Some Christians teach that baptism is always and only to be performed by immersion (aka submersion). The 1689 London Baptism Confession of Faith mandates baptism by immersion, and claims that baptism by any other mode – either pouring or sprinkling – is not only unbiblical, but no baptism at all. From the 1689 London Confession, chapter 29, paragraph 4: “Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.”
In an effort to defend this view, Dr. John MacArthur teaches that without doubt, baptism as presented in the New Testament always refers to immersion:
“Two verbs express this reality, bapto and baptidzo. Those two verbs are used when baptism is referred to. They mean to immerse, to dip down. The noun, baptisma is always used in Acts to refer to a believer being immersed in the water. Sprinkling is a completely different word, rhantismos, completely different word, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never. . . . Immersion is commanded of every believer as a picture, as an object lesson, as a symbol, as a visual analogy of a spiritual reality. It is the way that God designed to publicly declare the truth of personal salvation. What does it symbolize when a person is immersed, submerged? Clearly unmistakably throughout the New Testament, Christian baptism is a picture of the union of a believer in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.” (from “Is Infant Baptism Biblical?” preached by Dr. MacArthur September 18, 2011)
The goal of the following analysis is to test Dr. MacArthur’s assertion that baptism in the New Testament always points to immersion. I am not convinced it does.
For example, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 that the Israelites “all passed through the sea, all were baptized (ἐβαπτίσαντο, from the Greek verb baptidzo) into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” This refers to the crossing of the Red Sea, in which Paul says the Israelites were “baptized.” Clearly the Israelites were not submerged – in fact, the only people submerged in that event were the Egyptians. Thus we have clear evidence of a New Testament author defining “baptism” in a way other than immersion, indeed, in a way that makes immersion impossible. The Israelites “passed through” the water; they were not submerged in it.
The same can be seen in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught His disciples that they would be “baptized (βαπτισθήσεσθε, again from the Greek verb baptidzo) with the Holy Spirit not many days from now,” and that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit” came upon them (Acts 1:5, 8 ). The fulfillment of this prediction came weeks later at Pentecost, but the concept of God submersing the disciples with the Spirit is nowhere found in the language of the biblical text. Rather, God baptized Christ’s disciples by “pouring out” His Spirit upon them (Acts 2:17-18, 33), and as a result they were “filled” (i.e., controlled) by Him, and not controlled by new wine as the mockers suggested (2:13). This was to fulfill the prophecy of Joel that God would “pour out” His Spirit (Joel 2:28-29; cited by Peter in Acts 2:17-18). The same thing is seen in Acts 10:45, where the Jews were astonished because “the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.”
All throughout Acts, the language regarding the baptism of the Spirit plainly and consistently points to pouring, not immersion/submersion. In Acts 2, the visible sign of the baptism of the Spirit was “tongues as of fire” that “sat upon each” of the disciples (Acts 2:3), which pictures anointing/pouring, not immersion. God poured out His Spirit – this is the baptism of the Spirit as defined by Scripture.
As well, the various βαπτισμοῖς (baptisms) mentioned in Hebrews 9:10 refer to the *sprinkling* of blood (9:13, 19, 21). Once again, the concept of baptize = immersion is not found, and instead we have additional evidence that the word “baptism” calls to mind sprinkling/pouring.
It is significant that the Holy Spirit chose the Greek word baptidzo and not bapto to describe Christian baptism. Bapto points to dipping/dunking. The word is used three times in the New Testament, and in each case dipping or dunking is plainly in view. The rich man wanted Lazarus to βάψῃ (dip) his finger in water and give him a drink (Luke 16:24). Jesus βάψας (dipped) the bread and handed it to Judas (John 13:26). Jesus wears a robe βεβαμμένον (dipped) in blood when He comes in judgment (Revelation 19:13). The Greek word bapto as used in the New Testament means to dip, dunk. (Dr. MacArthur’s claim that bapto is used “when baptism is referred to” is incorrect. Again, bapto appears only three times in the NT, never with reference to Christian baptism.)
Baptidzo and its related forms appear much more frequently in the NT, and in none of them is dunking or dipping demanded. In fact, as we have seen, in some passages the idea of dunking/dipping is precluded altogether.
