This week we begin with Question 44 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 3 (questions 36-52), which focuses on the Spirit, restoration, and growing in grace. NOTE: I have modified some of the language in the answer to this question in alignment with my own Baptist convictions.
Question 44: What is baptism?
Answer: Baptism is immersion in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; it signifies our death and resurrection with Christ, our cleansing from sin, and our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.
Many Christian denominations practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring water. Why have most Baptists throughout history insisted that baptism by immersion (or dipping) in water is the proper way to do it? There are basically three arguments:
(1) The meaning of the Greek words bapto and baptizo is "dip" or "immerse." For those who are so inclined to do some deeper reading on this point, I recommend J.L. Dagg's chapter on baptism in his book A Manual of Church Order.
(2) The descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament strongly point toward immersion as the proper mode. Consider the following examples:
- The baptisms of John the Baptist took place "in the river Jordan" (Mark 1:5). While it is possible to sprinkle or pour water while standing in a river, there is no need to stand in water for that purpose. Immersion, on the other hand, is the only method that would require actually standing in the river.
- When Jesus was baptized by John, he "came up out of the water" (Mark 1:10). That either refers to his coming up from being immersed under it, or possibly to his walking out of the river onto the bank. The first meaning would require immersion. The second would strongly imply immersion, because there is no reason to walk down into a river and then out again if you only mean to be sprinkled with water or have some poured on your head.
- John 3:23 tells us that John the Baptist baptized at "Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there." Only immersion requires plentiful water. The other methods do not.
- When Philip evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch in the desert, the sudden appearance of a body of water near the road on which they were traveling prompted the eunuch to say, "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36). If sprinkling or pouring was all that was required, it is safe to assume the eunuch would have had plentiful water with him in his chariot for that purpose, but the thought never crossed his mind. Furthermore, the description of the eunuch's baptism concludes by saying, "And when they [Philip and the eunuch] came up out of the water..." (Acts 8:39), which likewise implies that both Philip and the eunuch went down into the body of water so that Philip could immerse him.
(3) Perhaps the strongest argument of all is the way Paul speaks of baptism in Romans 6:3-4:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
The act of baptism signifies our death and resurrection with Christ. While the sprinkling or pouring of water on the head can signify washing, it cannot signify death and resurrection. But in Scripture, baptism pictures both realities. If you wonder why most Baptists have been sticklers throughout their history on the question of what counts as proper baptism, this argument should explain it. We immerse in water because the very nature of the act demands picturing the reality of dying and rising with Christ. Baptism is not defined as "doing something with water." It is a very specific action that carries a specific meaning.
Suggested passage for personal or family reading: Romans 6:1-4. What does this passage teach about how baptism should be done? What does it tell us the meaning of baptism is? What implications does that have for your life if you are baptized? What if you are not baptized, what should you do?