Baptism is one of the issues with the greatest consensus among Christians in general terms. Many Christian denominations consider baptism to be an essential part of the expression of the Christian faith. However, the agreement seems to end there. There are all manner of views relating to the significance, power and the appropriate mode of baptism.
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This paper addresses itself to the modes of baptism within the wider context of the debates relating to baptism.1 The paper raises the contextual issues that help to clarify the debate relating to the different modes of baptism. In particular, the position of this paper is that baptism is by immersion alone. This position comes from a review of the practice of baptism through out the life of the church.
The debate is not recent, but has been the subject of many discourses throughout church history. It seems to be intensifying with time as proponents of the various modes of baptism find new ways of looking at the issue.
This notwithstanding, it is the position of this paper that the accurate mode of baptism is immersion and no amount of debate can change this position because of the overwhelming evidence available in and out of scripture to confirm it.
Definition Of Baptism
The debate about baptism starts from the definition of the word itself. This definition is important for all sides of the debate because it provides the basis for the thinking that surrounds its practice. The most accepted definition of baptism is “to immerse”2 as opposed to “washing, wetting, and drenching”3 which are the result of immersion.
However, there are those who concentrate on the ritualistic value of the observance and hence include all modes proscribed to achieve this end.4 In this sense, the decision to stick with the primary meaning of the word baptism, which is to immerse, or to use the wider ritualistic meaning brings about the two main streams of though surrounding the use of the word.
The bible speaks of at least five kinds of baptism. There is the baptism of John meant for the Jews, Christian water baptism, the baptism of Jesus in suffering, the baptism of the holy spirit and the baptism of Jesus by fire.5
This paper deals exclusively with Christian water baptism since it is addressing the specific subject of baptism by immersion, which is only possible through water baptism. There are indeed a number of baptisms in the New Testament. Distinction is necessary to maintain their uniqueness. 6
The Significance Of Baptism To The Christian Faith
In order to argue out the correct mode of baptism, which is immersion7, there is need to explore the greater meaning of the rite. The logic behind this line of thinking is that if the meaning of the rite is clear, then it will justify the best mode available to conduct it.
The first issue regarding the significance of baptism to a Christian is that Christ instituted baptism. Granted, baptism predates Christianity, and it is arguable that the baptism of John was not a Christian one, but a Jewish rite that symbolized a readiness to welcome the coming messiah.8
This notwithstanding Jesus gave express instruction that the apostles were to baptize in the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, anyone who came to faith because of hearing the gospel (Mt 28.19). In this case, Jesus gave a new meaning to the act of baptism by making it an important part of becoming his disciple.
This argument makes it imperative for all Christians to follow in the command of Jesus to receive baptism. Therefore, baptism is not an optional component of Christianity but one that signifies getting into a new life of faith in Christ.
Secondly, baptism signifies participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The hope of the Christian faith lies in the fact that Christ died and rose again. In fact, Paul wrote that without the resurrection, the Christian faith is nothing better than a hoax (1Cor 15:17, NIV). Therefore, the death and resurrection of Christ is very central to the Christian faith, because the entire appeal of Christianity lies in the hope of resurrection.
This realization must inform the mode of practicing baptism. As a symbol9, baptism best expresses the underlying thinking when practiced by immersion.
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Immersing a person in water is a clearer as a symbol of death than any other mode of baptism, sprinkling or washing someone does not have the same symbolic effect. In the same vain, lifting someone out of the water is better symbol of resurrection than the sprinkling or the pouring of water on a person.
The forgiveness of sins is a central in the practice of baptism. While baptism in itself is no more than an act of immersion, its role as a symbol of what has taken place in the heart of the believer increases the need to stick with immersion as a mode. Water is a universal cleanser hence when someone undergoes baptism it becomes a physical symbol of the cleansing of the sins of the believer.
The problem with all the other modes is that by substituting immersion, they reduce the power of the symbol. None of them communicates the meaning of the cleansing away of sins with the same intensity as immersion. Immersion communicates a total and complete cleansing of sins because of the submersion of the person undergoing baptism.
Part of the role that baptism plays is that it is a public pronouncement that one is now a follower of Christ.10 The places where baptism took place in the New Testament were public, such as John baptizing people at the river Jordan (Mt 3.6). With the possible exception of the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism, most biblical references to baptism show mass baptisms with many participants and witnesses (Acts 8:26-40, NIV).
