We are on a series of articles on the marks of a true church and we noted earlier that the proper administration of the sacraments or ordinances, is universally recognised,—at least among Reformed circles,—as such a mark. This is because they are perpetual obligations commanded of Christ, the Head of the Church. The right administration of Baptism is therefore regarded as a mark of a True Church. This being the case, the Salvation Army, which has replaced water baptism with a wave of a red flag, is generally not recognise as a legitimate Christian church, whether by Baptists or Presbyterians. But Baptists and Presbyterians are not agreed on the form of baptism either. The Baptists insists on immersion as the only right mode (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, §29.4), while the Presbyterians declares that immersion is not necessary, and that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling (WCF 28.3). Since the WCF does not insist that only baptism by sprinkling or pouring is legitimate, Baptists who transfer their membership are not required to baptised again. This is not the case in many a Calvinistic Baptist Church, most of which will require that anyone who had been baptised earlier by pouring or sprinkling (not necessarily as infants), be re-baptised to be admitted into the Baptist church memberships. In other words, Presbyterian baptism by sprinkling or pouring is considered to be illegitimate. To be fair to the Baptists, they general do not regard Presbyterian churches as having no right to function as Christian churches because of this difference, but the fact remain that if we still regard the right administration of baptism as a mark of a true church of Christ, and our practice of baptism is illegitimate, then we are by our own testimony, an illegitimate assembly.

Now, it is my personal opinion that in these perilous days of theological declension and unbelief, when the core doctrines of orthodox Christianity are being challenged and denied by many who profess to be Christians, that the issue of mode of baptism should not be a point of division and contention among Reformed brethren. In fact, though I am not persuaded that immersion is the regular mode of baptism required in the Word of God, I grant the possibility that from very early times, many were baptised by immersion, and that many suppose that it was the apostolic practice. I do not doubt their sincerity nor legitimacy of their baptism. However, seeing that a question mark does hang over the legitimacy of our baptism and our church, it behoves us to present and defend our case.

It is obviously quite impossible in this intentionally short article to address all the issues that may arise in regard to mode of baptism. However, it is my intention to show that baptism by sprinkling or pouring not merely a tradition of ignorance or convenience, but is a practice founded on the Word of God. We approach the matter in two simple steps: (1) by examining the meaning of baptizô (bapt…zw) which is rendered ‘baptize’ in most English translations; and (2) by examining the instances of baptism recorded in the N.T.

Baptist theologians will frequently appeal to T.J. Conant’s workBaptizein to support their contention that in Classical Greek, baptizôalways, without exception, mean "dip, immerse or plunge." One popular and respected Calvinistic Baptist theologian, for example, confidently asserts that "never, never, never does any author depart from [this] one dictionary-definition sense of baptism." Strangely, not only does this Baptist theologian (as with most others too) ignores the far more extensive and definitive work by James W. Dale which demonstrates conclusively the ineptness of Conant’s work; but he does not appear to have even attempted to verify Conant’s conclusions with easily available sources. If he had done so, he would have discovered: Firstly, that while there are instances where baptizô could possibly mean immersion. For example the Septuagint (Greek) translation of 2 Kgs 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 v. 10 was to "wash in Jordon seven times." Secondly, there are instances 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. Thirdly, there there are places in the inspired Scripture where baptizô clearly cannot mean immersion. For example, in Lk 11:38, surely the Pharises did not expect Jesus to immerse Himself before dinner? Again Mk 7:4 speaks of ‘baptisms’ of tables or couches Grk. kl…nh, klinê). With a wave of the hand our Baptist friends tells us that Mark is referring to washing of cushions or cushion covers by immersion. But surely they would not suggest that klinê in Mk 4:21; Lk 5:18 etc also refer to cushion covers? Surely these washings refer to ceremonial purifications, which are probably done by pouring or sprinkling. Fourthly, there are places where baptizô carries no suggestion of mode, e.g. Matt 20:22-23. Also, no one would translate Gal 3:27 with "immersed into Christ." Fifthly, there are instances where baptizô is auto-suggestive of pouring. 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.

With a bit more investigation, moreover, it would also be discovered that: Firstly, in Heb 6:2, baptismos (baptismÒj), literally ‘baptism’, probably refers to the OT rites of sprinkling (cf. Heb 9:13 & Num 19:17-18: Heb 9:19 & Ex 24:6-8; Heb 9:21 & Lev 8:19). Secondly, the verb baptô (b£ptw) which is commonly seen as the root word ofbaptizô 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. Thirdly, 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 Matt 3:11; Lk 3:16; Mk 1:8; Jn 1:26 and Acts 1:5. I believe the KJV translators, together with almost all modern translators, have correctly rendered the Greek preposition en (œn) in these verses as ‘with’ (instrumental) rather than ‘in’.

The weight of evidence up to this point suggest very strongly thatbaptizô 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.

What about the instances of baptism recorded in the NT? Surely John the Baptist baptised by immersion? No, it is not likely. John stood in the Jordan simply because it was the most convenient place to baptise the thousands who came to him (see Matt 3:5). John was a priest by descent as Zacahrias 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 …P.T.O. 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). Incidentally, that took place in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5), more than 20 miles from any river which may be used for immersion!

What about the baptism of Christ? Did He not come "up out of the water"? Again there is no suggestion of immersion. First, the phrase simply mean stepping out of the river, else Acts 8:39 would mean that Philip was himself immersed when he baptised the Eunuch. Second, Christ, in fulfilling "all righteousness" (Matt 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).

What about the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch? 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 2:36), 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 Isa 53:7-8 (Acts 2:32-33). Surely he would he have read Isa 52:15, which is just a few verses up? Remember that there were no chapter divisions then.

When we examine all the other instances of baptism recorded, again we 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. v24, 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 baptized, he and all his, straightway." (Acts 16:33).

Our Baptist friends protests: these are circumstantial! Surely, Paul was pointing to immersion when he speaks of our being buried with Christ in baptism (Col 3:2)? We respond: 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)!

The conclusion is obvious, I believe. The proper scriptural mode of baptism is by sprinkling or pouring. It is highly unlikely that immersion was required in the Word of God. We must leave off here. Our readers must exercise a Berean spirit to judge for themselves. But one thing, I hope, is clear: aspersionists (i.e. sprinklers) and effusionists (i.e. pourers) are not necessarily naïve traditionalists. We are only trying to obey the Word of God. Now, having said so, I must hasten to repeat that we do not regard those who have been baptised by immersion as being yet unbaptised, and so we do not require a re-baptism for anyone entering our communion as members of the church. We believe that the amount of water is really immaterial though we are convinced that immersion is not the normative biblical mode.