Some churches baptize by sprinkling. Others baptize by pouring. Yet many claim that immersion is the proper method to baptize. Which one is true, and does it really matter?
The English word baptism is a transliteration of the Greek word βάπτισμα, which means to plunge, dip, or wash.1 The Greek language of Jesus’ time had words for pour (χέω) and sprinkle (ῥαίνω), but never are they used in association with baptism in the New Testament. Instead, the word βάπτισμα (plunge, dip, or wash) is always used. If the Holy Spirit only used βάπτισμα in association with baptism, we can conclude that complete immersion in water is at least an acceptable way to baptize people. Is that one of many acceptable ways, or is immersion the only acceptable way? In addition to the definition of the word baptism, these four points will conclusively answer our question.
1. John needed much water
Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized.John 3:23
Whether he was baptizing five or 5,000 people, if John was baptizing by sprinkling or pouring, he wouldn’t need to go out of his way to find “much water.” John baptized by full immersion.
2. Every account of baptism includes immersion
When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.Matthew 3:16
Coming out of the water doesn’t harmonize with sprinkling or pouring. The Scriptures say the same thing about the Ethiopian man’s baptism.
Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing.Acts 8:36, 38–39
This wealthy man (he was the treasurer for a queen) was traveling from Jerusalem to Ethiopia in a chariot on a deserted road. Surely, he would have had drinking water with him. Yet, it was only when they arrived at a body of water that he understood there was nothing else preventing him from being baptized. If sprinkling or pouring were viable options, Philip could have taken some of the drinking water and applied it to the man’s head. Admittedly, I am assuming he had drinking water with him. But even if he did not, the Holy Spirit still tells us they both had to go down into and come up out of the water for baptism to take place. Both Jesus and the man from Ethiopia were baptized by immersion.
3. The image of baptism points to immersion
There is nothing “magical” about the water that saves a sinner. Yet Jesus expects anyone who desires to be His disciple to be baptized (Matthew 28:18–20). According to the New Testament, baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The physical act of going into the water is necessary, but it’s not about the physical bath; it’s about “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). Paul explains that baptism is the moment God unites someone with the death of Jesus Christ.
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrectionRomans 6:3–5
When someone repents of sin, he or she has died to sin. What do you do with a dead body? You bury it, of course. A person dead to sin is buried with Christ in baptism. No funeral attendee would be satisfied with sprinkling a bit of dirt on a deceased person’s head. Burial isn’t complete if only a cupful of dirt is thrown on a body. When a person attends a funeral and watches their loved one’s remains lowered into the grave, there is closure. Does this not show God’s wisdom in using baptism as the moment we say goodbye to our sinful selves? I encourage you to read all of Romans 6 to get the entire picture. If you want to be raised with Christ, ensure that you’re buried with Him in baptism.
When a penitent person is appealing to God for a good conscience, they should never be satisfied with a couple of drops of water on the forehead. Paul was able to remind the Christians of Colossae of when they experienced their burial and resurrection.
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.Colossians 2:11–13
Just as Jesus truly died and was resurrected, Paul and the Colossians could confidently say their old selves had died and Christ had made them alive at their burial and resurrection of baptism. That cannot be accomplished with sprinkling or pouring.
4. There is only one baptism
Immersion is not just one way to be baptized. It’s the only way to truly obey the gospel. Don’t be satisfied with your experience if you’ve only received sprinkling (sometimes called “christening“) or pouring as a mode of “baptism.” There is zero biblical support for accepting anything other than a full immersion in water for baptism.
The New Testament says there is now only one baptism acceptable in the sight of Christ (Ephesians 4:4–6), and that is when a penitent believer submits to the death of Jesus in full immersion of water and is raised to walk in newness of life.
- The language of the Bible defines baptism as immersion.
- Baptism in the Bible required much water.
- The accounts of baptism in the New Testament required full immersion.
- Baptism is explained as a burial into the death of Jesus Christ.
- There is only one biblical baptism.
There’s nothing special or miraculous about the water; therefore, it can be water in a pool, lake, river, bathtub, or baptistery. No one is earning salvation through baptism. Instead, God is fulfilling His promises to provide salvation and a good conscience (Mark 16:16; Galatians 3:26–28; 1 Peter 3:21). If you have not obeyed the commandments of the one baptism, you must answer God one question:
And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.Acts 22:16
- βάπτισμα, BDAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. ↩︎