At Christ Covenant Church, we ordinarily baptize by sprinkling/pouring, rather than by immersion. This paper is a brief explanation of the biblical basis for doing so. We should note up front that although we believe sprinkling or pouring is the most fitting mode of baptism, we respect those who desire to be immersed, and will baptize by immersion upon request.
In every sacrament, there is a relationship between the visible/sensible sign and the invisible/spiritual thing that is signified. For example, in the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine are the sensible signs, and Christ’s body and blood are the reality they signify. In baptism, the washing with water is the visible/sensible sign, and then Scripture gives us a multitude of spiritual realities that this washing with water signifies. It is because of this variety in spiritual signification that there is debate over the way in which the water should be applied.
Our belief is that both modes of baptism (sprinkling/pouring and immersion) are real, true, and legitimate baptisms. The amount of water used in baptism is of relatively little importance compared to the magnificent realities baptism exhibits and confers. At the same time, we want to honor God in how we apply this visible sign and do so in a way that is most fitting with its spiritual signification. Therefore, we will seek to answer the question:
Which mode of baptism best signifies the spiritual realities that are set forth in Holy Scripture?
Our English words for baptize and baptism descend from the Greek words βαπτίζω (baptizo) or βάπτω (bapto), and βάπτισμα (baptisma) respectively. Various forms of these words are used in the Greek New Testament, the Greek translations of the Old Testament (LXX), and in other Ancient Greek literature to refer to various forms of washing. The range of meaning for βαπτίζω, βάπτω, and βάπτισμα, includes pouring, sprinkling, dipping, bathing, immersing, and more. We must therefore determine based on the context of each passage what the specific mode of washing with water is. The Greek word itself does not give us this information.
Refutation Of Those Who Believe Baptism Refers Exclusively to Immersion
Some writers have argued that to baptize strictly means to immerse and therefore only immersion constitutes a true baptism. But this is manifestly false to anyone who surveys how the various forms of βαπτίζω, βάπτω, and βάπτισμα, are used in Greek literature. While many examples could be offered, we will limit ourselves to just three:
Leviticus 14:50-51 – A Bird is Baptized in Blood
“And he shall kill the one of the birds in an earthen vessel over running water: And he shall take the cedar wood, and the hyssop, and the scarlet, and the living bird, and dip (טבל, βάπτω) them in the blood of the slain bird, and in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times.”
In this passage, the priest is said to baptize (dip, βάπτω) the living bird in the blood of the dead bird. In this ritual, it would be impossible for the priest to fully immerse the living bird in the blood of the dead bird because there is simply not enough blood to do so. Only about 10% of a bird’s body weight is blood, therefore it is impossible for the word βάπτω to mean immerse here.
Luke 11:37-38 – Baptized Before Dinner
“And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat. And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed (βαπτίζω) before dinner.”
In this passage, a Pharisee marvels because Jesus was not baptized (washed, βαπτίζω) before sitting down for dinner. Here, the wordβαπτίζω refers to the washing of the hands, not to full body immersion. We know this because in Matthew 15:2, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” Notice that the mere washing of the hands is called baptism in Luke 11:38. This again refutes the idea that to baptize equates to immersion.
Hebrews 9:10-14 – Diverse Baptisms
“Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings (βαπτισμοῖς), and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation. 11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; 12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. 13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: 14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
In this passage, the rituals of the Old Covenant are being contrasted with the glories of the New Covenant. Notice that there are “diverse washings” called baptisms (βαπτισμοῖς) in verse 10. When we survey the diverse baptisms of the sacrificial system, we can find examples of cleansing via sprinkling (Num. 8:7, Num. 19:18), pouring (Ex. 29:17, Ex. 40:31-32), dipping (Lev. 14:50-51), and bathing (Lev. 15:21-27). This again refutes the notion that to baptize exclusively means to immerse.
Baptism by Sprinkling or Pouring
Having established that the various Greek words for baptism do not specify the exact mode in which water is applied, it remains for us to demonstrate that New Covenant baptisms were indeed practiced by sprinkling/pouring. Below we will set forth five arguments in favor of baptizing by sprinkling or pouring.
Argument #1 – The Prophecies of the New Covenant Refer to Sprinkling
The first argument is that the promises and prophecies of the New Covenant are described exclusively in terms of baptism via sprinkling, and not by immersion.
In Isaiah 52:15 we are told that when the Messiah comes, “he shall sprinkle many nations.” To what does this refer? Although Jesus himself did not baptize or travel to all the nations, His disciples did. It is through Jesus’ disciples and the church’s ministry, that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. Therefore, when Jesus says in Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” He is simply restating Isaiah’s prophecy in New Covenant terms. For Jesus, sprinkling and baptizing the nations are the exact same thing.
