The first argument that we have encountered for allowing other modes of so-called baptism than immersion was that the church had authorized the change. However, it is clear that this is nothing more than a compromise of Biblical authority which all Protestants, and especially Baptists, ought to reject. Indeed, the Reformers recognized that the church has no authority to make such a change, but Calvin and others have maintained that the mode of baptism is simply a matter of Christian liberty. How do we as Baptists respond to this assertion?
Well, first of all, if the external form of baptism is not important, then why perform water baptism at all? Some groups such as Quakers and the Salvation Army have traditionally rejected baptism completely, believing that the mere outward form is unnecessary. Other groups, like the Evangelical Free Church of America have relegated the practice to a local church matter, providing the latitude for individual congregations to accept professing believers into membership with or without water baptism. Against those who say that baptism is merely an unnecessary outward form, the majority of professing Christians would point to the direct Biblical command to baptize (e.g. Matt. 28:18-20). But what about those who accept the importance of water baptism, but argue that its essence is not its form but the spiritual reality of being born again? What do we say to them?
If Christ has commanded an outward ceremony, then you have a form that is prescribed, and you cannot say that the form of the thing is unimportant. Of course it is essential that the spiritual reality provide the basis for the outward form. In other words, the person who is baptized in water must first of all have experienced the baptism of the Spirit, by which we are all placed into the body of Christ and receive the Spirit to dwell within us (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Rom. 8:9). But the fact that Spirit baptism is necessary does not diminish the importance of the form of water baptism that Christ has commanded. To baptize still means immerse, not sprinkle or pour, and so obedience to the Biblical command requires that we follow the form he indicated. We either have to reject water baptism completely or practice immersion if we are to observe it at all.
But what about circumstances where immersion is not possible, because it is too inconvenient or medically unwise? Let’s consider the other NT ordinance for an example. What if we set out to share the Lord’s Supper together and found that we did not have any bread on hand but only had a bag of potato chips, would it be appropriate for us to make this substitute and claim that we are practicing the ordinance in obedience to Christ? Wouldn’t we be rightly accused of compromising truth for the sake of convenience? Christ commanded that we break bread, and if we cannot do that, we should simply abstain from celebrating the ordinance. Furthermore, Christ calls himself the Bread of Life in John 6:35, and Paul suggests that the loaf of bread symbolizes the unity of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:17, so to use anything else as a substitute is to diminish the picture that is intended in that element. These same two arguments work against the practice of sprinkling or pouring, where, if immersion is truly unworkable, then it is no longer our duty, nor should we substitute a practice which does not fulfill the symbolism of the outward form that Christ has commanded. This may very well result in someone dying without ever being baptized, but since we recognize that baptism is not essential for salvation, we should not be concerned by it, since the Lord did not ask the thief on the cross to be baptized or to take communion before being allowed to enter paradise.
There is simply no reason for us to compromise the clear teaching of Scripture on the subject of immersion, however, next we will consider some other objections to the practice.