(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 28 paras 1-3)
IntroductionThe Day of Pentecost was spoken of throughout the Older Testament Scriptures. Indeed in Acts 2 where the events of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit from Heaven are recorded in the Newer Testament Peter quotes the Older Testament prophet Joel. Says Peter in reference to what was then happening, “But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy…’” Acts 2:17&18.
Now, for the purposes of what we’re looking at in the following I’d like you simply to notice that God had promised to “pour out” His Spirit: “ And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days…”
Notice also what Jesus said to His disciples after His resurrection just before His ascension into Heaven: “And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” Acts 1:4&5.
This then, this baptism or outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is the fulfilment of the great promise made throughout Older Testament times. The Holy Spirit is the Promise of the Father and the Son, Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5.
Now, to whom has God has made His promise of the Holy Spirit? Peter in Acts 2:17&18 says the God has given His Promise to their sons and their daughters, young men and old men, menservants and maid servants. Therefore the promise to young and old alike, to male and female alike.
Indeed Peter goes on to say that the promise is not just to young and old male and female Hebrews, but also to Gentiles, i.e., all nations. Acts 2:38&39 says, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’”
So we see then that young and old, male and female, Hebrew and Gentile are to repent and be baptised for the remission of their sins. And we also see that this repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ is connected to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore water baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise, which is the Promise of the Father, i.e., the Holy Spirit. In other words, water baptism points to Spirit baptism. Or to put it another way, water baptism signifies and confirms the Promise of the Father. This promise of God the Father and God the Son is found throughout the Older Testament.
The Meaning of Baptism
Baptism is one of the two Newer Testament signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace. The other Newer Testament sign and seal is the Lord’s Supper. These are the only Sacraments ordained by Jesus Christ in the Newer Testament. These two signs and seals have replaced the two Older Testament signs and seals of Circumcision and Passover respectively. Water baptism has the same meaning therefore as its Older Testament predecessor because it is simply a different administration of the same covenant.
Water baptism is for the receiving of the baptised person into the visible church. And it is for a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. And as such it signifies and confirms that person’s engrafting into Christ. And as such it symbolises the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit with the Word. And water baptism also speaks of the remission of the baptisee’s sins. Not to forget that it is a presenting of the baptisee to God through Jesus to walk in newness of life. So we see then that baptism teaches us many things. Indeed, as all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’ in Jesus Christ, baptism like Circumcision before it, points us to Jesus Christ and all the benefits of His cross.
We see Jesus institute Baptism in the ‘Great Commission’ passage of Matthew 28. In Matthew 28:19, in line with the Joel verses recorded in Acts 2, we see the catholicity or the universality of ‘the Promise of the Father.’ For in Matthew 28:19 Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
So, Hebrews, Gentiles, young men, old men, their sons and their daughters are to be baptised into the name of the Triune God. Therefore all nations and all classes of people are to be baptised, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off , as many as the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2:39.
Now, that people are not to be baptised indiscriminately has already been noted. Baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore only those who are in the covenant receive the sign and seal of the covenant. As Abraham’s Older Testament Circumcision was the sign and seal that he belonged to the covenant of grace, so is Newer Testament Baptism. For we read these words regarding Abraham in Romans 4:11, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also…”
So, Abraham’s circumcision was a visible confirmation of God’s righteousness, i.e., the righteousness that was imputed to Abraham – which righteousness is promised to all who believe. This is nothing less than the promise of the Gospel, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…” Romans 1:17a. Abraham’s circumcision therefore signified and sealed or confirmed to him the Promise of the Father. And since the promise is to Abraham and his children Abraham had every male in his household circumcised including children.
This command of God to place the sign and seal of His covenant on believers and their children has not been revoked in or by the Newer Testament. For rather than narrowing this covenantal promise, it has actually been broadened by including females and indeed young and old of all the nations. This is not to say that females could not be saved in the Older Testament because they were excluded from Circumcision by being female. For that would be to suggest that the Sacramental sign and seal itself saves. But rather it simply helps demonstrate the catholicity or universality of the promised blessings of God in Newer Testament times. For God said to Abraham, “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curse you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:2&3.
