Baptism by immersion only?

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Early Christian painting of a Baptism - Saint Calixte Catacomb - 3rd century

Early Christian painting of a Baptism – Saint Calixte Catacomb – 3rd century

Adventists baptise only by full immersion (submersion), and they don’t consider other forms of baptism to be real baptisms. They also don’t baptise infants, but that’s another story for another day.

As with the Sabbath, Adventism’s doctrine is based on selected texts and not the entire biblical picture. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, recognises all three modes of baptism depicted in the Bible. We baptise by immersion (single or triple) and by pouring, and while we don’t baptise by sprinkling, we recognise its validity.

In a typical Adventist discussion, like the one I had this week on Facebook, you’ll be presented with only those passages in the Bible where people were baptised in rivers, and only those passages that depict baptism as a symbolic burial.

Law was revealed to the Israelites and, as given, was binding only on them. … Common to both the Old Law and the New Law is that part of the law known as natural moral law.
– Sabbath or Sunday? The Catholic Church acknowledges these passages, but doesn’t read more into them than they actually say. And we read the rest of the Bible too, and find other texts there that indicate that immersion is not the only valid, biblical form.

Considering that there are several denominations that baptise by immersion only and don’t recognise anything else as a real baptism, it’s surprising that there is not one single passage in the Bible that shows a single case of baptism that was definitively done by full immersion. Only indirectly, through St Paul’s analogy of burial, do we get confirmation that baptism can be done by full immersion.

Texts supposedly proving full immersion baptisms

Let’s look at the common texts showing baptism in rivers:

Matt 3:16 (KJV) – And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him

Nothing in this verse says Jesus was fully immersed. He could have had water poured on his head, and then gone out of the water onto the river bank. The phrase “went up out of the water” can be performed whether one was fully immersed or only standing in the water. All we can tell from this is that Jesus was in the water – we cannot tell how deep.

John 3:23 (KJV) – And John also was baptizing in Ænon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized

Nothing in this verse says anyone was fully immersed. Just because there was water, doesn’t mean that they were fully immersed. The phrases “much water” and “fully immersed” do not mean the same thing.

Another passage that people present as proof of full immersion is Acts 8:38-39. Yet the funny thing about this is that the verse attributes the same degree of wetness to the person performing the baptism as it does to the person being baptised.

Acts 8:38-39 (KJV) – And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.

Here again we have two people going “down into the water” and coming “up out of the water.” If you read the text, you’ll see that the eunuch went down into the water, and came up out of the water. This Adventists interpret as being fully immersed. But if you read carefully, you’ll notice that Philip also went down into the water and came up out of the water. They both did! Does that mean Philip was also fully immersed?

Some Adventists seem to think that going down into water and coming out of it again is an absolute indication of full immersion. Not so, unless Philip dunked himself as well.

Baptism of Jesus - Orthodox icon

Baptism of Jesus – Orthodox icon

Baptism as a burial with Christ

Let’s look further at what baptism means:

Adventists quote verses like Romans 6:4 and Col 2:12 to show that baptism is likened to a burial. But they ignore the other analogies made in Scripture. Catholics believe in the burial symbolism too, but we read the whole Bible, not selected parts, and find more.

Adventists also quote 1 Cor 10:1-2 (KJV) – Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea

They forget that during this baptism, the Israelites were not immersed in water at all. The sea parted and they walked through on dry land. At most, they were sprinkled with spray being blown in the wind.

Baptism as washing

The Greek word for “baptise” is βαπτίζω (baptizo). Are there times when “baptizo” is used for washing without immersion? Yes.

Luke 11:38 (KJV) – And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed (baptizo) before dinner.

In that verse, “washed” is “baptizo” – and Mark’s parallel passage (Mark 7:3-4) shows that the Jews didn’t fully immerse before eating – they washed their hands.

Mark 7:3-4 – For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash (nipto) their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash (baptizo), they eat not. …

In Mark, the first “wash” is the Greek “nipto” and the second wash is “baptizo“. The Jews washed their hands before eating – they didn’t fully immerse themselves.

So there we have it – “baptizo” can be used to mean “wash“, and the Bible does use it that way.

One could argue that baptism was done by immersion of the hands.  However, that is not the way Jews did it.  This is how they do it:

“Contemporary practice is to pour water on each hand three times for most purposes using a cup, and alternating the hands between each occurrence; this ritual is now known by the Yiddish term negel vasser, meaning nail water. This Yiddish term is also used for a special cup used for such washing.”
– Wikipedia, Ritual washing in Judaism

You can find the same information here: Hand Washing (MyJewishLearning), and this video – How to Wash Hands Before Eating Bread (Jewish Pathways, on YouTube).

Baptism as sprinkling

Hebrews 9-10 show us a fascinating comparison. Like in the rest of Hebrews, the Old Covenant is compared to the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, there were various ritual washings that took place – washings of people and washings of things. The washing often took the form of sprinkling of either water or blood.

Hebrews 9-10 starts off by talking about the Old Covenant, and then gets specific – and speaks of washings, using the Greek noun βαπτισμός (baptismos).

