Thursday, December 4, 2008

Moving on to Baptism

*This is very rough, and is still incomplete (I'm about a third of the way finished), but I thought I'd post what I have so far here and invite comments. I've found myself thinking a great deal about baptism lately, and have been jotting down some thoughts and observations as I go. Hope you enjoy.

In which I seek to determine the meaning and
manner of baptism in the Christian church

Questions Presented

1. What is the purpose of baptism?
2. What is the meaning of the word “baptize”? Mode
3. Who are the proper subjects of baptism? Subject


Words have meaning. When interpreting a text, any text, the interpreter must engage in making determinations as to the meaning of the particular words chosen by the author. Reformed Christians are especially aware of the necessity of carefully examining Scripture in order to ascertain proper meaning. What budding-Calvinist hasn’t struggled with the words “elect,” “predestined,” and “chosen,” utilized by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 1 and Romans chapter 9, while carefully studying the petals of free grace? And what Calvinist hasn’t studied the relationship between the subject, verb, and direct-object in the statement “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart”?

Perhaps my own training as an attorney amplifies my fascination with language and boosts my desire to “know the hope,” as it were. It was as a law student, prompted most likely by my class in the law of contracts, that I first began dissecting the language of the Bible in order to discover its meaning, as opposed to reading the Bible in such as a way as to do little more than confirm the presuppositions of a spiritual neophyte, focusing more on the editor’s notes at the bottom of the page, than the Author’s words at the top.

A commitment to the text is the means by which God brought me to the truths that He is sovereign and grace is free. Once a Christian comes to those conclusions, his ears are ruined to preaching, as my uncle says, and he is often forced to look for a new church home. Such was the case with me. The journey begun, the Calvinist finds two options, generally: the Baptist, and the Presbyterian. In fact, one has to be a bit lucky (providentially blessed?) to find a Baptist/Calvinist church—Presbyterian Calvinists, though easier to find, aren’t just plentiful themselves, at least not in Lubbock, Texas. Regardless, most newly Reformed Christians are quickly faced with choosing whether to attend a church that accepts or rejects paedobaptism.

Which font should the Christian choose: the child’s font or the believer’s? While one is small in size, it is broad in application, and although the other is physically broader it is applied more restrictively. This paper is my effort to examine the purpose of baptism as well as its proper mode and subject.

Generally, I will do my level best to offer “both” sides of the various debates concerning baptism. I will pit the paedobaptist against the credobaptist, the sprinkler against the immerser, Covenantalist against the Baptist. My hope is that the iron of both sides will sharpen me, and that I will come to a proper understanding of how to carry out Christ’s command.

The Purpose of Baptism

Before diving into the debate on the proper mode of baptism and the proper subjects of baptism, it may be fruitful to see what the two sides of the debate say about baptism. I will use the Westminster Confession of Faith as being representative of the paedobaptist view, and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith as being representative of the baptistic point of view.

A. The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 28

I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, or remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.

II. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the Gospel, lawfully called thereunto.

III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

V. Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

VI. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.

VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered to any person.

B. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be to the person who is baptised - a sign of his fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into Christ; of remission of sins; and of that person's giving up of himself to God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.
1. Those who actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects for this ordinance.
2. The outward element to be used in this ordinance is water, in which the person is to be baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
3. Immersion - the dipping of the person in water - is necessary for the due administration of this ordinance.

C. A Brief Comparison

a. Baptism — A Command

It’s no accident that the former is longer and more complicated than the latter. At the base of both confessions, we see that each side agrees that the central purpose of baptism is that it is an ordinance or sacrament of the New Testament, issued by Christ in the Great Commission.

b. Baptism — A Seal and Sign

The Baptist asserts that baptism is a sign of the baptized’s “fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection.” The paedobaptist avers that it is a sign and seal “of the covenant of grace” with the baptized, and that the baptized is “ingraft[ed] into Christ,” it is a sign for the baptized “of regeneration, or remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life.”

D. A Brief Contrast

To say that when one receives baptism he is part of the “covenant of grace,” indicates that any recipient of baptism is saved. However, the paedobaptist knows this is not the case. The Westminster Confession is contradictory here. For while baptism is a sign and seal for the Christian, it does nothing for a spiritually dead baby other than admit him into the so-called “visible Church,” although it seems the paedobaptist believes that the adult’s infant baptism serves as some kind of lingering encouragement. I’ll leave the discussions to visible versus invisible church to another time, and probably another author.


Now to the meat of my study. To my mind, the question, “what does the word ‘baptize’ mean in the original Greek” is the most important issue to be answered if I am to gain a proper understanding of the mode of baptism.

The first question, then, is what word or words should I be looking up. One would think this wasn’t a debatable issue. But I quickly found that Baptists want me to study the word baptizo, while paedobaptists want me to study the word bapto in addition to baptizo. Why? Before the research, I wasn’t sure. But after the research, the answer is plain. If one only studies baptizo, he will come to the necessary conclusion that immersion is the proper mode of baptism. If one studies bapto and baptizo one may come to the conclusion that immersion is the proper mode of baptism, but will likely come to the conclusion that it is uncertain what the proper mode of baptism is, or that mode is altogether irrelevant.

