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  • Writer's pictureWilson Lim

Why Is Water Baptism By Immersion?

Updated: Mar 22



 

 

This is a question that has proved to be controversial in the Christian church for several hundreds of years.  Proponents of either view seem to be able to find Scriptural support for their views.  Some find it in the emotional significance of what they had experienced previously.  Nevertheless, it is critical to examine Scriptures and weigh it up carefully to discern God’s intent for the mode of water baptism.  For our heart is to find clarity out of a desire to be obedient to Scriptures. 

 

In this article, we argue for the case of water baptism by immersion, as well as address certain related issues.

 

TO BE WATER BAPTISED IS AN ACT OF OBEDIENCE TO JESUS’S COMMAND

 

In the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, He commanded us in Matthew 28:19 (NIV) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


Repentance and faith in God is an inward heart orientation.  Water baptism is the outward act of obedience reflecting the inward orientation.  It is like both sides of the same coin.

 

Thus, God expects and indeed, commands that all believers be water baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It is a fundamental expectation of all who would call themselves disciples of Jesus.  Thus, to be water baptised should be the first significant act of obedience unto God.  It may be seen in the following fashion.  Repentance and faith in God is an inward heart orientation.  Water baptism is the outward act of obedience reflecting the inward orientation.  It is like both sides of the same coin.  Hence, if a person declares they are now a follower of Jesus Christ but refuses to be water baptised then it ought to be reasonably questioned whether they are actually genuine disciples. 

 

This commandment was observed by the apostles in the book of Acts who consistently instructed the new believers to immediately be baptised after they repented (Acts 2:34, Acts 2:41, Acts 8:12, Acts 10:48, Acts 18:8, Acts 22:16, 1 Pet 3:21).  

 

Even Jesus Himself made sure He was water baptised in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. He did so in order to fulfil all God’s righteous requirements.   Matthew 3:13–15 (NIV) 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

 

We note a few key observations.  Jesus did not need John’s water baptism for repentance as He was sinless.  But He insisted on it to fulfill God's righteous requirements.  If Jesus did it to be obedient, how much more should we?  If Jesus sought to fulfil all God’s righteous requirements, what aspects are God’s requirement?  Did it also include the mode of water baptism?  We argue here that it should, for reasons that will be clearer as we proceed in this article.

 

THE MEANING OF BAPTISE INDICATES IT IS BY IMMERSION.

 

Baptism comes from the Greek word "baptizo".  It is a common word and literally means to dip in, to immerse.  Such a word would be used to describe dying a cloth by “baptiso” in a coloured dye or to wash a shirt by “baptizo” in the river.   It never means to sprinkle.


Baptism comes from the Greek word "baptizo".  It is a common word and literally means to dip in, to immerse.

 

This is further supported by John the Baptist's mode of water baptism. We must understand that John baptised many thousands of people.  If the mode of baptism did not matter than it would be much more convenient, efficient and healthy for him to sprinkle.  Sprinkling is far less strenuous for the arm and back compared to immersion.  It is far less inconvenient compared to standing in a river for many hours at end each day for many months. Consider the health issues of simply standing in water for so long, so often.  Sprinkling would mean John could travel anywhere and baptise even more people.  Yet we know that John did none of those.  John conducted the baptisms exclusively in the Jordan River.

 

In fact, the narrative of Jesus’ water baptism made this obvious.  Matthew 3:16 (NIV) “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.” This describes Jesus as getting out of the Jordan River water.  Jesus was not beside the river, receiving a sprinkling.  Thus, Jesus was not sprinkled with water but immersed in the Jordan River.

 

SCRIPTURAL EXAMPLES SUPPORT THE VIEW OF IMMERSION 

 

In addition to observing the mode of water baptism used by John the Baptist, there are other Scriptural examples.

 

The Ethiopian eunuch who received Christ requested to be water baptised by immersion in an oasis in the desert area.  Acts 8:36–39 (NIV) 36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.

  

We notice the language where the eunuch saw a nearby water (most likely referring to a body of water like an oasis) and immediately asked to be water baptised.  If water baptism only needed a sprinkling it could easily be done using water that would have been carried in the eunuch’s chariot as an essential part of the desert journey.  Yet the eunuch wanted a body of water.  This body of water is substantial enough that they could go “down into the water” and to have “came up out of the water”.  Note the language is very similar to the water baptism of Jesus by immersion.

