To my knowledge there are four basic objections to baptism by sprinkling, so, as promised, let’s deal with them.
- Immersion is a symbol of our burial. This is the one that was mentioned most frequently in the comments to the last baptism post, and it’s based on two primary passages.
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:2-4)
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. (Colossians 2:11-13)
The argument is that immersion properly symbolizes our death and resurrection by putting us under water (burial in the ground) and then raising us out of the water again (resurrection out of the ground).
There are a few problems with analogizing immersion to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
- Jesus wasn’t buried under the ground.
- Jesus wasn’t submerged in water when he died.
- Jesus didn’t come out of the ground. Far from coming out of some physical medium with it falling or dripping off him, he didn’t even disturb his burial clothes.
- No-one saw Jesus rise from the dead.
- Neither passage mentions water.
These two passages explain the purpose of baptism, not its mode (though there is a connection between purpose and mode). Baptism unites us to Christ, who through his atoning work on the cross gives us power to overcome the deadly effects of sin.
The question Paul is answering in Romans 6 is “Should we continue to sin?”, not “How do we get baptized?”
If we are to treat Romans and Colossians as instructive on the issue of mode, why not also throw in Galatians 3:27?
All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
By what means do you use Romans and Colossians as relevant for mode, yet exclude this? Immersion can’t realistically be analogous to clothing. We wear clothes around and on us, and we don’t expect them to fall off or dry up as soon as we’ve put them on.
All three passages explain the purpose of baptism, not its mode.
- Noah and Moses symbolize baptism by immersion. Here are the passages that are associated with this argument:
Our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-3)
In [the ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. (I Peter 3:20-21)
This argument does show us some water, but not in a way that would support immersion. The point of both is that the people whom God saved were NOT immersed. It was the Egyptians and the sinners who were fatally immersed in both cases. In fact, the Children of Israel didn’t even get wet, so the passage can’t even be used to support sprinkling.
If we interpret the purpose of baptism as being union with Christ, we see what’s happening with Moses. Through their experiences together (the cloud) and their miraculous salvation (the sea), they are united to Moses.
- Jesus came out of the water. This argument says that there are several passages that describe immersion because we see participants coming up out of the water.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. (Matthew 3:16)
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)
These passages do show a connection between water and baptism, though not immersion. First, they certainly don’t exclude sprinkling. If all the parties had stood at the edge of a river or pond (who knows if Philip’s wasn’t just a puddle?), they might accurately be described as coming out of the water when they were finished.
Second, the point of Matthew’s account is not to show the method of baptism but the sequence of events. Note the emphasis on chronology: “as soon as,” followed by “at that moment.” This is a passage about when, not where.
Third, if baptism by immersion is a symbol of death, burial and resurrection, Matthew seems to have jumped the gun in his description. He says, “As soon as Jesus was baptized…” Surely Jesus would have to have come back out of the water to complete the resurrection step. After the baptism is complete, then we have Matthew tell us about coming up out of the water. If this is intended to show Jesus in the act of emerging from immersion, you need to explain how he comes out of the water twice, yet only goes in once.
Fourth, for Acts to describe baptism by immersion, Philip would have had to have baptized himself, in violation of the one-baptism rule (and common sense). Note that “both” Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, then “they” came out of it. In terms of their spatial relationship with the water, what happened to one happened to the other. If the point is that the eunuch is immersed here, so is Philip.
- The Greek word for baptism means immersion. This argument looks at the etymology of baptizo and finds that, according to Strongs, it has three possible meanings:
- to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)
- to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one’s self, bathe
- to overwhelm
Given that we don’t see any unambiguous descriptions of baptism by immersion in the Bible, this is perhaps the strongest of all the objections. Baptizo can describe immersion, though it doesn’t exclude baptism by sprinkling or pouring. The problem with the etymological argument is that it requires us to take an ambiguous term (immersion or pouring) and read its cultural definitions into Scripture.
Assuming that God knew what he was doing when he wrote his Word, wouldn’t it be wiser and safer to let God interpret his own terms? Outside the context of Scripture, baptizo certainly can describe immersion, but within Scripture it doesn’t match anything else God tells us about the mode of baptism. Through the Old and New Testaments, we see repeated and consistent descriptions of sprinkling. Unless we can see a clear change in direction in the New Testament (and I can’t), we need to read God’s definition into the term.
One more point. If baptism is a picture of God’s grace to us when we were dead in sins, which mode would best picture that?
One in which we actively step into a passive pool of water that’s just sitting there waiting for us?
Or one in which water is actively poured over our stationary bodies?