Some Thoughts on Sprinkling as a Mode of Baptism

By Steve Stout, A Pondering Presbyterian Pastor

I took a moment recently to watch it rain, and it brought to mind the Lord’s promise in Isaiah 44:3, “I will pour out water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring, And My blessing on your descendants.”

I thought of the connection between the outpouring of water and the outpouring of God’s Spirit, and right there is the answer to the question why Presbyterians generally baptize by sprinkling rather than by immersion. It’s certainly a good question, especially since Matt 3:16 states that “after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water.” On the surface (pun intended), it appears that Jesus was arising from the River Jordan after being immersed. Also, Rom 6:4 asserts that “we were buried with Christ through baptism into death,” and that expression also seems to indicate an immersion.

But let’s take a closer look. First, if Rom 6:4 is discussing water baptism, then it demands a lot more than many want to admit, and that is that one must be baptized with water in order to be raised with Christ. While some denominations teach this doctrine of “regenerational baptism” (that one can only be born again by the water of baptism), it seems clear that Rom 6:4 refers to the believer’s inclusion into Christ’s death and resurrection, as verse 5 indicates (“If we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.”). One of my teachers (himself a Baptist!) remarked that we need to get a sponge and soak all the water out of Romans 6, because it is not discussing water baptism at all but rather our spiritual baptism into Christ, and that relationship is brought about not by water but by the Holy Spirit, according to Titus 3:5 (“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit”).

Secondly, with regard to the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, all four Gospels repeat that the primary emphasis of this important event is on the prophecy of John the Baptizer about Jesus, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). There is a clear connection between the baptizing work of the Spirit (also mentioned in 1 Cor 12:13, that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”) and the way the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, which was by “descending and remaining on Him” (John 1:33). Such an action of the Spirit coming upon Jesus is pictured quite aptly by what the OT had also prophesied, that the Messiah would “sprinkle many nations” (Isa 52:15) in the manner that the Lord promises to “pour out the Spirit of grace” (Zech 12:10). In other words, it fits readily into the flow of biblical practice that John baptized Jesus by pouring water on Him to picture the anointing of the Spirit upon Jesus. In this manner, John would be using the same mode that Samuel used in anointing David with oil as king of Israel, as a picture of the “Spirit of the Lord coming mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam 16:13). After all, it is the anointing of the Spirit that signals the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as the Anointed One, the Messiah, so that the outpouring of water fits appropriately to the reality of the outpouring of the Spirit.

For these reasons, a Presbyterian sees outpouring of water as the mode by which Jesus was baptized, as it best pictures the outpouring of the Spirit. Not coincidently, the book of Acts also connects water baptism with the outpouring of the Spirit (see especially Acts 10:45–48). What God has given us in Spirit baptism, then, is most aptly pictured by the pouring, sprinkling, or anointing of water as expressing the gracious and sovereign act of the Spirit in bringing regeneration by cleansing our hearts by faith (Acts 15:9). Pouring exalts the agent of baptism (the Spirit) and reminds the one receiving baptism that he/she is did nothing to entice the Spirit to bring new life, but it is the Spirit who graciously gives life to a dead sinner (John 6:63).

Yet, while Presbyterians may be quite convinced that pouring of water is the mode that best pictures the outpouring of the Spirit, historically, Presbyterians have accepted all three modes of water baptism (sprinkling, affusion/pouring, and immersion) as meeting the important criteria of using water, “wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the Gospel, lawfully called thereunto” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28:2). Presbyterians recognize that any amount of water properly administered (that is, as a church ordinance) in the Name of the Triune God is a valid baptism.

For that matter, it is a bit surprising how little emphasis is placed on the mode of baptism in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The only direct statement on mode appears to be in WCF 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.” This statement appeals to the following verses for support:  Hebrews 9:10, 19–22 (which calls OT cleansing rituals baptismoi and also rhantizo, “sprinkling”); Acts 2:41 (which reports, “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls–” the implication is that the immersion of 3000 in one day would be quite difficult but rather easy with sprinkling); Acts 16:33 (in which Paul baptized the household of the Philippian jailer late at night, convenient with pouring but somewhat inconvenient by immersion); and Mark 7:4 (where the word baptismos is applied to “the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots,” pouring water on the utensils rather than submerging them in water). These proof texts are apparently used by the Confession to show that the Greek word baptizo could be used to describe not just dipping in water (as immersionists insist) but that it could also be used to describe pouring/ sprinkling with water.

