Baptism by Immersion, Part 2

This is a long post. I’m up late typing, and I just found myself going on for a while. I hope you find it helpful.

Luke and Ali raised some good points below in my first post about baptism by immersion. My purpose in this post is to respond to their points, beginning with Ali’s more biblically oriented claims and then moving on to Luke’s practically oriented question (and then I must return to Ali’s practical question about two guys in the desert).

Ali writes, “. . . pouring is the most likely mode of water baptism [in the New Testament]. 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).”

I do not agree with this claim. To investigate this issue, we must consider the lexical data for the Greek words bapto and baptizo. These are related terms, the latter being an intensive or frequentative form of the former. Furthermore, there is evidence that speakers of Koine Greek considered them basically equivalent. This evidence is from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced around the same time period as the New Testament, though a little earlier; hereafter it will be abbreviated LXX). The LXX consistently translates the Hebrew word tabal with bapto (see Exod 12:22; Lev 4:6, 17; 9:9; 14:6, 16, 51; Num 19:18; Deut 33:24; Josh 3:15; Ruth 2:14; 1 Sam 14:27; Job 9:31). Every time they are used, both words mean “to dip,” “to immerse,” or “to plunge.” Most of the examples cited here refer to dipping hyssop in blood, or dipping the priest’s finger in the blood of a sacrifice, etc. But then there is 2 Kings 5:14 (LXX calls it “4 Kings 5:14”): “So he [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean.” The word translated “dipped” here is the Hebrew word tabal, so we would expect the usual LXX translation bapto. Instead, we have baptizo. This is at least one example where baptizo and bapto are shown to have basically the same meaning. Even more important, it is an actual description of a “baptism” occuring by immersion, thereby falsifying Ali’s claim.

I would further reiterate my claims made in the previous post about the numerous clues in the New Testament accounts of baptism that point to immersion as the mode. We know that baptism required much water (John 3:23), far more than was available in the chariot of a man traveling through a desert (Acts 8:36), and that it took place while both subjects were standing in a large body of water. We know this because of reports that John baptized in the Jordan River (Matt 3:6; Mark 1:5), that Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by John (Matt 3:13; Mark 1:9), that Philip and the Ethiopian went down into and came out of the water (Acts 8:38-39), and that Jesus came up out of the water at his baptism (Matt 3:16–I mentioned in my previous post that this could refer to him walking back up to the bank, but I think the most natural reading of text suggests him coming up after being immersed in the water). At the very least, these clues eliminate sprinkling as the mode as well as pouring that does not take place while both the baptizer and the baptized are standing in a body of water. This does not logically rule out affusion while standing in water, but why would there be a need to stand in water to have it poured over you? The only mode of baptism that absolutely demands wading into a body of water, as baptisms in the New Testament are consistently described, is immersion.

(By the way, Ali argues in his post that the narrative of the Philippian jailer doesn’t read like he took Paul and Silas to a body of water where he was baptized. I disagree. Notice the emphasis that I add to Acts 16:32-34: “(32)And they [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. (33)And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. (34) And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.” They were in the house in verse 32, and they were brought back into the house in verse 34. What happened in between? The jailer took them to wash their wounds, which was presumably the same place where he was baptized. Luke does not tell us where that was, but it is safe to assume that it had to be a large body of water if it was necessary to leave the house, since we can assume that at least some water would have been available in the house for everyday use, presumably enough to wash wounds. Even slight hints like this point to immersion as the mode.)

But I have not addressed Ali’s two strongest arguments: (1) the use of baptizo (and the related noun form) to refer to “washings” in Scripture in such texts as Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38 and (2) the actual description of baptism in the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit’s outpouring. Let’s take these in order:

