Is immersion essential to baptism?

In my next few posts on Strange BaptistFire, I will be giving excerpts from Dr. Greg Wills’ article, “Are we all wet or does Baptism matter?” from the Fall 2007 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine. I believe it is important to address issues of baptism on Strange BaptistFire for two reasons:

  1. Many Baptists who become convinced of the Doctrines of Grace naturally begin to question whether the Reformed tradition may be correct on other issues as well, including paedo-baptism.
  2. Many Calvinistic Baptists influenced by John Piper have begun to question whether different understandings of baptism are important enough to determine whether Christians can join together in a local congregation.

For these (and other) reasons, it is important that Baptists seeking a historic Baptist fidelity to issues regarding baptism clarify specific teachings on issues related to believers’ baptism.

In regards to the question, “Is immersion essential to baptism?” Dr. Wills writes,

The fundamental question here is what has Christ commanded? Does Christ require the mode of baptism to be immersion or is the mode a matter of indifference? The common attitude of Protestant paedobaptists is that the mode is a matter of indifference. Immersion is good, sprinkling is good, pouring is good, they believe. Traditionally, Baptists have held that the only valid mode of baptism is immersion.

When we say mode of baptism, we are introducing redundancy. We, as Baptists, actually don’t believe in baptism by immersion. We believe in baptism, which is immersion. Let me explain: the word baptizein in Greek means to immerse. When we begin talking about the mode of baptism, we prejudice the matter severely against Christ having revealed a specific form, the very form of the phrase there. Our word “baptize” in English is a lone Greek word, an anglicized transliteration of the Greek baptizein.

We could speak of mode of baptism if we were commanded to wash persons with water. If the command were to wash, louein, then we might ask, how much water should we use to fulfill the command? Shall we wash by immersion? By pouring? By sprinkling? It would be legitimate to ask about mode of baptism in this case. But we are not commanded to wash. We are not commanded to wet, we are not commanded to soak and we are not commanded to purify. We are commanded to immerse.

Explore posts in the same categories: Doctrinal Issues

23 Comments on “Is immersion essential to baptism?”

  1. Barry Says:

    Isn’t the intention via the use of water as a symbol for the cleansing and re-newal of our soul or spiritual being? If so, does it necessitate the importance of how the water is applied to us? Is it the symbol or the form that matters?

  2. Paul Says:

    The real point about Baptists is BELIEVERS baptism. Yes, you are very accurate in saying that baptism literally means immersion. However, the Greek Orthodox church immerses babies. The real distinguishing feature is the Biblical example of believers being baptized. That is why we insist on the new birth first, then baptism.

  3. Paul Bollen Says:

    Believers baptism has always represents, to me, as “to bury.” We don’t bury our love ones by sprinkling a little dirt on them. Go to the graveyards and see if you find bodies with a little dirt thrown on them and left alone to rot.

  4. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    The symbol matters and the mode matters, and the substance of it matters.

    What does not matter is whether or not it is significant to inclusion in the body of Christ. The purpose of proper baptism baptistically is polity, that meaning incorporation (placing in the body) of a local church and discipline therein, a regulation of members of like faith and practice participating in the Lord’s Supper.

    This is also the dividing line over the Supper between conventions, associations and denominations.

    This is a broad subject and continuing the question of what are the distinctives of Baptistism. In other words, what defines the doctrine of the several Baptist churches, and does this create for us a distinct ecclesiology?

    I would question the use of baptizien juxtaposed to louein and take it that baptizien necessarily means submerse and not wash: Luke 11:38; Mark 7:4-8; Heb 6:2; Heb 9:10. However, two verses would make the mode, and necessarily the symbol distinctly fitted to immersion: Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27. And the preponderance of verses using baptizo or its varients indicate totallity, inward and outward, seen and unseen.

    I like this discription:

    Not to be confused with 911, bapto. The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change. When used in the New Testament, this word more often refers to our union and identification with Christ than to our water baptism. e.g. Mark 16:16. ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved’. Christ is saying that mere intellectual assent is not enough. There must be a union with him, a real change, like the vegetable to the pickle! Bible Study Magazine, James Montgomery Boice, May 1989.