Consider the Westminster Confession above. In it we read that you don’t have to immerse, and that you may pour or sprinkle. Well, if you take that to mean that you may immerse, pour, or sprinkle, then you’ve effectively said that when baptism is in view in the New Testament the writer could be referring just as likely to one of the three proposed modes as the other. That, however, is not the case, as I’ve found.

When the ordinance of baptism is in view, the word baptizo is invariably used. The word bapto is used to describe certain Old Covenant ceremonial-washings, such as sprinkling the blood of the bull, etc. But when we’re talking about people’s baptisms, we’re looking at the word baptizo and not the word bapto. Although the words are related, it turns out Greek writers knew the difference between them, and they are distinct words with distinctly different meanings.

So I operate under three assumptions: (1) the Holy Spirit intended the word bapto where it is used and baptizo where it is used; (2) the Holy Spirit did not intend ambiguity; and (3) I will be able to ascertain the meaning of the mode of baptism by limiting my study to the word the Holy Spirit chose to use for baptisms.

A. Use of the word “baptize” in the New Testament

The following contains each instance where “baptize” is used in the New Testament as a translation of the Greek word baptizo.

• “And were baptized of him in Jordan, confession their sins.” Matt. 3:6 (referring to John the Baptist).

• “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” Matt. 3:11 (John the Baptist speaking contrasting his baptism with Holy Spirit baptism.)

• “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.” Matt. 3:13.

• “But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” Matt. 3:14.

• “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:” Matt. 3:16.

• “But Jesus answered and said, Ye known not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.” Matt. 20:22.

• “And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.” Matt. 20:23.

• “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Matt. 28:19.

• “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Mark 1:4 (Mark describing John’s baptism.)

• “And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” Mark 1:5.

• “I indeed have baptized you with water: be he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” Mark 1:8; see Matt. 3:11.

• “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.” Mark 1:9.

• “And king Herod heard of him; for his name was spread abroad: and he said, that John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.” Mark 6:14.

• “And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.” Mark 7:4.

• “John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” Luke 3:16; see Matt. 3:11.

• “John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;” John 1:26.

• “And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.” John 1:33.

• “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” 1 Cor. 1:17.

B. Use of the word “baptize” in the Septuagint and ancient-Greek literature

Merely citing all the verses where baptizo appears settles nothing among English speaking Christians. After all, it is the definition of the word that is at issue, and context alone can be wriggled to explain any definition of baptism one likes, regardless of its real meaning.

But there must be a real meaning to the word. Otherwise, we accuse the Holy Spirit of intentional ambiguity. This is a most damning charge given the command of Christ to go and make disciples, baptizing them. If Christ commands us to do something, and then He and the Holy Spirit intentionally choose an ambiguous word to embody that command, then Christ’s church can never be certain that it is abiding by His command.


Dr. Strong, whose lexicon is commonly regarded as the best among people who know such things, tells us that the above-listed verses are those in which the Greek word baptizo is used. Strong defines the term thusly: to immerse, submerge; to make whelmed (i.e., fully wet); used only (in the New Testament) of ceremonial ablution, especially (technically) of the ordinance of Christian baptism. See

Dr. Thayer defines the word baptizo thusly: (1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk); (2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one’s self, bathe; (3) to overwhelm. See strongs=907&t=KJV.

A perusal of other Greek lexicons will yield similar, if not identical results.

Greek Literature

What about Greek literature? Glad you asked. Pindar wrote in 522 BC: “For as when the rest of the tackle is toiling deep in the sea, I as a cork, above the net, am undipped (abaptistos) in water.”

Plato (heard of him?) wrote in 429 BC: “I perceiving that the youth was overwhelmed (baptizomenon), wishing to give him respite . . . . I was one of those who yesterday were overwhelmed in wine.”

Homer, 400 BC: “The mass of iron, drawn red hot from the furnace, is dipped (baptizetai) in water.”

Alcibiades wrote in 400 BC: “You dipped (baptes) me in plays: but I in the waves of the sea dipping (baptizon), will destroy thee with streams more bitter.”

Demosthenes wrote in 385 BC: “Not the speakers, for these know how to play the dipping (diabaptizes-thai) match with him, but the inexperienced.”

Eubulus, 380 BC: “Who now the fourth day is immersed (baptizetai), leading the famished life of a miserable mullet.”

Evenus of Paros 250 BC: “Bacchus (the use of wine) plunges (baptizei) in sleep.”

Polybius in 205 BC: The enemy “made continued assaults and submerged (ebaptizon) many of the vessels.” The vessel “being submerged (baptizo-mena) became filled with sea-water and confusion.” “Even if the spear falls into the sea, it is not lost; for it is compacted of oak and pine, so that when the oaken part is immersed (baptizomenon) by the weight, the rest is buoyed up, and it is easily recovered.” “Themselves by themselves immersed (baptizomenoi) and sinking in the pools.”

