Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion? Mode of Baptism at Harvest

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Mode of Baptism at Harvest Community Church

By Pastor Jacob Gerber

Adopted by the Session of Harvest Community Church on December 16, 2020

Among Bible-believing Protestant Christians, debates about baptism often focus on the proper recipients of baptism. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists confess that the proper recipients of baptism are believers and their children, while Baptists and many non-denominational Christians teach that baptism must be administered only to believers. 

At Harvest (a Presbyterian church), we preach, teach, and practice the baptism of believers and their children because we believe that the Bible commands it. While we require our officers to believe and to practice this understanding of baptism, we do not require this belief or practice for members of the congregation. We teach, exhort, and admonish members of the church not to unduly delay baptism for their children; however, out of Christian love, we respect their consciences on this issue.

Beyond the debate about the proper recipients of baptism, Bible-believing Protestant Christians also debate the proper mode of baptism. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists baptize by sprinkling or pouring, while Baptists and many non-denominational Christians teach that immersion is the only valid form of baptism.

At Harvest, we confess that, “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.3). This statement is carefully worded to affirm that the right administration of baptism is indeed by pouring or sprinkling of water (more on that in a moment), and that dipping/immersion is not necessary. Nevertheless, our Confession does not go so far as to say that dipping/immersion is an invalid form of baptism. 

From this basic statement in our Confession of Faith, we have two questions to consider about the validity and the propriety of the modes of baptism: (1) Why do we believe that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling? and (2) How do we treat baptisms by immersion?

The Right Administration of Baptism: Pouring or Sprinkling

Baptism is a washing that symbolizes the cleansing work of the forgiveness of sins by faith (Acts 2:38). The Bible describes this cleansing work as having been (1) accomplished for believers by Christ, and (2) applied to believers by the Holy Spirit. 

As a work accomplished by Christ, baptism symbolizes the cleansing blood of Jesus shed for us at the cross (1 John 1:7). Like the sprinkled blood of Old Testament sacrifices, Christ’s sprinkled blood cleanses us of our sin (Heb. 9:11–28; 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2). Baptism by sprinkling symbolizes the cleansing, sprinkled blood of Christ: “…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22; cf. Ezek. 36:25). 

As a work applied by the Holy Spirit, baptism symbolizes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem to await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is symbolized by water baptism (Acts 1:5). On the Day of Pentecost, Peter explained all that had happened in this way: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33; cf. Isa. 44:3; Joel 2:29; Acts 10:45, 47–48). Baptism by pouring symbolizes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ gave us on the Day of Pentecost, according to the promises of the gospel.

Sprinkling and pouring also align with Old Testament baptismal practices. Priests were sprinkled with oil and blood for their consecration (Lev. 8:30), along with the command to “wash them with water” (Ex. 29:4; 30:20; Lev. 8:6; cf. Ezek. 16:4). While it is unclear precisely what mode “washing” would be, there is much more clarity given in the purification of the Levites, who were cleansed for their ministry by the sprinkling of water: “Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves” (Num. 8:7). Furthermore, the Lord sometimes commanded ritual purifications for various ceremonial uncleannesses in Israel with the word “bathe” (e.g., Lev. 15:6–8, 11, 13; cf. Ezek. 16:9). Like the word “wash,” the word “bathe” does not specify the mode of bathing. When the language is specific as to mode, however, the command is for “throwing” or “sprinkling” water on Israelites for their purification (Num. 19:13, 18–21).

Baptism by Immersion: Unnecessary and Irregular, but Valid

Christians who teach immersion as the only valid form of baptism appeal to passages like Romans 6:4: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The imagery of burial and resurrection, they argue, is only reflected by immersing and then lifting a person up out of the waters.

The chief problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that people in Paul’s day buried the dead in the same way that we do now. We bury our dead down into the ground; however, in the Bible burial is described as something that happens sideways, into a cave which functioned as a tomb (cf. Gen. 23:19; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 11:38). Immersion may reflect our idea of burial, but it does not reflect the Bible’s idea of burial. 

Or, Baptists may appeal to language describing how baptismal candidates went “into” (Greek: eis) or how they “went down” (Greek: katabainō) into the water to be baptized (e.g., Mark 1:9; Acts 8:38). This language does not, however, refer to baptism by the mode of immersion, but simply describes the act of going down the riverbank into the water in order to then be baptized. These texts are silent about the mode of baptism once the baptizer and the baptismal candidate have “gone down” together “into” the water. 

Additionally, we should remember that the New Testament compares baptism to Noah’s escape from the flood (1 Pet. 3:18–22) and to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). In both of these cases, immersion was for God’s enemies alone, and God’s preservation for his people is demonstrated in the fact that they were not immersed, but brought safely through the waters of judgment. In those passages, immersion symbolizes God’s judgment, while pouring and sprinkling better symbolizes God’s mercy toward us in Christ and by the Spirit.

