Baptism – Immersion, Sprinkling, and Pouring

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Word meanings can change over time. Today, baptism has become a general term within Christianity that encompasses sprinkling, pouring and immersing but only the latter is accurate to the Greek meaning of the word “baptism” in the New Testament and practice of the early church. If you doubt that please read the previous post, consult a good Greek New Testament lexicon, or have a look at Ferguson’s book, Baptism in the Early Church, 47-59  where he cites countless examples from extra-biblical literature where baptism is used to mean immersion. Here is his conclusion from, which was quoted in the previous post,

“Baptizo meant to dip, usually through submerging, but it also meant to overwhelm and so could be used whether the object was placed in an element (which was more common) or was overwhelmed by it (often in the metaphorical usages)…Pouring and sprinkling were distinct actions that were represented by different verbs and this usage too continued in Christian sources. When the latter speak of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit or the sprinkling of blood, they do not use baptize for these actions.” (Ferguson, 59)

The New Testament authors had other words at their disposal to talk about pouring and sprinkling and actually used them. They just never used them to describe immersion because pouring, sprinkling and immersion are three different things. There are more examples I could cite but I will just cite one each to make the point.

Pour – εκχεω (echeo)

  • Acts 2:17-18 – “I will pour out my spirit on all people…I will pour out my spirit in those days.”

Sprinkle – ραντιζω (rantizo)

  • Hebrews 9:21 – “In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies.”

Immerse – βαπτιζω (baptizo)

  • Acts 2:41 – “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
  • Acts 8:36-39 – ” As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be 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.

The question is how do those who practice pouring or sprinkling justify calling that baptism/immersion when that is neither the original meaning of the word or the practice of the early church.

Ferguson puts it like this,

“Submersion was undoubtedly the case for the fourth and fifth centuries in the Greek East and only slightly less certain for the Latin West. Was this a change from an earlier practice, a selection out of options previously available, or a continuation of the practice of the first three centuries? It is the contention of this study that the last interpretation best accords with the available facts. Unless one has preconceived ideas about how an immersion would be performed, the literary, art and archaeological evidence supports this conclusion. The express statements in the literary sources, supported by other hints, the depictions in art, and the very presence of specially built baptismal fonts, along with their size and shape, indicate that the normal procedure was for the administrator with his head on the baptizand’s head to bend the upper part of the body forward and dip the head under the water. Whether the person was standing, kneeling, or sitting may have varied in different circumstances, but in the art the one baptized is standing.” (p.857-858)

He continues on pouring and sprinkling,

“The only viable alternative interpretation of the evidence that would account for the fonts is a partial immersion in which the baptismal candidate stood in water and the administrator poured water over the upper part of the body, but this is largely conjectural. This interpretation is not really supported by paintings and sculpture…and with little (and that dubious) literary support. A pouring or sprinkling did occur in two special circumstances: a lack of water and (more often) sickbed or deathbed conversions. Both were treated as exceptional, second choice, and undesirable alternatives.” (p.858)

Ferguson is right, immersion was the common practice for several hundred years. He is also correct that pouring and sprinkling did begin at some point in the first few hundred years of the church’s existence. When? No one can say with 100% certainty but it appears to have had some separation from the first century church. You can see where pouring and sprinkling comes from. Some guy is about to die, he repents and a pool of water is too far away. What do you do in that moment? Let’s say you sprinkle the guy and he dies. Okay…so you did the best you could. Does that then justify making sprinkling or pouring the practice from that point on for the rest of the church and those who come to the Lord? Is that justifiable? A few more questions…I really am curious how people who practice sprinkling and pouring would answer these:

  • Why do something other than the practice of the New Testament?
  • Why do something other than the teaching of the New Testament?
  • Why do something other than what Jesus went through himself?
  • Why do something other than what Jesus commissioned us to do in Matthew 28:19, other than what Peter taught the crowd and did to the crowd in Acts 2:38-41, and other than what Paul went through himself in Acts 9:18?
  • Why adopt an alternative practice that is devoid of the beautiful symbolism described by Paul in Romans 6?
  • Why do something other than the teaching of  the New Testament when immersion is not done with great difficulty. It is not like we live in the desert and this is near impossible. It is not like it is going to take that much extra effort to go from from sprinkling to immersing. What’s the hold up? I would say it is being stuck in tradition. Is that justifiable?

