Almost endless confusion and controversy have arisen over the proper mode of believer’s baptism — whether it should be administered by sprinkling or immersion. Actually, the word “baptize,” derived from the Greek word bapto, is a transliteration of the lengthened form baptizo, a transliteration being the bringing of a word into another language without translating it. Any reliable Greek-English lexicon clearly defines baptizo to mean “to dip” or “immerse.” W.E. Vine has significantly remarked:
The Greeks used the word, for instance, of the dyeing of a garment, in which the whole material was plunged in and taken out from the element used, or, again, of a boat which had been wrecked by being submerged and then stranded on the shore. To substitute the words “immerse,” “immersion,” for “baptize” and “baptism” is a mistake, for immersion is only a part of the process, and a person merely immersed would not remain alive. We need, therefore, the transliterated words, for which no adequate English equivalent existed.1
Had baptizo been translated “dip” or “immerse,” at least the general meaning of the word would have been readily understood and the mode of believer’s baptism clarified. Why was it not so translated? J.R. Littleproud has answered this question an follows:
Sprinkling had already been introduced in Britain, and had been widely accepted. It is said to have found its way into the Westminster Confession in 1643 by the deciding vote of the chairman, Dr. Lightfoot, after a tie vote of the committee, 24 votes for it, and 24 votes against it. With so great a public opinion in favor of sprinkling, the 1611 translators passed on the responsibility by transliterating instead of translating by using a Greek word, ‘baptize’ that meant nothing to English ears, instead of using the word, ‘immerse’ which would have declared the truth even though it might not have settled the controversy.2
That the mode of immersion, not sprinkling or effusion (pouring), is implied in the Word of God is evident from various recorded examples of baptism. In Matthew 3:16 we read: “Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water.” Granted, this was the baptism of John to which the Lord Jesus voluntarily submitted, and not believer’s baptism, but it nonetheless serves to illustrate the accepted mode of baptism. Had sprinkling been in vogue it would have been unnecessary for Christ to have entered the Jordan River. Again, in John 3:23, it is recorded that “John was also baptizing in Aenon, near to Salim, because there was much water there.” If baptism had been by sprinkling there would have been no need to seek a place where there was “much water.” Of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch it is recorded: “They went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip…” (Acts 8:38-39).
While the reality behind believer’s baptism, not the rite itself, is the important thing, immersion best symbolizes its meaning since it portrays the reality of the believer’s identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
Of course, the most important thing is the heart condition of the candidate for baptism, and on this matter William MacDonald has said:
There are thousands of persons who have been immersed in water, but who have not been really baptized. The truly baptized person is the one who has not only gone through the outward ordinance, but whose life shows that the flesh, or old nature, has been put in the place of death. Baptism must be a matter of the heart, as well as an outward profssion.3
Its Verbal Formula
The only verbal formula given in connection with believer’s baptism, and in effect until the end of the age, is in Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” No formula is found in Acts at all. Some deny that the words of Matthew 28:19-20 have anything to do with this present Church age, but, among other things, it is inconceivable that Peter would have exhorted believers on the day of Pentecost to be baptized if this commission had been set aside, and at that, just a short time after it had been given by Christ.
The problem which arises between the formula of Matthew 28:19 and such words as Acts 8:16, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus,” is ably answered by C.F. Hogg:
The preposition used in Matthew 28:19 is eis, which always suggests motion toward. There is an ellipsis to be supplied, such as “baptizing them into association with” the Triune Name. The same preposition is used in Acts 8:16; 19:5; in their baptism these persons were publicly associated with the Name of the Lord Jesus. In Acts 10:48 the preposition used is en; the words should be read, not that they were baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ, but that in the Name of Jesus Christ Peter commanded that they should be baptized. Here “in the Name” means under the authority of, for this was just the point in dispute with those “of the circumcision,” who accompanied Peter, whether they had the authority of the Lord for baptizing Gentiles who professed faith in Him, unless they became Jewish proselytes as a preliminary. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his friends had settled the question finally. To baptize under the authority of the Lord was to baptize under the authority of the only command He gave, that recorded in Matthew 28:19. To be baptized into association with the Lord Jesus Christ was to be baptized into association with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, Whom He revealed; the word name is in the singular — not names, but name, the one Name of the Triune God. There is a figure of speech by which the part is put for the whole. In Acts 2:42, for example, it is clear that “the breaking of bread” is not to be understood as excluding the drinking of the cup, though that is not specified. So with the baptismal formula: the mention of the Name of the Son alone cannot be taken to exclude that of the Father and the Spirit. Moreover, in none of the places in Acts is “the Name of Jesus Christ,” or “of the Lord Jesus” given as the formula used.4
Ecclesiasticism has not only clouded the meaning and mode of believer’s baptism, but its administration as well. The accustomed distinction between clergy and laity, so prevalent throughout Christendom, is clearly unscriptural, and the idea that only a man who is an ordained minister can baptize is also foreign to the teaching of the New Testament. Any man who is a believer may administer believer’s baptism, though surely the one who administers it should be a respected, spiritually-minded Christian.
