Subscribe to this page via e-mail here - Subscribe

Article 02 - Baptism - Who? How? Why?

Baptism: Who? How? Why?

Jon Gary Williams

Who Is Subject To Baptism?

The question of who should be baptized is extremely important. At the center of this issue is the practice of infant baptism. Such a practice is widely accepted in today's religious world, by the Catholic church as well as most major protestant denominations. It is taught that babies are proper subjects of baptism. Is such a doctrine authorized by God? 

I. The practice of infant baptism is a spin-off of the doctrine of "inherited sin," also known as "original" or "Adamic" sin.

It is believed that all babies are born guilty of the sin of Adam - - that they inherit his sin. Some churches teach that baptism removes inherited sin. Hence, they conclude that infants should be baptized. Some churches teach that baptism is for those who are already saved, and since infants are automatically and "unconditionally" saved from inherited sin, they should be baptized. This doctrine is shown to be false by the following.

A. Infants do not inherit sin. (Ezek. 18:20)

B. Infants are sinless and, hence, are already fit for heaven. (Lk. 18:15,16)

C. Sin is transgression of God's law. But infants cannot break God's law. (I Jn. 3:4)

D. If infants are guilty of sin, why would Jesus admonish his followers to become like them? (Matt. 18:3)

II. The doctrine of infant baptism was unknown to the New Testament church. It was not practiced until more than 500 years after Christ. That this belief is false is shown by the following.

A. Prior to baptism there are certain prerequisites which must be met. Only those who can meet these conditions are proper subjects for baptism.

1. One must be able to be taught. (Matt. 28:19; Jn. 6:45; cf. Acts 2:41)
2. One must be able to have faith. (Mk. 16:16; cf. Acts 18:8)
3. One must be able to repent. (Acts 2:38)
4. One must be able to confess. (Rom. 10:10)

B. Baptism is a command. Only those who can receive a command are subject to baptism. (Acts 10:48)

C. Through baptism one acquires a good conscience. Only those who can acquire such a conscience are subject to baptism. (I Pet. 3:21)

III. Advocates of infant baptism attempt to defend this doctrine in the following ways.

A. It is claimed that since infants are born in sin, they should be baptized. (For a response see section I.)

B. It is claimed that since whole households were baptized, and that since households some- times have infants, therefore infants were baptized. (See Acts 16:31-34)

1. It is merely assumed that infants were present in the jailer's home.

2. But, even if infants were present, to insist that they were baptized is to force a meaning on this text the inspired writer never intended. (This is an unnatural explanation and contradicts plain Bible teaching.)

3. The context clearly shows that babies were not in this home. Paul and Silas preached to "all" that were in the house, but, infants cannot be preached to. Likewise, those who were baptized "rejoiced," but, infants cannot rejoice.

C. It is claimed that infant baptism is parallel to the infant circumcision of the Old Testament.

1. However, the two are not parallel at all.
a. Circumcision was a symbol which identified infants who were already a part of God's chosen nation. (Jewish babies became a part of that nation at birth.)
b. On the other hand, baptism is the point at which people become a part of God's spiritual nation, the church.
c. The real parallel is between birth and baptism. As Jews were born physically into God's family, so people now are born spiritually (by baptism) into God's family.

2. The Biblical correlation between circumcision and baptism is that whereas circumcision severed the flesh (physically), so baptism severs sin (spiritually). (Col. 2:11, 12)

3. Only male infants were circumcised. Hence, infant baptism must be limited to baby boys and, likewise, can only be done on the eighth day. (Lev. 12:1-3)

How Should One Be Baptized?

How one is baptized is a crucial matter, for it is fundamental to the Christian system. The act of baptism is so explicitly addressed in the Bible that no unbiased mind can misunderstand it. Though it is taught that there are different "modes" of baptism (viz., immersion, sprinkling, pouring), the fact is there are no different modes. Baptism is the mode! There is only one way baptism can be scripturally performed.

I. What is the definition of baptism?

A. Words always inherit the primary meaning of the root form from which they are derived.
1. The root of baptism is "bapto" which means to "dip." Baptism and its related forms (baptize, baptist) inherit this root meaning.
2. Vine says: "baptism...from bapto, to dip"

B. Thayer, recognized as one of the greatest authorities on New Testament Greek, and head of the translation committee of the American Standard Version, gives the following definition of baptism: "to dip, dip under, immerse."

