The Action Of Baptism

Mike Willis
Dayton, Ohio

One of the common sermons which was preached and one of the common articles which appeared in restoration literature of a previous century was "The Action of Baptism." The restoration leaders were studying their way out of denominationalism. One of the important truths which they learned was that the action of baptism was immersion, despite the many statements of the confessions written by denominationalists to the contrary.

In recent years, brethren have neglected to preach and write on some of these fundamental themes. The result has been that a unity movement has arisen among some of the more liberal brethren among us which is willing to extend the right hands of fellowship to those who have never been baptized (i.e., they have had water sprinkled or poured on them but have never been baptized). This demonstrates our need to constantly teach and preach on the fundamental themes of the gospel, such as the action, purpose, subject, and element of baptism.

To illustrate the infidelity of some among us with reference to baptism, consider these-statements by Leroy Garrett, heir apparent to Carl Ketcherside's unity movement:

It frees us from a sectarian concept to realize that wherever God has a child we have a brother or sister, wherever that child may be. Surely we have blood brothers and sisters out there in the larger religious world, people who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ just as we have. They are not our brothers and sisters because they are Methodists or Baptists or Pentecostals or whatever, but because they are "in Christ" just as we are, having believed and obeyed the same gospel we have ("Betrayal of a Heritage," Restoration Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, p. 228).

Maybe the Methodists obeyed the same gospel as Garrett obeyed; however, they did not obey the same gospel which I obeyed. I was taught that one had to be immersed in water in order to be saved; Methodists were not so taught.

Furthermore, Garrett himself does not believe that baptism is essential for salvation. He wrote,

This method, which in our shallow sectarianism we have all but ignored, would be almost as startling to us. Just to mention a few assumptions that could be questions: how strong is the evidence in Scripture that tongues have ceased? or that a collection is to be taken only on the first day of the week? or that money becomes "the Lord's money" when it s put into "the church treasury"? or that singing can be only acappella? or that there is congregational singing to start with? or that immersion is essential to salvation? or that drinking per se is a sin? ("The Idols of the Mind," Restoration Review, Vol. 22, No. 5, p. 83).

One can be saved before and without an immersion in water according to Leroy Garrett. Notice that no scripture is cited; only his bold assertion is given. However, the fact that he knows of Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics who are his "blood" brothers and sisters in Christ, demonstrates that he thinks that a man can be saved without baptism.

Baptism Is A Part of the Great Commission

One cannot read the Great Commission given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles without reading about baptism. In both Matthew and Mark's account of the Great Commission, baptism is mentioned; Jesus said,

All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:18-20).

Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned (Mk. 16:15-16).

Preaching the gospel which Jesus sent men out to preach involved preaching something about baptism. This is confirmed by reading any of the many cases of conversion recorded in the book of Acts. Truly, baptism is part of the warp and woof of the Great Commission.

What Did Jesus Mean By "Baptize"?

The question is raised, "Exactly what did Jesus mean when He commanded men to be baptized?" This is an important question inasmuch as the benefits to be enjoyed as a result of belief and baptism include everlasting salvation. Even as we define the word "believe," we must also define the word "baptize."

One of the principles of sound interpretation of scripture is that words must be interpreted on the basis of their meaning. We do not have the liberty of putting any and every definition we so desire on words in understanding written communication. Consider what anarchy would result if every man was allowed to give his own definition of "stop." "Stop" means "to cease moving, walking, proceeding, etc.; to halt." Suppose each motorist defined the word as he chose. One man approaches a stop sign and defines the word to mean "hurry on through the intersection." A second man approaches the stop sign and understands the meaning to be "slow down and proceed with caution." A third man understands the sign to mean "to halt." Can you imagine the confusion which would exist if every man was given the liberty of defining a word according to his own preference?

This is exactly what has happened through the years with reference to the word "baptize." Man has taken the liberty of redefining the word used by Jesus. Webster reflects the meaning of the word "baptize" as it is presently used in twentieth century English. He defines "baptism" to mean "a baptizing or being baptized; specifically, the ceremony or sacrament of admitting a person into Christianity or a specific Christian church by dipping him in water or sprinkling water on him, as a symbol of washing away sin."

This definition simply reflects what the creeds of men have stated about baptism. To demonstrate this, consider what the following creeds and confession state about the action of baptism:

Baptism may be administered by sprinkling, pouring or immersion, according to the choice of the applicant (Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, 1944, Article 13).

Let every adult Person, and the Parents of every Child to be baptized, have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion (Discipline of the Methodist Church, 1940, p. 602).

Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person (The Westminster confession of Faith, Chapter XXVIII, No. 3).

Webster's definition simply reflects what English speaking people have understood to be the meaning of baptism; his definition does not reflect the original meaning of the words as used by Jesus.

Those who are interested in understanding what Jesus meant when He commanded a person to be "baptized" need to consider the definition of the Greek word baptizo. The definition of this word is given below according to the most reputable lexicons available on the Greek language; they demonstrate conclusively the meaning of the word as used by Jesus.

