Water Baptism: Immersion or Sprinkling

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,

I recently became a Christian. The pastor told me that now I needed to be baptized. I told him that I was baptized as a baby and didn’t need to be baptized again. He told me that being baptized as a baby was not really baptism. I felt angry and rejected. Now, I don’t know what to do. Do I need to get baptized again?

Sincerely, Kate

Dear Kate,

I am sorry you felt hurt and rejected by your pastor. His “bedside manner” may not have been the best; however, I agree with his thinking.

The purpose of baptism is to give visual testimony of your commitment to Christ. It is the first step of discipleship (Acts 8:26-39). According to Romans 6:1-10, baptism pictures at least three things. First, it is a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. As you stand in the water you are representing Christ on the cross. As you are dipped underwater you illustrate the burial of Christ. As you come out of the water you demonstrate the resurrection of Christ.

Second, baptism is also a personal testimony to you of the washing away of your sins. As you go under the water you reconfirm that your sins are forgiven and as you come out of the water you are raised to live a new life.

Third, baptism represents your personal identification with Christ. Paul declares in Romans 6: “We were buried with Christ in baptism and we are raised to walk in a new life.”

Being sprinkled when you were an infant missed the point of baptism on all three of the above levels. I’m sorry.

The Bible teaches that commitment to Christ always precedes baptism. In fact, baptism is your testimony of surrendering your life to Christ. The New Testament order is not be baptized and then receive Christ. It is always first you receive Christ and then you get baptized. I think it likely that you were not aware of your infant baptism so it was not possible to think of your baptism as a personal commitment to Christ.

Remember that baptism never washes away sins; the blood of Jesus washes away sins. I believe that I can say that being baptized is the first responsibility (test?) for a new Believer.

I’m certain that you are wondering where infant baptism originated. Let me give you a brief overview. Infant baptism basically came into vogue from teachings by some early church fathers (Iraneus??????????in particular) that baptism washes away sin. If you died without being baptized then you died in your sins and went to Hell (or purgatory as that concept developed over time). With the high infant mortality rate the concept of baptizing babies as soon as possible came into vogue. Since it is not necessarily good to push baby heads underwater, the idea of sprinkling took hold.

The translators of the first Bible into English came to a problem with how to translate the Greek word for “baptism.” The word never meant “sprinkle or “pour”. It literally means to “dip” or to “immerse”. For example, when Odysseus was escaping from the Cyclops he took a stick and “baptized” the stick into the eye of the Cyclops. He did not sprinkle it in. He “baptized” it deeply into his eye. When it came time to translate “baptize” into English the translators faced a problem. If they translated the word a firestorm would erupt because most of the church practiced sprinkling and not full immersion. Interestingly enough, the Anabaptists were persecuted mercilessly for practicing baptism by immersion. They were the only ones following the correct Biblical teachings on the subject. So, instead of translating the word, they transliterated it. Transliteration means that they simply took the Greek letters and transposed them into English. The word “baptism” in Greek is spelled, “βαπτιζω”. The transliterated English letters look like this: “baptidzo”. Notice the close parallel. Crisis was averted and the new English Bible was less likely to be offensive to some and rejected.

You may find it interesting that early writings from some 2nd century Christian desert communities dealt with the practical issues of baptism in the desert. They taught that if not enough water existed for full immersion then pouring on the head was acceptable. If not enough water existed for pouring then sprinkling was acceptable. And, if water was in really short supply then sand may be used. Again, this is not Biblical teaching. It was expedient. Baptizing babies is not Biblical; but, it is expedient based on a false assumption that baptism washes away sin.
Throughout the years of the Church, baptism by immersion has taken several forms. Some baptize by dipping three times in the “Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Others use the Jewish model for baptizing Gentile converts into Judaism. The initiates wore white robes and were dipped three times forward and three times backward. The most common mode of baptism is once backward which corresponds to portraying closely the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Well, Kate, I hope this sheds some light on the subject of baptism and I hope it is helpful to you in making up your mind regarding your own baptism.

Love, Roger

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