C. All other Greek lexicographers agree on this meaning. Some of the better known are:

1. Liddell & Scott - "to dip, dip under"
2. Cremer - "to immerse, to submerge"
3. Bagster - "to dip, to emerge"
4. Greenfield - "immerse, emerge, submerge, sink"
5. Donnegan - "to submerge, to sink thoroughly"
6. Berry - "to immerse, to submerge"

II. Baptism is not a translated word.

A. In England, in 1611, when the King James Version was translated, the universal practice of baptism was sprinkling and pouring. The Church of England, as well as other protestant denominations, inherited this practice from Catholicism.

B. To literally translate baptism as "immersion" would have conflicted with the accepted practice of the Church of England and would have been embarrassing. So, baptism and its related words were simply transliterated - that is, they were left in their original forms, but given anglicized endings. Hence, baptisma became baptism, baptidzo became baptize and baptistees became baptist. In this, the true meaning of these words was disguised.

C. When reading the Bible it is important to remember that most English translations have retained these transliterated forms.

III. Sprinkling and pouring are not proper definitions of baptism.

A. If baptism is to be by sprinkling or pouring, is it not strange that the New Testament writers failed to use words that conveyed these meanings.

B. There are specific words for both sprinkle and pour.
1. "Rhantizo" is the word for sprinkle. (Heb. 9:13, 21)
2. "Ballo" and "katacheo" are the words for pour. (Jn. 13:5; Matt. 26:7)

IV. What about dictionary definitions?

A. Some dictionaries give "sprinkle" or "pour" as alternative definitions of baptism. From this some have assumed sprinkling and pouring are proper methods of baptizing.

B. However, these are only acquired definitions - meanings which have come about due to changing ideas about baptism. (The original definition, of course, is "immersion." Most dictionaries give the original meaning first, followed by the acquired meaning[s].)

C. It is misleading to equate the acquired meanings of baptism with its original definition.

Testimony of well known religious leaders

The renowned religious leaders listed here rejected the practice of sprinkling and pouring for baptism. However, they were affiliated with churches noted for these practices, which makes their testimony especially significant.

"The life of the Christian being hid with Christ in God, his death with Christ is a death to sin, his resurrection with Christ is a resurrection to life. The dipping under the water of baptism is his union with Christ's death; his rising out of the waters of baptism is a resurrection with Christ."

J. B. LIGHTFOOT (Episcopal)
"Baptism is the grave of the old man, and the birth of the new. As he sinks beneath the baptismal waters, the believer buries there all his corrupt affections and past sins; as he emerges thence he rises regenerate, quickened to new hopes and a new life."

MARTIN LUTHER (founder of Lutherism)
"The name baptism is Greek, in Latin it can be rendered immersion, when we immerse anything in water, that it may be all covered with water. And although that custom has now grown out of use...yet they ought to be entirely immersed and immediately drawn out. For this the etymology of the word seems to suggest."

F. BRENNER (Catholic)
"Thirteen hundred years was baptism generally and regularly an immersion of the person under water, and only extraordinary cases a sprinkling or pouring with water; the latter was disputed as a mode of baptism, nay, even forbidden."

JOHN CALVIN (founder of Presbyterianism)
"The very word baptize signifies to immerse; and it is certain that immersion was the practice of the primitive church." Of John 3:23 he wrote: "Here we perceive how baptism was administered among the ancients, for they immersed the whole body."

(Presbyterian) "Immersion, and not sprinkling, was unquestionably the original form."

(co-founder of Methodism) Of Romans 6:4 he wrote: "We are buried with him, alluding to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion."

DEAN STANLEY (Episcopal)
"For the first thirteen centuries the almost universal practice of baptism was that of which is the very meaning of the word baptism - that those who were baptized were plunged, submerged, immersed into water."

ADAM CLARK (Methodist)
Of Romans 6:4 he wrote: "It is probable that the apostle there alludes to the mode of administering baptism by immersion, the whole body being put under water.

LAYMAN COLEMAN (Presbyterian)
"Immersion was unquestionably very early the common mode of baptism."

"For several centuries after the establishment of Christianity, baptism was usually conferred by immersion; but since the twelfth century the practice of baptizing by affusion has prevailed in the Catholic church, as this manner is attended with less inconvenience than baptism by immersion."

RICHARD BAXTER (Presbyterian)
"It is commonly confessed by us...that in the apostles' time the baptized were dipped over head in water."

This testimony is not biased and, therefore, can be considered trustworthy. The obvious meaning of baptism caused these men to speak honestly about the subject.

