Baptism by Pouring or Sprinkling

It’s Biblical Series:

by Michael Roberts, D. Min.

As United Methodists we accept all methods of baptism, but generally we opt for pouring or sprinkling. There’s a reason for this that moves beyond mere convenience. In Acts 19:1-6 we read: “While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit. And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus. On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them…”

We learn here, and in many other such passages, that there are two kinds of baptism in the Bible: the baptism of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Immersion may be the most appropriate symbol for John’s understanding of baptism, although there is evidence that even this form of baptism was done by pouring water over the people as they stood in the shallow waters of the Jordan River. Nevertheless, today immersion symbolizes “cleaning.” It signifies our dying to ourselves and our being raised with Christ (See Romans 6:1-4). The emphasis with immersion is on what we do. We come forward in repentance to be cleansed, to turn to Christ, and prepared for his coming into our lives.

With pouring or sprinkling the emphasis is somewhat different. These methods symbolize God’s gift of new life and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Bible uses this image of pouring or sprinkling over and over again. For example, God says through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean…A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezekiel 36:24-26). We hear God say through another prophet, “I will pour water on the thirsty land…I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” (Isaiah 44:3). In many places, we hear of the “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit (See Acts 2:17-18; 10:45; Romans 5:5). Baptism, by this method, reminds us of how God pours his spiritual gifts upon us. In a very important passage, we read, but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6).

The word “baptism” means to wash or to dip, as in the dipping of a cup into a well. The word itself is not tied to any particular method. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that while the word “immersion” is not found in the scriptures, the words “pour” and “sprinkle” are used throughout scripture as important symbolic acts. Baptism by these methods is very biblical.

In most of our churches there is a Baptismal Font in the Altar area. Next to the Altar, this is probably the most important object in our sanctuary. The Altar reminds us of God’s presence among us. The Baptismal Font reminds us that we are children of God, not because we have earned it or deserved it, but because God in his love has claimed us and has poured out his Spirit upon us.

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