself (and Acts 8:39 certainly does not), the fact that one comes up out of the water after baptism suggests rather strongly that the mode of baptism practiced in the New Testament was immersion. This is confirmed by two other pieces of data. First, John 3:23 speaks of the ministry of John the Baptist: “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.” Why would a great quantity of water be necessary for sprinkling or pouring? Only baptism by immersion demands a great quantity of water, and the fact that it had to be a quantity big enough to “come up out of” after being baptized confirms this reading. And then, going back to Acts 8, after Philip has preached the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, we read in verse 36, “As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?'” Again, the fact that a large quantity of water had to be located for the act of baptism strongly suggests immersion as the mode. The eunuch certainly would have been carrying enough water with him to be sprinkled or poured, but he acted as though finding a large body of water was necessary for the act to be performed.

One could argue that in the New Testament, subjects of baptism stood in water and had a great quantity of water poured over them. But I must say that such a practice does not make sense to me. If pouring is the proper mode, then why would one have to stand in water, and why would a great quantity of water be required? If a person is baptized with that much water being poured over him, then isn’t the object of such an act to cover his whole body with water? Aren’t we approaching the idea of immersion when we start talking about such a practice? And if so, isn’t it easier to plunge someone under the water and bring him back up?

3. Taking all of these things into consideration, I think the case is sealed by the argument of Romans 6:1-7:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

Paul explicitly says, “we have been buried with Him through baptism into death.” The only way the symbol of baptism can point to death and burial is through immersion. Sprinkling and pouring do not communicate this idea. Paul does not explicitly connect baptism with resurrection, but I think it is clearly implied by the context, so that the act of coming up from the water is a symbol of one’s resurrection with Christ after having died with him. Also, Paul uses the same image in Colossians 2:11-12. (By the way, proponents of infant baptism often refer to Colossians 2:11-12 because it connects the ideas of circumcision and baptism. Since infants born into the covenant people of Israel were circumcised, then infants born into the church should also be baptized, so the argument goes. I refer you to the book I referenced below, Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, for answers to that argument. The short answer here is that Paul is speaking of the spiritual work of circumcision foretold in Deuteronomy 30:6 [cf. Romans 2:25-29], the circumcision of the heart. This does not correlate with physical circumcision as practiced in Israel, although physical circumcision is a sign that points to it.)

4. Further confirming evidence is available in Christian writings of the post-New Testament era. The Didache, for example (a second-century document), clearly specifies that baptism is to be performed by immersion, preferably in running water, if it is available. We would expect the earliest sources to most closely correlate with the pattern of baptism found in the New Testament, and we find in the earliest sources support for immersion as the mode.

But then we have a practical issue raised by your question. You mentioned that your church in Connecticut decided to accept into membership those who had been baptized as believers by any mode of baptism. While I think the case for the mode of baptism by immersion is fairly clear in Scripture, this still does not provide us with an absolutely clear word of direction about how to handle these complicated pastoral issues. Many who advocate believer’s baptism by immersion would agree with your church’s policy. But then many wouldn’t. My own view is that baptism should always be performed by immersion unless one is providentially hindered from doing so. For example, if a person is physically unable to be immersed in water, I think pouring is an acceptable alternative. Many do not agree with me on that, arguing that we cannot perform an act that is not baptism and call it “baptism.” I tend to be more lenient in that regard because I think God is not that rigid.

Nevertheless, if someone came to my church, having been sprinkled or poured as a believer, I would insist on him being baptized by immersion (provided he is not providentially hindered) as a condition for membership. This is not only our church’s long-standing policy (fairly standard in the Baptist tradition), but it is also my personal conviction.

I hope this helps.

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7 Responses to “An Argument for Immersion as the Proper Mode of Baptism”

  1. Cogito Says:

    Aaron, when your churches takes the communion, do you use bread and wine like the early church did?

  2. Cogito Says:

    Whoa, sorry for the bad grammar. “When your church takes communion”…

  3. Ali Says:

    Hey Aaron

    As you know, I have discussed the mode of baptism over on my blog and come to the conclusion that, while there is no conclusive evidence, pouring is the most likely mode of water baptism. This is because anywhere in the Bible (OT and NT) where anything called baptism is actually described, it involves either pouring or sprinkling. Importantly, this includes the baptism in the Holy Spirit in Acts where the Spirit is poured out onto the people (Acts 2:17).

    All your other arguments are answerable, also – as you have mentioned in some of them. Having said, I restate my position that the Bible never dictates the exact mode of Christian water baptism, and so to insist on one mode to the exclusion of others is to add to the biblical requirements. Even though the didache states baptism was usually immersion, it does not rule out other modes as do modern Baptists (though I note your exceptions).

    Having said that…have a good day!

  4. Aaron Says:

    Luke and Ali,

    You both make excellent points. I do intend to offer a response (probably as another post), but it may take me a few days to get to it.

  5. Ali Says:

    No worries, Aaron. I’m not expecting agreement. Just seized the opportunity to push my views 🙂

    One question I have, though. You allow pouring or sprinkling in situations where immersion is “providentially hindered”. Take an extreme example: two guys lost in the desert, didn’t expect to survive, one became a Christian and was baptised by sprinkling/pouring due to lack of water. Then they were found and got back to civilisation and wanted to join your church. Would you baptise that guy again?

    I ask because, if yes, you are denying that his desert baptism was valid – contrary to your stated exception; if no, then you should show the same consideration to people providentially baptised in Churches where immersion is not the mode.

    He, he, he.

    (I know, it’s not an air-tight question, but I’m interested in your response.)

  6. Kiwi and an Emu. Says:

    […] I thought he had proved me wrong when I made an over-confident statement in the comment section of his post on baptism. However, while my statement was over-confident, I’m not sure Aaron’s answer proves […]

  7. Kiwi and an Emu. Says:

    […] a claim that I acknowledged could be true contrary to my own statement in the comment section of the first of his baptism posts.  He then goes on to assert that there are various clues in the New Testament accounts of baptism […]

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