The Action of Baptism

By Steve Wolfgang

The subject of the “action” of baptism quite evidently concerns itself with the nature of the act. It raises the question, “Exactly what is `baptism’?-” This is a question which should be of obvious importance to every professed believer of the Bible. To those who do not believe the word of God, little if any significance attaches to what the act of baptism consists of, or is. To those who do believe the promise of Jesus (“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved”-Mk. 16:16), it is of paramount importance to understand exactly what is meant by “baptism.”

Historically, discussions of this question have centered in distinguishing between so-called “modes” of baptism-whether baptism is “by” sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Ancient indeed is the argument that “baptism is commanded-but the `mode’ is not revealed; therefore any `mode’ is acceptable.” This, of course, is tantamount to arguing that God commanded an act (baptism) upon which one’s eternal salvation depends (Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21), but was so nebulous and unclear as to leave completely undefined what the act is! (We recognize that many who would leave baptism so undefined also deny the necessity of the act for salvation.) From a Biblical standpoint, the complicated and intricate arguments over “modes” are completely unnecessary; in fact, they are foreign to the Scriptures, being instead the results of human systems of theology. The Bible simply does not say anything about “modes,” for the simple reason that the word itself indicates precisely what it means and what its “action” is.

In its most basic and fundamental sense, the act of baptism “consist(s) of the processes of immersion, submersion, and emergence” (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Volume I, p. 96). Standard lexicons (Greek dictionaries), such as Arndt and Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, define “baptism” in this way: “dip, immerse,” and point out that in “non-Christian literature” it means to “plunge, sink, drench, overwhelm, etc.” (p. 131). Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines the Greek verb for “baptism” as “immersion, submersion” (p. 94); while Liddell and Scott, in their Greek-English Lexicon, define the word to mean “dip repeatedly, dip under” (p. 126). Alan Richardson’s Theological Wordbook of the Bible defines the word in this manner: “dip, plunge under water, sink or swamp” (p. 27).

Thus the English word “baptize” does not adequately translate the idea of the action contained in the original Greek word (baptizo); in fact (as we can see by comparing the Greek word and the English word), it is not a translation at all, but rather a transliteration. It merely transposes Greek letters (transliterates) into English letters, instead of selecting any of a number of English words (such as dip, plunge, immerse, submerge, overwhelm, etc.) which would correctly convey (translate) the idea of the Greek, baptizo. (It is also interesting to notice that a separate Greek word –rantizo–meaning “to sprinkle” could and would have been used if that were the action being contemplated.)

But one does not necessarily need a knowledge of Greek or access to a Greek lexicon to learn what the Bible means by “baptism.” Perhaps the best way to establish that the word itself indicates its own meaning is to examine passages of scripture in which the word is used. One of the best descriptive passages with regard to “baptism” is found in Acts 8, the record of the conversion of the Ethiopian treasurer. From the account beginning in verse 35 and continuing through verse 39, we learn that the act of baptism involves a coming unto water (v. 36), a going down into the water (v. 38), and a coming up out of water (v. 39).

Other passages are likewise revealing in helping us to understand the nature of the action of baptism. In Rom. 6:3-4 and Col. 2:12, baptism is called a “burial,” which involves again the ideas of a submersion, or an overwhelming. Perhaps we can understand from passages such as these why it was necessary that John the baptizer baptized where there was “much water” (John 3:23). Also, the concept of innundation and a complete overwhelming with water is implied by Peter’s use of the flood in Noah’s day, and his declaration that a “like figure whereunto baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:21).

Seeing then that baptism is declared to be an essential requirement for a person’s salvation, we need to be very certain that we understand what baptism is-that by definition and by its own usage it is immersion, and all of the sophisticated and complex discussion about “modes” will not make it otherwise; nor will it make sprinkling and pouring something which they are not-Biblical baptism.

Dear reader, if you have not been “baptized” (immersed) for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), we fervently urge you to think seriously about, and act upon, this important commandment.

Truth Magazine XIX: 27, pp. 421-422
May 15, 1975