In this regard, it makes a lot of sense to have a universal mode of practicing baptism as testament to the universality of the Christian faith. Again, immersion is the best-placed mode of baptism to meet the need for a universal mode of baptism.
This comes from the fact that immersion provides the closest meaning that the word baptism evokes in different cultures hence it stands a greater chance of acceptance and thereby retaining its ritualistic significance among different people.
Simply stated, immersion has the potential of easing the challenge of making disciples because it is a very clear statement of what has taken place internally despite theological and denominational differences. In addition, most denominations do not refute immersion as a valid mode of baptism.
Those that do not practice it still consider it an option. The reverse is not true. This means that immersion can provide a clear universal statement of faith in Christ in more ways than any other mode of baptism.
Baptism: A Symbol
In closing the discussion of the significance of baptism to the Christian faith vis-à-vis the efficacy of immersion as a mode of practicing baptism, it is important to qualify the position of baptism in the Christian faith. The two extremes concerning the power of baptism range from the view that baptism is not just a ritual but also the means of attaining the forgiveness of sins.
This view confers supernatural power to the act of baptism and makes it a mandatory requirement of becoming a Christian. This view comes with a real risk of reducing Christianity to a ritualistic faith governed by certain ordinances. This cannot be further from the truth. The call to Christianity does not come with obligatory ritualistic expressions.11 Hence, elevating baptism to a supernatural level distorts the Christian message.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are sections of the universal church that totally disregard the need for baptism and relegate it to an optional matter of secondary importance at best, or discard it entirely at the worst. This extreme is erroneous because it totally disregards the directive of Jesus to baptize in the name of the father, the son, and spirit.
In the scripture popularly called the great Commission found in Mat 28.16-20, Jesus expressly commands the apostles to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the father. The question should not be whether Christians should be baptized or not, but which is the best mode to observe this sacred rite.
The Practice Of Baptism In History
Baptism was not an invention of the Christian faith. Biblical evidence suggests that it was a Jewish practice popularized by John the Baptist. It was a call to repentance from sin, and not into a relationship with Jesus Christ as expounded by Christianity. Jesus did not go through a Christian baptism but a Jewish one.12
In fact, until the death and resurrection of Christ, baptism could not have carried out with it the meaning that Jesus bestowed on it while issuing the great commission. Baptism may have been part of the ritualistic washing practiced by Jews such as the ablutions.13It is interesting to note that Jesus himself did not baptize people as related in Jn 4.2. His disciples did it under his supervision.
In the early church especially during the time of the apostles, baptism was obviously an integral part of the Christian faith. Many times, the apostles verified whether believers had undergone the baptism of John before they engaged with them.14 In Hebrews 6.1-3, Paul refers to baptism as one of the elementary teachings of the faith alongside, “the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment”.
One of the significant developments in the practice of baptism occurred when God sent Peter to the home of a gentile named Cornelius. This visit culminated with the baptism of Cornelius and his family not just with water, but also in the Holy Spirit.
Apparently, this incident related in Acts 10 shows that the early church struggled with the notion of gentile Christianity. As it turned out, the issue became a serious point of debate in the early church pitting those who felt salvation was for Jews only versus those that felt it belonged to the whole world.
Between the time of the apostles and the reformation, baptism as a doctrine went through a lot of theological development because of the spreading of the gospel to different cultures.15
Based on otherwise reasonable arguments, the church made concessions regarding baptism, which saw the introduction of several variants to the model displayed in the Gospels and in the book of Acts. One of these arguments was whether it would be fine to let someone too weak because of illness, physical disability, or injury to die without baptism because they could not make it to a place with sufficient water for baptism.
A similar question relating to the availability of water, or the suitability of its temperature arose. These arguments led to the conclusion that in such cases, a means to baptize the believers was essential to ensure that no believer remained without baptism.
The practical issues relating to immersion are clear to any reasonable mind. What is unclear is why the church institutionalized these alternative modes and almost entirely discarded immersion as the primary mode of baptism.
At the risk of demoting this debate to one of “lesser evils”, it is very tempting to ask, between dying without baptism, and changing the traditional form of baptism to a watered-down mode, what is the better way? Depending on who answers the question, the answer will vary from accessing eternal life, to a mere blip in the walk to wards eternal life.