Last, we all have to realize it is God who does the saving. In Churches of Christ we have sometimes sounded like the water does the saving. It is important reminder that God forgives sins, not water. And yet God has told us what to do in faith for our sins to be forgiven (Acts 2:38), how we are united with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Rom 6:1-7, Col 2:12), and which gives us a clean conscience toward God (1 Peter 3:21). That response is immersion.

I am not here to judge someone else’s servant. I am not here to point fingers. I am here to say let’s have a good look at what was taught and practiced in the New Testament and by faith (over tradition) practice and teach what we find there. I hope this has been helpful to you. If you have any comments, questions, or answers to my list of questions above please comment below. I look forward to the discussion.

12 Responses

  1. Matt,

    This is an excellent post. The Eastern Orthodox still immerse as their normal practice. They do immerse babies and the do it three times – in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit.


  2. Matt,

    Thank you for a very helpful discussion about the mechanism of baptism. However, I feel that you are putting too much emphasis on the ‘how’ of baptism, without considering the ‘why’ of baptism itself (as opposed to the ‘why change the “how” ‘ which you have discussed).

    More important issues are:
    What difference to a believer’s life does being baptised make?
    Baptism as an adult or a child?
    What if you have already been sprinkled as a child?
    How do you deal with families that come for baptism where you suspect / believe / know that they don’t come to church or have a real faith in Christ?

    Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with your teaching about baptism, I don’t think the ‘how’ issue is as big as the importance of vows being made to follow Christ, sincerely and in public, and the outreach effect this has on non-regular-churchgoers. Baptism has, regrettably been an issue that has divided Christians, and whilst the ‘how’ is important, I don’t feel it is important enough to warrant division.

    I have seen people come through the doors of church because of baptism, and find a real welcome there, and stay, and then find a faith in God.

    I am a lay reader in the Church of England, and occasionally post the odd item in my blog. Recent experience of baptism includes the baptism of some friends by immersion in a temporary pool outside a small English village church (in winter!!!). You can read about it here:

    Yours in Christ,
    David Moore

    1. David…I am doing several posts on the meaning of baptism. I wanted to start by defining the terms before I dove into the deeper meaning. My whole point here is that baptism = immerse by the very definition of the word itself. Many people make many other things and that is between them and God, not between them and me. But I do think that part of the meaning of baptism is found in the form itself (As seen most clearly in Romans 6 and the burial and resurrection imagery that is not found with pouring or sprinkling).

      Thanks also for posting a link to your thoughts. I look forward to reading them and I am also curious to hear your feedback on upcoming posts. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  3. This is such a basic and straightforward teaching; it’s truly unfortunate how many people have missed it due to poor translation in the past.

    It frustrates me when people dismiss immersion/sprinkling/pouring simply as different “forms” of baptism when, at a fundamental, linguistic level (as you have shown), immersion IS baptism and sprinkling/pouring ARE NOT.

    1. Luke,

      Whilst I agree in principle that the ideal for baptism is immersion, and I agree that immersion was the original practice and meaning of the word, I would not want the issue to inflame divisions between Christians. I hope you don’t mean (although it could be misconstrued) that my baptism is invalid, and that there is therefore something lacking in my faith because I was sprinkled as a child?


    2. David,

      I meant no offense by my earlier statement; this certainly can be a touchy issue.

      (1) It seems that we are in agreement that originally, baptism was immersion. We would likely also agree that today, the word baptism in the Christian world at large has come to mean more than immersion and now popularly includes pouring and sprinkling.