Baptism in the New Testament

We have seen that the definition of the Greek work baptism is immersion. We have also seen that most of the great leaders of the Reformation understood this to be the meaning of baptism. But more important is to ask what the Bible has to say. The New Testament is quite clear on this as seen in the following passages.

Matthew 3:6 "in Jordan" (cf. Mark 1:5)

Was it necessary for people to go to the Jordan river merely to have water sprinkled or poured on them? Though possible, this is highly improbable. A small amount of water would have been sufficient. Going to the Jordan clearly points to the fact that baptism was done by immersion. People were baptized in the Jordan river. Could this mean that the people had water sprinkled or poured on them while in the Jordan. Not at all. The word translated "in" (εις) carries the meaning of "into," hence, they were baptized "into" the Jordan.

Words having the same meaning are interchangeable. If "sprinkle" or "pour" mean baptism, then when exchanged for baptism they should convey the same meaning. But, notice how awkward these verses would read: "And were sprinkled (poured) of him in [into] Jordan" or "and were all sprinkled (poured) of him in [into] the river of Jordan." This is not good English to say the least. Water can be sprinkled or poured on people, but people cannot be sprinkled or poured in (into) a river. However, people can be immersed in a river.

John 3:5 "born of water"

Jesus, in describing the act of baptism, said one is "born of water." The word "born" means a birth or a coming forth. A plant is born when it comes forth from the ground. A child is born when it comes forth from its mother's womb. To be "born (or come forth) of water" one has to first be submerged in water. In no way can it be said that one is born of water by sprinkling or pouring.

John 3:23 "much water"
This verse clearly states that John was baptizing in Aenon "because there was much water there." The implication is obvious. Much water is not needed to in order to sprinkle or pour. To the contrary, very little water is needed. However, it does require much water to immerse. (Notice again the expression "baptizing in [into].")

Acts 8:36 "came unto a certain water"
Water was never brought to anyone for baptism. Rather, people went to the water. Coming to water excludes the idea of sprinkling or pouring. Note: A long, tiring journey such as the eunuch was taking would require provisions including drinking water. If, in baptism, he was sprinkled or poured there would have been ample water right there in the chariot, and there would have been no need to "come unto a certain water." Immersion again is clearly implied.

Acts 8:38 "went down...into the water"

The Bible expressly states that both men (the one doing the baptizing and the one being baptized) went down into the water. How absurd to suggest that both men would go down into the water if sprinkling or pouring is all that was being done. Such would have been both unnecessary and troublesome.

Acts 8:39 "come up out of the water"
This action clearly infers that immersion had taken place. Coming up out of the water shows that something more than sprinkling or pouring some of it was intended. That sprinkling or pouring can be presumed from the action described here is absurd.

Romans 6:4 " baptism"

This is one of the clearest passages on the action of water baptism. Here it is specifically described as a burial. When one is buried there is a complete covering up - a complete immersion. No one can be buried with Jesus if water is only sprinkled or poured.

Some have tried to evade the force of this passage by suggesting the term "by baptism" means "with baptism," implying that water is administered on a person. However, this is false. The word "by" means "through" and is so translated in the American Standard Version as well as many others. In addition, note the following parallel reference.

Colossians 2:12 " baptism"
This passage erases all doubt as to the proper action of baptizing. It distinctly states that people are buried "in baptism." There is no way this expression can be interpreted to mean sprinkling or pouring, and to attempt to do so is a perversion of the text.

Romans 6:5 " the likeness of his death"

Here the act of baptism is pictured as a "planting." When a seed is planted it is put completely under the soil. So it is when a person is baptized - he is put under the water. And the force of this meaning is strengthened by the fact that baptism is compared with Christ's death and burial. As he was buried in death, so lost people are buried by baptism "in the likeness of his death." In no way can sprinkling or pouring represent the likeness of Christ's burial.

Romans 6:5 "the likeness of his resurrection"
Being raised from the water of baptism is shown to be the "likeness" of Christ's resurrection. But, there can be no resurrection without there first being a burial. No one can be raised with Christ until he has been buried with him. And since neither sprinkling nor pouring constitute a burial, it is impossible to be raised with Christ in either act. The only way one can be raised with Christ is to first be buried with him in baptism.

I Corinthians 10:1, 2 " the cloud and in the sea"

The act of baptism is made obvious from this text. At the Red Sea the Israelites were "under the cloud" and "passed through the sea." Neither sprinkling nor pouring fit the description of baptism found in this verse, and exchanging these words for baptized shows this to be true. "And were all sprinkled (poured) the cloud and in the sea."