Baptism by PouringFresco on the catacomb of Marcellinus
and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome

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The Meaning and Mode of Christian Baptism
First, the meaning. The beginning of the trail is when Christian Baptism was ordained. It was ordained when the resurrected Lord Jesus issued the Great Commission: Matthew 2819Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, ...

Christian Baptism is therefore trinitarian, that is, both separately and unitedly in the names of:

Thus a relationship with each member of the Godhead is signified and sealed. It is about:

a) having our sins washed away so that we may approach God as our Father:
Acts 2216 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, ...

b) being united (Romans 65) with God the Son (joined to Jesus Christ, being ‘in’ Christ):
Galatians 327 for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

c) God the Holy Spirit being poured out on us:
Acts 1045 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. ... 47"Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have."

Secondly, what about the mode of baptism, i.e. how it should be performed? Meanings a) and b) above are largely uncontroversial. Meaning c), although indisputably biblical, is not widely recognised and admitted, especially my good friends of the baptistic persuasion. This would appear to be because they are committed to a mode of baptism that is at odds with the notion of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon God's people. Typical baptistic argumentation includes one or all of the following assertions:

  1. The Greek word for baptism in the Bible means to immerse, therefore baptism must involve total immersion.

  2. Total immersion was practised by 1st Century Jews and therefore must have been practised by 1st Century Christians.

  3. Various Bible texts imply baptism by total immersion.

1. It Cannot be Proven that the Greek Word for Baptism Means ‘Immerse in Water’ Anywhere in the NT. See point 3 below for a critique of attempts to establish the principle of baptism by immersion. It is doubtful whether any references to baptism can be proved to refer to immersion, never mind all. And there are certainly no references to total immersion anywhere in the Bible in connection with baptism. However, there are many counterexamples of verses where the usual Greek word (baptizo1) simply cannot mean immerse, for example Luke 1138: But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash2 before the meal, was surprised.

2. 1st Century Jews Had Many Evil Practices, and It Would be a Mistake to Copy Them. 1st Century Jews insisted that Gentile proselytes be washed by immersion (not necessary total) if they were to become proper Jews. This was in addition to the Biblical requirement to be circumcised. This would appear to be a racist practice, having no basis in Scripture, and should not therefore be copied by the godly. It should be borne in mind that Jesus was somewhat critical of 1st Century Jewish practice in Matthew 232 for example: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach."

Evidence of early church practice seems to be ambiguous -see the baptism picture from the Catacombs above, for one example.

3. Reading Something Out of a Text Versus Reading Something Into It. If we approach the Bible thinking "I know how to baptise; it is by total immersion", we will search and eventually find some verses that might humbly agree with us. However, this is not a good approach to reading the Bible. Instead we should come to the Bible with a view to it changing us, hoping that we will come to agree with it, not it with us. The verses commonly quoted to support the notion of baptism by total immersion are Acts 838, Romans 64 and 1 Corinthians 101. Let's deal with them in turn.

3.1 Acts 838 The Ethiopian Eunuch

This verse reads ‘Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him.’

The baptistic claim is that ‘down into the water’ implies total immersion. However if this were true, it would imply that both the Eunuch and Philip were baptised. Furthermore, ‘down into’ is rather different from ‘total immersion’ in its extent.

3.2 Romans 64 Buried With Christ Through Baptism

The text, together with a little bit of context reads 63Or don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? 4 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. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.’

There are several reasons why these verses cannot be teaching anything like total immersion. The first is that immersion in water is simply not mentioned. In verse 3, ‘baptism’ is not baptism in or into water, it is baptism into Christ, and specifically into his death. In other words, the verses are describing a permanent relationship between the Christian and Christ that has been established. Verse 5 explains clearly that the previous verses are talking about baptism in the sense of being united with Christ.

Some feel the phrase ‘buried with him through baptism’ in verse 4 to be an allusion to immersion. But this phrase is describing being united with Christ, which is entry to a permanent state; it is not like a temporary dipping in water, hence the meaning here is to do with Christ's death counting for his people so that they are now ‘dead to sin’ (Romans 611). The notion that baptism is meant to mimic Christ's burial and resurrection is thus something that has been read into the verses, and does not belong there. However, there is so much immersionist propaganda out there that even people who can see that the verse has nothing to do with immersion experience cognitive dissonance3. If you had never heard of immersion, it would never occur to you when reading Romans 64.

I was interested to discover that some Baptists do not take Romans 64 as evidence for the practice of total immersion [can anyone supply a cross-reference for this, please? dwlegg at gmail dot com].

3.3. 1 Corinthians 101 Crossing the Reed Sea

The verses read 101For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.’ Ironically, though these verses speak of ‘passing through the sea’, they refer to an event when nobody even so much as got his feet wet - the crossing of the Reed Sea (traditionally the Red Sea.) Here the use of the word ‘baptised’ is talking about Israel being identified and united with Moses as a type of Christ.