With regard to (1), we must recognize that words can have a wide range of meanings, especially as these meanings develop over time. It is widely agreed that baptizo in Classical Greek means “immerse.” That is the basic meaning of the word. But does not the act of immersion in water also accomplish the purpose of washing? It is easy to see, then, how the word baptizo could slide over to the meaning “wash,” at least in some contexts, whether that word “wash” in context actually refers to immersion in water or not. I think of how people from the South (USA, I mean, not southern hemisphere, Ali!) often refer to all soft drinks as “Coke.” “You wanna Coke?” “Sure.” “What kind?” “Dr. Pepper.” It is no stretch to imagine such a conversation taking place in East Texas. What has happened? The word “Coke,” a particular brand name of soft drink, has been stretched to encompass a whole category of soft drinks, even those that are not properly referred to as “Coke.” What does this mean for the subject at hand? It means that the meaning of baptizo has been stretched to encompass non-immersion washings as well as immersion-washings (all immersions in water are washings, and this is why baptism is connected to cleansing in the NT). But we must judge every use of the term in context. There is no warrant for interpreting the uses of baptizo that are connected to John’s baptism and Christian baptism in the NT as mere “washings.” Numerous clues in the text point to immersion as the mode (which is a form of washing, but it is more than washing).

With regard to (2), we must also recognize how words often develop figurative meanings. Let me provide an example using our English word “immerse.” If I say, “I am going to immerse myself in my books,” I am obviously using figurative language. I am not going to submerge my body underneath my books; I am going to expend a great deal of energy in focused study. The word “immerse” has developed a figurative meaning that will accomodate such an idea. But it would be illegitimate to take that example and then project that meaning of “immerse” back onto the basic meaning of the word itself. The basic meaning of “immerse” is still the same: “submerge.”

“Baptism in the Holy Spirit” is a figurative use of language, as is “the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.” I agree that Spirit baptism is connected to Pentecost, and that Pentecost is described as the day when the Spirit was poured out on all flesh (Acts 1:5; 2:17/Joel 2:28). But it is illegitimate to project the meaning “pour” onto the word “baptism” as a result. Both terms are being used figuratively. The Spirit was not literally “poured” onto the disciples. In fact, the event described does not even speak of the visible presence of the Spirit falling down from above. Acts 2:1-3 describes a rushing wind filling the whole house and tongues of fire that suddenly appeared and rested on the believers.

Another example of the figurative use of “baptize/baptism” is Jesus’ saying in Mark 10:38-39 (cf. Luke 12:50), where he speaks of his upcoming “baptism” in reference to his death. The event of the crucifixion involved neither a literal pouring nor a literal immersion, but the idea of being completely submerged under suffering to the point of death seems to be the clear connection that is responsible for the use of the word “baptize” in this context. Furthermore, if Jesus’ actual baptism by John was intended to prefigure his death (as is commonly agreed among New Testament scholars), then how else could Jesus symbolize death and resurrection except by immersion?

What is the common link between these two figurative uses of “baptize/baptism” (Spirit baptism and Jesus’ crucifixion as a baptism)? I think it is the idea of immersion. The disciples were completely covered by the presence of the Spirit, and Jesus was completely submerged under the wrath of God to the point of death. Therefore, I conclude that the “baptism in the Spirit” that occurred at Pentecost has particular reference to the disciples being completely covered by his presence (clothed, if you will, and I do not agree that pouring better signifies this than immersion; immersion covers the whole body, but pouring does not). The “pouring out” of the Spirit has no bearing on the ritual of water baptism. The point, however, is that we are dealing here with a figurative use of language, and it would be illegitimate to link one figurative use of language (“baptism in the Spirit”) with another (“pouring out of the Spirit”) and then project the meaning back on to the ritual of water baptism.

Now, you may call me on the fact that I made an argument from figurative language in Romans 6:1-7 by linking baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ. But there is a difference: Romans 6:1-7 actually addresses water baptism, whereas Acts 1:5 and 2:17 do not. In fact, Acts 1:5 explicitly contrasts baptism in water with baptism in the Spirit. Returning to Romans 6:1-7, what about the argument that Jesus was buried above ground? I have two responses. First, even though he was buried in a tomb, Jesus was still laid down horizontally in an enclosed space, which is what baptism signifies. Second, Tom Schreiner argues (in case you don’t buy what I just argued) that baptism signifies death because sumbersion under water is an act capable of actually killing someone, but pouring water over someone’s head does not have such a capability. When Jesus was crucified, he was submerged under the wrath of God, and the act of baptism signifies our union with him in his death and resurrection. I think there is theological significance in Dr. Schreiner’s argument, but I am content to argue that being “buried” (1 Cor 15:4) is very similar whether one is buried under dirt or under a hollowed out rock.