Likewise in Ezekiel 36:25-27 we read, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
Notice that in Ezekiel 36, sprinkling with water is what signifies spiritual rebirth, cleansing, and the giving of the Holy Spirit, which is exactly what baptism signifies. This is further confirmed in Hebrews 9:13-14 where we read, “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
In all three of these places, the New Covenant that Jesus ushers in is spoken of in terms of sprinkling. Furthermore, we find in Hebrews 10:22 it says, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” What sprinkles a man’s heart and cleanses his conscience? According to 1 Peter 3:21, the answer is baptism, “even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” What Peter calls baptism, Hebrews calls “sprinkling of the heart,” these are two identical concepts.
Finally, we see in Hebrews 12:24 that sprinkling with blood is tied directly to the New Covenant, “And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” Only the blood of Jesus can make us clean (Rev. 7:14), and in baptism, sprinkling with water signifies the sprinkling of Christ’s blood which alone can cleanse us. If immersion is the only proper mode of baptism, then we would expect to find in all of these prophecies of the New Covenant, some reference or allusion to immersion, but instead we are only given references to sprinkling.
Argument #2 – Israel Was Not Baptized by Immersion
The second argument is that the nation of Israel was baptized by waters from above (pouring/sprinkling), while God’s enemies were immersed by the flood.
According to the Apostle Paul, when God delivered Israel from Egypt, and they passed through the Red Sea, they “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2). Since Paul certainly knew what baptism was, we would do well to ask, “In what mode was the nation of Israel baptized?”
When we read the account of Israel’s baptism in Exodus 14, we find that “the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground” (Ex. 14:22), and Psalm 77:17 says that during this crossing, “the clouds poured out water.” Notice that Israel is baptized not by being submerged under water (immersion), but by water that falls from above (rain). The only people who were immersed during the Red Sea crossing were the Egyptians.
If we are attentive readers of Scripture, we will notice that the Red Sea crossing is a recapitulation of Noah’s flood. In both instances, God’s enemies are immersed while God’s elect are delivered via waters from above (rain pouring/sprinkling). The Apostle Peter tells us that Noah’s flood is a picture of New Testament baptism, “…in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:20-21). Therefore, we could ask the same question of the mode of Noah’s baptism. Noah and his family were not immersed in the flood, they found shelter in the Ark (a picture of Christ and the Church) and were cleansed by the heavenly rain.
Argument #3 – Baptism Signifies Being Born from Waters Above
The third argument is that baptism signifies being born from above by water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5). Only baptism by pouring or sprinkling can capture this symbolism of being cleansed by the waters from the firmament.
On the second day of creation, God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters” (Gen. 1:6). In the Bible, the firmament is a barrier that separates God’s heavenly throne room, from the earthly heaven and realm below. In Psalm 148, we read, “Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, And ye waters that be above the heavens.” And in Psalm 150 it says, “Praise God in his sanctuary: Praise him in the firmament of his power.” Notice that there is a heavenly sea that separates us from God (Rev. 4:6) which the psalmist calls, “waters above the heavens.” It is this firmament barrier that we must pass through if we want to be “seated with Christ in heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6).
In Hebrews 9, we are told that the earthly sanctuaries of the tabernacle and temple are copies of God’s heavenly sanctuary. When we compare how the furnishings and architecture of these earthly sanctuaries correspond to their heavenly realities, we notice that the waters in the bronze laver correspond to the waters above the firmament. In the temple courtyard this was illustrated by the presence of a large bronze sea which had twelve oxen underneath it (1 Kings 7:23-44, 2 Chr. 4:15). This huge bronze reservoir, about 15 feet in diameter and standing at least 10 feet off the ground, could hold over 10,000 gallons of water. The priests were required to wash their hands and feet from the water in this bronze laver before conducting their priestly work, otherwise they would die (Ex. 30:18-21). This took place not by full body immersion (swimming in the bronze sea), but by drawing water out of the laver of cleansing and pouring it down upon the hands and feet or into a rolling water cart (1 Kings 7:27-39). Symbolically, the priests had to be cleansed by the waters of the firmament before entering the holy place to serve in God’s sanctuary. The same is true for Christians.
In John 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The word that is translated here as “again” is the Greek word ἄνωθεν (anothen), which can be rightly translated as “from above.” This is actually how it is translated a few verses later in John 3:31, “He that cometh from above (ἄνωθεν) is above all.” What does it mean then to be “born from above?” Jesus elaborates in John 3:5 when he says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Almost all commentators agree that being “born of water” is a reference to baptism. When we are baptized in the waters of the firmament, just as the priests were, we are granted entrance into the holy of holies. It is on this basis alone that we can “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) and have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). In Revelation 4:5-6, John says that “before the throne was a sea of glass” and “the seven Spirits of God.” This mirrors what Jesus says in John 3, a man must be born by water from above and by the Holy Spirit if he wants to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
When we step back and observe this symbolic pattern, baptism by pouring or sprinkling from above is the only mode of baptism that matches this deep symbolism in Scripture. Baptism by immersion, wherein one is dunked or pushed under the waters, is nowhere to be found as a sign of salvation in Scripture. It is only by being born from above by water and the Spirit that one can pass through the firmament and enter heaven.
