The Bible, Old and New Testaments, distinguishes between the acts of immersion, sprinkling, and pouring.
Almost all denominations administer baptism. All those who do, say that baptism
is an important rite in the life of a Christian. There is, however, controversy
the reason why and age when a person should be baptized. We want to address a third controversy. Namely, what is the proper way to baptize a person? Is it necessary to immerse a person in water, or is it acceptable to sprinkle (aspersion) or pour water on him (affusion)?
There are four words related to baptism in the New Testment (baptisma, baptismos,
bapto, baptizo). Except for baptisma, these words are also used by ancient secular
Although the Bible student may easily locate entire books devoted to the study of these words, a survey of standard lexcons will be sufficient to establish their range of meaning
(read lexicons and dictionaries carefully, including the introductory comments explaining the editor's method). Depending on the context in which these words are found they may mean to dip, dye, immerse, plunge, sink, bathe, drench, soak, overwhelm, flood, submerge, or wash. The common element in these uses is the abundance of water (or other liquid) involved. Drenching, soaking, flooding, bathing, and washing cannot be accomplished with a small amount of water.
Notice that in certain contexts these words might not mean to immerse (proponents
of sprinkling sometimes make a point of this), especially when used figuratively
Mk. 10:38). However, baptism is an appropriate figure of speech in these instances because of the complete overwhelming of the subject implied by the word. Though baptism may not always mean immersion, it is never equivalent to sprinkling or pouring. Jesus did not ask James and John if they were willing to endure a sprinkling of trial, nor did the
apostles experience a minor outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The advocates of aspersion and affusion need to prove that baptizo describes what they practice. They cannot.
In the Old Testament (LXX) the words baptize/baptism are found in such contexts
as the following: a priest is to dip his finger in blood (Lev. 4); articles
made unclean are to be put
into water (Lev. 11:32), a live bird is to be dipped in the blood of a slain bird (Lev. 14:6f); Naaman dipped seven times in the Jordan (2 Kgs. 5:14). In the New Testament the rich man asked if Lazarus could dip his finger in water (Lk. 16:24), and Jesus dipped His morsel while eating (Jno.13:26). One interesting extra-biblical occurrence is found in the Odyssey when Odysseus blinds Polyphemus by gouging out his eye with a stake. He drove it into the eye of the cyclops as when "a smith dips (bapto) a great axe or adze in cold water amid loud hissing to temper it."
The Bible clearly distinguishes between the acts of dipping, sprinkling, and pouring by using different words for these actions. We find these three words used in the same Old Testament context in the instructions governing the sin offering (Lev. 4, LXX). The priest was to dip (bapto) his finger in the blood of the sacrifice, sprinkle (prosraino) it seven times before the Lord, and then pour (ekcheo) the remaining blood out at the base of the altar (vss. 1-7). Similar distinctions are made in the New Testament. If the writers had wanted to say that people had water sprinkled or poured on them when they became Christians, there were words available to convey the idea. However, those words were not used because they suggest actions different from what actually took place. The word baptize was used because people were immersed in water.
Paul compares what happens in baptism to the death, burial, and resurrection
of Christ (Rom. 6:2-5; Col. 2:12). The apostle reminds Christians that they
have died to sin (Rom. 6:
2), have been buried with Christ through baptism (vs. 4), and have been raised to a new kind of life (vs. 4). It is not just that Christians are buried with Christ, but that they are buried with Him in the act of baptism. The Colossians passage says that we have been buried with Christ "in" baptism. Immersion is the only practice that replicates the gospel. As the penitent believer descends into the baptismal grave and is raised up a new creature, a spiritual union is established between him/her and the crucified-resurrected Christ (Rom. 6:5) Sprinkling and pouring prove to be inadequate substitutes for Scriptural baptism.
Defenses of sprinkling and pouring take various routes. Some suggest that there would not have been enough water in Jerusalem to immerse 3000 in one day (Acts 2). Some argue that since we are cleansed from sin by a sprinkling of Christ's blood (Heb. 12:24), baptism may be administered by sprinkling as well (but notice that our hearts are sprinkled from an evil conscience when our bodies are washed with pure water (Heb.10:22). Other rguments are made (some try to redefine the words), but they seem to be produced by a desire to justify established practice.
We have attempted to show what Jesus instructed His apostles to do (Matt. 28:18-20) and what they practiced. We are to continue in the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42). If the New Testament teaches that people are to be immersed for the remission of their sins, than that is what we are obligated to practice. Anything else consititutes error. We have not been able to deal at length with arguments in favor of sprinkling or pouring. We have simply attempted to establish the truth hoping that in this we will be equipped to identify error when confronted by it. May God bless our efforts.
By Robert Hutto, in Biblical Insights, Vol.5, No. 7, July, 2005.
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