It is clear from a plain reading of Scripture that baptism is immersion, as the Baptists have maintained throughout our entire history. What, then, are the arguments given in favor of other forms of so-called baptism, such as sprinkling and pouring?
The first argument that we will hear is the church has authorized a change, and indeed, at first glance, this appears to be an accurate statement. The practice began in the 3rd century with the question of how to baptize someone who was sick and unable to be immersed. There was great concern that those who could not be immersed would not be able to be baptized, and so some concession had to be made. From our perspective as Baptists, however, this is based on a wrong view of the necessity of baptism. John Broadus explains, “We should say, if the man was too ill to be baptized, it was not his duty; but they were afraid to let a man die without baptism, and as real baptism was impracticable, they proposed a substitute, which by copious pouring would come as near it as possible.” Now why would anyone fear to let a man die without baptism, unless he believed that baptism somehow brought about salvation? This is the error that produced the change: that men must be baptized in order to be saved. And so, once again we see that inaccurate beliefs produce wrong practices. At first, there was disagreement over whether these “bedside baptisms” were valid, but slowly the practice gained acceptance in the church in general. And as time went on, more convenient substitutes gained popularity until finally both pouring and sprinkling became accepted, not only for those on the sickbed, but for infants and for everyone.
Now it doesn’t surprise us that the Roman Catholics would accept church authority to make such a change, but we would expect that all Protestants would reject those changes, grounding their faith and practice on Scripture alone. Let’s consider what the Reformers actually taught. Martin Luther said, “Baptism is a Greek word, and may be translated immersion, as when we immerse something in water that it may be wholly covered. And, although it is almost wholly abolished (for they do not dip the whole children, but only pour a little water on them), they ought nevertheless to be wholly immersed,…for that the etymology of the word seems to demand.” And John Calvin wrote, concerning the baptism of the Ethiopian by Philip in Acts 8, “’They descended into the water.’ Here we perceive what was the rite of baptizing among the ancients, for they immersed the whole body into the water; now the custom has become established that the minister only sprinkles the body or the head.” So it is clear that these great Reformers recognized the true nature of New Testament baptism, but it is also clear by simple observation of the churches they founded (Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other Reformed churches) that they did not insist on a return to the Biblical practice. What was their defense for this? Well Calvin wrote that “so slight a difference of ceremony ought not to be esteemed by us so important, that on account of it we should split the church or disturb it with quarrels….Wherefore from the beginning the church has freely permitted herself, outside of this substance, to have rites a little dissimilar.” In other words, Calvin maintained that this change in baptism is simply a matter of Christian liberty. How then do we as Baptists respond? We’ll deal with that question next.