In summary, we must take our cues on water baptism primarily from texts that actually describe water baptism, not figurative uses of the terms “baptize” and “baptism.” I have already made lengthy arguments that the clues in the texts that refer to the ritual itself heavily favor immersion, and theological arguments connected to water baptism in Romans 6:1-7 and Colossians 2:12 actually demand immersion.

Luke asked the question, “Aaron, when your church takes the communion, do you use bread and wine like the early church did?” Assuming for the sake of argument that my position on the biblical teaching is correct, does it then demand that we practice immersion as it was practiced in the New Testament church? After all, most Baptist churches today do not use fermented wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper (I am speaking of Baptist churches in America), and this includes my own congregation. If we are flexible on this issue, why not allow flexibility on the issue of the mode of baptism?

There is a difference between these two issues. Communion with non-fermented grape juice is still observed by the act of eating and drinking. The difference is not the act itself but rather the substance used in the act. The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament involved fermented wine (However, go back and read both the Gospel accounts and Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11; none of them mention wine. They use the words “fruit of the vine” and “cup,” but never wine. Of course, I completely agree that wine was used, but the accounts themselves do not put emphasis on the fermentation.) The question we must ask is this: is there a theological significance to the fermentation, or could the act be performed just as well using unfermented “fruit of the vine”? I have heard arguments for the theological significance of fermentation, but I don’t believe they are convincing. The fruit of the vine symbolizes the shed blood of Christ, and there is no reason that grape juice cannot serve this function just as well as wine can. Furthermore, if we are going to insist on having fermented wine, we would then have to ask how much alcohol content would be required. In the ancient world, wine was much more diluted than it is today. Fermentation enabled preservation in a day when there was no refrigeration (I sound like Jesse Jackson). But now that we have refrigeration, the primary purpose of fermentation has become obsolete. We do not have to ensure that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the specific substances used to make the bread and the drink that we use for the Lord’s Supper. We only have to ensure that they are similar enough to communicate the same truth and symbolize the same realities.

The mode of baptism is a different issue, because the mode itself carries theological meaning. I have argued that death and resurrection with Christ is at least one theological concept communicated in baptism. This cannot be communicated apart from immersion. Immersion, pouring, and (to a lesser degree) sprinkling all communicate the idea of cleansing, which is also associated with baptism, but only immersion communicates the ideas of death and resurrection.

Ali has argued that because the New Testament does not specify a mode of baptism, it is going beyond Scripture to require baptism by immersion. My response is that while he is correct that the NT nowhere says, “To baptize, fully submerge someone under water,” surely Christ and the Apostles had a particular concept in mind when they spoke of “baptism.” There must be some limits on the acceptability or unacceptability of certain modes. For example, squirting a water gun in someone’s face does not qualify as baptism. The question is, on what basis do we draw parameters around practices that qualify as baptism? The basis must be Scripture itself, not historic church practices. While Presbyterians speak of “baptism” in reference to a ritual of sprinkling water on an infant, I don’t believe Christ or the Apostles would recognize such a ritual as falling under the definition of “baptism.” So, even though the New Testament does not specifically define baptism as immersion only, we cannot necessarily conclude that it advocates flexibility with regard to the question of mode. My arguments here presented have made a case that when the New Testament authors wrote of water baptism, they always had in mind a ritual that involved immersion in water. To modify that ritual and then attach the label “baptism” to it is, therefore, illegitimate.

Now to Ali’s last question: two men are stranded in a desert and do not expect to survive. One of them becomes a Christian is baptized by sprinkling or pouring because he is providentially hindered (by lack of water) from being immersed. Unexpectedly, they find their way back to civilization. Would I insist that this man be baptized by immersion in order to join my church, thereby invalidating his previous baptism?

