When Methodists Baptize

By Steve Willis

While going through a number of booklets and tracts I had acquired, I found some that must have been handed down to me from the early 1950s (some tracts in the same pile dated to 1946, others up to 1956) 1 found a booklet published by Methodist Evangelistic Materials titled When Methodists Baptize. . ., by F. Gerald Ensley. Studying this little booklet is certainly an eye-opener, when one compares its teachings to the Bible.

In writing about “baptism,” let me say that many religions express beliefs similar to the Methodists about baptism. For example, Henry VIII started the Church of England when the Roman Pope would not allow him a divorce. Henry proclaimed a new church and himself as head – he got his divorce. After the American Revolution, Anglican churches in the U.S. were called “Episcopalian” (after the Greek word for bishop). John Wesley and others started “holy clubs” or “societies” urging a methodical practice of holy life. Wesley’s efforts affected those in the English and Episcopal churches. Those followers became known as “Methodists.” After various divisions and ecumenical movements there are several forms of Methodists, including “Weslyan” Methodists, those striving to hold closer to John Wesley’s teaching. All these groups hold similar beliefs when it comes to the teaching and practice of baptism.

The Methodist Discipline states that “the minister shall take each person to be baptized by the right hand, and placing him conveniently by the font according to his discretion shall ask the name, and then shall sprinkle or pour water upon him, or if he shall desire it, shall immerse him in water.” The booklet When Methodists Baptize. . . says, “the more usual method of sprinkling” is given up if a person wants to be immersed.

This difference of “sprinkling,” “pouring,” or “immersion” may not seem like much, but the question goes back to “Are we doing what God wants us to do?”

Ensley’s booklet asks: “What is the authentic form of baptism? Is it immersion?” Interesting question. If it is not immersion, why will they allow it? If it is immersion, why is the “usual” method sprinkling? Ensley answers, “It [immersion] was certainly practiced early in the history of the Christian Church.” Yes! It was. He then tries to explain away the practice of the early church – immersion – by an appeal to the original Greek word: baptizo. Ensley writes, “Our best scholars inform us that the Greek word for baptism, baptizo, means literally, to ‘wash,’ or ‘moisten’ and is consistent with pouring, or sprinkling, or foot washing. ” Isn’t it interesting that their “best” scholars could not even find it consistent with “immersion” – a practice that they allow?

I am no scholar, but I can use a lexicon (a Greek dictionary) and look into other tools of word study. Listen to the testimony of others:

1. Martin Luther: “Baptism is a Greek word, and may be translated immersion, as when we immerse something in water, that it may be wholly covered.”

2. John Calvin: “The word baptize signifies to immerse, and it is certain that immersion was the practice of the ancient church.”

3. John Wesley (note, founder of Methodism): “We are buried with him – alluding to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion” (Wesley’s notes on Romans 6:4).

4. Thayer (lexicographer): “Baptizo: to dip repeatedly, to immerse, submerge.”

5. Liddell and Scott: “Baptizo: to dip in or under water” (in their lexicon).

I have a list of some 70 scholars, many of whom I would disagree with another point of their theology, but here they have not sacrificed their scholarship. They all say baptizo means immerse. One that was especially interesting to me was that Josephus described a ship sinking with baptizo no sprinkling or pouring here – it sunk.

The point is, if God wanted to say “sprinkle,” he could; the Greek word rantizo means sprinkle. There were several words for “pour” in the Greek: ballo, katacheo, ekcheo, ekchuno, epicheo. The Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek translation of the Old Testament (originally written in Hebrew). In Leviticus 14:15,16, God told the priest to pour, dip (immerse) and sprinkle oil: “And the priest shall take the cup of oil and shall pour (epicheo) it upon his own left hand. And he shall dip (baptizo) with the finger of his right hand into some of the oil that is in his left hand, and he shall sprinkle (rantizo) with his finger seven times before the Lord.” You’d better believe that the priest of the Old Testament poured when told to, sprinkled when told to, and dipped when told to dip. God was certainly capable of telling men what to do; the question was and still is will men do it?

Why Baptize

Why is a person baptized and what does baptism accomplish? Let me give the Methodist Discipline’s statement: “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church.” What this means is a person who is already a Christian is baptized, and not that one is baptized in order to be saved. Ensley says: “To believe that the washing of a man’s skin somehow cleanses his soul is magic, . . . And ocean of water cannot affect a spiritual change. No sacred words or symbolic acts can make a person a disciple. What baptism does depends on the inward response to the outward symbol. . . . What does baptism do? Nothing in itself. ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit,’ says John’s Gospel (3:5), ‘he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.’ Water alone does not save.”

The problem with this position seems to be that water immersion does nothing! They claim it is an outward sign that someone is already saved. What does the Bible say?

Matthew 29:19: “Go, therefore and make disciples (teach) of all the nations, baptizing them in (into) the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” How does this verse teach one is made a disciple? When does one come under the authority of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Mark 16:16: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” What two conditions must be met before one is pronounced “saved”? If a person does not believe, will he be baptized, thereby gaining salvation?

John 3:3,5: “Truly, truly I say unto you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Can one enter the kingdom without being born again? What two things make up the new birth (hint. one thing we touch, one thing we cannot touch physically)?

The above verses were words of Jesus. Ensley says Jesus “does not seem to have required baptism for admission to his fellowship.” Is this true? Read John 3 again about admission into the kingdom. If Christ did not require baptism for admission to this fellowship, why do Methodists – and others – require what they do not believe Jesus required, so that one can be counted a Methodist? This question could be asked of other religious bodies as well.

The apostles continued teaching for Christ:

Acts 2:38: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” What two things are here required to receive forgiveness of sins? Can a person be a Christian without having his sins forgiven? Did anybody heed the word of Peter (see v. 41)?

Romans 6:3,4: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” What act brings us into contact with the death of Jesus – where his blood was shed that we might receive forgiveness of sin? Is sprinkling or pouring like a “burial”? Is “newness of life” before or after baptism? Can a person be a Christian without beginning the new life?

1 Peter 3:21: “And corresponding to that (i.e., water in v. 20), baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. . . ” Is baptism involved with the salvation of an individual? Is a person saved before baptism? Must we make an appeal to God in the act of baptism (compare baptizing babies who seem only to appeal to eat and have diapers changed)? It is Jesus Christ who saves us when we are baptized?

There are many other passages in the Bible about being baptized. Let us realize that believers are given the right to become children of God (Jn. 1: 12) and that we are born into God’s family upon expressing that belief when we repent and are baptized. When we are moved to be baptized in water and follow the words of the Spirit then we can say we have been born again. In a similar way the church is made up of those “cleansed . . . by the washing of water with the word.”

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 15, pp. 451-452
August 3, 1989