Water baptism is a fundamental part of the Christian faith. There are several types of baptism, some of which have been in practice before the arrival of Jesus. But there is disagreement about the method. Some believe that baptism by immersion is unnecessary, and sprinkling or pouring is fine.
In this article, I will illustrate why the practice of water baptism by full immersion is the mode of baptism that Christ intended for his followers.
Before We Start: A Note About Obedience
I believe seeking to obey God by doing things the way He wants is important (like baptism by immersion). That said, I also believe that there is something of higher priority than obedience by works. I know what you’re thinking: “Skyler, what could possibly be of higher priority than obedience?” I’ll tell you:
Obedience in heart. The kind of attitude and heart an individual has is of utmost importance. That’s because faith (my loyalty and commitment to God) is the mechanism in my life that makes me obey (my works). James points this out beautifully in James 2 by illustrating that faith without works is not really works at all.
We all intuitively understand this concept. Consider the example of a police officer who commits to “keeping the peace” in his town, yet never attempts to stop criminals. We would rightfully say he wasn’t truly committed. The same is true of faith toward God. If a person says they have faith, yet withholds goodwill toward their neighbor, then what they have is “dead faith” (or not really faith at all).
True faith drives us to obedience and good works. Therefore, faith is “higher priority” than works, but is also fulfilled by works.
What is baptism?
Now that the important discussion of mindset is out of the way, let’s discuss God’s intent for baptism (if any).
Baptism (or to baptize) is an english word that was transliterated directly from its Greek origin, “baptízō“. There is no other English use for the word baptism or to baptize.
The word means to dip or submerge. It seems to have been quite the common word in ancient Greek culture that sometimes referred to a sinking ship and the dying of fabrics.
Dying of fabrics, in particular, illustrates how the ancient Greek culture understood and commonly used the word. You don’t just partially cover a fabric when you die it. Therefore, many people including myself refer to baptism as immersion. That is, the total covering of a thing or person.
How did the Bible authors understand baptism?
The evidence shows that the Bible authors understood baptism (water baptism) to be a process that involved going down into the water and coming back up. This is why every example of water baptism that details the event in scripture involves immersion.
New Testament verses showing baptism by immersion:
- Jesus’ water baptism by immersion (Matthew 3).The baptism of Jesus Christ was in water, and involved him going down into the water, and then coming up out of the water.
- Ethiopian Eunuch’s water baptism by immersion (acts 8).In this example, we see both Philip and the eunuch going down into the water.
Components of Baptism by Immersion
Baptism by immersion is symbolic of quite a few things. These symbols appeal to the argument that being fully immersed is the intent that Jesus has for his followers to commit to him. Here are some of the symbols:
Immersion as Burial & Resurrection
One more common argument in favor of baptism by immersion is the argument appealing to baptism as a symbol of death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Romans 6 illustrates this concept, and the same author (Paul) also describes baptism in relation to resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.
The question becomes, if baptism is a symbol of burial and resurrection, does sprinkling water effectively illustrate that symbol?
Immersion as Complete Submission
When you are immersed in water, you proclaim not only that you need saving, but that you have no power to save yourself. It is a complete surrender of your will to do the will of another (1 Peter 3:21, Matthew 7:21).
Consider the example of Naaman (2 Kings 5) who was told to dip 7 times in the Jordan river to cleanse his leprosy. At first, he didn’t want to submit his own will to the instructions given to him. Eventually though, he changed his mind and even though the instructions seemed silly, he submitted to them and was healed.
Immersion as Full Commitment & Unity Into Christ
There is a type of acting called “method” acting where actors completely immerse themselves into the role. In essence, they become the character they portray. For example, Forest Whitaker once living in Uganda for 3 months and learned Swahili for a role. Many times, method actors do not break character even when not on-set or in action. Often, this process if method acting is described as an actor “losing themselves” in a role.
In this sense, immersion in water is symbolic of our complete and total loss of ourselves, and subsequent merging of our character into Christ’s character. Another way to describe this could be the death of our flesh and living for Christ (Romans 6:11).
All these components make baptism by immersion more profound. Knowing this, should we advocate for any other mode of baptism? The answer seems clear.
Is there wiggle room in Jesus' command to immerse?
Let’s take a look at the command and see if we can determine if Jesus wants us to be baptized by immersion.
- The people at the time understood the meaning of “baptízō” to completely cover (like dying fabric). I favor the word immerse.
- Jesus commanded participation in this complete covering as a part of the process to become a disciple (Matthew 28:18-20) and himself was completely immersed (Matthew 3:13-17).
By the rules of communication and authority, we can simply see that the command was to cover with water. Should we infer that we are free to complete this in any method not involving covering with water? My answer is no.
If Jesus commanded to “touch” water, then we would have the freedom to complete this act in lots of different ways. We could spray, drop, sprinkle, drip, or even shoot the water. We could even just touch water with a finger or something. Any method that completed the command to “touch” water would obey the command.
But that’s not what the command was. Jesus commanded immersion, a covering and submersion into water. That means anything other than covering or submersion is not completing the command.
What if one small part of the body is not immersed?
There may be a case where by accident or some other reason, some part of a person’s body does not come into complete contact with water. For example, a person with really long hair may go down under the surface, but their hair may somehow remain on the surface. Or, a person’s feet may pop up when their head goes down under the water.
Does this mean that a person’s baptism by immersion is not valid? No.
God accepts a believer based upon his faith and desire to obey. That means sometimes we will get it wrong, but so long as our desire is to get it right, God’s grace covers us. Abraham, who is the model of justification by faith got it wrong lots of times. Despite this, he was still counted as righteous (Romans 4).
That said, if your conscience is bothered by your baptism, then I would suggest that you listen to your conscience. If it’s telling you to get baptized again, then there is no harm in doing so.
What if I wasn't immersed when I was baptized?
If you weren’t immersed when you were baptized, I would suggest that you consider being baptized again. Not just for the sake of performing a ritual in the “right way”. Rather, as a proclamation to God that you are committed to doing His will.
Doing God’s will as opposed to our own will is a core component of the faith of an individual. And we know that faith is what justifies man (Romans 3,28, Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:8-10).
When our desire is to obey and do what God wants, then our actions will naturally follow. When our heart is in tune with His will in this way, we should have complete security and trust that His grace will cover our mistakes.
Does baptism by immersion save you?
With all this talk about doing baptism the “right” way, one might be tempted to believe that baptism itself has some saving power. That’s simply not true.
Pause! Don’t mis-understand what I am saying. No baptism does not save you, but it is necessary. See: Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?
There is no saving power in being dunked (immersed) under water. If that was the case, everyone who jumps in a lake or swimming pool would be saved. Obviously there more to it than going under the water. One must also make an appeal to God in faith in Christ (1 Peter 3:21). That’s why faith is what justifies a person, and a true faith is one that seeks to do God’s will.
A living faith is one that produces good works, and baptism is no exception.
Conclusion: Is baptism by immersion necessary?
Yes, baptism by immersion is necessary because that is what Jesus commanded. If we decide to alter his command, then we may be in danger of judgment. However, before focusing on the mechanics of the physical act of baptism, we should always focus on our heart.
God wants us to commit to him in loyalty first. Once we do that, then the works we do should naturally follow in the way that he wants.