 

BAPTISM BY IMMERSION BUILDS UPON THE OLD TESTAMENT PRACTISE OF RITUAL CLEANSING

 

In the Old Testament, God instructed the Israelites to cleanse themselves through ritualistic washing whenever they encounter something unclean (Lev 15).  Leviticus 15:5–6 (NIV) “5 Anyone who touches his bed must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. 6 Whoever sits on anything that the man with a discharge sat on must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.”  The term to "bathe" would encompass possible modes such as wash, douse, and immerse in water.  But never sprinkle. 




The priests who serve at the temple must be ritualistically cleaned through washing with water. Exodus 30:19–21 (NIV) 19 Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. 20 Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, 21 they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”  Sprinkling is never intended.

 

This is reinforced by the story of General Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-19. The prophet Elijah instructed him to wash in the Jordan River 7 times and his leprosy would be healed.  It is instructive to notice exactly what Naaman did.  2 Kings 5:14 (NIV) “So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.”  To dip meant that Naaman fully went under the surface of the Jordan River 7 times.  He clearly understood the instruction to wash himself involves immersing himself.  That would have been the common understanding and practice when bathing or washing oneself in the

Hence, the concept of washing in water is to cleanse, to purify. Full body immersion would signify complete cleansing.  Which has spiritual significance as well as obvious physical health benefits.

 

Indeed, this is still practiced today.  Traditionally, Jews practise a rabbinic regulation called tevilah which is a full body immersion in a natural flowing water source for ritual cleansing. For that reason, Jews also construct a mikveh which is a specially designed bath for ritual immersion.  Below is a photo of a modern day version and a schematic of its typical design.  This supports the understanding that cleansing involves dipping or immersion, never sprinkling.


John the Baptist’s mode of water baptism for repentance fully aligns with traditional Jewish understanding of immersing in water to purify or cleanse one’s soul.   

 

It is now obvious that John the Baptist’s mode of water baptism for repentance fully aligns with traditional Jewish understanding of immersing in water to purify or cleanse one’s soul.   Sprinkling would never be considered.


WATER BAPTISM IS A PUBLIC DECLARATION OF OUR COMMITMENT TO GOD

 

In the book of Acts, all who repented were instructed to be baptize immediately (Act 2:41, Acts 8:12, Acts 8:35-37, Acts 10:47-48, Acts 18:8). These were done publicly as a declaration of their allegiance to Christ.  It is also an act to declare our pledge of a clear conscience toward God, that we now choose to trust in God and to follow Him.  1 Peter 3:21 (NIV) … this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.

 

This is why only believers can do so.  In Acts, we note that it is always repent and be baptised.  It is never baptised then repent. 

 

The Issue of Infant Baptism

 

The practice of infant baptism was introduced by the Catholic Church around 416 AD and carried on today in some Protestant denominations.  For the reasons above, infants and young children who are unable to make such a decision should not undergo water baptism as it is both spiritually meaningless to them and contradictory to Scriptural practice.  In fact, infant baptisms are due to parental decisions.  Following from that, confirmation of infant baptism is an attempt to justify infant baptism which makes little sense in the first place.  Even should a child now be a genuine follower of Christ and underwent the confirmation, it is a distortion of the biblical instruction and intent.

 

Some argue that infant baptism is used as a sign of being included in God’s covenant community.  While the intent is genuine, yet it is problematic because Scripture did not teach such a practice.  Further, it robs the child who may later come to Christ from experiencing a biblical Christian water baptism.  In addition, there already exists a biblical practice which is to dedicate or consecrate a child, especially the firstborn, unto God.  This is what Joseph and Mary did with Jesus.  Luke 2:22–23 (NIV) 22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” 

 

Of course, the part of offering animal sacrifices should be replaced perhaps with making an offering of another kind unto God, which may be monetary instead.


The entire process of infant baptism and confirmation is null and void?

 

Does this mean that the entire process of infant baptism and confirmation is null and void?  While we recognise that the infant baptism and confirmation may hold special meaning to the individual, yet the practice is contradictory to Scripture.  Therefore, we advise all in the following manner.  The participants can hold their memories of the event dearly and meaningfully.  However, they should be obedient to God’s righteous requirements now that they have more fully understood Scriptural instructions.  It is an act of good conscience, desiring to be fully obedient to God and His Scripture.