After the reformation, some sections of believers, such as the Baptists, revived immersion as the preferred mode of baptism leading up to the present practices. With technological developments, it is possible to eliminate most of the reasons that led to the adoption of alternative modes.
For instance, it is now easy to heat whole swimming pools, to travel by car to a convenient location, or to use baptismal pools located in the relative comfort of churches away from the elements and health risks that would attend to someone baptized in natural water points.
The theological constructs around baptism play an important role in justifying the mode of baptism practiced by a denomination. Depending on what the process means or achieves for a person, different modes are justified or discarded. Fundamentally, there are three modes of baptism, which are, baptism by immersion, sprinkling and pouring practiced by different denominations across the centuries.
The justification of infant baptism comes from the understanding that all Christians are born with original sin, or as some call it, a human nature. Original sin bars all human souls the opportunity to commune with God. In this sense, baptism opens up the potential to commune with God and is analogous to Jewish circumcision.16
In order to ensure that children who die before the age of reason do not end up locked out of communing with God, it is necessary to administer infant baptism. This view of baptism makes it fundamental to the enjoyment of eternal life. It makes baptism something everyone must have, by all means, regardless of age.
The other related thought is the sincere desire to ensure a child has “divine protection” from an early age. The story of Samuel offers much comfort for those that seek to dedicate their children to God before they can think for themselves. While well meaning, these efforts take on baptism as the means to “seal the deal” with God hence see to it that children receive baptism.
If we can show that, there is no need to panic about infants not knowing God, or demonstrate the futility of infant baptism, then baptism by immersion remains as the only viable option. While it is not within the scope of this paper to address the issue of infant baptism at length, it is vital to explore the matter briefly because of the implications it has on the mode of baptism.
First, it is very difficult to sustain or deny the existence of the concept of original sin in scripture. While it is true that the bible speaks of man having a fallen nature such as in Rom 3.23, it does not give sufficient grounds to think that it is curable by baptism. Moreover, the human nature is a sinful nature.
It is not sin in itself; hence, it is not right to prescribe condemnation for uncommitted sins simply because of the capacity to commit it. Regeneration, according to Rom 5.1 comes by faith and is not a result of baptism. Infants are incapable of faith because of their state of development hence they cannot go through regeneration.
However, since they are not yet guilty of any actual sins, it is plausible to think that God will have some way to deal with the issue because he is a just God. Just like in the past God overlooked ignorance, we can expect him not to hold original sin against innocent infants who die before they have the capacity to believe.
In Acts 17.30, God overlooks times when people were ignorant but demands that they repent in this generation. It is their time of ignorance, so to speak.
The practice that most denominations that do not practice infant baptism have is a special dedication of children. The thinking here is that it is better to commit a child to Gods care and hope that in time they will make a choice for God as they grow.
This approach fulfils the needs that drive others towards infant baptism while it leaves opportunity for baptism after a conscious choice. Infant baptism cannot be by immersion because of the obvious drowning risk, hence the need for alternative means of baptism such as sprinkling or pouring.
Believer’s baptism is baptism only of the people who have made a conscious decision to follow Jesus.17 This approach depends on willful surrender to Gods will and to the dictates of scripture. In so doing, proponents have the leeway to practice baptism through immersion because all the people involved are of age.
It is still difficult to practice baptism by immersion in places where water is scarce, or the lack of facilities and natural formations that can hold sufficient water to allow immersion. In addition, some health conditions or bodily impairments may make it impossible to participate in baptism by immersion. On these grounds, pouring or sprinkling seems applicable.
However, the events at the cross at Calvary make it possible to think that God will not necessarily reject a believer because they have not undergone baptism hence reducing the need for improvisation. Jesus did not reject the thief who pleaded with him for an opportunity to be with him in paradise on grounds that he had not gone through baptism as presented in Lk 23: 42-43
The Uniqueness Baptism By Immersion
Are there any compelling reasons for modern day Christians to insist on baptism by immersion? Indeed, there are, and there are significant implications in the process of disciple making. This section relates to the reasons why all Christians must insist on baptism by immersion.