Liddell and Scott (a highly respected lexicon of classical Greek): "to dip in or under water." This lexicon demonstrates the definition of the word by classical usages such as to refer to a sunken ship metaphorically of being "baptized" over head and ears in debt and other similar usages.

Arndt and Gingrich in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: "dip, immerse."

Thayer in Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: "to dip repeatedly, to immerge, submerge . . . . In the N.T. it is used particularly of the rite of sacred ablution, first instituted by John the Baptist, afterwards by Christ's command received by Christians and adjusted to the contents and nature of their religion, viz. an immersion in water, performed as a sign of the removal of sin, and administered to those who, impelled by a desire for salvation, sought admission to the benefits of the Messiah's kingdom."

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. I, pp. 529-545) discusses in great detail the usage of this word in the New Testament after giving the basic definition of the word to be "to immerse" (p. 530).

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology edited by Colin Brown (Vol. I, p. 144) defines baptizo to mean "dip, immerse, submerge, baptize."

There is no Greek lexicon of any reputation, to my knowledge, which gives any other definition of the word baptizo (to baptize) than these cited in this article. Webster even reflects this fact in giving his definition of "baptize." He commented that the word was from the Greek "baptizein, to dip under water." Though he defines the word in its contemporary usage, Webster gives the proper meaning of the word as it was originally used in commenting on the origin of the English word "baptize."

The Meaning of "Baptize" Can Be Learned Without Greek

The meaning of the word "baptize" as it appears in the New Testament can be learned without a person having a thorough knowledge of the Greek language. By carefully examining his English Bible, the student of God's word can easily see that Bible baptism is an immersion in water. Here are some evidences that New Testament baptism is an immersion in water.

1. John's Baptism. John 3:23 relates that John the Baptist was "baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there." Apparently, New Testament baptism required much water. Furthermore, when Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, He went down into the water to be baptized as is apparent from the specific statement that He "went up straightway out of the water"- (Matt. 3:17). The very reasons which keep the modern clergy from going down into the water to sprinkle or pour a little water on a person would have kept John out of the water. He and Jesus went down into the water and came up out of the water because this was necessary for him to administer baptism.

2. The baptism of the Eunuch. Luke records the baptism of the Ethiopian nobleman in Acts 8:36-39.

And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.

Notice that in the Eunuch's baptism, there was a going down into and coming up out of water. While in the water, Philip baptized (immersed) him.

3. Baptism is compared to a burial. Paul compared baptism to a burial in these passages:

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead (Col. 2:11-12).

In both of these passages, baptism is compared to a burial. If one can understand that a burial involves being totally covered with dirt, he should be able to understand that a burial in water involves being totally covered with water. If a man does not bury his loved ones by sprinkling or pouring a small amount of dirt on them, he should not be baptized by having someone to pour or sprinkle a small portion of water on him.

These evidences are conclusive in showing that New Testament baptism is an immersion in water. Sprinkling and pouring do not meet the requirements for having New Testament baptism.

When Did Sprinkling Or Pouring Begin?

If there is no Bible evidence that the early church practiced sprinkling or pouring as baptism, when did this begin and for what reason? The book The Form of Baptism by J.B. Briney answers these questions for us. He wrote as follows:

This "most ancient" case gives us a tangible beginning in the history of affusion. Keeping within the facts of history we must say that it began about the middle of the third century, and that its first use was in case of people supposed to be too sick to endure immersion. That its introduction created a sensation and gave rise to controversy, is quite manifest, and it was evidently the purpose of the author of the Didache to quiet the minds of the people on the subject, in giving it as his judgment that pouring would do . . .

It is a historical fact that "baptism by affusion" originated in the third century on the ground of urgent necessity in sickness. Beginning then and thus it held its place on the same ground for a number of years, and then began to be practiced on account of "scarcity of water" . . . .

How the exception became the rule is related by Dr. Schaff thus: "The question now arises, when and how came the mode of pouring and sprinkling to take the place of immersion and emersion as a rule? The change was gradual and confined to the Western churches. The Roman Church, as we have seen, backed by the authority of Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, took the lead in the thirteenth century, yet so as to retain in her rituals the form of immersion as the older and better mode. The practice prevailed over the theory, and the exception became the rule" (pp. 124-126).

Briney's work, as well as that of L.C. Wilson entitled The History of Sprinkling are significant works to demonstrate that sprinkling and pouring came to be substituted for baptism years after the death of the apostles. They were additions to the word of God and stand outside the realm of those things authorized in the New Testament.


The action of Bible baptism is immersion in water. Sprinkling and pouring are no more baptism than running is stopping! Consequently, we utterly reject sprinkling and pouring as scriptural actions for baptism.

Those among us who are willing to extend the right hand of fellowship to those who have never been immersed in water for the remission of sins might give lip service to the doctrine that Bible baptism is an immersion in water but their words will have little impact so long as they are willing to accept as a faithful Christian those who have never been baptized (immersed) and who teach that baptism can be administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Theirs is a compromising position that will eventually lead to the total abandonment of the position that baptism must be an immersion in water.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 36, pp. 579-581
September 11, 1980