Strabo wrote in 60 BC: “To one who hurls down a dart, from above into the channel, the force of the water makes so much resistance, that it is hardly dipped (baptizesthai).” “And he who enters into it is not immersed (baptizesthai), but is lifted out.” “The water solidifies so rapidly around every thing that is dipped into it (Lake Tatta) that they draw up salt crowns when they let down a circle of rushes.”

Josephus wrote in 37 AD: “And stretching out the right hand, so as to be unseen by any, he plunged the whole sword into his body.” “There are thirteen other examples in Josephus, all in the sense of dipping.” John. T. Christian, Immersion, the Act of Christian Baptism 25 (Baptist Book Concern 1891).

Each time a classical Greek writer used the word baptizo, that I’ve been able to find. he used it to describe a dipping or immersion. The only exception to this rule that I have seen is when the writer uses the word to describe one as being whelmed or overwhelmed by wine or the like. Those expressions, however, bolster the primary meaning of baptizo meaning immerse. To say one is immersed in wine certainly conveys the idea that one has overly-partaken of the fruit of the vine better than saying that one was sprinkled by the wine. The exception, therefore, proves the rule, in the traditional meaning of that tired phrase.


The word baptizo occurs precisely twice in the Septuagint. John. T. Christian, Immersion, the Act of Christian Baptism 36 (Baptist Book Concern 1891). “Namaan went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan.” 2 Kings 5:14. “My iniquity overwhelms me.” Is. 21:4. “The root word bapto is frequently used in the sense of to dip, and is so used seventeen times in the Old Testament.” John. T. Christian, Immersion, the Act of Christian Baptism 36 (Baptist Book Concern 1891). Each of those seventeen instances is a translation of the Hebrew word tabhal, which unsurprisingly means to dip. Id.

The Namaan example provides powerful linguistic and theological evidence in favor of immersion. Namaan is told by the prophet to go all the way down into the Jordan, and dip himself seven times, in order to make himself clean. The Isaiah example of “overwhelm” also supports the idea of a complete covering, which only immersion accomplishes.

I’ll leave tedious expositions of the other texts to more capable authors, dedicated to linguistics. I do not accept the premise laid by many that one need interpret related to baptizo in order apprehend the command by Christ to baptize.

C. Examining the sprinkler’s interpretation of baptizo

Oftentimes arguments are won or lost based on how one frames the question at issue. While a Baptist commentator may capitulate to a meaning of baptizo that encompasses both the idea of simple immersion and the more ambiguous “washing,” sprinklers begin with the idea that baptism is itself a washing rather than a burial. In so stating, the sprinkler reasons that if baptism is a washing, typifying the washing away of sins, then the way in which one washes is really irrelevant, so long as a washing occurs. So a sprinkler would phrase the question this way, “What modes of baptism are acceptable for washing?” While a Baptist address the issue more narrowly, without first presuming the definition of the word “baptism” by asking, “What does the word ‘baptize’ mean?”

In this vein, the eminent Charles Hodge begins his discussion of Baptism in his Systematic Theology by citing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 94, which begins, “Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water . . . .” Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 94. After citing the catechism, Hodge wrote, “According to the definition given above, baptism is a washing with water.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. III 526. Since baptism is a washing, Hodge reasoned, then it “may be done by immersion, affusion, or sprinkling.” Id. 526. Hodge went on, writing that to baptize is “to wash with water. It is not specifically commanded to immerse, to affuse, or to sprinkle. The mode of applying water . . . is unessential.” Id.

Hodge wrote with great clarity, so much so that his deft pen can fool readers. Christ commanded people to baptize. The primary definition of baptizo is to immerse or dip (which carries with it the idea of full coverage of that which is dipped), and the secondary definition allows for the idea of washing. Hodge, by initially citing the Westminster Confession bypassed any linguistic complications or obstacles to his illation.

In fact, when Hodge did discuss the meaning of the word baptizo as used in the classics, the Septuagint, and the New Testament, he puzzlingly undermines his premise. For instance, Hodge wrote that the accepted definition of baptizo was the following: “(1) To immerse, or submerge. . . . (2) To overflow or to cover with water. . . . (3) To wet thoroughly, to moisten. (4) To pour upon or drench. (5) In any way to be overwhelmed or overpowered.” Id. at 527. Each of the proffered definitions conveys the idea of a complete covering with water. Somehow, however, Hodge and other sprinklers want a sui generis meaning of baptizo as it relates to the rite of baptism.

Even in the face of that, ahem, overwhelming definition, Hodge argued that baptizo “belongs to that class of words which indicate an effect to be produced without expressing the kind of action by which the effect is to be brought about.” Id. at 528. Given the above-listed alternative definitions, the effect to be produced is being immersed, submerged, covered, thoroughly wet, drenched, or overwhelmed. Presented with the option to immerse or sprinkle, absent initial bias due to the practice of one’s particular church, any clear minded person would aver that immersion more plainly produces the effect of being drenched or overwhelmed than does sprinkling.