In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the great John Calvin wrote the following concerning the various modes of baptism:
But whether a person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of the countries. (Institutes, Volume 2, p. 1320).
With those words, Calvin placed the whole matter of the mode of baptism under the things known as adiaphora—matters of indifference on which believers exercise their freedom of conscience. Once again, the wisdom of Calvin shines through. The Christian Church would have done well to have followed his advice instead of engaging in baptism wars which have separated those who have had so much in common.
If, indeed, Christians and Christian churches have liberty in Christ concerning the mode of baptism (and I agree with Calvin), then the primary passage of Scripture that regulates how we deal with one another is Romans 14:1-15:13. That is the great section of the Bible that gives directions concerning how Christians with differences of opinions treat each other and accept one another without judging. Perhaps on no other adiaphora has there been so much controversy and unchristian spirit as there has been in connection with the mode of baptism. Christians that agree on almost everything else will divide from one another over the mode of baptism. Such division is the very opposite of what Paul tells Christians to do in Romans 14 and 15.
The Scripture was not written to be a statute book which answers every question. The Scripture is a book of life. The focus in the Bible is on the doctrines that comprise the way of salvation. Those matters are very plain because they are the main things. There are numerous other matters that are left to the area of Christian freedom. The millennium and the return of Christ fall into that category, as do many secondary doctrines. In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
It is different concerning the doctrines known as the ordo salutis—the order of salvation. The doctrines comprising the order of salvation are essentials. The Scripture gives very clear statements about the substitutionary atonement of Christ; the resurrection of our Lord and our future resurrection; the new birth; saving faith; sanctification, God’s election of His people, etc., etc., etc. We could point to many passages which teach those truths very plainly. The language of the Bible on such points of doctrine is unmistakable.
The mode of baptism is a secondary doctrine. The Scripture does not speak clearly and definitively on it. Here is why. If the Bible gave such unmistakable statements concerning the mode of baptism, then that would elevate the mode of baptism to the level of being an essential requirement for salvation. Neither the mode of baptism nor the actual baptism of a person confers saving benefits.
A person must use a priori arguments to support their view of either immersion or sprinkling. A priori means that there is an element of reason that has to be applied in order to arrive at a position. In other words, no one can point to a passage which clearly says, “be baptized by immersion,” or, which says, “be baptized by sprinkling.” No one can point to a passage that says “he was baptized and he was dunked under the water,” or, “he was baptized and water was sprinkled on his head.” The silence of Scripture cuts both ways concerning the matter of the mode of baptism. Thus, that is why all Christians are left to their liberty in Christ to determine their own views on the matter. Therefore, Romans 14 and 15 tell us to bear with one another on those non-essential doctrines in which we differ. The general principle for all such cases of conscience is given in Romans 14:5—“One person regards one day above another, another person regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” That principle applies to all non-essential doctrines.
One objection to baptism by sprinkling by some people is that the Roman Catholic Church baptizes by that mode. For some people that settles the matter. Not so fast, my friend. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches baptize by immersion—both adults and infants. I witnessed an infant baptism in a Russian Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2017. The infant was dunked three times under the water. Catholicism is idolatrous and heretical. The Orthodox churches are more idolatrous, iconic, and heretical.
The basic meaning of baptism is cleansing. It is a cleansing of the heart by God’s grace. Titus 3:5 says, “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 the renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is the sacrament that represents the washing of regeneration. The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of saving faith. Christ first told Nicodemus about the necessity of the new birth and later spoke about saving faith. Salvation is always in that order. We must first be born again by having our hearts cleansed by God’s grace. Then, we will believe in Christ. Those are the two great works of salvation—regeneration and saving faith. The sacraments of both the Old and New Testaments point to those two great works of salvation. The Old Testament sacraments—circumcision and the Passover—pointed forward to Jesus and are replaced by the New Testament sacraments.
Presbyterians practice baptism by immersion because of the continuity of the Old Testament with the New Testament. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the two parts of the Bible. The Westminster Confession of Faith 7:5 says in part: “The covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel.” The message of salvation is the same in both the Old and New Testaments. WCF 7.6 says: “Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed. . . though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy. . . These are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.”
In the Old Testament, all of the symbolic washings of the Law were applied by sprinkling.
