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The Institution of Baptism.
OT Evidence.
NT Evidence.
Proper Subjects.
Way Forward_


We are grateful to the UFC for permission to publish the following paper in full.  We believe readers will find it an immensely valuable theological and practical document.  It was prepared for their General Assembly in 2001.

UFCOS website is 


  1. The words (baptô and baptizô)

It has often been contended that the word baptism necessarily means "immersion". Alexander Carson in his Baptism: Its Modes and Subjects has stated that while baptô   has two meanings (i.e. to dip and to dye) "baptizô in the whole history of the Greek language has but one. It not only signifies to dip or immerse, but it never has any other meaning." Baptism: Its Modes and Subjects, first published Philadelphia 1845, re-published Kregel 1981, p 19 It is significant here that Carson seems to regard dipping as equivalent to immersing. In fact we frequently dip without immersing and, as we shall see, we find dipping without immersing in the New Testament. AH Strong is more emphatic, "This is immersion and immersion only." Systematic Theology Baptist scholars writing during the second half of the twentieth century have been more careful in their arguments for 'immersion only'. So, for example, in his major work, Baptism in the New Testament , Beasley-Murray makes only two brief references to immersion as the proper mode for baptism (one of which is a footnote). Baptism in the New Testament , Paternoster 1962, pp 133, 263n.Seealsohis Baptism Today and Tomorrow , Macmillan 1966, pp 24, 170n.   In both cases the argument is based on Paul's theology, not on an exegesis of Greek words, nor on the practice of the early church as we have it in the Book of Acts. Much more recently Grudem in his Systematic Theology   commenting on baptizô has stated, "The sense 'immerse' is appropriate and  probably required for the word in several  New Testament passages" ( italics added).Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, pp 967-969. We would not disagree. Our contention is that the senses 'dip', 'wash' or 'sprinkle' are also appropriate and are   required for the word in several New Testament passages. Whether the sense 'immerse' is required in the particular examples given by Grudem baptised is amatter for debate. Grudem's main argument, as with Beasley-Murray, is based on Pauline theology. The crucial point here is that we have two significant Baptist scholars who no longer insist that baptizô must be understood in the sense of 'immersion' .Bearing in mind, however, that arguments for immersion based on the use of baptizô still persist at a more popular level it will be helpful to explore the matter further.

The Old Testament (SEPTUAGINT)

baptô (occurring some seventeen times)

There are three examples of baptô where it probably carries the idea of immersion.

  1. Leviticus 11.32. Articles made unclean are to be "put in water" (Heb. ). No doubt this would involved the immersion of the articles in water. 
  2. Job 9.31. The "plunge"ofa man into a lime pit so that even his clothes detest him again suggests immersion (Heb. tâbal).
  3. Psalm 68.23 translates a Hebrew word (mâchats) meaning "to smite through" but is used in the sense of "to plunge" (NIV).

There are two occurrences of baptô in Daniel (4.33; 5.21) where it translates an Aramaic verb. In both these verses we have exactly the same phrase concerning Nebuchadnezzar: "his body was drenched with the dew of heaven". baptô (Heb. tseba) could mean here drenched, moist or wet; it can hardly mean immersed –not in the literal sense.

All the remaining examples of       baptô  translate the Hebrew tâbal as does baptizô (in 2 Kings 5.14, above) and all carry the sense of "to dip" or "to be moist with", e.g. Lev 14.6 and 51 where a live birds is dipped in the blood of the one bird which has been killed over fresh water. It is difficult to see how one bird could be immersed in the blood of another bird.

baptizô (only two examples in the Septuagint)

  1. Isaiah 21.4 where baptizô (Heb. bâ'ath, 'to tremble') is used in a figurative sense. NIV translates "fear makes me tremble".
  2. 2 Kings 5.14, the washing of Naaman in the Jordan (Heb. tâbal). It is worth noting here that Elisha's instructions to Naaman were, "Go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed"(v 10).This reads very much like a ritual washing in the Jordan. Naaman's servant repeated the prophet's words, "Wash and be cleansed" (v 13). The NIV translates v 14: "So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times…"
  1. The New Testament

baptô (occurring only in Luke 16.24; John 13.26 x 2; Revelation 19.13)

In all four instances the word carries the sense of "to dip". For example, Lk 16.24: "send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue."

baptizô (occurs some seventy-five to eighty times)

Our purpose here is simply to point out that the word baptizô is used in the New Testament without the sense of being "immersed". Two examples will suffice.