The Example Of Jesus
The call to Christianity is fundamentally a call to discipleship. In the great commission, Jesus asked the apostles to go and make disciples. The Disciples of Christ have a duty to follow in his example in every area. In essence, if Christ underwent immersion during his baptism, and considering he did not practice any other variation of the process, the compulsion is on every one following him to follow his example.
While Christians in different denominations can argue about the effects of baptism, the mode of baptism cannot be subject of such debates simply because the Master left an example for the rest to follow.
This position is consistent with the other calls a Christian must answer to, such as the call to deny self and take own cross, call to prayer, call to withstand persecution whenever it arises, and the call to wait in hope for the second coming of Christ.
While the primary mission of Jesus was to save man from sin, he undoubtedly came to set an example for his followers. He directed his disciples to teach converts everything he had commanded them.
Jesus’ Final Instructions
Jesus did not leave much in terms of teachings or even parables concerning baptism. However, when he was issuing his definitive final orders in the great commission, he made baptism the second ceremonial observation expected of his followers. The other ceremonial observation Jesus instituted was the Holy Communion and there is plenty of scriptural references to this observance in the book of Acts.
The fact that Jesus mentioned baptism in his last instructions after the resurrection at least means that all Christians must take it seriously. While he did not indicate what mode he preferred for this process, we can assume it is because there was no other way to look at baptism except by immersion.
Practicing alternative forms of baptism can qualify for disobedience to instructions. In effect, it is tantamount to the creation of choices in a matter that did not have any. The implications of practicing baptism by immersion is that since this is the entry point into discipleship, it is better that the observance be consistent with the pattern discernable in the bible.
Since it is a very important part of Christian missions today, there is a need to make it conform to the standards that existed for the early Christians.18
It is possible that a new convert that does not undergo baptism by immersion will have doubts relating to the authenticity of the faith they have subscribed to because of the apparent disparity between the different modes of baptism from what is discernable in scripture. Immersion raises the no such questions.
Better Illustration Of “Dead With Christ”
Baptism is essentially a symbol of the Christian faith. It is the public statement of faith about inward transformation after believing the gospel. In this regard, there is a need for the symbol to conform as closely as possible to what it stands for. The going down into the water stands for death with Christ. As the baptizer lowers a person into the water, the image portrayed is that of someone lowered to death.
In cultures that bury their dead, they lower the body into an open grave. It is a very dramatic image for anyone observing the process of baptism. Indeed, as the water comes over the person undergoing baptism, it appears as though the person has undergone burial. To the believer, baptism brings alive the fact that they have faith in what the death of Christ achieved for them. This is indeed the whole point of evangelism.
On the other hand, baptism by sprinkling or pouring dramatically reduces the power of the symbol. The fact of Christ’s death remains imaginary and allegorical. The stress in these cases is ritual purification.19 The implications of immersion in the area of death with Christ are very clear.
The actual actions are so similar to actual practice of burying the dead that no one who either witnesses or undergoes baptism can fail to grasp its full meaning.
A Better Illustration Of Resurrection
In terms of the future, rising out of water is very significant. The resurrection of Christ is the keystone of the Christian faith. Without it, Christianity degenerates to a cunning creed. As the baptizer lifts the person undergoing baptism from the water, it symbolizes the new life to which Christ calls all people.
It is a new beginning and the source of the Christian hope in eternal life. It is impossible to recreate this image through immersion or pouring. These two modes leave it to the imagination of the participants. Immersion on the other hand, demonstrates it.
Definitive Public Statement
Perhaps the strongest element of baptism by immersion is actually in its cumbersomeness. Baptism is supposed to be a public demonstration of faith. It surely lacks the decency and convenience of alternative modes of baptism. This comes from the fact that it takes a lot more planning to organize for a baptism by immersion than through the other alternative modes.
The practical issues relating to baptism by immersion makes it a truly memorable and public event. It has a greater potential from impact, both on the person receiving baptism and the witnesses to the process. It is very possible for someone to undergo baptism in the back seat of a car by sprinkling or pouring.
These methods emanate from and promote the view that baptism achieves some form of ritualistic cleansing along the same line as the ablutions that Jews practiced. However, their impact as symbols for a believer dying in Christ and rising with him in hope remains utterly diminished.
Abott, J., and John S. C. Abott. “Commentary of Matthew 3: John S.C. Abott and Jacob Abott Illustrated New Testament.” Studylight. 1878.
