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“What is the proper way to apply water in Baptism?”

Written by | September, 2017
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“I’M GLAD YOU ASKED!” (THIRTY-FIRST IN A SERIES)

Pastors Answer Frequently-Asked Questions

This question arises frequently, especially since there are certain denominations who teach that the only valid form of Baptism is by immersion—that is, by dunking a person all the way under the water

When considering the proper way to apply water in Baptism, the first question is, “Does God give a specific command in this regard?” The answer is, “No.” There is no Scripture in which God gives such a command.

The next question is “Is a particular method of water application indicated by the Bible word baptize?” Again, the answer is, “No.” The Greek word baptizo means, literally, “to wash.” There are two passages in the New Testament in which the word is not even used for the sacrament of Baptism, but simply to wash (Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38). The kind of washing that is described in these two passages could vary from the immersion of hands or small utensils, to a non-immersion application of water on much larger items.

One final place we can search for direction is in the scriptural accounts of Baptisms. Some of these accounts could allow for a Baptism via immersion. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip “came up out of the water.” (Acts 8:39)  However, such an example does not expressly indicate immersion. While this Baptism, and others recorded in Scripture that took place in a river or body of water, could allow for immersion, the early morning Baptisms in the Philippian jailer’s house would not (Acts 16:33).

Where does this leave us? It leaves us wonderfully and beautifully in the realm of Christian freedom.

Baptism, by God’s design, is not complicated. The simplicity of Baptism’s external components highlights the depth of its spiritual blessings—plain, ordinary water, applied in any manner, combined with God’s Word, brings the blessings of Christ’s cleansing work to a sin-stained soul.

Remembering the “washing” of Baptism assists our minds and hearts to appreciate God’s Baptism blessings. Consider our natural state: “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)  When something gets physically dirty, we wash it. Sin is spiritual dirt, and Jesus has given us the spiritual means to be washed clean: “. . .baptizing [washing] them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
(Matthew 28:19)

In some passages, God uses multiple “washing” words to emphasize the full spiritual cleansing that is ours through Christ Jesus. “Arise and be baptized [washed], and wash away [completely, thoroughly, so they are gone] your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
(Acts 22:16)

To forbid or insist upon a specific method of water application goes beyond what God says and curtails Christian freedom. Immersion could provide a dramatic visual aid of what Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism: “What is the meaning of this Baptism with water? It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance and die with all sins and evil desires.” While immersion could aid visually in this way, it is no more or less effective than a drop of water on a premature baby’s head. After all, the power of Baptism is not in the water or how it is applied, but in the Word of God.

The simplicity of water and the Word in Baptism allows us to marvel at the greatness of our Lord and revel in the freedom of the Gospel.

If you, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:31), would like guidance as you open God’s gifts of grace—including Baptism—your pastor stands ready to serve you.

Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.