4. So What is the Correct Biblical Mode of Baptism?

As usual, in the Bible, all roads lead to Christ. Who is the Christ? He is the Anointed One. Oh, that's interesting; just when was the Anointed One anointed, then? Obviously, he was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Not only do many verses like Acts 10:45 quoted at the beginning of this article make a very clear connection between the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and baptism, but so do the events surrounding Jesus' baptism. At his baptism, the Anointed One receives not only the sign but also the reality of baptism by the Holy Spirit. The following survey of verses shows how baptism, the pouring out (i.e. baptism) of the Spirit and anointing are all connected in Scripture.

John the Baptiser4 whets our appetite when he is asked why he is baptising people; he replies "I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed ... (John 131)" Then, when Jesus is baptised, (132) "Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’" How was John to recognise the Anointed One? It was to be when he anointed some-one who would himself be baptised with the Holy Spirit, who in turn would baptise others with the Holy Spirit. In the OT, prophets, priests and kings were anointed, and now, Jesus - our prophet, priest and king - the Anointed One, is anointed!

Throughout the OT, anointing is the sign of the Holy Spirit being poured out, for example: 1 Samuel 1613So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power.

This is how Jesus explains his own anointing with Spirit in Luke 418 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor."

It is just what was prophesied by Isaiah Isaiah 611 "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." That is why the Jews in John 1 were asking why John the Baptiser was baptising if he wasn't the Christ.

John the Baptiser explains the difference between his own baptism and Jesus': Matthew 311 "I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

As we have seen that baptism with the Holy Spirit is by him being poured out, it can also be proven that Christian baptism is all about ‘pouring’. In Acts 10, Peter is at Cornelius' house. The events that take place are then reported back to Jerusalem in Acts 11. It is instructive to put the two sets of texts together, side-by-side-
The baptisms at Cornelius' house
The event itself The report, later
Acts 10:44-47 Acts 11:15-17
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 15 ‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.
45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
Then Peter said, 47 ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God's way?’

Referring to the table-

Therefore, no-one needs to be unclear about the Biblical mode of baptism: pouring.

In conclusion:


Acts 233 "Exalted to the right hand of God, he [Jesus] has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear."

D.W. Legg


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1. There are several passages that make it clear that people go into the water to be baptised. Why would they bother doing that if it could be done simply by pouring?

I don't believe it was ever a question of ‘bother’. They simply used the nearest source of water. It would only be ‘bother’ if you felt you had to perform an immersion or at least a significant wetting. The only Biblical account of a baptism that involved going down into the water was that of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Modern English translations often have ‘coming up’ out of the Jordan after Jesus' baptism, but this would appear to be at least a possible mistranslation that should have been rendered ‘away from’ rather than ‘up out of’ - See Jay E. Adams ‘Meaning and Mode of Baptism’ for a detailed argument about why the use of the Greek words ‘ek’ and ‘apo’ for the same incident in Matthew and Mark only have the meaning ‘away from’ in common.

Nevertheless, it would appear that some NT baptisms did involve the use of outdoor water, including the River Jordan and a desert stream or pool (unspecified). However, for the majority of baptisms, there is no mention of any pool or river being involved. Furthermore, the use of a pool or river does not imply total immersion. The following scenario seems likely.

The nearest source of water that was to hand in the desert (Acts 8) or away from the cities in the case of John the Baptiser was a pool or river, so it made sense to use it regardless of the correct mode of baptism. Most people did not have running water in their bathroom taps in those days. It is usually the case with rivers and pools that the water near the edge is rather unclean or has unpleasant material floating on it, so in a hot country where people wear sandals it would be very natural for Philip and the Ethiopian to step into the water, well clear of the edge, to find some clean water. Perhaps, there was no suitable receptacle that could have been used conveniently to pour water, or perhaps it was a deliberate choice, but the baptiser would then use his cupped hands to perform the baptism whilst they both stood in the water - very natural, very easy, not at all traumatic, easy to think about the spiritual aspects without any fear or distractions.

Francis Schaeffer adds: ‘At least three of the baptisms mentioned in the New Testament are difficult to imagine as immersion. The eunuch was baptized by a desert road. The jailer was baptized in the middle of the night. Three thousand were baptized on the Day of Pentecost. It is easy to see how these took place if sprinkling or pouring were used, it is difficult if immersion is taken as the only mode.

It seems very clear that the reader can read any mode he wants into a passage if he really wants to.

Scripture Quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by Permission.

1 Other Greeks words are associated with cermonial washing, for example ‘bapto’, but the contention centres on ‘baptizo’.

2 The main Greek word for baptise is not even translated baptise in Luke 11:38 in most English translations.

3 Cognitive dissonance is when you have two contradictory ideas in your mind and they grate together most unpleasantly.

4 Note that John the Baptist is not called that because because he was a Baptist, but because he baptised people.

5 In contrast, attempts to baptise by immersion are incorrect, distressing to the victim, convey the wrong picture to onlookers, and dishonour the Holy Spirit.

See also Bringing Up Children for God and Infant Baptism (by Chris Bennett)

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