A Possible Argument Against Immersion

I was musing recently on Fesko’s outstanding book on baptism, which includes within it an argument for a judgment (condemnation) aspect to baptism. The biblical evidence for this is fairly abundant. The most direct evidence for it is in the passage where James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right hand when He comes into His kingdom, and He asks them whether they can be baptized with the baptism with which He is going to be (notice the future tense!) baptized. This cannot refer, therefore, to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river, but, as most scholars agree, refers instead to His crucifixion. Then, when we add Noah’s flood (via 1 Peter 3) and the crossing of the Red Sea (via 1 Corinthians 10), we see also that there is definitely a judgment side to condemnation.

What struck me recently was that in two of these three passages, immersion is directly connected with the judgment side of the baptism. It is not Noah who is immersed, but the wicked inhabitants of the world at the time. It is not the Israelites who are immersed at the Red Sea, but the Egyptians. Similarly, in the symbolism of baptism, it is not we who are immersed in the judgment, but rather Christ Who was “immersed” in it. He experienced “immersion” under the wrath of God so that we might experience only grace. Admittedly, this is a somewhat oblique argument, but it seems to me to have some decent biblical-theological direction arrows to it. What do you think?



  1. April 13, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Interesting thoughts. By the first century the emphasis in baptizo (which originally was an intensive dipping sch as in dying cloth) is on a changed state, an experience which produces a profound change. Thus in the LXX of Isaiah 21:4 re the prophet being overwhelmed by horror, and re Naaman in 2 Kings 5:14.

  2. Jon Foster said,

    April 14, 2014 at 12:51 am

    A baptist would probably just say that baptism represents a believer’s union with Christ in his death (Romans 6:3-5), so immersion is appropriate.

  3. Jim Cassidy said,

    April 14, 2014 at 5:45 am

    I think to argue against immersion is to argue too much. Immersion, as Jon said, as pointing to condemnation is appropriate in light of our identity as those who have died with Christ and Romans 6. So, certainly immersion is a valid mode of baptism, though it is not the only valid mode and baptism’s efficacy is not dependent upon it.

  4. Phil D. said,

    April 14, 2014 at 8:54 am

    I would definitely agree there is a judgement/death aspect to the symbolism of baptism. But so is deliverance from that wrath for those who are in Christ Jesus.This is clearly brought out in Romans 6:1-14. Such is the profundity and beauty of baptism by immersion AND emmersion.

    Ursinus (as many other Reformed) saw a connection between this concept and Jesus’ referral to his suffering and death as an “immersion”:

    “Baptism was instituted to signify our taking of the cross, and to afford comfort concerning the preservation and deliverance of the church from all her afflictions. Those who are baptized are plunged, as it were, in affliction; but with the full assurance of deliverance. It is for this reason that Christ speaks of afflictions under the name of baptism. “Are ye able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Of Baptism, 2.5.)

  5. greenbaggins said,

    April 14, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I guess a lot of it would come down to this question: is Christ’s death/experience of condemnation something to which we are united by way of also experiencing it (even symbolically?), or are we united to a Christ who has experienced it so that we don’t have to? Is Christ’s condemnation something which is unique to Him, or do we need to imitate Him in some way? I just wonder about the symbolism of this.

  6. Phil D. said,

    April 14, 2014 at 9:27 am

    I would say the two aspects are connected, per Romans 6:3-4

    “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

  7. Jack Bradley said,

    April 14, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    Lane, I think you are correct in characterizing it as “a somewhat oblique argument” that immersion is “directly connected with the judgment side of the baptism.” Especially in light of some statements from respected authorities:

    Donald M. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments, p. 74:

    “The most characteristic teaching about baptism in the New Testament appears to be closely connected with the symbolism of baptism by immersion. . . in New Testament thought baptism was closely connected with the death and resurrection of Christ.”

    B. B. Warfield, “The Archaeology of the Mode of Baptism” BSac 53:212 (Oct 1896) pp. 607-608:

    “. . . should we move back within the first millennium of the church’s life, we should find the whole Christian world united in the ordinary use of trine immersion. . .

    [I do find it interesting what qualifies as “immersion”]:

    629, 632: “We may, then, probably, assume that normal patristic baptism was by a trine immersion upon a standing catechumen, and that this immersion was completed either by lowering the candidate’s head beneath the water, or (possibly more commonly) by raising the water over his head and pouring it upon it. . . The crowning indication, however, that we have found the true form of early Christian baptism in a rite performed on an erect recipient, standing in water, and completed indifferently by sinking the head beneath the water or raising the water above the head, is supplied by the fact that, on assuming this as the early practice, we may naturally account for the various developments of later practice. In such a rite as this, both later immersion and affusion can find a natural starting-point; while the assumption of either a pure immersion or a pure affusion as a starting-point will render it exceedingly difficult to account for the rise and wide extension of the other mode.”

    [Based on this description of “immersion” it appears that pouring/affusion has just as ancient a historical lineage.]

