What Is Baptism?
In the Christian world today Baptism is essentially conducted in two ways: immersion (or submersion), or pouring.
Immersion baptism is the practice of one going down into a body of water, being laid underneath the water, and subsequently raised up out of the water thus signifying the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Baptism by pouring is the practice of pouring, or sprinkling, water over a believer’s head. Sometimes this is done three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The argument is often made that there are no biblical commandments for the use of one over the other, therefore it is not a matter of the method by which you are baptized, just so you are baptized. As we have stated on previous practices our goal is to follow the biblical example of the New Testament church. With this we will again look into the New Testament example of baptism as practice by John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the leaders of the Church.
We will start our study in the beginning of the Gospels: Matthew 3. In Matthew 3:5-6 it is said “Then went out to him (John) Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” The word “baptized” is from the Greek word “baptizo” (Strongs 907) which means “to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge, to bathe, to overwhelm”. This in an of itself would imply that a baptism by immersion is implicated. However, there is concern that the word has been misinterpreted over the generations.
Leaving that discussion aside let us strictly look at the practice of baptism in the New Testament. First ask the question “What was John doing here?” Thousands of people from all over the land of Judea have come out to John to be baptized. This was not a new practice. The Jews that joined John at the Jordan river were not partaking in a new ritual of which they had never seen. These men and women understood what a baptism was because they had been participating in ritual baptism since the Law was instituted. If the Jews knew what baptism was then let us look at the Old Testament view of baptism before we move ahead.
Obviously the word “baptism” is not used in the Old Testament, but the practice of immersion baptism was practiced on a regular basis. As we know in the Old Testament Law there were many things that made you “unclean”, and there were several practices by which one was made “clean”. There were certain sins that rendered one unclean requiring a ritual whereby to attain cleanliness. The Jewish practice of “mikvah” was the ritual by which one would enter down into a body of water, completely submerge themselves, and then come out of the water. This would render a person ritually clean.
“Mikvah” in Hebrew (Strong’s 4723) meant a collected mass of water, or ground of hope. The mikvah in Jewish culture was a bath of sorts that would allow a person to enter into a body of water, and be immersed. This immersion was required for many impurities, however it was also required for one who was converting to Judaism. The man or woman would have to be immersed in a mikvah, or a body of water, before he or she could join in Judaism.
Now when we look at the scene on the banks of the Jordan river we can understand that the Jews here were not partaking in some new “Christian” practice, but rather continuing in a practice that carried from the Law: the practice by which one who was converting from, or repenting from, their previous life outside of God would be immersed, and then walk in their new life.
The first example of baptism we see then is one of immersion as the Jews of that time would have been accustomed. Later in this chapter we see Jesus Christ come to be baptized of John. After He was baptized the Gospels record for us that “Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water:…” This would imply that Jesus was “down in the water” for Him to be able to come “straightway out of the water.” Another example of this phrasing is found in Acts 8:36-39 where we find: v. 36 “…See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?”, v. 38 “…and they went down both into the water, both Phillip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.”, and v. 39 “And when they were come up out of the water…”. Here we see Phillip take the Ethiopian down into the water, baptized him, and then brought him back out of the water. This clearly indicates a immersion baptism was taking place. The need for the preacher, and the believer to enter down into the water in both occurrences would be obsolete if the method of baptism was anything other than immersion.
Therefore we conclude that the biblical example of baptism when one was converting to the truth of God, which spans from the Old Testament to the New Testament, was immersion baptism. This was the baptism that Jesus Christ Himself partook, and was the method by which the early Church practiced, as evidenced by the Bible.
There are many arguments that are raised about this biblical principal in a effort to justify other forms of baptism. “What if there is no water?” “What about someone who cannot get up physically, and get to the water?” All of these arguments have validity, and there have been many examples of Christians who were unable, by whatever cause, to physically be immersed in baptism. It is not our position that these baptisms are thus obsolete, and not “true” baptism, when the circumstances arise that a believer is physically incapable. However, the exceptions are not to be made the rule. Biblical baptism is only by immersion, as the examples of baptism in the New Testament were immersion baptisms. There are times when circumstance would dictate a variation of the immersion baptism. This does not grant the right to practice pouring baptism as the primary means of baptism when the availability of immersion is available.
Another principal of baptism that we follow is the principal of “Believer’s baptism”. This is the practice of baptizing those who are believer’s of the word of God, and thus desire to be baptized into His church. The alternative practice is infant baptism where a child is brought to be baptized in their infancy before any proclamation of belief is every possible.
Again as we look into the biblical example of baptism we find that the child of God is baptized when he or she is converted to the truth of God, and believes. This can happen at the same moment of rebirth, or separately. To find examples of this we start with Jesus Christ who was not baptized till He started His ministry around 33 years old (Matt. 3). The word of God records that baptism was associated with repentance. In Luke 3 we see publicans, soldiers, and pharisees all gathered to John’s preaching where he preached the “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” In Acts 2:38 Peter finishes his sermon, and when the believers present were pricked in their hearts they asked Peter “What shall we do?” Peter replies: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…” Acts 8:12 states: “But when they believed Phillip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God..they were baptized.”
We see then that the biblical example of baptism was conducted when men and women heard the words of God, believed them, repented of their former sins, and were baptized. This obviously cannot, and does not apply to an infant. The infant has no ability to hear the word of God, believe the word of God, and repent from their former life. It is thus determined that the biblical example, and practice of baptism was never conducted on infants, but believers who sought to repent of their former lives at the hearing of the word of God.
This does not negate the fact that people can and are born again as infants (John the baptist was born again from his mother’s womb). However, the bible teaches that baptism is not necessarily performed at the new birth, but rather at the conversion of the child of God to the truth.
In conclusion we hold to the truths made evident by the word of God. The biblical example of baptism is immersion of repentant believers, and none other. Since this is the only example of baptism we have to base our practice in the New Testament church then this is the method by which a believer in the New Testament church is to be baptized.