  1. Luke 11.38: "the Pharisees, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised". This was a ritual washing of hands prior to a meal. It is quite unreasonable to suggest that the Pharisees were looking for a ritual immersion prior to a meal.
  2. Much the same can be said for Mark 7.4: "When (the Pharisees) come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash." A ritual immersion prior to every meal?!   
  1. Some practical difficulties                    

Acts 2.41: The baptism of about three thousand on the day of Pentecost. While there is nothing here to prove or disprove baptism by immersion the practicalities of baptising three thousand people by immersion in Jerusalem do raise interesting questions.     

Acts 8.38: "Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him." The "going down into the water" does not constitute the baptism. They both went down, and Philip was not a candidate for baptism. The baptism may or may not have beena baptism by immersion. We simply do not know. We do know that they were ona desert road and that most desert streams would not be deep.

      Acts 16.33: The Philippian jailer. The text reads as if the jailer and all his household were baptised "without delay in the prison itself" The Acts of the Apostles, IVP 1980, p 274.   and during the night. It is difficult to know what facilities would be available in those circumstances for a household baptism and whether there would be facilities for baptism by immersion in the prison. John Stott suggests:" perhaps it took place in a well or fountain in the prison courtyard, or perhaps using the same bowl from which he had cleaned their wounds. Thus, as Chrysostom pointed out, the washing was reciprocal: 'he washed them and was washed; those he washed from their stripes, himself was washed from his sins.'" The Message of Acts, IVP 1990, p 267.      

  1. Pauline theology (Romans 6.3-5)

      The main passage which has a possible bearing on the mode of baptism is Romans 6.3-5. It is worth quoting this in full.      

     "…all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. 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. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin –because anyone who has died hasbeen freed from sin."      

It is always important to understand the main thrust of a Bible passage before using some of its component parts to support a thesis. Paul is dealing in this passage with a rather insidious argument which, if allowed to go by default, would have seriously damaged and ultimately destroyed the Gospel of God's grace. The argument was as follows: the grace of God is sufficient to coverall our sin; the more sin, the more grace; sin is a good thing because it promotes grace; let us, therefore, continue in sin. Paul's response is robust :we have been united to Christ in his death, burial and resurrection; everyone united to Christ is, 'by virtue of the efficacy of Christ's death and the power of his resurrection', Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and Reformed 1980,p 27. freed from the dominion of sin andlives a new life which is wholly incompatible with a life of sin.

It is important to grasp that Paul's answer to the antinomianism being propounded is not water baptism but union with Christ. Paul is building on the foundation he has already established in the previous chapter (5.12-23). As we were 'in Adam', so we are 'in Christ' summarises the teaching there. It is because the believer is in Christ and Christ is in the believer that antinomianism is an impossibility. What then is the significance of the word 'baptism' in this context, and does it tell us anything about the mode of baptism? There are several possibilities.

Our baptism by the Spirit into Christ Christian Baptismthe Romans, Grand Rapids 1981.

     It is possible to understand the reference to baptism in Romans 6 in the light of 1 Cor 12.13: "we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body". In which case Paul is saying in the Romans passage that we were baptised (by the Spirit) into Christ, into his death, burial and resurrection. The advantage of this approach is that we are able to take the passage at face value. It really is baptism that effects our union with Christ, i.e. the baptism by the Spirit. We really are buried with him through baptism, i.e. baptism by the Spirit. According to this approach it will be obvious (a) that baptism is not symbolic, and (b) that the Romans' passage has no bearing on the mode of water baptism.            