Wow! That’s quite an imagination you have, Ali! Perhaps this example exposes a weakness in my “providential hindrance” doctrine and should therefore lead me to make no exceptions at all, ever. I have heard one professor here at the seminary argue that we should never, under any circumstances, baptize by any other mode than immersion. If a person is providentially hindered from baptism by immersion, we should simply recognize this providential hindrance for what it is and commend that person to the grace of God. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was never baptized, but he did enter Paradise with Jesus. Maybe this professor is right. I am by no means completely settled on my opinion about exceptions for providential hindrance.

Nevertheless, to answer your question, I would insist that the person be baptized by immersion. Would this invalidate his previous baptism? Perhaps. But maybe a better way to look at it would be as a completion of his previous baptism. He previously took a step of obedience as best he could given the circumstances. By God’s grace, he has been brought to a situation where he can now give full obedience to the command of Christ, unhindered by circumstances. I think this highly unlikely, unusual, probably-has-never-happened-in-the-history-of-the-world situation would demand such a unique course of action.


12 Responses to “Baptism by Immersion, Part 2”

  1. Cogito Says:

    “The difference is not the act itself but rather the substance used in the act.”

    This I would apply to both Communion as well as Baptism.

  2. Aaron Says:

    Then the debate is not, properly speaking, related to the mode of baptism.

    To my mind, grape juice is in the same “genre” as is the kind of wine that was used in the New Testament period. I have already mentioned the differences between wine used back then and the wine we have today, so simply switching to wine in communion would not thereby make us conform to NT practice. We would have to dilute it considerably, which would probably bring it closer to grape juice than to the wines we have today.

    In the same way, while baptism must be performed in water, the pH of the water and the other elements contained in it (i.e., dirt, bacteria, etc.) does not have to conform precisely to the Jordan River.

    Nor would I argue that only unleavened bread can be used in the Lord’s Supper. I have already explained the theological significance of the mode of baptism in relation to these other questions.

  3. Cogito Says:


    I think you miss my point.

    You have to draw the line somewhere in how closely you try to match NT practices, you and I simply draw it differently.

    Just as I think you are right that going to extremes to match the exact composition of the wine used in NT practice is silly, as well as matching the pH of the water, etc. is excessive and unnecessary, I also think that arguing over the meaning of the word “is” in this case to argue how closely we should match NT practice of baptism is excessive and unnecessary as well.

    My point was that there are other areas where you choose to draw the line differently than for Baptism.

    What is baptism anyways?

    Does something magical happen with the water itself (physically)? If I die and have never been baptised with physical water, will I go to hell? If I was sprinkled instead of dunked, am I unworthy before the eyes of God, even though I am a believer?

    I think you would agree that the answer to these questions is no.

    Your arguements are quite poetic, and many of the types you insert, such as dieing and rising again with submerssion, are quite beautiful.

    But while you do argue in favor of choosing your preferred mode of baptism, never do you make a resounding arguement why others should be excluded.

    Should people be baptized by submersion? Sure. Should it be a requirement? I still find this highly doubtful.

  4. Aaron Says:

    I guess the reason I think this matters is because baptism is not defined as “doing something with water.” It is doing something specific with water, namely, immersing a believer in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I don’t think the New Testament has any other concept of baptism than this one. Therefore, I think it is illegitimate to do something besides this and call it “baptism.”

    Of course, what I just said may negate my providential hindrance principle. If that is the case, then I am prepared to give it up, although perhaps an argument could be developed to justify it.

  5. Ali Says:

    Aaron, I have just posted a reply to the first part of your post here:

    (Sorry about the messy way of linking: haven’t the time to look up how to embed it again).

  6. Cogito Says:


    You’re still splitting hairs. The NT doesn’t have any kind of coneption of our communion either, passing around tiny little crackers and little bitty cups.

    I would guess that by your emphasis on a mode baptism but not a mode of taking communion, that you place it as the most important sacrament? Why is this?

    Neither is required for salvation? Both are physical actions indicative of what is going on in our hearts. (Which is where the real magic is)

    Or do you think differently?