    In the case of water baptism, we would be better off calling it dipping, and not baptism. Then again in some cases, it might be better to keep the convert submersed until they really are changed. πŸ˜‰

    Anyway, our symbol and mode must most closely reveal the revelation of Scripture. The closer we are, the less confusion we engender.

  5. Cap Pooser Says:

    Is immersion essential to immersion?

  6. fred Says:

    I still am not convinced that the mode of this matters. Does the God of all creation really care about how it is done? This seems like religious legalism. I believe Luther had this to say. It doesn’t matter but if there is a preference then immersion is probably best. A question is , how is one immersed in say an arid area, or some other place that lacks sufficient water. What then? Is that an exception? I like what Cap P said. Is immersion essential to immersion. It sounds illogical, but I believe the symbol is in spirit more than in the flesh.

  7. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Fred- I have no problem with that- mode is like that which was spoken of the things of the tabernacle, however. It is just simply prudent to make things as clear as possible.

    We do not use the exception to define rule. What if there was nothing but sand? Should we baptize in the Ganges? Should we subject the congregation to dysentery? We do not take the Supper according to form in Scripture, what makes the mode that we employ there correct, and competing modes of baptism, incorrect? You begin to get the idea… Piper asks this question: does the mode excommunicate from fellowship? A critical question. My answer is no. But how do we regulate it? The only answer is to find its referent in Scripture. Is that what Baptists have done, or have they gone beyond?

    Back a few posts was a discussion on the RPW. What is the proper form of worship? Do we have a right to amend it to our taste?

    Did you read Piper and Grudem on this subject? There are some really good points made on both sides.

  8. Barry Says:

    “keep the convert submerged until they change”.

    Thomas, the grin still hasn’t left my face.

  9. Wills says “We, as Baptists, actually don’t believe in baptism by immersion. We believe in baptism, which is immersion.”

    I agree.

    However, I wonder if some Baptists need to sharpen how they articulate their doctrine of Baptism.

    Here is what I mean. Is Baptism merely immersion [in] or is baptism immersion [in] and emersion [out]?

    For example the Abstract states “Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus, obligatory upon every believer, wherein he is immersed in water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of his fellowship with the death and resurrection of Christ…”

    Notice how the abstract “only” mentions immersion and not both immersion and emersion. But how can mere immersion be a sign of fellowship with “both” the death [in] and resurrection [out] of Christ?

    Jay Adams in his booklet on the mode of Baptism talks about the idea of baptism being both “in and out” and then shows that if you have Baptism in Romans 6 meaning “in and out” then the meaning would be invalid since you would have [to give one example] people going “in and out” of Christ Jesus in verse 3.

    Love to hear some feedback on this.

  10. Thomas Twitchell Says:


    Aren’t both true?

    Eternal life is only in the Son. And only in Him, will we bear fruit of eternal life. In the same sense. We have not yet died, but baptism symbolizes our death in Christ. At the same time we have not yet been resurrected, yet, having been baptised into his death, we are declared the Resurrection.

    On the one hand the death we have died we can never die again, and on the other, the life we live we live by the grace of God and in it we will always live, even though we die.

    In the resurrection, we will indeed emmerse, for that which is planted dies and that which comes forth is different. The old will pass away, immersion, and all things will be made new, emmersion. Then too, being baptised into Christ brings to fruition what Jesus prayed:

    that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

    In this sense, having been immersed in Christ, we will never emmerse from Christ. But, having died to this world, we will emmerse in a new creation:

    If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

  11. Thomas,

    Thanks for your response.

    I take Romans 6 to not be referring to our future death and future resurrection, but to our death to the [guilt] of sin and being resurrected from that particular death.

    Robert Haldane’s commentary on why this death is a death to the guilt of sin and not the power of sin are impeccable in my opinion.

    He argues that Christ’s death to sin could not have been a death to the “power” of sin since Christ was never under the power of sin.

    However, Christ was under the guilt of sin and died to it. Therefore, Christ’s death to the guilt of sin [with the resurrection following] is also our death to the guilt of sin through being united to Jesus Christ.