    611: “There never was a time when the church insisted upon immersion as the only valid mode of baptism. . . As little did men doubt the propriety and validity of baptism by affusion when scarcity of water rendered immersion impossible.”

    B. B. Warfield, Shorter Writings, Vol. II, pp. 334-335:

    “It may meanwhile be worth while to make clear to ourselves the little concernment the New Testament takes with the mode of baptism. It is much understating the matter to say that it does not prescribe a mode of baptism. It does not even suggest one mode as preferable perhaps to another. . . It does not, indeed, in any of its allusions to baptism, make it unambiguously clear exactly how it was administered. . . And he who affirms of any particular way of baptizing that it, and it alone, is valid baptism, has an immense burden of proof resting on his shoulders.”

    A. A. Hodge (http://www.the-highway.com/Baptism_Hodge.html):

    “The general body of Christians have always felt that as the mode of the application of the water in baptism was not of the essence of the commandment, they were free to do in the matter as convenience or local custom suggested.”

    [I am a bit puzzled by such an authority saying the following]:

    Bavinck, Vol. IV, p. 517: “There is no doubt that in ancient times immersion was the general rule; it is still permitted today and also illustrates the rich meaning of baptism better than sprinkling.”

  8. April 14, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Yes, that is an oblique argument – something of a stretch, I’d say. Baptism by immersion is a legitimate means of baptism.

  9. Phil D. said,

    April 15, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Returning to the main question in the OP…

    Historically speaking, the joint concept of death/destruction and deliverance/resurrection (or regeneration as many early Protestants termed it) seems to have been nearly universally perceived and embraced within the church. This really only began to change in the 19th Century or so, as the polemical battle between immersionists and non-immersionists reached a fevered pitch. But taking history as a whole, and in light of scriptures like Romans 6 and Colossians 2, I believe ideas or ideologies that ultimately lead away from this understanding should give us great pause. I posted a quotation from an early Reformed father on the topic above. Here is one from an early church father that I also posted on a previous thread:

    “The first Human being in us was buried [i.e the old Adam], buried not in earth but in water…Do you want to see the sign of this? I’ll show you the baptismal font in which one person was buried, but another rose up. In the Red Sea the Egyptians were drowned, but the Israelites rose up. The same event buries the one and gives birth to the other. Don’t be surprised that both birth and destruction occur in baptism.” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians, 7)

    Hope this is thought-provoking anyway…

  10. Roy Kerns said,

    April 15, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Do the pastors among you take time, uhhh, perhaps, during the sacrament of baptism to declare the content of the sign? Do your words say what the sign proclaims, thus following the Confession, Catechism and BOCO directions for putting the sacrament in the context of the preached word? Nearly all of the comments thus far correctly recognize that baptism warns of destruction, the coming sprinkling/pouring/immersion in forever fire. Have you ever heard that much less said that at a baptism? Do you tell the baptized children the awful message they bear in their flesh should they resist hearing and responding to the Gospel their gang-tatoo states? Do you urge the unbelievers attending to flee the wrath that baptism seals, telling them that before their eyes is God’s visible, tangible declaration that he will indeed do just what baptism signifies?

  11. Reed Here said,

    April 15, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    IMO, baptism’s connection to death/resurrection is secondary to its central signification, that of washing away sins through union with Jesus’ person and work. The death/deliverance is only recognizable in baptism because to be baptized in Jesus is to experience a bath that brings radical change (literally from one realm of existence to another).

    If immersion is understood primarily as signifying a bath in Jesus, and then secondarily as a bath that signifies participation in Jesus’ death/resurrection as the effect of the bath, then yeah, immersion can be a valid mode.

    However, this nuanced connection IS NOT the common one made by most of our Baptist brethren, whose understanding of baptism holds sway over Evangelicalism. There is in fact a disconnect that results in the effect signified being labeled as the primary signification, contrary to Scripture.

    Oblique, tertiary or just simply “odd, who’d ever think of that but that little green hobbit?” I think Lane’s observation is: 1) necessarily observable in Scripture, and 2) helpful in pushing us toward a more fully biblically nuanced understanding of baptism’s signification.

  12. Jack Bradley said,

    April 16, 2014 at 1:21 am

    Reed wrote: “IMO, baptism’s connection to death/resurrection is secondary to its central signification, that of washing away sins through union with Jesus’ person and work. . . If immersion is understood primarily as signifying a bath in Jesus, and then secondarily as a bath that signifies participation in Jesus’ death/resurrection as the effect of the bath, then yeah, immersion can be a valid mode.”

    Reed, I’m trying to see your point, but I don’t think it is possible to relegate death/resurrection to any kind of secondary meaning, especially in light of such passages as Romans 6:2-5 (ESV):

    “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”

    Best, I believe, to make the two significations coordinate, as in WLC 165:

    “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life.”

  13. Phil D. said,

    April 16, 2014 at 7:54 am

    Reed, you seem to be saying that so long as one agrees that death/burial/resurrection is only a secondary symbolism in baptism, then immersion “can be a valid mode” — but otherwise it is invalid?

    Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s not what you meant, but the way you phrased things was a little funny… :)

  14. Reed Here said,

    April 16, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Jack: my conclusion is based on two things: 1) an assessment of the references to baptism in the NT, and 2) the biblical principle that the sign is in some intelligible manner related to the thing signified. The primary locus of the references to baptism connect it with washing of sin. All other references are intelligible in connection with that connection.

    Phil: no, you understood me. But after thinking a bit about the meaning of “invalid” in the context of this topic, let me ask you to let me apologize, retract, and amend that comment. “Invalid” is not the right word, as that would thereby declare all such baptisms as invalid (i.e., they would be treated the same way our Baptist brethren treat all infant baptisms, something needed to be re-done, a decided unfairness).

    Better to maybe say an “improper” mode (I’m open to perfecting language). I am particularly denying the common baptistic notion that the “meaning” of baptism is a person’s profession of faith in their union with Christ in His death-burial-resurrection. When that understanding of baptism is applied to why a person chooses immersion over one of the other two modes (sprinkling or pouring), there is a misunderstanding of the sign-signification meaning.

    Practically this means I will most likely never baptize someone by immersion, as almost all who express this desire do so because of an insufficient understanding of the sign-signification. Once they get that insufficiency cleared up, their desire (nay insistency ;-)) for immersion disappears.

    Understand these may be “fighting” words for you. I am not trying to pick a fight.

  15. Jack Bradley said,

    April 16, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Reed wrote: “The primary locus of the references to baptism connect it with washing of sin. All other references are intelligible in connection with that connection.”

    But the washing of sin is only intelligible in reference to Christ’s (and ours in His) death and resurrection.

  16. Phil D. said,

    April 16, 2014 at 3:10 pm


    Sure, I’m a staunch advocate of immersion. But c’mon, you should know me well enough by now to realize I don’t take someone’s opposing my conviction as “fighting words!”

    I’ll just say that I think immersion is certainly the best mode to physically portray (which is one outward function of a sacrament) ALL the things biblically connected and historically understood with respect to baptism, such as we see enumerated in WLC 165, et.al. In addition, the Greek word the NT uses for “wash” in connection with baptism (louo) denotes washing the entire body, as distinct from just a part (nipto). So “bathe” is indeed a good word to describe it.

    But then I know you well enough to realize we’ll just have to agree to disagree on all this… ;-)

  17. Reed Here said,

    April 17, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks Phil. I was just taking an extra effort to not let Satan find even a splinter’s width to divide us on this issue.

  18. Reed Here said,

    April 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Jack: I would agree that death/resurrection is a necessary component on understanding baptism’s sign-signification. I maintain that the washing component is more necessary, more central. Again, I do so for the two reasons listed. As I worked through the Scriptures on this topic, I concluded that washing is more central than death/resurrection. I did not conclude that death/resurrection is irrelevant.

    But, I’m repeating myself.

  19. Jack Bradley said,

    April 17, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Reed, I’m not seeing how you can say washing is more central than the events upon which the washing is based, but I do agree with you about those who would make Immersion the end all/be all – I have dealt with that also. I have refrained from immersing anyone who thinks that all other modes are invalid.

  20. Reed Here said,

    April 17, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Jack: take a look at my two reasons for doing so. Then take a look at all the references to baptism, at least in the NT. You will see that the sign correlation with the thing signified, in this case water used to picture washing, is indeed the dominant reference to the symbolic meaning of baptism.

    I drew a little chart visualizing this I can send if you would like.

  21. Jack Bradley said,

    April 17, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Please do.

  22. Reed Here said,

    April 18, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Can’t upload the image. Here is the data. Note the primary referent is washing.

    Baptism referents:

    • 4 – Atonement:
      > 2 – Cleansing from sin: Mk 10:38-39, Lk 12:50;
      > 2 – Death to sin: Rom 6:3-4, Col 2:12
    • 7 – Unspecified: Jh 4:1, Mt 28:19, Ac 8:12-16, 36,38, 16:15, 16:33, 18:8)
    • 7 – Holy Spirit/cleansing from sin with fire: Mt 3:11, Mk 1:8-9, Lk 3:16, Jh 1:31-33, Ac 1:5, 10:47-48, 11:16
    • 22 – Forgiveness of sins:
      > 18 – Cleansing from sin – Mt 3:6-7, 21:25, Mk 1:4-5, 11:30, Lk 3:3,7,12, 7:29-30, 20:4, Jh 1:25-26,28, 3:22-23,26, 10:40, Ac 1:22, 2:38,41, 10:37, 13:24, 18:25, 19:3-5, 22:16, 1Co 1:13-17, 1Pe 3:21;
      > 4 – Regeneration/union with Christ – Mk 16:16, 1Co 12:13, Gal 3:27, Eph 4:5
  23. mary kathryn said,

    April 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    Adam has used that same concept in his teaching of baptism. It’s not a central argument, but it is a good point. He only tied it to the Egyptians, but the other two give it a thematic feel.

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