Older Testament circumcision began with Abraham (Genesis 17). God’s promise that in Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed was pictured and confirmed in his circumcision. For Older Testament Circumcision pointed to Christ and all His benefits or blessings. This is why Paul shows the Colossians that Older Testament Circumcision is synonymous with Newer Testament Baptism. He shows that like Abraham we (Newer Testament Christians) are also circumcised in Christ. “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses…” Colossians 2:11-13.
Older Testament Circumcision therefore speaks of the same blessings as Newer Testament Baptism. It speaks of a spiritual working of God who raised Jesus from the dead, i.e., the work of the Holy Spirit. It speaks of putting off the body of the sins of the flesh. It speaks of faith in God who raises the dead. It speaks of those who are dead in their trespasses being made alive in Christ. In a word, Older Testament Circumcision like Newer Testament Baptism speaks of the need of cleansing or purification and spiritual renewal by the Holy Spirit.
This purification and spiritual renewal comes when the Holy Spirit applies the shed blood of Christ’s cross to those who believe. That is what is depicted in Baptism; Covenant Baptism. That is what the Holy Spirit does in reality. The Church on earth is to continue depicting the Promise of the Father, i.e., the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even to the end of the age, Matthew 28:20.
The Mode of Baptism
We believe we are standing on solid (and dry!) ground, Scriptural ground, when we insist that the element used in the Newer Testament be water. For under inspiration of the Holy Spirit Matthew records the following infallible words uttered by John the Baptiser under influence of the Holy Spirit: “I indeed baptise you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11.
Notice that John baptised with water. Therefore the element used in the Newer Testament Sacrament is to be water. But what does the water in Baptism represent? Again, if we look at Matthew 3:11 we see that what John did with water Jesus Christ was going to do with the Holy Spirit. “I indeed baptise you with water… but… He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit…” It’s very important – it’s crucial – that you see the analogy here. What we do in water baptism is a visible depiction of what Christ does invisibly with the Holy Spirit.
We’ve seen already that the ‘Promise of the Father’ is the Older Testament Promise of God to pour out the Holy Spirit on the young and old, male and female of all nations – ‘on all flesh.’. This is what we mean when we say that water Baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace.
God’s Covenant of Grace began to be revealed immediately after the Fall of man in the Garden. Immediately after the Fall we see in Genesis 3:15 the promise that the devil, i.e., the serpent’s head, will be crushed by One who would have His heel crushed in the process. In other words, Jesus Christ is the Promised One (Galatians 3:16). And His cross at Calvary was the arena in which He crushed the devil’s head (who is now writhing in the throes of death).
When Jesus arose bodily from the tomb He subsequently ascended into Heaven from where He poured out the Spirit as witnessed on the Day of Pentecost. Thus the outpouring of the Spirit on the people on the day of Pentecost is a direct fulfilment of the words of John the Baptiser in Matthew 3:11, “I indeed baptise you with water … but… He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit …” Thus, does it not stand to reason, i.e., to Biblical presupposition, that because Christ baptised by pouring, the Church on earth should baptise by pouring?
Why would anyone wish to change the picture of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as it is depicted throughout all the Scriptures? They are too numerous to cite, but here are some samples: Proverbs 1:23, “…Surely I will pour out My Spirit upon you…” Isaiah 44;3, “For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; and pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring.” Isaiah 53:15, “So shall He sprinkle many nations…” Ezekiel 36:25; 27a, “Then I shall sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols… I will put My Spirit within you…” Joel 2:28&29, “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”
How can anyone miss the picture of what happened on the Day of Pentecost? As John the Baptiser predicted, just as he did with water, so Jesus Christ did with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Could it be any clearer? Therefore we can see clearly from Scripture how Jesus Christ baptises from on High, (which is to pour or sprinkle the nations with the Holy Spirit).
We see this promise to baptise the Gentiles or the nations begin to come to fruition in the Book of Acts. In Acts 10 the Apostle Peter was talking to some Gentiles while in the company of some circumcised and subsequently baptised Hebrews. We read these words in Acts 10:44-48, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, ‘Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptised, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” And he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord.”
