Does Baptism Mean Immersion?

by Jack D. Kinneer

July-August 2000. New Horizons Magazine

12th Century Baptismal Font

12th Century English Baptismal Font

Presbyterians practice baptism by pouring or sprinkling water on a person. Many Christians object since everyone knows that baptism means immersion. If fact, if you look up the Greek word “to baptize”in a dictionary of Greek terms (lexicon), you will find that it lists as one of the meanings: “to immerse.” So then, why don’t Presbyterians immerse people when performing a baptism? The answer is that the writers of the New Testament never use the words “to baptize” and “baptism” in the sense of immerse or immersion. Most of the time the word simply means “wash.” In a derived sense, “to baptize” also means “to be joined” to or “to be united to.” This meaning came from the ancient Jewish practice that a Gentile convert was received into the Jewish nation by a washing ritual. In the Old Testament, the priests were ordained, that is, joined to their priestly vocation by sprinkling. So too, a person excluded from the camp by leprosy, was reunited to the people of God by a sprinkling ritual when his disease had been healed. So the word “to baptize” came to mean “to be united to.”

So then, in the New Testament “to baptize” means either to wash or to unite. In several instances, it cannot possibly mean “to immerse.” Here are two cases. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.

In this passage, the Israelites are said to have been baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. What would happen if we translated the verb “baptize” as “immerse.” Then it would say, “all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were immersed into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” If you went to Sunday School as a child, you know that such an interpretation is obviously false. The Israelites were not immersed in the sea. The Egyptian army was immersed. Likewise, the cloud never enveloped the Israelites. The cloud of God went before them, and stood behind them, but never were they immersed in the cloud. In fact, only Moses was allowed to go into the cloud to meet God.

A similar instance is found in 1 Peter 3:18-22 where Peter draws a comparison between the flood of Noah and Christian baptism. He writes,

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .

Peter says the water which saved Noah corresponds to the what now saves us, baptism. Just as Noah was saved through water, now Christians are saved through the water of baptism. Could immersion in water be an antitype of Noah’s salvation through water? Of course not, for Noah and his family were not immersed. The wicked, however, were immersed. Again we see that the immersion in water is not sign of salvation, but rather the wrath of God against the wicked. Immersion in water does not picture what happened to Noah, but pictures what happened to the rebellious human race.

Throughout the Old Testament God’s people were cleansed and prepared to meet God by being sprinkled with water (or sometimes with blood). Never are God’s people immersed as a means of salvation. Immersion is divine destruction whether for Pharaoh’s army or the unbelieving of Noah’s day. Interestingly, both Noah and the Israelites at the Red Sea were sprinkled while the enemies of God were immersed. We all know that it rained on Noah and his family in the ark. But Psalm 77:17 tells us that at the crossing of the Red Sea “the clouds poured out water.” So then, the pouring or sprinkling of water is a sign of salvation. Immersion in water is a sign of condemnation. Since Christian baptism is a sign of salvation, its proper mode is pouring or sprinkling, not immersion.

Isaiah foresaw this for he prophesied that the Spirit of God would be poured out on the people of God like rain from heaven. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants.” (44:3) Similarly, Ezekiel foresaw the God’s salvation. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” (36:25) These passages show us that the biblical mode of baptism is pouring or sprinkling water.

It might, however, be objected that baptism pictures our burial with Christ and, therefore, immersion is a more fitting symbol. Paul says in Romans 6:3-4,

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

There are two problems with this view. First, Jesus was not buried in a hole in the ground and then covered over with soil, immersed in the earth so to speak. Rather he was buried in a cave in the side of a hill and a rock was rolled in front of the entrance. Immersion in water is not an obvious symbol of burial in a cave. Second, the word baptize in this passage is not used in its common meaning of wash (whether by immersion or pouring), but in its derived meaning of “to be united to.” What Paul clearly means is “as many of us as were united to Christ Jesus were united to His death?” In baptism we are united to Christ because we are washed in his name. If we are joined to Christ, we must be joined to him in his death. And also in his resurrection.

So then, Presbyterians practice baptism by pouring or sprinkling water because this is the biblical mode of baptism. Immersion is symbolically inappropriate as a sign of salvation. It rather pictures destruction. As God himself said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you” (Ezekiel 36:25).

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