The Baptism Debate: Submerge or Sprinkle?

by Jacob Abshire on April 4, 2017

“Sprinkled or dipped?” The man had had a puzzled look on his face like he had just face the biggest dilemma of his life. The ice cream server repeated, “Sprinkled or dipped, sir?” Rarely do you see some so paralyzed by a question of this kind. It was remarkable. His brain must have been bouncing back and forth—sprinkled, dipped, no sprinkled. “Sir,” the server tried to snap him out of his trance. The man didn’t seem to have an answer even then. He surrendered in his own way, “Whatever you like is fine with me.”

Actually, it wasn’t about ice cream at all, though I wish it was. The man with the puzzled look was debating over the method of water baptism. Should he be sprinkled or submerged? He didn’t know. Tragically, but not surprisingly, there are many in the same boat.

The method of baptism is a debated matter that has left some without any clear paths to follow. Lines are drawn between Christian churches, even protestant denominations. Some fully submerge the Christian into water and raise them clear out while others sprinkle over the head like fairy dust. Does the Bible give us a clear and definitive formula? I think so, and there are at least three reasons why.

The Meaning of the Word

The first reason stems from the meaning of the word baptize. It’s interesting that our English word is not translated, but transliterated from the Greek. That is to say that we don’t have another word to mean the same thing or something similar. Rather, we actually use the same word—and its meaning. The Greek word baptizo was transliterated into English as baptize. The meaning never changed, only final letter. Now, isn’t that easy? Keep the word. Keep the meaning.

The original word means quite simply “to dip completely.” It is the word “to drown.” Linguistically, the term always refers to immersion or submerging something in something else (usually water). So, every time you find the word or form of the word (like bapto, baptizo, baptismos), you can translate it as immerse or immersion.

In fact, we can take it one step further. The word is never used in a passive sense. The water is never baptizing someone. Rather, someone is always baptized into the water. This is important because it strengthens the point of submerging and weakens the argument for sprinkling. It cannot happen the other way around—at least, not physically. In fact, Scripture some times uses the word figuratively (1 Cor. 10:1-3; Matt. 3:11-12; Eph. 1:13-14; Mk. 10:35). In every case the person is baptized into something. Never sprinkled. Never poured. Only submerged and covered.

The meaning of the word is rarely argued otherwise. Even those who practice sprinkline will agree with this meaning. In fact, John Calvin, considered to be at the heart of the Presbyterian church, who sprinkles instead submerges, said that “the word baptize means to immerse” and “it is certain that immersion was the practice of the early church.” Outside the Bible, ancient Greek literature agrees. Even the Roman Catholic Church practiced immersion until the 14th century (except in unusual cases). So, the meaning of the word settles the score.

The Narratives of the New Testament

The second reason is found in the context of the Scriptures. In every use of the word, the most accurate meaning is to submerge. Sprinkling does not hold water. In Acts 10:47, Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” This is similar to what John the Baptist said in Mark 1:8 and the event with the Philip and the eunuch in Acts 8:36. If sprinkling is all that Peter had in mind, he might have pulled out a 16 oz of Ozarka. But that is not the case. He needed enough to submerge a body.

In an earlier case, John the Baptist was baptizing in a river. John 3:23 says that he was “baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.” He need a large body of water to put a large body of people under. Tap wasn’t enough. And, just in case we need further evidence, Mark 1:5 and 9 clarify that he was baptizing “in the river Jordan” and not beside it. Verse 10, where Mark writes of Jesus’ baptism, describes our Lord as coming “up out of the water,” which indicates a complete submerging. The eunuch who was baptized by Philip also “came up out of the water” (Acts 8:39). You simply cannot do that with tall glass of anything.

These prepositions are there in the Greek text. They are not English contortions. They came “up” and “out of” the water. They might be little words, they say a whole lot when they need to. This is particularly true in this case. They are a big cry for the case of submerging. Baptism involves the going under and coming out of water.

The Symbol of the Truth

Finally, water baptism is a metaphor or object lesson. It pictures the spiritual reality of one being buried with Christ and raised again. It teachs us of regeneration and our need for Jesus as Savior. Paul describes it in Romans 6:3-4:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

As we are baptized into the water—completely submerged—we are identified as one with Christ in His death and burial and resurrection. He was buried into the earth. We are buried into the water. He was raised from the grave as our Victor over sin and death. We are raised in His victory as overcomers of sin and death. It is a one-to-one correllation and sprinkling doesn’t maintain the picture in any way. New life is not sprinkled over us like fairy dust. Rather, we are raised from dead in the new life of Christ.

In baptism, we proclaim our identity as a Christ follower. We are following in His footsteps. We are brought into His victory and walk in a new, eternal and abundant life, because He first walked in it before us. Baptism pictures the conversion experience of the true believer. Sprinkling pictures no burial, no raising, no passing through or changing form. It fails to capture the spiritual reality of the soul.

Imagine a child seeing someone submerged under the water and raised up before his eyes. What a wonderful object lesson! What a significant lead-in for the parent who desires to guide their child through the gospel! God is most creative, most wise, and most gracious. We only need to align ourselves with His design and see what the Spirit will do.

So, how do you want your ice cream?

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