First of all, water for cleansing was to be sprinkled on a person who touched a dead corpse (Numbers 19:11-13, 18-21). Numbers 19:20 says: “But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean.” So, the water for cleansing was sprinkled on the person. Relating to that, Ezekiel 36:25-27 gives the promise of the new covenant and says:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone and give to you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Second, the blood of the sacrifices was applied under the Law by sprinkling. There are numerous passages which describe the sprinkling of the blood by Moses on the altar and the tent of meeting and the sons of Aaron, the priests. For instance, Leviticus 8:24 says:
He also had Aaron’s sons come near; and Moses put some of the blood on the lobe of their right ear, and on the thumb of their right hand and on the big toe of their right foot. Moses then sprinkled the rest of the blood around on the altar.
Third, the oil of anointing was applied by sprinkling. According to the law, a leper was to be cleansed by being sprinkled with the blood of a slain bird and then he was to be sprinkled with oil. You can read the account of the sacrifice for leprosy and the cleansing of the leper in Leviticus 14:1-57.
In the New Testament, those same three things—water, blood and oil—are applied by sprinkling or anointing.
First, Hebrews 10:22 says: “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Ezekiel 36-25-27 had prophesied of the very thing Paul describes in Hebrews. The water is sprinkled on our evil consciences and our hearts are cleansed.
Second, the blood of Christ is applied to believers in the New Testament by sprinkling. Hebrews 12:22, 24 refer to the sprinkled blood of Christ: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels. . . and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” 1 Peter 1:2 says: “according to the foreknowledge of God the father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood. May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.”
Third, Christ was anointed with the oil of gladness above His companions. Hebrews 1:9 quotes Psalm 45:7 and applies it to the Son of God. The anointing oil in the Old Testament was applied by sprinkling. The name, Christ, means the Anointed One in the Greek. Cf. Psalm 2:2. Christ was anointed with the oil of gladness, especially at His baptism, when He received a greater measure of the Holy Spirit that equipped Him for His task as the Anointed One.
Thus, the application of the water, the blood, and the oil in the Old Testament was by sprinkling. In the New Testament, both the water and the blood are applied by sprinkling and the oil of gladness is applied by anointing. It is for these reasons that Presbyterians are convinced that sprinkling is the proper mode of baptism. Calvin is right that the mode of baptism is “unimportant” in the whole scheme of things. Thus, there are a few things that both those who hold to immersion and those who hold to sprinkling must do.
First, “let us not judge one another anymore” and “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:13, 23).
Second, “the faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (Romans 14:22).
Third, accept one another “but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:1b, 5b).
Presbyterians agree that baptism by immersion is a valid baptism. They also agree that baptism by sprinkling or pouring is valid. WCF 28.3 says: “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.” Others will disagree and that is fine. The mode of baptism is a subject which will not be clarified to everyone’s mind until we reach heaven. I suspect that we will find at that time that God is less concerned about the outward mode of baptism as long as the inner heart has been baptized by the Holy Spirit.
Vanguard Presbytery met on Friday, April 21st, at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Slidell, LA with Todd Smith as the host pastor of the church. Dewey Roberts was elected as Moderator Pro Tem in light of the absence of the Moderator, Skip Dusenbury due to health considerations. The following actions of the court concerning ministers, candidates, and churches were taken:
Rev. Sacha Walicord who will be starting Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan in June of 2023
Kris Popovitch, who passed his examination for ordination and will be ordained to labor out of bounds as pastor of Bentheim Reformed Church in Hamilton, Michigan. The church recently left the Reformed Church in America and is presently unaffiliated. Kris hopes to lead them into Vanguard Presbytery. Rev. Mark Turcio and Rev. Sacha Walicord, plus two ruling elders from the church, will ordain and install him.
Jordan Sweezer was received as a candidate under care of Presbytery. He is an online student at Baltic Reformed Theological Seminary in Riga, Latvia and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Presbytery approved Cornerstone Presbyterian Church of Northford, Connecticut as a mission church with Rev. Mark Turcio given the powers of an evangelist to organize them.
Presbytery approved Westminster Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan as a mission church with Rev. Sacha Walicord with the powers of an evangelist to organize them.
Presbytery approved the request of Immanuel Community Church of Sparta, TN to be particularized as a congregation. The church is pastored by Rev. Chris Donnelly. Rev. Al Baker and Rev. Thomas Joseph were given the powers of evangelists to execute this decision of the court.
Presbytery with sadness dissolved the New Life Mission Church in Tillsonburg, Ontario at their request.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL 32541
Please mail any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. Our greatest needs are for more young ministers to be laborers in Christ’s vineyard and for the funds to help more new churches get started. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.