I have already shared my own story of being sprinkled twice and immersed twice. In each case, I was baptized by sincere individuals who believed in both the importance of baptism and in the significance of how and why it was performed.
These practices, however, have come down to us through the filters of church history. The New Testament itself doesn’t give explicit details on the process or technique that is to be used in baptizing. As a result, when the church splintered and divided into sects and denominations over the centuries, the practice and purpose of baptism was repeatedly reinvented to accommodate the nuances of the different groups. This resulted in three basic modes of baptism:
BAPTISM BY IMMERSION
Baptism by immersion is practiced in a variety of ways, but all with one significant common thread— the person being baptized is placed into the water, then brought out again.
Adherents of immersion point to the fact that in its original language, the word baptize means literally “to place into.” Additionally, they declare that immersion is the mode of baptism that most completely portrays the story of our salvation. They explain that being placed into the water pictures our death and burial with Christ, just as coming up out of the water illustrates our resurrection with Him to a new life and relationship with God.
BAPTISM BY POURING
In pouring, those being baptized stand in water (often a natural setting of a creek, pond, or river), and have water poured over their heads. Here the picture is one of being washed and cleansed by the Spirit and work of Christ on our behalf.
Excavations of ancient baptistries and the artwork of third-century Christian catacombs show early Christians being baptized in just that way. Many today hold this archaeological evidence as the definitive reason for practicing baptism by pouring.
BAPTISM BY SPRINKLING
Sprinkling seems to have the most recent history. It appears to have originated following the apostolic era and continues today in many Christian denominations, especially among those that practice infant baptism. For support of this position, some see evidence in Isaiah 52:13-15, which reads:
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. Just as many were astonished at you, so His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men; so shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider.
Baptism by sprinkling is also used in parts of the world where lack of water is a critical issue.
The differences in baptismal practices go beyond the mode of baptism, however. In some traditions, warm water is preferred to cold water (or vice versa); in others, the water must be moving. In some practices, the baptismal candidate wears a robe; in others, they are required to wear regular street clothes. Some of these practices have to do with practical concerns (such as modesty), while others seem more connected to convenience than conviction.
There seems to be no end to the nuances and intricacies of method, yet quite often each group implicitly or explicitly believes that they are following the New Testament pattern.
Admittedly, I have also followed a similar pattern of conviction. Over a period of more than 20 years, I served as a pastor in three different churches in three different regions of the United States. All of those churches were baptistic in tradition and conviction. I practiced baptism by immersion, however, not because I pastored baptistic churches. Rather, I pastored baptistic churches because I felt that immersion is the mode that best pictures baptism according to the New Testament descriptions.
But I must say that while I still hold that view, I do not believe that all followers of Christ must be held to the standard of my own convictions. My fear is that out of a genuine desire to be thoroughly biblical, we could find ourselves becoming slaves to the “letter of the law” while potentially missing the “spirit of the law” in our practice of baptism.
So then, what would be “the spirit of the law”?