A Pastoral Letter on Sprinkling
I am encouraged by your children’s sincerely expressed faith in Christ and of your desire to have them baptized upon profession of faith. I realize that your family is used to only baptizing by immersion and that our own church’s practice of baptism by pouring water seems like a major departure from what you are used to. I hope to share a few words that might assuage your concerns about baptism by sprinkling with water.
Many gospel preaching churches disagree over the mode of baptism. The practice at our own church, of course, is to sprinkle with water rather than immerse in water. The PCA’s book of church order leaves room for both practices. For someone who is not used to sprinkling or pouring, it can seem unusual not to fully immerse a person when baptizing. I hope that I might offer your family a few thoughts on this issue to help guide you. The conclusion I hope to demonstrate is that sprinkling is a legitimate form of baptism, just as immersion is, because the most important thing is water, not the mode in which the water is applied.
The biblical word for baptism, baptizo can, indeed, be translated legitimately as cover or dip. In Classical Greek that is certainly the case. However, in the Greek closer to the time of the New Testament (we call it koine Greek) the word also meant washing or cleansing (Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26). It was the word Greek speaking Jews in Jesus’ day used for ritual purification. So baptism does not only mean “immerse” and was not only used that way.
Sprinkling is a biblical image for God’s work in the heart by the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel 36:25-27 reminds us that God’s plan is to “sprinkle” his people with “clean water.” This is a picture of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. So when baptism happens we not only see the cleansing work of Jesus, but we also see pictured the work of the Holy Spirit. Immersion does not allow this sprinkling picture to be clearly seen. Even though immersion is legitimate, it does not convey all that baptism means and at least in some ways shows its limitations.
Immersion does have its benefits when it comes to illustrating biblical realities of the sacrament: It does line up with Romans 6 and its discussion of baptism as signifying death with Christ. After all, when we die we do lie down, as in immersion baptism.
However, sprinkling has the same benefit: it also represents death. In the Old Testament, how was the death of the sacrifice applied to the worshiper? By blood being sprinkled. I think it says a lot that water is sprinkled upon the worshiper in baptism and that they are not only cleansed by the water but the blood of Christ also applied to them. There is a richness in sprinkling that reminds us of the death of Christ for us and our death with him.
The analogies of baptism in Scripture are very rich. Both modes communicate precious things. It is important that we not be so stuck on one mode that we feel the other modes are illegitimate. Baptism is not ONLY death in Christ. It is also life in Christ (Rom. 6:4). It is also washing (Eph. 5:26). It is many things, and no one mode fully captures all of those aspects. So if someone is immersed, that is a good thing, and if someone is sprinkled, that is a good thing. But death and washing and renewing can also be pictured by sprinkling, as well (1 Peter 1:2). It is the water that is common in all of these cases.
There are also arguments from realism to be made in the New Testament.
In a culture without indoor plumbing, the Philippian jailer likely could not have been readily baptized by Paul through immersion (Acts 16:33). At his home the baptism was likely simple and modest, involving a small amount of water, which lines up with pouring or sprinkling.
In Acts 2:41 “about three thousand souls” were added to the church in a visible way. For that many people to be baptized it would have taken an incredible amount of water and it could reasonably be assumed from a logistical perspective that baptism by sprinkling was practiced in a situation like this. This isn’t a perfect argument, but it’s worth considering, at least.
Some do object that there are times when people are baptized and where they “came up out of the water.” This implies immersion to some. But look at Acts 8:39 closely: Philip baptized the eunuch and then it says that “they came up out of the water” and then Philip was snatched away. Do you notice, it doesn’t say “the eunuch came up out of the water.” It isn’t the eunuch alone who comes up out of the water, but also Philip. The eunuch was baptized, but the eunuch and Philip came up out of the water. Coming up out of the water isn’t a reference to being submerged, it’s a reference to walking out of the water to the shore, which they both did after the baptism was completed. After reaching shore Philip was snatched away. The eunuch may have been immersed, but the text leaves that ambiguous because the water (which is mentioned) matters, and the mode (which is not mentioned) does not matter (or is at least less important).
