The Meaning of Baptism and the Catholic Ritual
It is distressing to see how the doctrine of baptism is distorted in modern-day Christendom. With the passing of time, baptism, as a necessity for salvation, has been replaced by a “prayer of faith,” abstract manifestations of conversion, and ecclesiastical ceremonies based on traditionalism. Today, many ignore the concept, implications, and importance of baptism. Jesus said: “[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, emp. added). Paul wrote that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5, emp. added). These New Testament passages and others make it clear that baptism is not merely a religious tradition or a commandment of men. Therefore, it is very important to understand it correctly.
It is essential to know the meaning of “baptism.” Depending on the context in which it is mentioned, “baptism” may mean many different things. For example, in an evangelical context, it is regarded as just a “public profession of faith” (Rhodes, 1997, p. 178). In a Catholic context, the word “baptism” brings to mind a ceremony, godparents, elegant robes, emotional parents, an infant in white, a fountain, and a few drops of water (as well as a pre-paid fee for the ceremony and the actual “baptism”). However, when we consider the real meaning of the word “baptism,” many of these erroneous concepts disappear.
In his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine defined “baptism” and other related words:
BAPTISMA, baptism, consisting of the processes of immersion, submersion and emergence (from bapto, to dip).
BAPTIZO, to baptize, primarily a frequentative form of bapto, to dip, was used among the Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another, etc. (1966, 1:96-97, emp. added).
From the definition of the word, it is easy to see exactly what was involved in the act of baptism: “immersion, submersion and emergence.” Unfortunately, the word “baptism” has been passed from generation to generation as a transliteration, i.e., a phonetic representation of a word in another language. [Note the similarity between the Greek baptisma and the English “baptism”]. A study of the Greek etymology of this word opens the door to its real meaning and also gives us a better picture of how it was carried out in New Testament times. Baptism was not sprinkling or pouring, as Catholicism teaches, but immersion. The Bible points out some important implications concerning baptism.
First, baptism requires enough water to immerse completely a believer. The gospel accounts inform us that John the baptizer baptized in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:4-6; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:2-3; John 1:28). The Jordan was the largest and most important river in Palestine, and it contained enough water for the innumerable baptisms (immersions) that took place there. For example, in this river, Naaman the leper immersed himself seven times (2 Kings 5:14). If baptism were an act of sprinkling, it would have been unnecessary to baptize in the Jordan; instead, a single container of water would have been sufficient. However, as the apostle John noted, John the baptizer also baptized in the Aenon, “because there was much water there” (John 3:23).
Second, baptism is immersion since one goes down into and comes up out of the water. This fact is seen clearly in the various baptisms in the gospel accounts and the book of Acts. The gospel writers recorded the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). Matthew 3:16 and Mark 1:10 tell us specifically that Jesus “came up from the water.” Certainly the phrase “to come up from the water” would have been omitted if Jesus was only sprinkled.
Acts 8:26-39 records one of the most illustrative accounts of the procedure of baptism. Luke wrote that while an Ethiopian was on his return trip from Jerusalem, he heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the mouth of Philip (a servant of God). Then, “they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’” (Acts 8:36). Luke does not record the source or location of that water, but we can infer that it was sufficient for Philip to immerse the Ethiopian. Luke clarifies how baptism was performed when he notes that “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water,” and “they came up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39, emp. added). From this biblical narrative, it is illogical to conclude that the baptism of the Ethiopian was some form of sprinkling. It is impossible to “go down into” and “come up out of” a few drops of water! There is no doubt that the Ethiopian was immersed.
Third, baptism represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It is not a random practice void of any logic pattern, or special meaning. God chose baptism as the perfect representation of the redemptive plan performed by His Son, Jesus Christ. In Romans 6:3-4, Paul explained the symbolic meaning of baptism: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” R.L. Whiteside noted about these verses:
In being buried in baptism there is a likeness of his death; so also there is a likeness of his resurrection in our being raised from baptism to a new life. Hence, in being baptized we are united with him in the likeness of this death and resurrection. We are therefore, partakers with him in death, and also in being raised to a new life. Jesus was buried and arose to a new life; we are buried in baptism and arise to a new life. These verses show the act of baptism, and also its spiritual value (1988, p. 132).
There is great spiritual value and meaning in the act of immersion. It not only re-enacts the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but also unites the believer with Christ (Galatians 3:27). There is no other act of faith that is an effective (and biblical) substitute for being immersed into Christ. When a person is immersed, he is buried with Christ. Could sprinkling be described as a burial? When a person dies, do people sprinkle dirt on his head and declare him “buried”? Of course not! Rather, he is covered completely (immersed) with dirt. Similarly, to be “buried” with Christ, we must be covered completely (immersed) in water. Sprinkling falls far short of representing the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.Both Paul and Peter, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 and 1 Peter 3:21, added emphasis to the importance and significance of baptism.
Finally, it is important to note that the modern Catholic practice of “baptism,” i.e., sprinkling or pouring, is inconsistent with the Catholics’ own understanding of the meaning and method of biblical baptism. In the first chapter of the “Sacraments of the Christian Initiation,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:
This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to “plunge” or “immerse”; the “plunge” into the water symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as “a new creature” (1994, 1214, emp. added).
It appears that ignorance of the etymology and procedure of biblical “baptism” did not mislead Catholicism from the truth concerning baptism, but rather the emphasis that Catholicism places on tradition above biblical truth. Catholics also declare:
To facilitate the application of the new discipline, baptism by infusion—which consists in pouring water on the child’s head instead of immersing the whole child in a basin—gradually became common because it was easier; it became the almost universal practice in the fourteenth century. But although immersion fell into disuse, it still had its place in the rubrics (Cabié, 1988, 3:72, emp. added).
It is declared (with shameless audacity) that the commandment for immersion given by the Lord (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16) was replaced by the traditional rite of sprinkling or pouring out of convenience. These words can find accurate parallel in the words of condemnation pronounced by Jesus against the Pharisees when He said:
Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men... All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition (Mark 7:6-9).
Cabié, Robert (1988), The Church at Prayer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press).
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press).
Rhodes, Ron (1997), The Complete Book of Bible Answers (Eugene, OR: Harvest House).
Vine, W.E. (1966), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell).
Whiteside, Robertson L. (1988 reprint), Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation).