Sprinkling, Pouring or Immersion – Which Shall It Be? An Inquiry Into Baptism (1)

By Jefferson David Tant


Since the Bible teaches that baptism is an essential part of my relationship with Christ (Mk. 16:16; Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3-5, etc.), then it behooves me to make sure that my baptism is pleasing to the one who has given the ordinance. I cannot please myself, my family, my church. I can only strive to please the Lord. “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).

The Bible teaches also that there is now but one baptism (Eph. 4:5). The religious world now offers eight or more, from immersion in water to the sprinkling of rose petals to baptism in behalf of one’s dead ancestors. Therefore, a decision and choice needs to be made concerning this.

Other factors that have a bearing include not only mode of baptism, but also the purpose, the proper subjects, as well as the element in which baptism takes place. These need to be considered, but the purpose of this study is an inquiry into the manner or mode of baptism, whether it shall be by immersion in water, or by other means.

To the best of my knowledge, all of the scholars, historians and others quoted herein are those who practice the sprinkling or pouring of water for baptism. I have purposely sought out no author (though there are thousands of reputable men) who practices immersion. The reason for this is that the understanding of those who practice sprinkling or pouring might effectively contradict their own practices. In other words, their understanding of what the Scriptures teach shows the inconsistency of their practice. Furthermore, their words in support of immersion cannot be dismissed as the words of those who may be prejudiced by some church doctrine, or whatever, in favor of the practice of immersion.

This study is offered with the sincere desire that it may help us to a more perfect understanding of the Will of God.

The Testimony of the Biblical Context

John came, who baptized in the wilderness, and preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the country of Judea, and all they of Jerusalem; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mk. 1:4-5).

Note 1: They came to the Jordan River. Such would hardly have been necessary if the baptism were done by sprinkling or pouring. It would have been an inconvenience wholly without reason.

Note 2: The text says they were baptized of John in the river Jordan. It does not say at, but in.

Jesus . . . was baptized of John in the Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water. . . (Mk. 1:9-10).

Note: If he came up out of the water, it is obvious that he first went down into the water. Why did he do this, unless the practice was immersion?

And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there, and they came, and were baptized (Jn. 3:23).

Note: If the Scripture is not referring to immersion, then why the necessity of much water? Wouldn’t a few drops of water do just as well? It says he was baptizing there because there was much water. The presence of the much water was not incidental or accidental.

And he (eunuch) 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 came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip (Acts 8:38-39).

Note: It is obvious that immersion is implied in this passage, considering the going down into and the coming up out of the water.

And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name (Acts 22:16).

Note: Here the washing of the flesh symbolizes the washing of the soul. Which best represents the washing of the flesh -immersion, sprinkling or pouring?

We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

Note 1: Which best represents a burial – sprinkling, pouring, dropping of rose petals, or immersion?

Note 2: Which best represents a resurrection – having water sprinkled on the head, or coming up from an immersion in water?

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ (Gal. 3:27).

Note: In the figure given, we clothe ourselves with Christ, putting him on, as we would a garment. Since this is done in baptism, which best represents the surrounding of ourselves with Christ – putting him on – immersion, sprinkling or pouring?

One Lord, one faith, one baptism . . . (Eph. 4:5).

Note: If there is only one baptism now, which shall we choose of the three that are most popularly offered -immersion, sprinkling or pouring?

Having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him the dead (Col. 2:12).

Note: See comments on Romans 6:4.

The Testimony of the Greek Lexicons, Dictionaries, Etc.

Baptizo: 1. to dip repeatedly, to immerge, submerge. . . 2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water. . . 3. to overwhelm. . . (Grimm’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Translated, Revised and Enlarged by Joseph Henry Thayer, D.D., a standard reference work recognized both in Europe and America to be an outstanding work).

Baptizo: to dip, immerse, sink; 1. to overwhelm. . . 2. to perform ablutions, wash oneself, bathe. . . 3. Of ablution, immersion, as a religious rite, to baptize. . . (A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, G. Abbott-Smith, D.D., D.C.L., LL.D.).

Baptizo: to dip, immerse, or plunge in water (Parkhurst).

Baptizo: to immerse, to sink (Robinson).

Baptizo: to dip repeatedly (Liddell and Scott).

Baptisma: 3. of Christian baptism; this, according to the view of the apostles, is a rite of a sacred immersion, commanded by Christ, by which men confessing their sins and professing their faith in Christ are born again by the Holy Spirit into a new life, come into the fellowship of Christ and the church (I Co. xii. 13), and are made partakers of eternal salvation (Grimm’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, op. cit.).

Comment: Of literally scores of such authoritative works, Greek dictionaries, lexicons, etc., I have never heard of even one that defines baptizo (baptize) or baptisma (baptism) as sprinkling or pouring. Indeed, there are other words in the Greek language that denote these actions. The word rantizo means “to sprinkle,” and the words cheo and ballo may be translated as “to pour,” but these words are never used in reference to baptism in water in the New Testament.

It is of more than passing interest to note that in Luke 16:24, the rich man asked if Lazarus might “dip the tip of his finger in water.” The word “dip” there is translated from the Greek bapto, the root form from which we get “baptize.” Would one be led to think that the rich man simply asked for Lazarus to sprinkle some water on his finger, or for Lazarus to immerse the end portion of his finger in water, that it might give some relief to the parched mouth of the rich man? I think that latter would be obvious, and so did the translators.

The Testimony of the Encyclopedias

“Baptism: . . . When in the ceremony the candidate for baptism is submerged under the water, he is thereby buried with Christ and dies with him; i.e., this submersion in water is for the Apostles, not merely a symbol of purification, nor only a symbol of being buried, but a real act of wonderful effect. The candidate for baptism experiences actually and genuinely the death of Jesus in his own body, and is likewise actually laid in the grave, as Jesus lay in the grave. . . When he emerges again from the water, the resurrection of Christ becomes his” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Baptism”).

“Baptistery: . . . The round church of Santa Costanza, in Rome, built, probably, as a tomb for the daughter of Constantine, was also used, in early times, as a baptistery. Following this tradition, baptisteries, throughout the early Church, were separate buildings, circular or polygonal in plan, up to the 9th or 10th century. When the change from immersion to sprinkling as the method of baptism rendered large baptisteries unnecessary, the baptistery became a mere chapel within a church. ( Encyclopedia Britannica, “Baptistery”).

“Baptism – that is, dipping, immersion, from the Greek word baptizo” (Encyclopedia Americana, “Baptism”).

“The first law for sprinkling was obtained in the following manner: Pope Stephen 11, being driven from Rome by Adolphus, King of Lombards, in 753, fled to Pepin, who, a short time before, had usurped the crown of France.

“While he remained there the Monks of Cressy, in Brittany, consulted him whether, in case of necessity, baptism poured on the head of the infant would be lawful.

“Stephen replied that it would, yet pouring and sprinkling were not allowed except in cases of necessity.

“It was not till the year 1311 that the legislature, in a council held at Ravenna, declared immersion or sprinkling to be indifferent.

“In Scotland, however, sprinkling was never practiced, in ordinary cases, till after the Reformation – about the middle of the 16th century.

“From Scotland it made its way into England, in the reign of Elizabeth, but was not authorized in the Established Church” (Edinburg Encyclopedia, “Baptism”).

Comment: The Encyclopedias note the original practice of immersion. Please keep in mind that the ordinance authorizing the change was granted by the Pope in Rome, not Jesus Christ.

A little known fact of history (yet documented) is that the Church of England (1534), the Presbyterian (c. 1540) and the Congregational church (soon after) all practiced immersion for about 100 years, or until the Wesminster assembly in 1643. At that time, a number of bishops, seeing how much more convenient sprinkling was, came before parliament, insisting that “the devil of immersion ought to be legislated out of the realm, it is so troublesome.”

“The Westminster assembly convened July 1, 1643. Very naturally the question was brought before this august body of divines, ‘shall we continue the practice of immersion, or shall we adopt sprinkling instead?’ When it came to a vote, twenty-four voted to continue the ancient and apostolic practice, and twenty-four voted in favor of sprinkling. Dr. Lightfoot was chairman, and it was his duty to give the deciding vote. He cast his vote in favor of sprinkling” (Edinburg Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 236).

In 1644 parliament acted upon this, repealing laws enjoining immersion, enacting, in their place, laws enjoining sprinkling. Those who were not sprinkled were to be treated as outlaws.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 4, pp. 112-114
February 15, 1990