Ten Reasons Why
We Baptise By Sprinkling Or Pouring

1.      Despite the insistence of our Baptist brethren, the word Greek word baptizô (βαπτίζω) does not actually mean “dip, immerse or plunge.” There is another Greek word which means to immerse, which is baptō (βάπτω). But that is a different word.  The Presbyterian pastor James Wilkinson Dale has written a five volume classic work to show how the word baptizō is used in Judaistic literature, in the Bible, in Classic Greek literature, and in Patristic writings. Through it, he proves conclusively and indisputably that whereas baptō basically means “to dip” or “to put together and to remove from,” baptizō is about “putting together so as to remain together.” Baptizō emphasises the effect, whereas baptō does not. This is why we say, baptizō, is basically about washing. This is why the apostle Paul speaks of the new birth which is signified by water baptism as “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit 3:5).

The verb baptô which is commonly seen as the root word of baptizô and almost consistently meaning “dip” (e.g., Jn 13:26; Lk 16:24) is never used interchangeably with baptizô in the Bible. Baptizô always imply cleansing or purification, whereas baptô, never. Whenever the object (e.g., liquid) involved in baptizô is specified, it is always applied to the subject, not vice versa, as would be implied in immersion. This is seen in Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16; Mark 1:8; John 1:26 and Acts 1:5. The KJV translators, together with almost all modern translators, have no doubt correctly rendered the Greek preposition en (ἐν) in these verses as “with” (instrumental) rather than “in.”

2.      There are no instances in the Greek New Testament and even the Greek Translation of the Old Testament where the word baptizô must and can only mean immersion. There are very few instances in Scripture where baptizô could possibly involve immersion and none of them are conclusive. For example the Septuagint translation of 2 Kings 5:14 uses baptizô to translate the Hebrew tabal which usually mean “dip” or “plunge.” We say possibly because baptizô could be used to mean “wash” here, especially when Elisha’s instruction in verse 10 was to “wash in Jordon seven times.”

On the other hand, there are many instances in Scripture where immersion is unlikely or impossible. Such is the case of the Septuagint of the apocrypha Judith 12:7, which suggests that Judith baptizô herself in a fountain or spring. In fact, there are places in the inspired Scripture where baptizô clearly cannot mean immersion. For example, in Luke 11:38—“And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed [baptizô] before dinner,” surely the Pharisees did not expect Jesus to immerse Himself before dinner? Again Mark 7:4 speaks of “baptisms” of tables or couches (Greek klinê). Surely these washings refer to ceremonial purifications, which are probably done by pouring or sprinkling.

Moreover, there are places where baptizô carries no suggestion of mode, e.g., Matthew 20:22–23—“… Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?…” Also, no one would translate Galatians 3:27 with “immersed into Christ.” Therefore to insist that baptism must be by immersion is both legalistic and unbiblical.

3.      There are instances where baptizô is auto-suggestive of pouring or sprinkling. For example, John the Baptiser compares water baptism with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit (Lk 3:16), and indeed, our water baptism points to our Spirit baptism. But according to Acts 2:4; 17–18, the Holy Spirit is poured out; we are not immersed in the Holy Spirit.

Similarly, in Hebrews 6:2, baptismos, literally “baptism,” probably refers to the Old Testament rites of sprinkling (cf. Heb 9:13 and Num 19:17–18: Heb 9:19 and Ex 24:6–8; Heb 9:21 and Lev 8:19).

The weight of biblical evidence suggests very strongly that baptizô and baptismos do not imply immersion at all. Indeed, although the words themselves signify purification and cleansing more than anything else, the mode that they suggest is pouring or sprinkling.

4.      John the Baptist most likely baptised by sprinkling or pouring contrary to the common misconception that it was by immersion. It is unlikely that John baptised by immersion. John stood in the Jordan simply because it was the most convenient place to baptise the thousands who came to him (see Mt 3:5-6). John was a priest by descent as Zacharias was a priest (Lk 1:5). Surely the Jews coming for John’s baptism of repentance would not have been expecting an innovative ritual. More likely, John was sprinkling water on those who came with a sweep of a sprig of hyssop as suggested by the OT: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps 51:7) and “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean” (Ezk 36:25a). This must also have been the way in which the 3,000 could have been baptised in a day (Acts 2:41), in an event which, incidentally, took place in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5), more than 20 miles from any river which may be used for immersion for such a large crowd of people!

5.     Biblical evidence suggests that the Lord Jesus Christ was baptised by sprinkling rather than by immersion. There is also no evidence that Christ was baptised by immersion. Did He not come “up out of the water”? Yes, but that is no suggestion of immersion: (a) The phrase simply mean stepping out of the river, else Acts 8:39—“And when they [Philip and the Eunuch] were come up out of the water,” would mean that Philip was himself immersed when he baptised the Eunuch. (b) Christ, in fulfilling “all righteousness” (Mt 3:15), was probably referring to His priestly ordination which involves sprinkling (cf. Num 8:6–7). After all, it would be meaningless and fulfilling no righteousness for Him to have a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mk 1:4, Lk 3:3) since He knew no sin. This also explains why He waited till He was 30 years old to begin His ministry (Lk 3:23), since the Old Testament priests were taken into the number and ordained only when they reach 30 (cf. Num 4:3, 23, 30, 35, 39, etc.).

