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7. Mode of Baptism

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As we look at church history, there have been several modes of baptism. A mode is a manner or way something is done. The primary modes of baptism have been sprinkling, immersion, and pouring.

What are some brief reasons why churches and denominations use these differing modes?

The Case for Sprinkling

There are several reasons commonly used to support sprinkling:

1. There were certain Old Testament ordinances that required sprinkling that symbolized their cleansing, and these sprinklings are once called “baptisms” in Hebrews 9:10.

For example, Leviticus 14:7 says, “and sprinkle it seven times on the one being cleansed from the disease, pronounce him clean, and send the live bird away over the open countryside.” Exodus 24:8 says, “So Moses took the blood and splashed it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” Likewise, as mentioned, in Hebrews 9:10 the Greek word for baptism is used to describe these Old Testament sprinklings—called “washings” in the text. It says, “They served only for matters of food and drink and various washings; they are external regulations imposed until the new order came.”

2. Sprinkling symbolizes the cleansing we experience from God in the New Covenant.

Ezekiel 36:25-27 says,

I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations.

3. There are times when immersion is improbable, as in places where water is sparse such as a desert. This also may be true when someone is deathly sick.

4. Historically, the majority of churches have baptized through sprinkling.1

The Case for Immersion

What are supports for immersion?

1. The Greek word “baptizo” used of baptism naturally means to plunge, dip, or immerse something.2 It was used of a cloth being put in die to change the color. The whole cloth would have to be immersed.

2. The fact that the baptisms in Scripture occurred in large bodies of water, such as with Christ and Philip, supports immersion.

Matthew 3:16 says, “After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him.” It is very clear that Jesus went into a body of water to be baptized. That’s why it says, “he was coming up out of the water.”

Also, we see this with Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8:38-39. It says,

So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing.

Here we see the words “down into” and “up out of.” The immersionist would ask the question, “Why go down into a body of water just to sprinkle or pour water on somebody?” The use of large bodies of water and the terminology of going “down” and coming “up” strongly suggest immersion.

3. Immersion seems to best symbolize our baptism into Christ’s body and his death and resurrection.

First Corinthians 12:13 states that we have been baptized with the Spirit into Christ and have become his body. It says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.”

Also, in Scripture, the word “baptism” is used of the believer’s death and resurrection with Christ. Romans 6:4 says, “Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.”

Immersionists would argue only full immersion could picture us becoming fully immersed into Christ’s body and our death and resurrection with him.

4. Historically, Gentile converts to Judaism were immersed. They stripped naked and then dipped themselves fully into a tank of water. Practicing immersion would seem to naturally follow as Gentiles became part of Christ’s church in the New Covenant.3

The Case for Pouring

What are supports for pouring, the least practiced view of the three?

1. It is argued that pouring best pictures the Holy Spirit coming onto the life of a believer. For example, Joel 2:28-29 (which is repeated in Acts 2:17-18), says,

After all of this, I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams; your young men will see prophetic visions. Even on male and female servants I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

2. There is evidence that this was practiced at times in ancient history. There are ancient drawings in catacombs of people being waist deep in water with a person pouring water onto them.4

Why is there so much diversity in the church over the mode of baptism? Undoubtedly, the reason for such diversity is because Scripture never clearly commands an exact procedure for baptism—how much water and how it should be done. Why? We can be sure that what is most important to God, he is very clear on. He is very clear about salvation through faith alone and the need for repentance. But in this area, he is not as clear. What is clear is that believers should be baptized as soon as possible after salvation (Acts 2:38).

If God wanted to be clear about the amount of water, he could have been. Consider the great details God gave for Old Testament ordinances, such as the procedures for the grain and drink offerings in Numbers 15:4-5:

then the one who presents his offering to the Lord must bring a grain offering of one-tenth of an ephah of finely ground flour mixed with one fourth of a hin of olive oil. You must also prepare one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering with the burnt offering or the sacrifice for each lamb.

There had to be 1/10 of an ephah of flour, 1/4 of a hin of oil, and 1/4 of a hin of wine. If God wanted us to be specific in the amount of water and the procedure of baptism, he could have been, as with other ordinances in the Old Testament. This is why there has been considerable diversity on the mode of baptism throughout history. For this reason, it is wise for Christians to not be divisive over the mode of baptism.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What are the three modes for baptism and some evidences for them?
  3. Which mode do you think is most biblical and why?
  4. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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1 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 490). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

2 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 967). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

3 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 491). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

4 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 491). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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