      That leads me to the question: Does the mere changing of the connotative definition of a word over time lend authority to a new teaching/practice that was not originally intended? I would answer “no”: if the teachings and commands of Scripture are subject to whims of language and semantics, then they can be stretched/changed to mean almost anything.

      For example, in Matthew 19, Jesus says that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness and marries another woman commits adultery. Many today have claimed “marital unfaithfulness” to justify a divorce, saying that their spouse was “emotionally unavailable.” On one level, this may seem legitimate, because from our perspective today, being “emotionally unavailable” could be a form of “marital unfaithfulness.” However, from the context of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, the meaning of “unfaithfulness” in the Greek, and the mindset of 1st century Jewish culture, there is simply no way that Jesus was speaking about “emotional unavailability”.

      Hopefully that example helps to underscore my point, which is that to avoid making the teachings and commands of Scripture completely subjective, it’s vital that we understand what was being talked about in the original text (and context).

      From that perspective, regardless of the fact that the term “baptism” includes sprinkling and pouring in the minds of many today, from a biblical perspective, it simply did not. From a biblical perspective, if one has been sprinkled, he has been sprinkled; he has not been baptized.

      (2) Having said that, I want to underscore that it is not my place to judge the validity of your baptism and/or faith. I don’t believe that sprinkling/pouring is authorized by Scripture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that God rejects it.

      Having said that, you mentioned earlier, “…I agree in principle that the ideal for baptism is immersion, and I agree that immersion was the original practice and meaning of the word.” I guess what I struggle with is if you agree with these principles, why wouldn’t you want to be baptized accordingly?

      I hope my response is taken in the spirit I intend it. It is not my goal to pass judgment on you or anyone else, but simply to be biblical in what I say and teach. Blessings.

    3. Luke,
      You said, “Having said that, you mentioned earlier, “…I agree in principle that the ideal for baptism is immersion, and I agree that immersion was the original practice and meaning of the word.” I guess what I struggle with is if you agree with these principles, why wouldn’t you want to be baptized accordingly?”
      When I was two, I didn’t have much choice! 🙂
      And yes, I wish I wasn’t sprinkled as a kid, so I could be baptised as an adult. But I am a member of the Church of England, whose churches are, for the most part, more than 600 years old, and don’t have a baptistry.
      But more important is the aspect of acceptance. Although not ideal, if a family come to church, and genuinely want to make a public profession of faith in this way, I believe God accepts them, so who am I to reject them?
      It seems that the trend is for people on the fringe to bring kids for sprinkling, whereas some deeply committed families don’t, so allowing the person the opportunity for baptism as an adult. You will have seen from my website how, when two people wanted to be baptised, I facilitated it, and had the privilege to be involved.
      I would like to re-assure you, I wasn’t being prickly – I just wanted to emphasise how easy it can be for divisions to spring up between Christians, and how much I wish that didn’t happen!
      In Christ, David

  4. David,

    Thanks for the response; also for the post from your blog, which I enjoyed reading.

    Your response brings up another issue that I’m betting Matt will address—infant baptism. The question as to who is the proper candidate for (biblical) baptism also muddies the waters somewhat.

    Your point about division and unity is well-taken…but aren’t their some doctrines that are so important that we need to “get them right”? Based on the emphasis that is given to baptism in the NT, and based on what Scripture says baptism does, I would suggest that baptism is one of those teachings (there’s my Church of Christ heritage shining through).


  5. Luke,
    Yes, there are doctrines that we need to get right, but I’m afraid I disagree about the ‘how’ of baptism being one of them. Having been sprinkled as an infant, I don’t feel in any way inferior to Christians who were immersed as adults. I am certain that it will not have any detrimental effect on my eternal salvation. I am certain that God accepts me just the same.

    Whereas, the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, Salvation by Faith – these ARE doctrines that are worth getting worked up about!

    How is the body of Christ enhanced by having a Baptist denomination, as well as Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc? (sorry if I have missed you out… 🙂 )

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