Adam, Clarke. “The Adam Clarke Commentary.” Studylight. 1832. Web.
Beecher, E. Baptism: With Reference to its Imports and Modes. Broadway, NY: John Wiley , 1849: 23-30
Cottrell, J. Baptism: A Biblical Study. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1989: 48-56
Cullmann, O. “Baptism in the New Testament.” Studies in Biblical Theology No. 1, 1959: 84.
Dyer, L. E. Baptism: The Believer’s First Obedience. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2000: 2-3
Haymes, Brian. “A Question of Belief and Age.” ALTA Online Journal, Date Unknown. Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible.” Bible Study Tools. 1706. Web.
International Bible Society. Holy Bible, New International Version. Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society, 1984.
Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.” Bible Study Tools. 1871. Web.
Menacherry, Cheriyan. “Culture, Conversion, Baptism in the Indian Mission Context.” ASVATTHA: International Journal of Culture, Philosophy & Theology 3 (2005): 1-24.
Shelley, Bruce L. Why Baptism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987:2-3.
Transmontanus, and Edwin Hall. What is Baptism? An Essay, Being Chiefly a Review of the First Part of a Work Entitled as “Exposition of the Law of Baptism”, by Edwin Hall. Essay, Harvard, MA: Harvard University, 1844: 13-18
Utley, Bob. Study Guide Commenatry Series: New Testament, Vol 4. Marshall, TX, 2011.
Ware, Bruce A. “Biblical Support for Believers Baptism by Immersion.” In Baptism: Three Views, by David F Wright, 21-34. Downers Grove: Intervasity Press, 2009.
Wright, David F. Baptism: Three Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009: 1-3
1 The issue of whether dipping or sprinkling was the original form of baptism is the subject of many modern day debates. Adam, Clarke. “The Adam Clarke Commentary.” Studylight. 1832.
2 Transmontanus, and Edwin Hall. What is Baptism? An Essay, Being Chiefly a Review of the First Part of a Work Entitled as “Exposition of the Law of Baptism”, 13.
3 Transmontanus, and Edwin Hall. What is Baptism? An Essay, Being Chiefly a Review of the First Part of a Work Entitled as “Exposition of the Law of Baptism,” 14.
4 Beecher, Edward. Baptism: With Reference to its Imports and Modes. Broadway, NY: John Wiley, 1849: 23.
5 Dyer, Larry E. Baptism: The Believer’s First Obedience. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2000: 2.
6 Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.” Bible Study Tools. 1871.
7 Ware, Bruce A. “Biblical Support for Believers Baptism by Immersion.” In Baptism: Three Views, by David F Wright, 21-34. Downers Grove: Intervasity Press, 2009: 23.
8 Dyer, Larry E. Baptism: The Believer’s First Obedience.Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2000: 12
9 Abott, Jacob, and John S C Abott. “Commentary of Matthew 3: John S.C. Abott and Jacob Abott Illustrated New Testament.” Studylight. 1878.
10 Shelley, Bruce L. Why Baptism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987: 2.
11 Henry, Matthew. “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible.” Bible Study Tools
12 In Jn 3.22, Jesus seems to be baptizing but in Jn 4.2, the matter becomes clear, showing that Jesus did not baptize in person. Cullmann, Oscar. “Baptism in the New Testament.” Studies in Biblical Theology No. 1, 1959: 84.
13 Dyer, Larry E. Baptism: The Believer’s First Obedience. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2000: 3.
14 An example of an incident showing that the baptism of John was part of the missionary experience of the apostles is in Acts 19.1-3 when Paul goes to Ephesus
15 Cottrell, Jack. Baptism: A Biblical Study. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1989: 48.
16 Wright, David F. Baptism: Three Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009: 3.
17 Haymes, Brian. “A Question of Belief and Age.” ALTA Online Journal, Date Unknown.
18 Menacherry, Cheriyan. “Culture, Conversion, Baptism in the Indian Mission Context.” ASVATTHA: International Journal of Culture, Philosophy & Theology 3 (December 2005): 1-24.
19 The book of John stresses the relational aspects of the Christian faith, and not the ritualistic ones. John does not record the baptism of Jesus nor the last supper. See Utley, Bob. Study Guide Commenatry Series: New Testament, Vol 4. Marshall, TX, 2011.