 

We see the same approach in Acts 19 where Apostle Paul met 12 men, disciples of John the Baptist who participated in John’s baptism of repentance.  But after they came to Christ, they were instructed by Paul to be participate in a Christian water baptism, into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is important to note here that the Christian water baptism does include the element of repentance that is associated with John’s water baptism.  But it goes further in its symbolic meaning, as we will explain next.

 

IMMERSION IS A SYMBOLIC IDENTIFICATION WITH THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF CHRIST

 

Romans 6:3–4 (NIV) 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized 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.

 

The mode of immersion captures fully the symbolism of Rom 6:3-4.  By immersing fully in water, the person symbolic goes beneath the waters like a burial under the soil surface.  When the person is taken out of the water, it symbolises a person rising out of the earth that is rising from the dead.  Just as Christ died and was buried and then resurrected to life.  In the same way, it symbolises we have now died to our old life to now rise unto a new life (see also Col 2:11-12). None of this symbolism would be possible with sprinkling.  

 

The Issue of Sprinkling as a Symbolic Act

 

The mode of sprinkling for water baptism is due to mixing up the symbolic act.  In the Old Testament, sprinkling of oil and blood were practiced for other religious significance.  Sprinkling usually signifies application.  Sprinkling of blood symbolises the application of Christ's blood for atonement (Ex 12:21-23, Ex 29:21, Lev 3:2, Lev 3:13, Lev 4:6-7, Lev 16:15, Lev 17:11, 1 John 1:7, Heb 12:24).  Sprinkling of oil symbolises the application of Holy Spirit anointing and/or commissioning (Lev 8:10-12, 30, Lev 14:16, 27).  Sprinkling of water signifies the God's cleansing and purifying work, whether ritually or upon the heart (Num 19:13, 18-21, Eze 36:25).  But sprinkling is not symbolic of identification, particularly with Christ’s burial and resurrection.

 

What about those who cannot be immersed due to health and other valid reasons?

 

When it is impossible to immerse, the next best option is to wash as it still carries the symbolism of cleansing though not all the symbolic elements.  God will understand the constrains.  As long as the heart desire is to obey to the fullest extent possible.  Washing could be carried out on parts of the body that can be washed, especially the limbs and head.  Washing could be done with a clothe soaked in water.  Sprinkling is not advisable as it least carries the symbolism.

 

BAPTISM THROUGH IMMERSION IS IDENTIFICATION WITH THE TRIUNE GOD BY BEING BAPTISED INTO HIS NAME.

 

Matthew 28:19 (NIV) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…


We are immersed into the name of the Triune God, symbolising that we now belong to God and are under the covering of The Most High.  We are now identified with and in allegiance to God.

 

In the Christian water baptism, the Triune name of God is invoked.  In effect we are immersed into the name of the Triune God, symbolising that we now belong to God and are under the covering of The Most High.  We are now identified with and in allegiance to God.

 

A similar concept was alluded to by Apostle Paul when he referred to the Israelites who followed Moses through the Red Sea were in effect baptized into Moses.  1 Corinthians 10:1–2 (NIV) 1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

 

In effect the Israelites had placed their trust in Moses.  They had followed Moses and gone under the surface of the Red Sea with Moses and came out at the other side. Thus, the metaphor of being immersed, baptised into Moses.  The theological implications of being baptised into someone other than Christ is complicated and the arguments very involved.  Other than noting that most likely Moses represented a type of Christ, I will not venture further into the theological arguments here.

 

Baptising into the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ


Some have promoted the view that the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is in effect the Triune name of “Lord Jesus Christ”.  This is partially supported by:


  • Acts 2:38 (NIV)  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…”

  • Romans 6:3 (NIV) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 

  • Romans 13:14 (NIV) Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. 

 

Though we lean towards that view, we are not insisting that it should be so.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

We have shown Scripturally why water baptism should be by immersion, as opposed to sprinkling. Water baptism in intended to symbolically capture the following elements:


  • Repentance and faith in God

  • An obedience unto God

  • A cleansing/purifying of our soul

  • An identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, reflecting our own death to sin and a new life in Christ.

  • An identification and allegiance to the Triune God

 

To implement a different mode of water baptism is to dilute, perhaps distort or even deny, some of the key elements above. 

 

Copyright©️2024 by Wilson Lim. All rights reserved. Materials are free to be distributed in whole or part as long as proper acknowledgement is given to the author and not sold for profit.

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