Then up ahead in Acts 11 when Peter began to relate what had happened he said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’” Acts 11:15&16.
The Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles just as He fell upon the Hebrews on the Day of Pentecost because that is how Jesus baptises His Church on earth with the Holy Spirit.
So we see then that the mode of Spirit-baptism is that of pouring or sprinkling. Therefore, because the Scriptures always picture the Spirit as shed forth which is depicted by pouring, or sprinkling water, we can guarantee that in water baptism sprinkling is Scriptural. Thus in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith 28:3, Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.
The grace in this Confessional statement is that it does not deny the validity of the baptism of any who have been submerged into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. However, the Confession does deny that Christian baptism may only be administered by dipping the person into the water. However, it does state that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.
Why then do some insist that any mode other than submersion is invalid? Well, it all has to do with the meaning of the actual Newer Testament Greek word for baptise. Indeed, our English Bibles usually leave the Greek word for baptise untranslated. But there are some who believe that every time the word ‘baptise’ appears in the Newer Testament it should be translated as ‘immerse.’ They believe that baptism is immersion – period! To be sure one of the meanings of the Newer Testament Greek word is ‘to dip’. And no true Presbyterian would deny that the Greek word also includes the idea of dipping. But, as our Confession says, ‘Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary…’
Why isn’t it necessary to dip or immerse the person into the water? It’s because the word baptizo, as AA Hodge says, as well as ‘to dip’ means also ‘to moisten, to wet, to purify, to wash.” (The Confession of Faith, p. 341) Yet there is always ‘dipping’ involved in water baptism. For the minister has to dip his fingers into the water in order to sprinkle the baptizee!
Admittedly, our view of the mode of baptism is swayed by the clear teaching of Scripture regarding Christ’s baptizing His Church with His Spirit. But to be fair and to illustrate that by itself the word baptise may also include dipping we shall mention a couple of verses that illustrate this.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus we read of the rich man being in torments in Hades. Luke 16:24 says, “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in the flame.’” Not a nice picture! but the word dip there has to do with the word for baptism. The rich man wanted Lazarus to dip his finger in water. Note: The minister dips his fingers in water to baptise the member of the covenant.
Also, in John’s Gospel Jesus’ disciples were wondering which one of them was going to betray Him. John 13:26, “Jesus answered, ‘It is he to whom I shall give a piece of bread when I have dipped it.’ And having dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.”
Note: Dipping the bread does not mean putting the whole piece of bread below the surface. Thus we have to wonder about the view put forth by some that ‘dip’ or ‘immerse’ means total submersion of the person in water.
The inverted image of baptism put forth by submersionists looks especially strange when viewed in the light of Mark 7:2-4, “Now when they [the Pharisees and scribes] saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they [the Pharisees and scribes] come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash [i.e., baptise]. And there are many things which they have received and hold, like the washing [i.e., the baptizing] of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.”
The Newer Testament word for baptism cannot always and only mean full immersion, (i.e. total submersion of the whole body under water). For unbaptised hands in this passage do not the whole body make! Also dipping the hands in water would not be the way to purify or wash ceremonially unclean hands according to the traditions of the Pharisees and scribes. Indeed, one has to wonder as to the wisdom of the practice of submersing couches! We believe sprinkling is what is meant by the words for baptism in this passage.
It is interesting to note the Laws of Purification recorded in Numbers 19. E.g., “And for an unclean person they shall take some of the ashes of the heifer burnt for purification from sin, and running water shall be put on them in a vessel. A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, on the persons who were there… But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself, that person shall be cut off from among the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD. The water of purification has not been sprinkled on him; he is unclean. It shall be a perpetual statute for them. He who sprinkles the water of purification shall wash his clothes; and he who touches the water of purification shall be unclean until evening. Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches it shall be unclean until evening.” Numbers 19:17&18a; 20-22.
Note: To submerse an (ceremonially) unclean person (or vessel) in water is to contaminate the whole body of water. Thus living or running water, either sprinkled or poured protects against contaminating the whole body of water. The Pharisees and scribes therefore would have baptised their hands, cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches by pouring or sprinkling so as not to make the whole store of water unclean and therefore unusable.
Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews talks of Older Testament purification rites in Hebrews 9. Speaking of things which symbolized things to come, the writer speaks of “…various washings [i.e., various baptisms], and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of the reformation.” Hebrews 9:10. The writer then goes on to demonstrate how some of these various baptisms were performed. Hebrews 9:19 f. “For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.’ Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified [cleansed] with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission.”
Baptism is about blood, the blood of purification, the blood that cleanses, the blood of the Covenant, Christ’s blood. For the writer to the Hebrews says in Hebrews 9:13&14, “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
The Apostle John speaking of Jesus says in Revelation 1:5, “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood…” And Paul says to Titus that “…according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour…” Titus 3:5b&6.
And so we are back to the Biblical picture of Christian Baptism. It pictures the Holy Spirit being poured out on Christ’s Church with the cleansing power of Christ’s shed blood. Indeed, the Jews sent priests and Levites to investigate the authority under which John the Baptiser was baptising (John 1:19). “Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification.” John 3:25. Had John been doing anything other than pouring or sprinkling water on the people the Jews would not have said to John: “Why then do you baptise if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John 1:25. Rather they would have asked John what he was doing. Thus they saw baptism as synonymous with the Older Testament purification rites (which were administered by pouring or sprinkling). However, the bad news is that “…they rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptised by him [i.e., John]” Luke 7:30.
The Apostle Peter tells us that the eight souls saved from the flood in Noah’s ark is a picture of baptism, 1 Peter 3:20&21. We shouldn’t need to mention that those who were sprinkled upon in the ark were saved, while those who were fully immersed perished! Also, the fully immersed pursuing Egyptians also perished (Exodus 14:28; Psalm 78:53), while the people of God who crossed the Red Sea “…were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…” 1 Corinthians 10:1&2. Thus God’s covenant people, infants and elderly alike, were baptised by being sprinkled upon in the cloud whilst on dry ground: “But the children of Israel had walked on dry land in the midst of the sea…” Exodus 14:29a; Psalm 66:6a.The Bible is replete with sprinkling imagery – sprinkling that purifies – that’s what Christian Baptism pictures!
It has been alleged by some that Romans 6:4 teaches a mode of baptism where it says, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in the newness of life.”
That this is not speaking of the mode of baptism, but rather the meaning of baptism is seen by the fact that it’s really speaking of those who are already dead in their trespasses and sins being regenerated. For “…our old man was crucified with Him…” Romans 6:6. Therefore it’s not picture or symbol of us dying in the grave with Christ and being raised to newness of life, for who ever has died in the grave? Rather it is teaching that through water baptism we are being identified with and united with Christ’s death and resurrection.
Therefore this passage (like its parallel Colossians 2:12) is not teaching a mode of baptism. It is teaching the means by which we are united to Christ, i.e., through our baptism. Anyway, Jesus wasn’t lowered into a grave, a six-foot hole in the ground, as in Western burials. Rather His body was placed in a new tomb, which was a cave hewn out of rock, Matthew 27:60
Also it’s extremely difficult to imagine what the water in baptism pictures in Christ’s burial if the water does not represent Christ Spirit and blood. Thus we believe that the pouring or sprinkling of water in baptism clearly depicts Christ’s poured out Spirit and covenant blood.
It is alleged by some that the Gospels teach that when Jesus was baptised by John He was submerged. There is no reason to hold this view. For we read the following words when Philip baptised the eunuch, “And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water , and he baptised him. Now when they came up out of the water , the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away…” Acts 8:38&39. Since both Philip and the eunuch went down into and came up out of the water we are simply left to wonder as to the specific mode of baptism – we’re not told in this passage.
It’s the same with Jesus when it says, “And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Mark 1:10&11.
All we’re told is, like Philip and the eunuch, Jesus came up from (KJV), or out of (NIV) the water. We’re not told exactly how Jesus was baptised by John. But we do note the presence of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit at Christ’s baptism. And we particularly note that the Father poured out the Holy Spirit upon His Son at His Son’s baptism.
Water baptism therefore always pictures Spirit baptism!