So, against the English Baptists who were beginning to claim that baptism by immersion was necessary and the only right mode of baptism, the Westminster Assembly denied that immersion is necessary, and affirmed that pouring and sprinkling are right modes for administering the sacrament of baptism. Therefore, not only is baptism by immersion unnecessary, it is also irregular. Baptism by immersion shifts the emphasis away from the biblical symbolism of cleansing and washing, and shifts the emphasis to a flawed symbolism of modern burial practices—and, unwittingly, to a symbolism of judgment. For this reason, immersion is not a normal mode of administering baptism at Harvest.

Elements vs. Circumstances in Baptism

Even so, our Standards deliberately stop short of saying that baptism by immersion is invalid, or that baptism cannot be administered by immersion under any circumstances at all. In worship, we must distinguish between elements and circumstances. When we are dealing with the elements of worship, we are dealing with the “what” of worship—that is, questions about what is biblically required. If the elements are wrong, the worship is nullified as invalid. In regard to the elements of baptism, the biblical requirements are simply that “the outward element to be used in this sacrament is water” (WCF 28.2; cf. Matt. 28:19; Acts 8:36; 10:47). As long as we are applying the element of water, we have a valid baptism.

When we are dealing with the circumstances of worship, however, we are dealing with the “how” of worship—that is, questions about how to worship with biblical wisdom. In evaluating circumstances, we are not talking about questions that will invalidate worship, but questions that get at varying degrees of what is prudent (1 Cor. 14:26, 40). While water is required as the element of baptism, the mode of applying that water is a question of circumstances. It is wiser to baptize by pouring or sprinkling, because those modes more faithfully portray the biblical symbolism. Nevertheless, because baptisms by immersion still maintain the element of water, they are valid. In spite of the skewed symbolism, baptisms may be administered by immersion in some cases, even while it is not generally wise to do so.

Questions of Conscience in Baptism

When, then, is it wise to baptize by immersion? The only time we baptize by immersion is when it is necessary for accommodating the conscience of a baptismal candidate. As a general principle, we have three criteria for evaluating whether to depart from our church’s regular, normative practices to accommodate the requests of those who appeal to conscience:

 

  1. The request for accommodation may be for something that the Scriptures do not demand as necessary, but never for something that is forbidden by the Scriptures. (Rom. 14:5, 14; 1 Cor. 8:4–6; 10:25–30; Col. 2:16)
  2. The request for accommodation may be for something that is permissible outside our regular, normative practices, but never for something that would be divisive in the congregation. (Rom. 14:1–23; 1 Cor. 10:28–29, 32–33)
  3. The request for accommodation must not be a matter of personal preferences alone, but a matter of the convictions of a believer’s faith. (Rom. 14:20–23)

So, if a Chistian worries that he or she would not receive a true baptism except by immersion, here are our practices and our process:

  1. We do not permit baptism by immersion hastily. Rather, we will ask for due delay of such a decision so that we can make diligent efforts to teach, correct, exhort, and admonish a baptismal candidate from the Scriptures about this subject. As a part of normal pastoral care, we seek to demonstrate from the Scriptures that sprinkling and pouring rightly reflect biblical symbolism, and that immersion is not necessary. 
  2. In cases where Christian parents wish that children still living in their household should receive baptism by immersion, we will work with the parents and the children, but not the children alone. We do not want to turn children against their parents on this issue, but we want all children to understand what Harvest teaches, preaches, and practices about baptism.
  3. In cases where we cannot persuade baptismal candidates (or their parents) after due delay and diligent efforts, we will baptize by immersion out of Christian love, seeking to maintain the purity of our normal practice of baptism by pouring or sprinkling, while also affirming that baptism by immersion is nevertheless valid.
  4. Because we believe that baptism is once to be administered (WCF 28.7), we will never baptize someone by immersion who has already been validly baptized by some other mode, even if someone’s conscience leads them to believe that they need baptism by immersion. We can be flexible on the mode of baptism because the various modes of baptism do not affect the essence of baptism. On the other hand, we believe that it is essential for baptism to be administered only once, so that we preserve the “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) nature of baptism. Re-baptizing someone who has already been validly baptized is not merely unwise, but forbidden.
  5. For the same reasons, we will never require those who have already been baptized by immersion to be re-baptized by pouring or sprinkling. As long as the baptism was by water, in the Triune name of God, and administered by an ordained minister of the gospel, it is a valid baptism, regardless of mode (WCF 28.2).

By these practices, we hope to build up the body of Christ at Harvest in peace and purity, seeking unity as a church in the midst of our diversity as individual believers. Please direct any questions you may have about this to the Session (elders@harvestpca.org).

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