  1. Our baptism with water effecting our union with Christ

      The concept that it is the sacrament itself, i.e. baptism with water, which effects either regeneration or union with Christ is a concept that was rejected at the time of the Reformation. It has also been rejected earlier in this Report. It is not an appropriate interpretation of Romans 6. CK Barrett writes," There is no sacramental opus operatum by means of which Christians can assure themselves, independently of faith and of their own moral seriousness, that they have risen from death to enjoy the life of the Age to Come." The Epistle to the Romans, A&C Black 1957, p 123.      

  1. Our baptism with water as a symbolic representation of our union with Christ

      According to this view baptism, in Romans 6, is presented as "the symbolic representation, or the pictorial enactment of, a deeper spiritual reality, namely, our union with Christ; our union with Him in…His burial and in His resurrection". Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6: The new Man, Banner of Truth 1972, p 33. First we go down into the water (a picture of burial), then we come up out of the water (a picture of resurrection).It is in the light of this symbolic representation that many Baptists insist on baptism by immersion only. The symbolic representation, it is claimed, reflects the practice, and the only practice, of the early church.      

There are, however, difficulties in the 'symbolic representation' approach when accompanied by the conclusion that only baptism by immersion accords with the New Testament practice and, therefore, that baptism by immersion is required by the symbolic representation in Romans 6. It is difficult, for example, to apply the symbolism, as Romans 6 requires, to every aspect of our union with Christ. Paul is quite clear here. It is through baptism (which represents our union with Christ) that we have died with him, have been buried with him, have been raised with him. Macleod comments that while "going down into the water is an adequate symbol of the Lord's death…it is not an adequate symbol of burial (or more precisely, of entombment, because Jesus was not buried, he was entombed)…" A Faith to Live By, Christian Focus 1998, p 214.

More importantly it is possible to hold, as many do, the 'symbolic representation' view without concluding that baptism by immersion is to be insisted upon as the only or the most appropriate mode of baptism. While baptism by immersion may provide an appropriate backcloth to Paul's teaching in Romans 6 it must also be pointed out that there are other more common backcloths which require baptism by pouring and sprinkling.      

(a) Baptism is presented as a washing. See for example the words of Ananias to Saul (Acts 22.16): "Get up, be baptised and wash your sins way." As the Church of Scotland Report states, "The connection between this washing and the death of Christ is seen in passages such as1 Cor 6.11, 'but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of God;" and Eph.5.25f,'Christ also loved the Church and gave himself up for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle…but that it should be holy and without blemish.' In these passages Christ's work is described as a cleansing of the Church and of believers, in language reminiscent of the Old Testament ideas of covenant and sacrifice… In Heb 10.22the language is undoubtedly taken from the priest's cleansing: 'Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.' (The washing and the confession of faith again recall Baptism.) According to this Epistle, Christ cleanses us through His blood and enables us to draw near to God; and this once-for-all cleansing which Christ accomplished on the Cross is applied to us in the once-for-all-cleansing in Baptism… It is possible there is a direct reference to Baptism in Revelation 1.5, if the reading 'washed us from our sins' be preferred to the alternative 'loosed us'; but in any case baptismal allusions can be seen throughout the book in the references to the faithful who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and wear white garments (as baptismal candidates did in the early Church)." The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism , The Saint Andrew Press 1958,pp22-23. We may add to the list of

(b) Baptism is represented as a pouring and a sprinkling. John the Baptist contrasted his own water baptism with Jesus' Spirit baptism: "I baptise you with water…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit" (Matt 3.11). Jesus confirmed this (Acts 1.5). He then speaks of this baptism in terms of a power coming upon them (Acts 1.8). Peter speaks of the same baptism twice in terms of a pouring out (2.18,33), and Luke writes about the Holy Spirit having been "poured out" and as having "come upon"(10.44;11.15). Moreover, as J Murray points out, the Old Testament anticipation of the gift (baptism) of the Spirit "is expressed in terms of pouring out, shedding forth and sprinkling – never immersion". Christian Baptism , Presbyterian and Reformed 1980, p 21.

