By J. Kenneth Grider

Importance of Baptism. Paul said, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17). However, he said this to a church that was divided into quarreling factions, each claiming a different leader. Paul was glad he had not contributed fuel for their feuds by baptizing many of them (cf. vv. 14, 16). This passage does not suggest that to Paul baptism itself is unimportant. Paul himself was baptized and baptized others. John the Baptist attached great importance to water baptism. Those who repented he gladly baptized.

Baptism was widely practiced in New Testament times by John the Baptist, by Jesus' disciples, by Paul somewhat, and by various other persons, according to the Book of Acts. Besides this, we have a strict command from Christ himself to baptize. Jesus said, "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" (Matt. 28:19).

One passage sounds as though baptism is necessary to salvation. Jesus said: "Truly, truly, say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5, NASB). This "born of water" is surely a reference to water baptism, being practiced and emphasized by John the Baptist right at that early period of Jesus' public ministry (see vv. 22ff.). However, this same chapter of John states several times that a person receives eternal life through believing, no mention being made of baptism. Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (v. 3, NASB). Again: "Everyone who believes in him [the Son of Man, v. 141 may have eternal life" (v. 15). And in the most familiar of Bible verses, he says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (v. 16).

1. Its importance historically. Baptism is important not only biblically but also historically. Through all the centuries, almost all Christian groups have believed in and practiced it. Baptism is emphasized in the Didache, also called The Teaching of the Twelve, which dates to sometime between the closing years of the first century and the middle of the second. The fathers, East and West, emphasized it also, as did the Reformers, John Wesley, and others, on to the present time. Only the Quakers and the Salvation Army, among groups of widely recognized standing in Christianity, do not baptize.

2. Its importance theologically. Besides scriptural and historical supports for baptism, there are, of course, theological supports for it. Baptism affirms the importance of physicality and of the concrete act--in distinction from what is merely conceptual. The employment of water in baptism is congruous with the Christian understanding that the whole universe and all that is in it has been created by God and is not to be debased nor deplored. Baptism is supported theologically, further and similarly, because it occurs at a given time and place, and this is in keeping with our Christian faith, which is grounded upon events in history Baptism is supported theologically, also, because it is in keeping with the covenant emphasis of our Judeo-Christian faith. At baptism, infant or believer, the God who made covenants with Abraham and David and others in Old Testament times makes a covenant with the baptizands and extends His grace in special forms to them. . . .

The Matter of Mode. The mode of water baptism--whether it is to be administered by sprinkling, immersion, or pouring--has been a matter of debate among Christians for centuries.

1. Sprinkling. Of the three modes, this one probably carries the least support. One of the few passages of Scripture quoted in support of sprinkling is Luke 7:24, where Jesus asked, concerning the work of John the Baptist, "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?" The "reed," here, is likely a reference to John himself, but some have taken the word literally and have suggested that John would dip a reed into the Jordan and spray or sprinkle water onto the people with it. The interpretation is farfetched.

According to some authorities, the practice of sprinkling can be traced back only as far as the 12th century It is possible that sprinkling began as a slight variation in the practice of pouring.

2. Immersion. In this mode the baptizand is plunged beneath the water--usually once, although some groups submerge the baptizand three times, each time in the name of a different Person of the Trinity.

Numerous scriptural passages are given in support of immersion, none of which is unanswerably sound. Among the strongest of these is Rom. 6:4, where Paul says, "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."

Being "buried" with Christ might indicate being put completely under the water. Yet "buried" surely goes more naturally with death than with a momentary submersion into water. It is entirely possible that baptism by pouring indicates that the baptizand symbolically dies to his previous life and, through being born again, rises to newness of life in Christ.

Another passage used to support immersion is the reference to "plenty of water" in John 3:23, which speaks of John's baptizing. Yet "plenty of water" does not necessarily indicate water sufficient for immersion. If people stood waist-deep in water and had water poured over their heads, as they did according to Christian art that dates to as early as the third century of our era, a considerable amount of water would be needed.

According to Mark 1:10, Christ "was coming up out of the water" after His baptism, a favorite passage with immersionists. The words may indicate, however, that after being waist-deep in the water, Jesus "was coming up" out of the Jordan onto its bank-which would always be higher than the water level.

The literal meaning of the Greek word baptidzo has also been widely used to support immersion. The word means "to dip," and that might indicate submersion into water. Yet this does not necessarily mean submersion, as we shall see in our discussion of pouring.

3. Pouring. This mode has much warrant biblically, historically' and theologically. Biblically, it is strongly supportable. We are not sure that Scripture supports sprinkling or immersion as the mode, but we are certain that Spirit baptism is described as a pouring. And this might imply that water baptism was also by pouring. Joel (2:28) had prophesied that the Holy Spirit would be "poured out." Then John the Baptist said that Christ would "baptize" with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11-12). And Jesus said, "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised [in Joel], which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:4-5). Those promises by John and Jesus were ful filled at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was "poured out." Thus Peter at Pentecost quoted Joel: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. . . . I will pour out my Spirit in those days" (2:17-18).

An unquestionable linkage was made between the prophesied pouring and the promised baptism.

Possible indirect supports of baptism by pouring are to be found in certain other Scripture passages. One is the Acts 16:33 account of the conversion and baptism of the Philippian jailer and his entire household in the middle of the night. Baptism occurred right after his conversion to Christ-presumably in or near the jail itself. It would seem unlikely that sufficient water for immersion would have been available.

This is true also of the baptism of 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost. Some scholars question whether Jewish permission could have been secured to baptize in the Jerusalem reservoir at a time when the authorities were opposed to Christ's disciples. And it is questionable whether any other nearby body of water would have been large enough for baptizing so many persons by immersion.

Historically, baptism by pouring has considerable warrant. Roman Catholicism baptizes only by pouring, and its people understand that pouring has always been the mode used in that church. Because of its long use by the largest segment of Christendom, baptism by pouring has the greatest historical support of any of the three modes.

Theologically, pouring is also supportable. Our Christian water baptism somewhat grows out of Jewish practice. Yet the Jews, to purify with water, did not put the person or an object into the water, for that would have contaminated the water instead of cleansing the person or object. Instead, the Jews poured water over what was to be purified. Since the ceremony of baptism symbolizes cleansing, pouring seems to be theologically appropriate as a ceremony.

Whatever the mode of administration, baptism is valid. Matters on which Scripture does not give clear directives should not divide Christians.


From A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology by J. Kenneth Grider, Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, copyright 1994, pp. 497-501


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July 28, 2000