The Action Of Baptism

By Dennis G. Allan

Since baptism is mentioned about a hundred times in the pages of the New Testament, it is understandably the subject of constant discussion. A huge portion of current religious division is the result of misunderstandings and perversions concerning the action of baptism.

To fairly present the evidence concerning the action of baptism, the historical proofs will be mentioned first, followed by a brief look at the meaning of the language found in the Bible to describe baptism. Finally, consideration will be given to the final authority – the examples of baptism in the Bible.

The Voice Of History: Immersion

A study of historical proofs shows very clearly that baptism in the early church was performed by immersion. J.W. Shepherd(1) and T.W. Brents(2) both present rather extensive documentation to show that history establishes immersion as the action of baptism in the early church. The really interesting evidence, however, is that provided by writers who defend the current practices of sprinkling and pouring for baptism. Several religious groups have embraced this error, the most notable being the Roman Catholic church.

Notice these statements by Catholic writers in books declared by Catholic officials to be “free of doctrinal or moral error.”(3)

To “baptize” means to wash with, to immerse in water. The water is ordinarily poured on the person’s forehead, but baptism car. also be given by immersing the person in water while saying the words – the ordinary way it was done in the early centuries – or by sprinkling water on the forehead while saying the words (emphasis mine – DGA).(4)

In discussing incorporation into the Catholic church, John A. Hardon, S.J. explains in The Catholic Catechism:

They begin by entering what the councils call “the door of the Church,” whose name was derived from the fact that the more common manner of administration was by immersion (Greek baptizein, to dip in water) (emphasis mine – DGA).(5)

Even these proponents of other modes of baptism readily admit that the original meaning and the early practice of baptism was immersion. Their understanding is correct though their practice and teaching is faulty.

The Voice Of The Original Language: Immersion

A necessity in understanding any form of communication is to understand the symbols used. In comprehending the original language of the New Testament, we must understand the symbols, or words, used. The word “baptize” is not a truly English word, but simply a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo.

Omitting his references and parenthetical remarks, one finds Thayer’s basic definition of baptizo to be:

1. Properly, to dip repeatedly, to immerge, submerge.

2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water.

3. Metaphorically, to overwhelm.(6)

Professor Moses Stuart, as quoted by T.W. Brents, is very emphatic in his statement that “Bapto and baptizo mean to dip, plunge, or immerse into any thing liquid. All lexicographers and critics of any note are agreed in this.”(7)

Some theologians, in their attempts to stretch the language to justify sprinkling, have argued that baptizo takes on a secondary meaning from its root, bapto, so that it could mean to “sprinkle.” Rather than becoming involved in tracing the origin and definitions of the root and derivatives involved, it will suffice to notice this response penned more than a century ago:

Language has no law that is better established than that derivative words inherit the radical form and primary meaning of the words from which they are derived.(8)

Applying this principle to baptism, one must recognize that baptizo (I baptize) is a derivative of bapto, which has a primary meaning of “to dip, plunge, or immerse.”

A comprehension of the Greek language is not, however, essential to understanding the proper action of baptism, as shall be seen in the next section.

The Voice Of Scripture: Immersion

On any matter of this nature, questions should always be answered with the teaching of scripture. In 1893, J.W. McGarvey observed:

It is a mistake to suppose that it requires scholarship in any dead language to determine what baptism is. And I am inclined to believe – I do believe, that every man who has ordinary common sense can take his own English Testament, and learn from the careful study of it, what God requires of him in order that he may live a life well pleasing in the sight of his Maker.(9)

Noticing a few passages with this intention will be profitable. Quotations are from the ASV.

When Jesus was baptized, he “went up straightway from the water” (Mt. 3:16), or as Mark presents it, “up out of the water” (Mk. 1:10). The implication is that he went down into the water before he came up out of it. This fits with John’s statement of the reason John the Baptist was baptizing in Aenon: “because there was much water there.” (Jn. 3:23).

Luke leaves no room for reasonable doubt in the narrative of Acts 8:38-39. There Philip and the eunuch “went down into the water” and “came up out of the water.” What possible reason could all these men have for soaking themselves in water if merely sprinkling would have been satisfactory to God? Surely one of these men would have understood that sprinkling was sufficient! The very fact that all of them, including Jesus Christ, chose baptism (immersion) instead of sprinkling should be sufficient evidence for the open-minded reader.

In Paul’s comments concerning baptism, he. assures it to be understood that it was immersion. In Colossians 2:12, he speaks of being “buried with him in baptism” and “raised with him through faith.” The same illustration appears in Romans 6:3-6. Men do not even entertain the thought of burying a body by throwing a shovel-full of dirt on it, yet millions of well-meaning people are content to try to bury the old man of sin by pouring a few ounces of water on one’s head. Before such people can truly walk with Christ, they must obey God by completely burying that old man of sin. Better understanding the meaning of the command to be baptized will better equip one to convince those who are still living in sin.


1. J.W. Shepherd, Handbook on Baptism, Nashville, Tennessee: Gospel Advocate Company, 1950, pp. 39-65, 183-216.

2. T.W. Brents, The Gospel Plan of Salvation, Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1874, pp. 302-313.

3. See the explanation of the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur in the front of nearly any Catholic book.

4. Anthony J. Wilhelm, C.S.P., Christ Among Us: A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith, New York: Paulist Press, 1973, p. 191.

5. John A. Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism, New York: Double day and Company, Inc., 1975, p. 446.

6. Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, p. 94.

7. Brents, p. 223.

8. Brents, p. 211.

9. J.W. McGarvey, McGarvey’s Sermons, Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1975, p. 110.

Guardian of Truth XXV: 2, pp. 25-26
January 8, 1981