    And we have power over sin through “reckoning” ourselves dead to the guilt of sin and alive unto God.

    I love your thought on eschatological newness but I don’t see that in Romans 6. The walking in newness of life taught in Romans 6 I take to be our present walk of life from the guilt of sin.

    You said “having been baptised into his death, we are declared the Resurrection”. I’m not sure what you mean by that.

    I would take being baptised into his death to mean we are merely immersed into His death with emersion signifying our resurrection from that death.

    It seems to me that you look at Baptism as something eschatological whereas I would look at it as having eschatological implications, but not “strictly” or “mainly” signifying eschatology.

    I might have read you wrong so please correct any misunderstanding.

    Thanks for getting me thinking.

  12. Think of it this way.

    Cap, I think jokingly, asked “Is immersion essential to immersion?” [commenting off of Wills statement that baptism is immersion I think]

    Now, is that the question or is it “Is immersion essential to immersion/emersion?”

  13. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    I capitalized Resurrection because the most common use of it has the definite article before it as in Matthew 22:23-33. And, in that case the division is clear that “the resurrection” is an elect class, not of the dead, but of the living. It still goes to this sense in which we are in Christ, and never out of him, but also to the fact that we will be resurrected, no longer having our lives hidden in him.

    I was not thinking solely eschatologically, that is consummatively, except in the sense that we wait for the fulness of the manifestation of the sons of God. Right now, it is true, that he is giving life to us. But, that as Paul explains is not we who live but Chirst. Even in Romans six it is eschatological (consummative) in its scope:

    But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

    And that follows on

    grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord

    in chapter five, speaking of our justification and a life of righteous by grace, and not according to anything that we do. (see below) That precedes Paul’s discussion on the impossibility of our decisions determining the outcome of our behavior in Romans 7. Then he goes on to:

    If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

    So, in all this, our baptism is into, and not out from. But, I would agree, that even in this life we have the firstfruits of the Spirit, but only because:

    the Spirit helps us in our weakness

    and only because we have the Spirit are we

    those who live according to the Spirit (who) set their minds on the things of the Spirit

    We still look forward to that rest which is consummative. As it stands now we are the Resurrection, we will then be the Resurrection, and that all because we are in Him who is The Resurrection.

    But, more to the point that you made. Do we really spend enough energy expounding on baptism? The 1689 from which the Abstracts were abstracted follow along the same line of logic that baptism signifies emmersion to living a life of righteousness. I can and do extend it to that, however, I think that that is an overly zealous extension, also. Baptism is baptism into his death, and although there are aspects of it that are true of the believer after incorporation in the body, we are incorporated through his resurrection.

    According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

    For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

    Our point of entry is his death, but in that death we are given his perfect obedience before and his eternal life after and that according to the resurrection. In all things then the baptism is not about us at all. It testifies of Chirst, and not of us. Baptism represents his life, his death, and his resurrection, not our own.

    As I said, each of these has application to us, but, in particular the baptism, has nothing at all to do with us. I think it tends to concentration upon man, and not upon Christ when we make baptism about us.

    Interestingly the 1689 uses both terms, immersion and dipping, baptizo and bapto, both; to submerge and remain, and to submerge and remove.

  14. Cap Pooser Says:

    We lose the battle when we talk about the mode of baptism. We allow that there are other ways to immerse. The mode of immersion is immersion. We can talk about modes of ceremonies but not about modes of baptism.

  15. Thomas Twitchell Says:


    I agree, baptism means immersion, generally speaking, but not in every use. And, we use symbols to conduct the Supper, and do not in reality have a supper.

    So this arguement comes up. If we are to use strict literalistic meanings, then we need to change the mode of the Supper. Where there is wine, it needs to be wine and not grape juice, where it is bread, it needs to be bread, and not crackers, where we pass the elements down the isle, we need insteed to recline at a real supper. Where we make it symbolic in mode, we need to change the mode to a reality, if we are to be consistent with our demands for immersion as the only modal symbolism, because that is what it means.