Man has a way of coloring and complicating the simple truth of God’s Word, sometimes leading to tragic spiritual results. Unfortunately, this is no less true in regard to his corruption of the truth connected with the ordinance of believer’s baptism, there being at least two main abuses of it which are practiced to this very hour.
Infant Baptism. There is no Biblical foundation or injunction whatsoever for the baptism (i.e., sprinkling) of infants. Actually, this practice stems from ancient pagan rites, Tertullian having strongly denounced it when it began to come into vogue toward the beginning of the third century. It was not until the fifth century that infant baptism became common practice, being linked with the devilish and damning heresy of baptismal regeneration. As a result, many have been deluded into thinking that because they were baptized as infants they were thus saved, thereby trusting a man-made ceremony instead of placing personal faith in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Household Baptism. The difference between household baptism and infant baptism lies in the distinction that parents who hold to the former simply signify by baptizing their children that they place them outwardly and provisionally under the authority of God where they are themselves, believing that in due time He will so work in their souls as to bring them to place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Exponents of this practice link it with the Jewish rite of circumcision in the Old Testament, but circumcision does not make a Jew (other Eastern peoples practice it also) any more than water baptism makes a Christian (compare Acts 8:9-25; Romans 2:28-29; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6).
There are examples in the New Testament of entire households being baptized (compare Acts 10:44-48; 16:14-15, 29-34; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16 with 16:15), but there is no justification for assuming that those in such households included infants. To “hear the Word,” “believe,” and “rejoice” (compare Acts 16:32-34; 18:8) are the responsible actions of responsible persons, not the actions of mere infants who do not know their right hand from their left.
Some smaller groups of Christians go to the extreme of rejecting believer’s baptism altogether, vehemently maintaining that it has no place in this particular “period” of the church age. Nevertheless baptism is definitely enjoined by the Lord on those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ (compare Acts 10:45-47), though it is in no wise essential to salvation. Others tend to make baptism the passport into church fellowship and participation in the Lord’s Supper, but the Scriptures plainly teach that it is an ordinance completely independent of admission into the local church. It simply signifies that one has taken a stand as a Christian. Granted, the Word of God evidences a definite order: salvation first, then baptism and fellowship (see Acts 2:41-42), but to make baptism a prerequisite for either personal or local church fellowship is wrong. An unbaptized believer possesses the same rights, privileges, and spiritual blessings in Christ as the baptized believer. It simply remains for the better taught Christian to show genuine love to all other believers who have not yet seen their responsibility to be baptized, and thus to carry out the will of God to “receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Still others, though these are few, require a baptized believer to be rebaptized in order to be received into their particular fellowship, but there is no Scriptural foundation whatsoever for this practice any more than it is required for a believer to be saved all over again when he transfers from one local church to another. Once a sinner is saved he is saved forever, and once he is baptized he never needs to be rebaptized. However, it should hardly be necessary to stress the fact that anyone who was sprinkled or immersed before becoming a true believer in Christ needs to be baptized again, his first baptism having had no significance.
1 W.E. Vine, The Church and the Churches (Kilmarnock, Scotland: John Ritchie Limited, n.d.), p. 70.
2 J.R. Littleproud, The Christian Assembly (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Gospel Folio Press, n.d.), sp. 105.
3 William MacDonald, Christ Loved the Church (Oak Park, Ill.: Midwest Christian Publishers, 1956), p. 67.
4 C.F. Hogg, What Saith the Scriptures? (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1947), p. 147.