Heb 9:10 (KJV) – Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings (baptismos), and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.

Baptism of Christ - Francesco Albani

Baptism of Christ – Francesco Albani

The author of Hebrews then goes on to describe various washings (and sacrifices). After describing what took place under the Old Covenant, he shows what happens with the New Covenant. The passage starts off with washing, shows three types of sprinklings as examples, and then ends off in the next chapter with washing by pure water and sprinkling of our hearts (Heb 10:22, shown below). What a way to describe baptism!

These washings were types of baptism. Verses 13, 19, and 21 show us the washings. All three are done by sprinkling. Do you get that? All three types of washings (baptismos) mentioned are done by sprinkling!

Heb 9:13 (KJV) – For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh

Heb 9:19 (KJV) – For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people

Heb 9:21 (KJV) – Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry.

There is a Greek word for sprinkling – “rhantizo” – which is used in this passage where you see the English word “sprinkling“. But the fact that “rhantizo” is used in this passage as a subset of “baptismos” is very telling.

Heb 10:22 (KJV) – Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.

Purifying is symbolised by baptism, which brings forgiveness of sins. Yet in the Old Testament, blood was sprinkled on the altar for the forgiveness of sins, and the ashes of the heifer were mixed with water and were called the waters of sprinkling which purified the unclean. So baptism is symbolised by sprinkling too.

When are our bodies washed with water in a religious sense? Only baptism. In baptism, water washes our bodies outwardly – so here we see that baptism is a symbol of washing clean. In baptism, our hearts are inwardly made clean – and here we see that baptism is compared to sprinkling.

You’ll probably notice that Adventism has problems differentiating properly between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant – this leads them to a very problematic view of the Sabbath as well.

Other passages of relevance:

Ezek 36:25 (KJV) – Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.

What does baptism do? It makes us clean. How is it symbolised in this verse? By sprinkling.

Numbers 19:13 (KJV) – Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.

How does water make people clean in this verse? By sprinkling. What does baptism do? It makes us clean.

Baptism as pouring

Baptism - Fresco on the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy

Baptism – Fresco on the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy

Baptism with the Holy Spirit is compared to the Holy Spirit being poured out. And think of the tongues of fire (Acts 2:2) – they were not fully encompassed by flames, but rather touched by tongues of fire.

Mark 1:8 (KJV) – I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

Acts 2:17a (KJV) – And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh …
Acts 2:38 (KJV) – Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Here baptism is compared to pouring – the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Being baptised by the Holy Spirit is the same as having the Holy Spirit poured out on you.

Acts 10:45-48 (KJV) – And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?

Here baptism is again compared to the gift of the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit is poured out, and the reference to baptism is clear. The baptism with the Holy Spirit was by pouring, so why not also with water?

Problems with sufficient water

Many of the baptism events recorded in the New Testament show situations where bodies of water large enough for full immersion would have been scarce. Inside a prison (Acts 16:33)? Hardly. 3000 people all at once (Acts 2:41)? There was not a water supply big enough to cope with that – and even if there was, the Jews would not have allowed their water supply to be contaminated by 3000 bodies being fully immersed in it. And they would also have chased the Christians out of the temple if they had tried using the Jewish ritual baths for this on such a scale.


The Bible clearly has baptism shown as burial, washing, pouring, and sprinkling. That should be enough for any Bible-believer who isn’t clinging to his/her traditions. Baptists – well, they’d have to give up their name (although the original Anabaptists used pouring and sprinkling as well as immersion); Adventists are distant relatives of the Baptists, and cling to any difference they have with the Catholic Church and her teachings and practices. I’ve got another post about some of the irrational arguments they recently put forth in the discussion I had.

Adventists cling to their traditions on one extreme – full immersion. What if a finger was not immersed? Is the baptism valid? What if a hair was not immersed? Is the baptism valid? It’s silly. It’s hair splitting.

Quakers cling to their traditions on the other extreme – they don’t need water at all.

God gave us baptism with water. But he didn’t specify how much. God tells us in the Scriptures that baptism is a type of burial, a type of washing (and washing and purification includes sprinkling according the Old Testament and the book of Hebrews), and a type of pouring. God tells us that we are baptised in the Holy Spirit – and that the Holy Spirit is poured out on us. That’s a strong comparison – baptism and pouring are the same with the Holy Spirit, so why not with water?

So those who fully immerse baptise validly. Those who baptise by pouring also baptise validly. And those who baptise by sprinkling (which Catholics do not do) also baptise validly.

Are you a Bible-believing Christian? If so, you should accept what the Bible says about baptism – burial, washing, sprinkling. Are you an Adventist clinging to your church’s traditions? If so, stop rejecting what the Bible says and believe ALL of what the Bible says instead of those verses selected for you by your pastors and teachers.

Further reading:
Catholic Answers – Baptism: Immersion only?
Apologetics for the Masses #259 – Bible Christian Society, John Martignoni
Apologetics for the Masses #260 – Bible Christian Society, John Martignoni
Laughable arguments – baptism, immersion, and Adventists

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