  16. Andrew Says:


    RE: “I wonder if some Baptists need to sharpen how they articulate their doctrine of Baptism.
    Here is what I mean. Is Baptism merely immersion [in] or is baptism immersion [in] and emersion [out]?”

    -I’m not familiar with the term “emersion.” By your comment, I take it to be the technical term for coming up out of the water after one has been immersed. I think that historically immersion has implied emersion- similar to how Paul proclaims to the Corinthians “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2) when it is clear that he also taught the resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-4). I do agree with you, however, that we may want to include a specific statement on “emersion,” especially as the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection has been under such fierce attack and the doctrine of the resurrection has been neglected.

  17. Barry Says:


    There is more than the historical resurrection that has come under scrutiny in the past twenty years. It takes a brave (and open minded) person to bring home from the library some of the books that have come out recently.

  18. Cap Pooser Says:

    Thomas, we don’t need to change the mode of the supper. Those who use grape juice, crackers, and pass the elements down the aisle have already done that.

  19. Q: Is baptism actually necessary?

    First off, baptism means immersion. I am assuming this because the only example we have of the actual mechanics of it in the Bible is John baptizing people in the river. “River” there would kinda suggest immersion. It’s hard to imagine how you might sprinkle someone with a river. But on the other hand, baptism is a sort of fulfillment of biblical typology and symbolism. And the Old Testament is way short of any kind of immersion imagery, and chock full of sprinkling and dabbing. Sprinkling of blood; sprinkling of ashes, spinkling of oil… In the Old Testament, it’s is only a form of “marking” – specifically of identifying or distinguishing. The blood was dabbed on the doorposts of the house as an identifying mark – a signal to the destroyer that he was to pass over (ie, passover) this house while on his rounds about Egypt. The blood was sprinkled on the altar and on the people.

    I think the only uses of “immersion” in the Old Testament are likely going to come in various forms of death and the grave. Which I think is very revealing and a strong argument in favour of immersion. It symbolized your resurrection from the dead, after all.

    For that reason, as far as I’m concerned, a sprinkle is every bit as good as a dunk. It has to do with your heart more than anything else. You can completely FAKE a baptism, even a baptism by immersion. And you can be completely genuine in your profession of faith and yet fail to be baptised at all for simple lack of water or access to it. (I see a eunuch in a chariot by a river and a guy hanging on a cross next to Jesus). I can’t see where it matters. Let’s face it, how many rivers in Israel at that time were even deep enough for it? IF you could find one at all. Lots of rivers are little more than ankle deep. (I see John the Baptist jumping up and down on your chest trying to get you UNDER the water, or rolling you around like a log trying to make sure he get’s every side of you wet. πŸ˜‰

    Talk about immersion is kinda moot if your river is 6 inches deep at the time you “got saved” or if you were nailed to a tree 15 feet away from and right in plain site of a thirty foot deep river.

    Secondly, baptism is purely symbolic. It is an outward expression of an inward change. It is your first, public, expression of faith. And failure to be baptised in no way says anything at all about what you believe (except maybe what you believe about baptism). Lots and lots of people died in Christ without ever being baptised. And they will be “raised again on the last day” or “with him in paradise.”

    The only baptism I’m aware of that is or was absolutely necessary was Jesus Christ’s baptism, and the only reason that was necessary was to fulfill a prophecy that was specifically about Him. (“John, we have to do this to fulfill prophecy, so get on with it…”)

    The one person solidly identified with baptism is of couse, John the Baptist. It’s kinda where he got his nickname. But John, in speaking of Baptism said that his baptism was trivial, and the REAL baptist was coming after him, and that the REAL baptism was with the Holy Spirit and with “fire” (again, another reference to the Holy Spirit), NOT with water at all, whether with a sprinkle or a dunk.

