June 29, 2008 Q & A

Baptism and Sprinkling


Where in the Bible does it show an example of sprinkling instead of immersion as a symbol of baptism? And if there is not one, why do Presbyterians allow sprinkling instead of immersion?


The Westminster Confession of Faith (28.3), the official confession of faith of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, says, "Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person."

You will note that this statement does not say dipping (today we call it immersion) is invalid. It only says that it is not the only acceptable mode of baptism. It was written this way precisely because some mistakenly believe that baptism is not really valid unless it is done by immersion. Yet the truth is that the New Testament nowhere actually says that baptism must be done by immersion. And there are certainly instances in which we know that it was not. As an old Scottish preacher once said, the Egyptians were immersed but were not baptized while the Israelites were baptized but not immersed (see Ex. 14:27-31, 1 Cor. 10:1-2).

I remember only one instance in my own ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church when I administered baptism by sprinkling. Apart from that instance, I virtually always administer it by pouring water on the head of the person baptized.

Why, then, the mention of sprinkling? For two reasons. (1) The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel spoke, specifically, of the promised cleansing that was to come in the Messianic age. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols" (Ezek. 36:25). Since this event was to coincide with the giving of the Holy Spirit (vv. 26-27) we are certain that it refers to the cleansing symbolized by baptism. (2) There are at least some occasions when pouring is not the best option. I recall a hospital baptism that I conducted (with representatives of the session and congregation present) when pouring was out of the question (not to mention immersion).

Yet even on that occasion, with the use of a very small amount of water—by sprinkling—the essence of the sacrament was maintained. And what is the essence? It is (as our Shorter Catechism, Q. 94, says), "washing with water, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost [which] doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's."

You will see from this that no one who sincerely confesses faith in Jesus Christ is excluded from this Christ-commanded ordinance, nor are their helpless children. The one instance (mentioned above) in which I did baptize by sprinkling was an infant (born to two believers) who was expected to die very soon. Because we believe what Peter said on the day of Pentecost, "for the promise is to you and your children," that little infant received the covenant sign of baptism.

Thank you for asking an important question!



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