I would argue the same thing may be happening in Matthew 3:16 and Mark 1:10. Jesus is baptized. He may have been baptized by immersion, but to come up out of the water doesn’t automatically render immersion as obvious as I was raised to believe that it was. Jesus may have been immersed, but the early church seemed to believe he was sprinkled (we’ll get to that in a moment).
My goal here is not to persuade you that sprinkling or pouring is best, or that it is the only biblical practice; but simply that both are biblical and permitted. It is not an either/or situation, but a both/and situation. They are complementary. Both immersion and sprinkling are biblical possibilities. By the way, this is an easier argument to make than the immersion-only view. If one believes that baptism is always by full immersion, there really cannot be any instances of baptisms that are not full immersion; that is a much harder argument to make.
Besides being a biblical practice, I want you to be confident that the practice of baptism by both sprinkling and immersion is not a new innovation. On the contrary, the practice of the church from the very beginning was a combination of immersion and sprinkling/pouring. The reason, of course, as our church believes, is that ultimately how the water is applied is an indifferent matter (adiaphora). If that is true, then we would expect to see a combination of practices happening. That is, in fact, what we find in church history.
One of the earliest documents outside of the New Testament to talk about baptism is a document called The Didache. It is an anonymously written book of instruction for Christians that was written within 100 years of the death of Christ. In particular the Didache says the following:
“Concerning baptism, baptize thus: Having first rehearsed all these things, baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water; but if thou hast no running water, baptize in other, and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
So the Didache’s concern is that the baptism be Trinitarian, and seems to allow immersion but also explicitly allows sprinkling, as well. That’s as early as 100-150 AD.
The earliest painting we have of a Christian baptism is found in the cemetery of Calixtos around the end of the second century (probably before 200 AD) and does not show baptism by immersion. Instead, the subject is standing in the water and the water is being poured. There are even more pictures of baptisms in the Roman catacombs from the very early church, all of them showing the baptized person standing and the water coming down upon them. I could give you even more examples from the church fathers – Cyprian, Tertullian, and so on, but the evidence is overwhelming that in the 2nd century baptism was often performed by pouring. I am uncomfortable with the notion that almost immediately after the death of the Apostles that the Church immediately stopped baptizing correctly and that most of the church fathers were not properly baptized Christians.
We also know that historically speaking, immersion happened as well. In fact, it seems there is sometimes a preference for immersion. The Reformers even made efforts to re-introduce it to churches. Again, this is healthy if both are acceptable in Christ’s church – we don’t want one mode to necessarily disappear if both are legitimate.
For our purposes it’s important to note that both pouring and immersion were happening from the beginning. By the time of the Reformers, both were taking place and the Reformers tended to favor sprinkling for a number of reasons, many of them practical: sometimes a priest would be old, his hand shaky, or the water cold – especially in winter time. They advised against immersing an elderly person or a weak infant in cold water in the winter since they could even be killed by the practice (getting warm water in a church in the 1600s was very challenging). When we read the ritual of Constance we see the following:
“As to the question of whether the act of baptizing ought to be done by three immersions, or through pouring water over the person, let it be observed that the Church accepts both practices. Whether one should be immersed one time or three times does not vary the essence of baptism. The same is true if water is poured three times by the hand of the priest.”
So notice the priorities here: whether immersed our poured, the important thing to the Reformers echoes the concern of the Didache from 1500 years before (and, I would argue, the concerns of Scripture): baptize in the name of the Trinity, and make sure that water is applied.
If your children are baptized by sprinkling (as I hope we will soon be able to do) they will join a long line of Christians throughout history who have done the same thing, including a large number of those within our very own church – and including all four of my children.
I hope you will forgive the length of this. I also hope you will forgive the brevity of it. Even though there is a lot here, there is much I didn’t cover, and there are things I could have elaborated on.
Feel free to ask me any questions you have, and please know that I find it deeply encouraging to have church members who care about these questions. Many pastors are cursed with indifferent parishioners who do not care about the practices of the church or why things are done a certain way. This is not the case with you and your family, and I consider that an incredible blessing.
Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.
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