    And that’s the real heart of the matter. Baptism means being baptised “IN Christ”. It means to be immersed, I’ll grant, but it means to be immersed IN JESUS. (That’s why I prefer to think of it as immersion. I don’t want a little sprinkle of Jesus. Dunk me under – several times!) Recall that Jesus said to Peter, “unless I wash you, you can have no part with me” – again alluding to the fact that baptism means to be immersed in Jesus Christ. To be filled with the Holy Spirit. To be “marked” and set aside and distinguished internally in your heart, and separated from the rest of the world. All this takes place immediately and completely the very instant a man’s eyes, ears and heart are opened, and they see themselves in their true condition and they see Jesus Christ for who he truly is – their saviour. And when they believe it and trust in it, they are therein baptized in the Holy Spirit and Fire in that very instant! They are immediately filled with as much of the Holy Spirit as they ever will be – that is to say, completely!

    Again, water baptism is symbolic. It’s a work that takes place in the heart and mind of a believer. Not on his skin and clothes.

    Q: Is baptism actually necessary?

    A: The question is not “is it necessary?” The question is “why would you not WANT to be baptized?” Really! If you are sitting there having this conversation with yourself about whether or not you ought to be baptized, I think you aren’t even qualified for it in the first place. And, (and this is just me personally), if it isn’t your hope to be dunked so deep into Jesus Christ that you might DROWN, then I question your resolve and your so-called “faith.” Seeing how great an ocean of grace and forgiveness is our Lord, who wouldn’t want to be DRENCHED – utterly soaked, through and through, with that living water? How could you look at it and not want to go under that surface and never come up out of it? How could you stand there, dazzled by the brilliant light shining from it’s liguid gold surface and say, “Gee, I really don’t like getting wet. But, well, OK, I guess you could sprinkle a little bit of it on me… that wouldn’t be too bad.” My response: SIEZE ME BY THE SCRUFF OF MY NECK AND THROW ME IN THERE LORD! Chuck me in there head first, Lord!! Is that all you got??? blub blub blub.. Is that all you got????? Nope, there’s still a dry spot here, Lord, better send me back in again! Let’s find out how deep this water really is! (oops. Sorry, I’m having a good laugh writing that, but that’s the scene as I see it!)

    But really, If you are not absolutely certain, then I think you have yet to meet our Lord. Here’s that wonderful water, like you’ve never seen before, and you’re standing there sticking your toe in it and saying, “Ew!”??? That water isn’t for you, my friend. Not yet, anyway.

    No man who truly sees his sinful condition, and see the revealed holiness of God, and the true rightesousness of God in Jesus Christ, no such man will do anything but fall on his face glorifying God and despairing of any hope in themselves for salvation. The immediate consequence of revelation is belief, and the immediate consequence of belief is, inevitably, TRUST. And to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ, to them he says “you will be with me in paradise.” And water doesn’t enter into it.

    The answer is that it’s not that baptism is necessary, but that for the truly saved saints of God, it is unavoidable.

  20. BTW – I guess that leads well enough into the other side of this question: are only baptized believers to be admitted to the “Lord’s Supper?”

    If they are believers, they are baptized.

  21. Sean McDonald Says:

    Westminster Confession of Faith 28.3: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” (Heb. 9:10, 19-22; Acts 2:41; 16:33; Mark 7:4)

    The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, Of the Administration of the Sacraments: And First, Of Baptism: “Then the minister is to demand the name of the child; which being told him, he is to say, (calling the child by his name,) I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. As he pronounceth these words, he is to baptize the child with water: which, for the manner of doing it, is not only lawful but sufficient, and most expedient to be, by pouring or sprinkling of the water on the face of the child, without adding any other ceremony.”

    Just some feedback from your friendly neighborhood Covenanter. πŸ˜‰

  22. […] Having addressed the definition of baptism and the question of whether baptism is necessary for church membership and admittance to the Lord’s Supper, Dr. Wills next turns to a question concerning who performs the baptism. Dr Wills writes: Let’s recognize that not every immersion done in the name of Christ, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a true baptism. We must recognize that a Mormon immersion is not a baptism. Not a Christian baptism, anyway, for the Mormon church is not a Christian church. Eastern Orthodox immersions and Roman Catholic immersions are also not true baptisms because they are not Gospel churches. The Christian Church, Churches of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ traditionally have believed that baptism actually accomplishes the remission of sins. That is not Christian baptism. That is an overthrow of the Bible teaching of justification by faith. Baptists have traditionally not recognized their immersions as true baptisms. […]

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