I recommend that you read my series on Baptism before engaging in this post. You can find it by clicking HERE.
By the time I even started looking into this I had already been convinced by scripture that Baptism is real. Specifically, I do not see it as a symbolic act that that does nothing. I believe that Baptism is a means of Grace by which God kills and raises us in Christ. Once you have accepted this after coming from a more Baptist background, the whole sprinkling vs dunking thing is kind of a non-issue. In my opinion the Baptist fixation here is a distraction, and when we engage in the narrative it assumes the false premise.
That said, I am going to devote one post to this topic. My goal here is to Biblically present why I believe it doesn’t matter how much water is used or how much of the body is covered in it.
What does Baptism Mean?
The word “Baptism” comes to us from the Greek word “Baptizo“. I find that different sources will define the word differently depending on the theology of the one providing the definition. I have seen some sources define it in ways that allow sprinkling and others that seem to try to scratch that out. Not being educated in Greek myself, I try not to rely too much on those, and instead focus on how the word is used in scripture.
What I have found is that it works like the word “wash” in English. The quantity of water seems to depend on the context. Here is an example of what I mean.
Notice in the above verse Mark is using the word “wash” to talk about cleaning dishes, tables, and other such household things. Some Versions use the word “couch” in there too. In English this has been translated wash, but in the Greek you will see he simply uses the Word Baptize.
Even the most staunch Southern Baptist would have to concede that at least one place in scripture uses the root word “Baptizo” in a sense that allows for sprinkling. Unless of course, you’re going to insist that all first century Jews immersed their couches and tables on a regular basis.
Even today, the English word “wash” can mean either immersion or sprinkling. It depends on the context and the one performing the washing can do it however they like, the amount of water isn’t definitional, it’s the presence of it that is.
What about the Trinitarian Baptism?
With those who advocate for immersion only Baptism, the argument generally goes something like this…
Though the Bible does use the word Baptizo differently, when it is talking about a Trinitarian Baptism it only means immersion. To back this up examples from Descriptive Historic Narrative will be used along with photographic evidence, like the Baptism of Jesus below.
Jokes aside, I realize nobody claims that this is actual photographic evidence. But in American Baptistic-Christian Culture this is the image you are accustomed to seeing. So when you read the narrative in scripture, this is what you imagine. The fact of the matter is that such narratives are not that specific. The words “going” down into and coming “up” out of can just as easily mean walking down into the water and walking up out. Besides, older Christian art conveys a very different picture does it not?
For the record I have a personal connection to both of these pictures. While I think the latter is of much higher quality and I identify with it as part of my journey in leaving adventism, the former I remember seeing growing up. And honestly, because of this it is the picture that I personally think of when I read the narrative in the Bible.
There are several narratives in scripture that describe Baptism being performed. I’ll pick out two of them below.
Notice the text above has both men going down into the water and both men coming back up. If you’re going to insist that going down and up means immersion then you must also believe that Philip immersed himself!
Does that mean the Eunuch was immersed or sprinkled? Either are possible, the point is that going down into and coming up out of doesn’t definitively mean anything in relation to the baptism other than the fact that water was necessary.
The above verse can be read either way. You can insist that baptism preceded going “up” in the chain of verbs, thus the baptism was complete by the time he “went up”. This would mean that the heavens opening occurred as Jesus walked out of the water rather that emerging from the water. Like in the image below:
If you want to be dogmatic about it you could insist that the verbs are connected and coming up out of the water conveys immersion baptism. Thus the opening of the heavens would have occurred as Jesus emerged from the water. I don’t personally think it matters as either way would be a baptism. The text is simply not specific enough for us to be dogmatic in my assessment.
The fact that must be conceded is that the scripture doesn’t teach ONLY immersion or ONLY sprinkling, asserting otherwise establishes a false dichotomy.
That said, the main point that blows all of this out of the water is that what we are dealing with here is descriptive historic narrative. Even a Baptist would tell a Pentacostal not to base their understanding of tongues out of the book of Acts. Historic narrative lends itself well to eisegesis and must be understood through the lens of systematic prescriptive works, like the writings of Paul. And on all topics save baptism, a conservative baptist would likely agree with me on that.
What about the Symbolism Conveyed in Immersion Baptism?
One of the arguments for immersion only baptism is that it better conveys the symbolism taught in the following passage.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:3-5 ESV
The idea is that going fully into the water conveys an image of death and burial while the coming up out of the water is a picture of the resurrection.
The problem with this framework is that the passage isn’t teaching something symbolic it’s teaching something literal. Notice the verbs in the passage above are being performed by God not by Man. You are not being symbolically baptized into the death of Christ, you are literally receiving it. The scripture calls this the circumcision without hands.
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Colossians 2:11-12 ESV
Notice that Paul specifically states that this is the “working of God”. Baptism is not symbolic at all. It’s real.
I would argue that focusing on the symbolism of immersion is a denial of what is actually happening and sends the wrong message. For this reason and this reason only I think that in the era we currently live in sprinkling is preferable immersion in the western churches. I say this because it sends a message that you actually believe in baptism.
What would convince me to believe in immersion only?
I am going to be fair and set the same standards for others that I do for myself in proving something from scripture. If I were to be convinced immersion only is a thing then I would need to see the following proven from scripture:
- Prove that Baptism is a work of Man, not of God
- Prove that Baptism is Law, not Gospel
- Demonstrate a prescriptive command to immerse only
- Demonstrate a prescriptive command not to sprinkle
Even if one could prove that every case of Baptism in the Bible was immersion that wouldn’t cut it, because I am not denying that immersion baptism is a thing. I am simply contesting the word “only”.
Is that standard not fair? I think that it is absolutely fair! I am very careful when claiming “only” anything in the Bible. Read my post on Justification, notice that I present very clear prescriptive passages teaching Justification by Faith and not by works. Anytime you are going to claim the word “only” you need to back it up with solid clear scripture that presents the either/or juxtaposition on it’s own. Eisegeting the historic narrative just doesn’t cut it.
I of course believe that any Trinitarian Baptism applies the blessings promised in scripture. The amount of water simply isn’t the issue. The real flaw here is that so many see Baptism as Law instead of Gospel. This of course doesn’t remove the heavenly promise that comes with it, but it does remove the comfort and knowledge that you have been forgiven in your baptism.
This is why I find the immersion debate irrelevant and generally don’t bring it up, this will likely be my only post on it. The issue that actually matters is the efficacy of Baptism, though water is necessary the amount of it just isn’t.