Argument #4 – Baptism Signifies the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit from Above
The fourth argument is that water baptism signifies the outpouring of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and therefore only baptism by pouring/sprinkling from above captures this symbolism.
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples in Acts 1:5, “For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” While John’s baptism was for repentance, Jesus’ baptism in the Triune name was a baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11), and yet this fiery-spiritual baptism was also a water baptism (see Acts 19:1-7).
The first baptism “by water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) took place at Pentecost when, “there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). The Apostle Peter identifies this outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:29, Acts 2:17, Is. 44:3). When the pastor pours the baptismal waters upon the head of the recipient, he is signifying this Pentecostal outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
Argument #5 – The Unlikelihood of Immersions in the New Testament
While the previous four arguments have the force of absolute Scriptural authority, this last argument is one of probability and likelihood. We do not rest our whole case for sprinkling or pouring upon this argument but use it only to show how unlikely baptism by immersion would have been in the apostolic church.
In the world of the New Testament, houses did not have bathtubs with running water like we have today. And even if they did, achieving a full body immersion would require an exceptionally large tub. This lack of large bathtubs in ancient homes, and the relative scarcity of water, makes baptism by immersion highly unlikely. When we survey the various household baptisms in Acts, immersion becomes almost an impossibility.
In Acts 16, the Philippian Jailer is converted and baptized along with his whole household. We are told explicitly that this took place in the early morning after midnight (Acts 16:25), and that they were baptized during “the same hour of the night” (Acts 16:33). It is hard to imagine how an immersion could have taken place in the Philippian Jailer’s home under these circumstances. The same could be said for how the Gentiles could be immersed inside of Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:47), or how Paul could be immersed in Ananias’ house (Acts 9:17). While not totally impossible, it strains credulity to see immersion as the exclusive mode of baptism in the book of Acts. Baptism via pouring or sprinkling is far more likely when one considers the scarcity of water and the architecture of ancient homes.
Answering Common Objections
Objection 1. Wasn’t Jesus baptized by immersion?
It is commonly objected that both Jesus and the Ethiopian Eunuch were baptized by immersion. Mark 1:9-10 says that Jesus was “baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up (ἀναβαίνω) from the water, he saw the heavens parting…” How can Jesus be “coming up from the water” unless he went down (and was immersed) under the water?
The answer to this question is that the “coming up from the water” refers not to his head coming out of the water after John the Baptist immersed him, but to him ascending out of the water as anyone must to do to get back to dry land. This same word for “coming up” (ἀναβαίνω) is used in Acts 8:39 to refer to both Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch when “they were come up (ἀναβαίνω) out of the water.” Obviously, Phillip was not immersed, he was the one administering the baptism, and yet both Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch are said to “come up out of the water.” It is in this same sense that Jesus comes up out of the water, not as one emerging from immersion, but emerging from the Jordan River.
Objection 2. According to Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:11, baptism is a burial, and immersion is the most fitting mode to signify burial.
It is absolutely true that in baptism we are buried with Christ. However, there are two things we must consider here. First, we must remember that the point of Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:11 is that baptism signifies union with Christ in his death and resurrection, not just his burial. It is arbitrary to make burial (and not crucifixion or resurrection) the analogy for how water is applied. Second, even if the mode of baptism was intended to signify burial, Jesus did not receive a modern burial wherein he was “immersed” six feet underground in a casket. It is anachronistic to read our modern ideas of burial back into the New Testament and then make that the controlling metaphor for our mode of baptism.
We are told in the gospels that Jesus was buried in a garden in “a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41). Joseph of Arimathea had cut this tomb out of the rock, making it like a cave (Matt. 27:60). At the entrance to the tomb, there was a stone that could be rolled away, and sufficient space for an angel to sit on top of it (Matt. 28:2). This suggests the entrance was level with the ground, and then there probably was a stairwell which forced someone to stoop down to look into it (Luke 24:12). Inside, Jesus’ body was laid upon a platform that was high enough off the ground for someone to sit on it (Mark 16:5, John 20:12). Notice this whole image of burial is more like being laid to sleep upon a stone table inside a cave, rather than being “drowned” or immersed by dirt underground.
As stated earlier, the spiritual realities exhibited and conferred in baptism are far more important than the mode in which water is applied. Our hope is that this paper has given you, at the very least, a fresh perspective on the meaning of baptism, even if you are not persuaded that sprinkling/pouring is the most fitting mode. It is in the spirit of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians that we submit this treatise to the church: “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:3-6).