Isaiah 32.15: "till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high"
Joel 2.28: "I will pour out my Spirit on all people"
Ezekiel 36.25-27: "I will sprinkle clean water on you… I will put my Spirit in you."

      It does seem a little strange to insist that the outward sign must be immersion when the inward grace is spoken of in terms of pouring and sprinkling! Moreover, baptism not only signifies our union with Christ, the washing away of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, it also signifies the blood of Christ applied to our lives. It is not without significance that the New Testament uses the idea of sprinkling in connection with the blood of Christ in its application (Heb 9.13,14,22;10.22; 12.24; 1 Pet 1.2). As Murray observes," It would be strange if the baptism with water which represents the sprinkling of the blood of Christ could not properly and most significantly be performed by sprinkling. Christian Baptism, Presbyterian and       Reformed 1980,p21.      

  1. Our baptism with water as a SIGN of our union with Christ

CEB Cranfield observes, "all that Paul wishes to convey (in Romans 6.3-5) is the simple fact that the persons concerned have received Christian baptism. But at the same time the expression which he uses implies…that baptism has to do with a decisive personal relationship between the individual believer and Christ (and) that the relationship to Christ with which baptism has to do includes, in particular, a relationship to his death". The Epistle to the Romans Vol I, T & T Clark 1975, p 301.   Commenting on the meaning of Paul's claim Cranfield further comments: "Not that it actually relates the person concerned to Christ's death, since this relationship is already an objective reality before baptism takes place…but that it points to and is a pledge of, that death which the person has already died – in God's sight…"The Epistle to the Romans   Vol I, T & T Clark 1975, p 303. If Cranfield and others are correct it will again be obvious that the Romans passage has no bearing on the mode of baptism.


      We need to be consistent. It seems very strange that people should on the one hand adopt a dogmatic approach to the mode of one sacrament yet adopt a very loose approach to the mode of our other sacrament, the Lord's Supper.   That is particularly so when we are more certain about the latter than we are about the former. We know that the early Christians celebrated the Lord's Supper in the course of a meal and that unleavened bread and wine were used. The New Testament makes that clear. Yet we do not insist that the Lord's Supper must be celebrated in the course of a meal and that unleavened bread and wine be used. Indeed there is widespread agreement that the mode is of no significance. Precisely whether baptism was practised by immersion or by sprinkling or pouring is a matter for personal or corporate judgment. It depends on one's conclusions after the evidence has been assessed. That that is the case should be obvious from the wide disagreement that prevails among equally godly and scholarly Christians.      

It is the view of this Panel that sprinkling, pouring or immersion are all appropriate modes of baptism, that each of these modes reflects some aspect of the Christian faith signified by baptism, and that each of these modes represents the full Christian experience, including union with Christ, the application of the blood of Christ, the washing away of sin, and the gift of the Spirit. We identify with Macleod's plea: "I respect immersion, but I am asking that there should be a place for our mode too. There is no stress in the New Testament on the mode of baptism, any more than there is any stress in the case of the Lord's Supper on the fact that the bread used was unleavened bread. "A Faith to Live By , Christian Focus 1998, p 214.

An important element in all this is that baptism take place in the company of the local congregation to which the candidate for baptism will be committed. It is more important that a person be baptised in the presence of that congregation by sprinkling or pouring than that he be baptised by immersion in the presence of a representative group of church members or even a group of personal friends. Baptism after all represents not only my incorporation into Christ, it represents my belonging to both the universal Church and to the local congregation in which I live, and move and have my being. To magnify the mode of baptism and minimise the significance of baptism at this point, or at any point, is to misrepresent the New Testament approach and, therefore, to mislead.

Other Sections of the Report an be reached by clicking on the following Chapter headings: 

Institution of Baptism

Origins of Water Baptism

The Baptism of Children: Old Testament Evidence

The Baptism of Children: New Testament Evidence 

The Baptism of Children: Extra-Biblical Evidence

The Proper Subjects for Baptism 

The Way Forward

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