Even so, the Larger Catechism (Q. 165) places far more emphasis on the meaning of baptism rather than the mode of it when it asks, “What is Baptism?” and then answers, “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; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.”

Furthermore, the WCF 28.5 is quite emphatic that water baptism is not a saving ritual when it states, “Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.” Instead, it adds in WCF 28.6, “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, not withstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.” The Confession is plainly teaching that water baptism does not confer salvation: it is an outward sign that signifies the essential inward reality of regeneration, so to that end, the mode of baptism is not essential to salvation at all.

It does seem a bit surprising that the WCF does not emphasize what seems to be the strongest biblical tie between baptism and its mode, and that is the outpouring of water as signifying the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is mentioned in Acts 2:17–18, 33; Acts 10:45; Rom 5:5; and Titus 3:6.under the water—the expression “came up from the water” could mean that Jesus waded to the bank of the River Jordan in the way that a trout fisherman would wade out of a mountain stream. Clearly, the more important issue is that Jesus was baptized with the Holy Spirit who descended upon Him at this moment of the Father’s declaration of His Sonship. The correlation between the baptism by water and the baptism by the Spirit lends support to the view that being baptized by the Holy Spirit is best illustrated by the outpouring of water. A Presbyterian ought to be biblically convinced that the meaning of baptism (that Jesus will baptize His people with the Holy Spirit, Matt 3:11; Mark 3:11;  Luke 3:16; John 1:33) determines the mode of baptism, so that outpouring of water best symbolizes what it means to be baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27).

Even so, Presbyterians recognize that the Church from its earliest days has practiced both immersion and sprinkling. Proponents of one view or the other argue that their particular practice has been more prominent throughout church history, but what this ongoing debate indicates is that the discussion will not be finally resolved until the Lord returns. While convinced that outpouring of water is the best mode to picture the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a Presbyterian also understands why his Baptist friends insist that immersion is the proper biblical mode of baptism, based on such texts as Rom 6:3–4 and Col 2:11–12, so a Presbyterian should respect the convictions of those who hold to this position and accept his /her baptism as meeting the biblical requirements of using water in the Name of the Triune God.

There is much to be said for the simplicity of sprinkling; however, the reality of baptism is not located in the amount of water but in the immense outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the heart of the believer—and that truth is what needs to be emphasized for all those witnessing a baptism: are they sure that “the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:5)?

So, while this Presbyterian is biblically convinced that pouring/sprinkling/anointing is the proper biblical mode of baptism, he does not think that sprinkling is the essential mode of baptism, so he cannot out of hand stubbornly refuse to conduct an immersion. However, I would hope that this short paper might persuade others of the biblical significance of pouring, as picturing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but I recognize that others are equally convinced of immersion, and so I am joyful to witness or participate in an immersion as a testimony of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, as I was privileged to do recently.  After all, a little or a lot of water should not be the issue: the point of agreement rests in the announcement, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”

[1] Acts 2:17–18, quoting Joel 2:28, “And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions, And your old men shall dream dreams; Even upon My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit ….”; Acts 2:33, “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear”; Acts 10:45, “All the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also”; Rom 5:5; “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us”; Titus 3:5–6,”He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”



[2] The author has seen the River Jordan twice, and each time it was barely deeper than Coddle Creek between Shearer Church and Davidson—2 or 3 feet at most. The Israeli government has built a baptismal ramp in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee, but the river has to be dammed downstream to be deep enough for tourists and pilgrims to be immersed in it, although one could be immersed in it at flood stage, but that would be quite dangerous and wisely avoided. Interestingly, in nearby Emmaus, the author noted the baptistery in the ruins of a 4th century church as being a 3-foot deep stone pool entered by a few steps, imitating the decent into the River Jordan where the candidate was presumably not immersed but anointed with water.