6.      The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Again there is no evidence that he was baptised by immersion. They were in a desert. Philip must have explained to him about John baptising in the river so that when he saw some water (Acts 8:36), he asked to be baptised. Not only would a pool of water in the desert be unlikely to be sufficient for immersion, it is likely that Philip explained to him that baptism is by sprinkling. The Eunuch was reading Isaiah 53:7–8 (Acts 8:32–33). Surely he would have read Isaiah 52:15—“So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider,” which is just a few verses up? Remember that there were no chapter divisions then. Why then did the Eunuch wait until they reached the pool of water to ask to be baptised? Why did he not asked to be baptised with the water bottles that they no doubt carried? The simple answer is that the Eunuch much have been thinking about what Philip was saying to him, and it was the sight of the pool of water “as they went on their way” (v. 36) that triggered a resolve in his heart to seek baptism there and then. Why did the sight of the pool trigger this request? Because Philip would, no doubt, have been talking about how John was baptising by the river and how the people stood in shallow water to be sprinkled of him with a hyssop dipped in water!

7.      When we examine all the other instances of baptism recorded in the New Testament, we again find that in most instances immersion is impossible or improbable. Saul “arose, and was baptised” (Acts 9:18) or, literally in the Greek: “and arising he was baptised.” He did not go out to the river, nor do I think he “received meat” (v. 19) while dripping wet from immersion. The Philippian Jailer and his household were baptised in the middle of the night (Acts 16:33) in the outer prison (cf. vv. 24, 30). It is unlikely there was a tub of water sufficient for immersion there, nor is it likely that they went to a river in the dead of the night. There were no street lamps nor heated rivers! How much probable that Paul and Silas had baptised them with the same basin used to wash their wounds, for we read: “And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptised, he and all his, straightway” (Acts 16:33; italics added).

8.      The contention of our Baptist brethren that Paul was pointing to immersion when he speaks of our being buried with Christ in baptism (Col 2:12; Rom 6:4) holds no water. Besides the fact that Christ was entombed in a rock cavity rather than buried in the ground (which immersion may picture), this text is not directly speaking about the act of water baptism, but about what baptism symbolises. Besides that, if we want to press the case, we find Paul speaking about the Jews being “baptised unto Moses” as they passed through the sea (1 Cor 10:1–2). The Jews were being sprinkled by the sprays of droplets from the wall of water to their left and to their right (Ex 14:22). The Jews were not immersed. The Egyptians were (v. 28).

9.      Although it is possible that some of the Early Church Fathers baptised by immersion for various reasons not excluding superstition, the Didache or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, an anonymous book, dated around 60-80 AD, explicitly mentions only pouring as a legitimate mode of baptism. Immersion may be inferred as valid, but certainly not as the only legitimate mode.

10. The Westminster Confession of Faith indicates that “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (WCF 28.3; cf. Heb 9:10, 19–22; Acts 2:41; 16:33; Mk 7:4).

The idea that the Westminster Assembly was “one vote short of adopting immersion as a preferable mode in their confession of faith” is a myth. The fact is that the vote concerned which was taken on August 7, 1644 was not at all on whether the mode of baptism should be sprinkling and pouring, or immersion. The question was whether “the directory [of Public Worship] should mention dipping” (David F. Wright, Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective [Great Britain: Paternoster, 2007], 250). The fact is that the divines were quite united that the proper mode was sprinkling or pouring. The question was really whether immersion can be regarded as a lawful mode!

In Summary

In short, we baptise by sprinkling or pouring because: (1) The Greek word baptizô, not to be confused with a similar but synonymous word, baptō, does not imply immersion but washing; (2) There are no instances in the Greek New Testament or the LXX where baptizô must and can only mean immersion; (3) There are instances in the New Testament where baptizô is auto-suggestive of pouring or sprinkling; (4) The evidences suggest that John the Baptist probably baptised the multitude standing in shallow water by sprinkling with a hyssop; (5) It is unlikely that the Lord Jesus Christ was baptised by immersion for biblical evidence suggest that He was actually being ordained by John the Baptist to the priestly ministry by sprinkling; (6) The Ethiopian Eunuch was probably baptised by sprinkling according to the mode indicated in Isaiah 52:15; (7) When carefully studied, immersion is impossible or improbable in almost all the instances of baptism recorded in the New Testament; (8) The apostle Paul was not referring to the mode of baptism in Colossians 2 or Romans 6, he was speaking rather about identification with Christ; (9) The first century book Didache explicitly mentions only pouring as a legitimate mode; and (10) The Westminster Confession of Faith while not denying the legitimacy of baptism by immersion intimates that “Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (WCF 28.3).

—JJ Lim