What about Romans 6:4? Paul says, “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death.” Does this not point to submersion baptism? It might seem to at first, but it actually points to nothing specific, since the mode of baptism is nowhere mentioned by Paul in that context. Dr. MacArthur points to this verse to establish immersion baptism, but it’s an argument by conjecture, conclusive only to those who already presuppose “baptism always means immersion in the Bible,” which as we have seen, it clearly does not. Besides, Jesus was buried by being placed in a cave, not by being “immersed” with dirt.
Lacking any exegetical data to verify Dr. MacArthur’s argument, Christians who baptize by pouring or sprinkling have no trouble understanding from the Bible that the pouring or sprinkling of water is indeed symbolic of the burial of death – as with the water that fell in the Noahic flood that destroyed all except those in the ark. Interestingly, Peter teaches that there is correspondence between Christian baptism and the eight people on the ark who “were brought safely through water” (1 Peter 3:20-21), as opposed to those who were submerged and perished.
What about John 3:23? The apostle writes, “John (the Baptizer) also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.” Does “much water” demand immersion? No. It might be inferred, but there is no conclusive evidence here of baptismal mode, any more than in Romans 6:4. Once again the argument for immersion is one of conjecture. In fact, if early Christian art is a reliable guide, the preference for “much water” was due to the baptismal recipients standing partly in water while water was poured over their heads (the common way early Christians were baptized).
The same can be said about Acts 8:38-39: “they both went down into the water . . . they came up out of the water.” Baptism by immersion is not proven here but only conjectured. And again, if early art is any indication, going “down into” the water is exactly what would have happened if the eunuch stood partly in it while Philip (also in the water) poured water on his head.
Speaking of early Christian art, here are two scenes of baptism from the Roman catacombs which illustrate how baptism was typically conceived in the ancient church:
(Click here to see more baptismal scenes from the catacombs.)
Finally, what about Dr. MacArthur’s observation that “Sprinkling is a completely different word, rhantismos, completely different word, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never used to describe a believer’s baptism in the New Testament, never”? Is this a valid way to establish that baptism by submersion is mandated in the New Testament?
No. There might be something to the argument if the mode of baptism referenced by baptidzo always pictured immersion/submersion — but as we have seen, that is clearly not the case.
Since baptidzo at least sometimes pictures something other than submersion in a number of New Testament verses, and at times unmistakably points to pouring/sprinkling, the claim that the biblical writers would have hypothetically used the Greek verb rhainó (to sprinkle) instead of baptidzo if they had intended to point to sprinkling is superfluous. In fact, the author of Hebrews uses the verb rhainó (translated “sprinkling/sprinkled”) in Hebrews 9:13, 19, & 21 to give definition to the βαπτισμοῖς (“baptisms/washings”) mentioned in 9:10! According to the inspired text, and contrary to Dr. MacArthur’s claim, ritual washings/baptisms are witnessed via rhantizó, sprinkling.
What do we learn from this study? 1) We must be careful to understand the words of Scripture in the way the biblical authors actually use them. 2) We must be careful not to let unproven presuppositions about the meaning of certain words govern our reading of the biblical text. When we do this, we find much compelling evidence in the New Testament indicating that the mode of Christian baptism was by sprinkling/pouring, and nothing conclusive to indicate baptism by immersion, despite Dr. MacArthur’s claims.
May God give us the light to see and embrace what is right.
ADDENDUM: Is this a minor issue?
Calling attention to the importance of baptismal mode is a source of annoyance to some Christians. To them, the issue seems needlessly divisive. But is it? Pouring/sprinkling water on the heads of baptismal candidates was understood by the early Christians as a sign of “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), whereby God sends His Spirit from above to wash us of our sins (“born from above,” John 3:3; the Holy Spirit was “poured out” on the Gentiles, Acts 10:45, cf. Acts 2:17-18, 33). This being the case, why would we choose to obscure the divinely-given sign of heavenly new birth and washing by adopting a mode of baptism (submersion) that is never indisputably taught in a single New Testament verse, and was not the practice of the early Christians? Moreover, does it promote unity in the church to teach that believers who have been baptized by sprinkling/pouring are not baptized at all, and must be baptized by submersion or else be denied membership in the church?