Must We Baptize By Immersion?

From a church’s enquirer’s/communicant membership class booklet through the Westminster Confession of Faith (Ch. 28):

28:3: Dipping (or dunking) a person is “not necessary”; this does not mean immersion is an option, but rather that the practice is only “rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling”.[1] Jay Adams explains: “ … mode cannot be separated from meaning. The sacraments are symbolic. If so, then ‘mode’ and ‘symbol’ are one and the same … Mode and symbol, and therefore mode and meaning, cannot be divorced.”[2] A number of considerations are in order about baptism’s mode and meaning:

a. Christ’s baptism was related to His anointing to office as with the sprinkling or pouring of oil over the head of priests and kings (Ex. 29:7; Num. 8:6-7; 1 Sam. 10:1; Ps. 2:2: King Jesus is “my anointed”). As well, the sacrament represents the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which in Acts 2:17-18, 33, is said to be “poured out” on the Apostles, and later to have “fell on them” (and so they were “baptized”) in 11:15-16.[3] Van Dixhoorn says “ .. the actions of sprinkling and pouring repeatedly symbolize the divine work of salvation in the Bible in a way that immersion simply does not.”[4]

b. The Greek word for to baptize (βαπτίζω) has a broad usage, but primarily means to dip, to purify, to wash; it is used interchangeably with another Greek word that means “to wash” (baptism represents inner cleansing and purification by the regenerating and renewing washing of the Holy Ghost that unites us to Christ).[5] Ward explains, “The root idea of the Greek word baptize is not total immersion but an intensive dipping which involves a transformation (cf dyeing) …”[6] So, in Mark 7:4, “wash” and “washing” is the Greek “baptize” and “baptizing”, including a table (not immersed). In Lk. 11:38, the Pharisees marveled that Jesus had not “washed” (“baptized”) before dinner (see Mt. 15:2 of His disciples), and they didn’t mean diving into a lake, but using a utensil.

c. Heb. 9:13, 19, 21, and 10 refer to the OT “sprinklings” of blood to ceremonially cleanse, atone, or sanctify the people and the tabernacle and its ceremonial tools as “baptisms” (translated “washings”; see the connection with 10:22, 24 related to sprinkling of Christ’s blood to cleanse consciences.)[7]

Moses and the OT Church were “baptized” under the cloud (Christ) and by the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-4), just as Noah and His family were “baptized” by the flood waters (1 Pet. 3:20-22); they were savingly sprinkled by merciful mist while God’s enemies were immersed with judgment.

e. Paul was baptized standing up by a bedside (Acts. 9:18, 22:16), and, “In the case of Saul’s baptism, the baptism of the household of Cornelius, and that of the household of the Philippian jailer, since each of these acts of baptism was carried out within a home (Acts 9:11; 10:25; 16:32), and in the last case sometime after midnight (Acts 16:33) but before dawn (v. 35), it is virtually certain that these baptisms would not have been by immersion, since few homes in those times would have had facilities for such an act …”[8]

f. When it is said of outdoor baptism events that they were “coming out of or up from the water” (Mark 1:9-10; Acts 8:36-39), note that Luke says such of Philip and the eunuch, but Philip was not baptized—he did the baptizing; and, the Eunuch had just read Isaiah 53, which is preceeded by 52:15: “So shall he sprinkle many nations …” (see also Ezek. 36:25)[9] They came up from out of the water location (not out from under the water). So when Israel crossed the Jordon River into the Promised Land, the priests stepped their feet into water, but then the waters were blocked up and they crossed over on dry land, of which they then were said to “come up out of” (Josh. 3:13; 4:16-19). R.C. Sproul points out that with where the Ethiopian and Philip were (Acts 8:26), “It is doubtful that in that ‘desert’ between Jerusalem and Gaza … there was enough water for an immersion.”[10]

g. Van Dixhoorn cites these other considerations: “ … there were times when too many people were baptized to permit immersion. Acts 2:41 tells us that 3,000 people were baptized on one day in Jerusalem. It is hardly possible …” Also, “ … there were times when baptism happened too quickly … at once … (Acts 16:33). The language of immediate baptism [with the Philippian jailer and his family] does not suggest that they went through the city and were baptized at the river, or a pool. Paul probably reached for a jug or a bowl and, after explaining baptism, poured or sprinkled water on these new converts.” As well, “The only plausible picture of immersion in baptism is that of Romans 6 or Colossians 2, but arguably it is plausible to us because we think of burials vertically, six feet under the ground, whereas in hard Palestinian soil burials were often effected horizontally, behind a rock in a cave.”[11] More importantly, Rom. 6 and Col. 2 are figures of speech for union with Christ.

h. “Total immersion lacks Old Testament precedent or clear New Testament justification.”[12]

[1] While not directly addressing the WCF here, John Murray’s comments seem to reflect this interpretation, if not of the Confession, of the Scriptural doctrine on mode: “ … there are numerous instances in which the action denoted does not imply immersion and which prove that baptism does not mean immersion (cf. Lev. 14:6, 51; Matt. 15:2 Mark 7:2-5; Luke 11:38; 1 Cor. 10:2; Heb. 9:10-23) … the ordinance is properly [correctly] administered by sprinkling or affusion.” “Baptism” in Collected Writings, vol. 2, 373.

[2] Jay E. Adams, TheMeaning and Mode of Baptism, vi.

[3] Adams, 23.

[4] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 371.

[5] A. A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Commentary, 341.

[6] Rowland Ward, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide, 176.

[7] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 933.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 932.

[10] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 3, 119. David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, 219-220: “ … we read of three thousand baptized in one day, in the streets of Jerusalem, by twelve apostles at the most, where there was no river to dip them into (Acts 2:4I). And was not Jerusalem and all Judea and the region round about Jordan baptized by John the Baptist alone, which could not be done to all and every one by dipping (Matt. 3:5-6)?”

[11] Van Dixhoorn, 371, 372.

[12] Ward, 176.


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