  7. Kiwi and an Emu. Says:

    […] Answering Aaron on two men in a desert and a conclusion.In these posts I am responding to a long post on baptism written by Aaron.  As I said, I am glad to discuss things with Aaron (though whether he has the […]

  8. Kiwi and an Emu. Says:

    […] Baptism: Answering Aaron figuratively and literally. This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Mode of Baptism: Answering AaronMode of Baptism: Answering AaronBaptism: Answering Aaron on 2 Kings 5:14.Baptism: Answering Aaron about NT examples.Baptism: Answering Aaron figuratively and literally.Baptism: Answering Aaron on two men in a desert and a conclusion.This is the third ‘Answering Aaron’ post.  The “figuratively and literally” in the title does not refer to my answering Aaron, but rather his discussion of the meaning of baptizo (and the noun baptismos). […]

  9. Kiwi and an Emu. Says:

    […] a desert and a conclusion.I’ve enjoyed writing this series.  When I first saw Aaron’s second post on baptism by immersion, I didn’t expect to make any response other than to leave a comment that we would have to […]

  10. davehunt00 Says:

    I think the issue of wine vs. grape juice is a red herring. The real question (and one that Cogito touches on) is why all the fuss over immersion vs sprinkling (admittedly an abbreviated practice of baptism) when we willingly practice the abbreviated version of the Lord’s Supper. Of the many things of which we are uncertain, what happened at the Lord’s Supper is pretty clear. It was a real meal. With real loaves and big cups (and maybe even some other stuff, fish?) and the early church continued it’s practice with love feasts (not love snacks). Yet, we don’t worry that we haven’t communed with the Lord when all we get is a weird square of hard bread dough and a few drips of juice. Hardly a meal. Why are those who fight so hard for immersion OK with that? I don’t think you’d have to argue too hard to claim Communion as “the greater” sacrament (to quote Paul – I’m using man’s arguments here) so it seems odd and inconsistent to accept a shortcut here. Get the wives busy baking every Sunday morning!

    I speak as one who is about to be denied membership in a church I’ve been attending for a year, because I was baptised as a teen by sprinkling. I’m all for baptism by immersion if it is practical (both my children where baptised by immersion when they came by confession). But a sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality” (Augustine) and a symbol, not a magical rite that won’t work if done wrong. For me to attain church membership in this particular church, I likely would need to baptized again (using the correct mode). To do so, for me, would be like denying the work of the Holy Spirit in my life over 30 years and, worse, make a mockery of baptism if I choose to do it in a new mode just to please man. Can’t do it.


  11. fenderpooh Says:

    Dave, I appreciate your comment, but I see an inherent contradiction in what you say. On the one hand, you say this:

    “But a sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality” (Augustine) and a symbol, not a magical rite that won’t work if done wrong.”

    In spite of your appeal to Augustine, it sounds like you are taking an anti-sacramental stance on this (one with which I would agree). But then you say this:

    “To do so [be baptized by immersion], for me, would be like denying the work of the Holy Spirit in my life over 30 years”

    But if baptism is not a magical rite, then what would be wrong with the mere recognition that conversion is not always conjoined to baptism and, due to what is (from my view) a theological misunderstanding, in your case it just so happened that you were converted 30 years before receiving true, Scriptural baptism?

    Yes, I agree that you should not be baptized just to please others. But if you ever become convinced of my view, don’t think that following Christ in biblical obedience represents a repudiation of your Christian life to this point. Many paedobaptists have made that same difficult decision, but, supposing you are not a paedobaptist, I would assume that you would agree that in their case it was the right thing to do. (If you are a paedobaptist, then that argument won’t hold any weight for you).

    You can’t draw a comparison here with the Last Supper, because the Last Supper is not the same thing as the Lord’s Supper. It certainly became the paradigm for it, but the early church did not attempt to replicate the details of that unique meal that Jesus had with his disciples. All that we have, so far as the institution of the Lord’s Supper is concerned, is Jesus’ command to take bread and the fruit of the vine in remembrance of him. There are varieties of ways to practice it, but the same act of eating and drinking is always the same. Not so with immersion and sprinkling.

  12. Kiwi and an Emu. Says:

    […] partner and willing to consider the other side. In a recent post of his I thought he had proved me wrong when I made an over-confident statement in the comment section of his post on baptism. However, […]

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