Why We Sprinkle

A number of years ago a new family in our congregation had just completed the membership class and was preparing to join the church. They were planning to present several children for baptism. Having heard me say in the membership class that for us the mode of baptism is not essential, the father requested immersion for his kids. Somewhat embarrassed, I had to explain that, although we accept any baptism done with water in the name of the Triune God in a true branch of the visible church (whether by immersion, dipping, pouring, or sprinkling), we practiced sprinkling. He was a bit disappointed that we were not a “full service” operation, but agreed that his kids would be sprinkled. That incident prompted me to be much clearer about our position on the mode of baptism in subsequent classes. Although the mode of baptism is not essential, we practice sprinkling. And we practice sprinkling, not because we are too cheap to install a baptismal Jacuzzi or to rent a local swimming pool. No, we practice sprinkling because it is biblical and because it seems to pick up the Old Testament symbolism of ceremonial cleansing much more effectively than the other options.

Numerous scholars have shown convincingly that the Greek word for baptism does not have to mean immersion. It can, but it does not have to (see John’s Murray’s Christian Baptism as an example). In Hebrews chapters 9-10, the author argues that the Old Testament ceremonies pointed forward to Christ and were superseded by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, saying, “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect” (Hebrews 10:1, NKJ).

In referring to the temporary nature of the various rituals of the Old Testament administration, the author of Hebrews says that they were “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:10, NKJ). The word translated “washings” here is a form of the Greek word baptismos, the word translated elsewhere as “baptism”. So, quite literally, the author of Hebrews calls the assorted Old Testament cleansing rituals, “various baptisms.”

Certainly some of the ritual cleansings of the Old Testament could involve bathing. The consecration of the priests seems to have included something like this (Exodus 29:4). But an overwhelming number of times, ritual cleansing involved sprinkling – of blood, water, or oil. Use your concordance and you will see over 45 instances in which cleansing is done by sprinkling. This fact is clearly in view in Hebrews 9-10 where the author mentions sprinkling four times (9:13, 9:19, 9:21, and 10:22). So the “various baptisms” under consideration by the author of Hebrews evidently include ceremonial cleansings done by sprinkling. To say that baptism requires immersion is not true in the first place, and it also fails to connect the symbolism of baptism to its rich biblical heritage.

When we are told by Isaiah in Isaiah 52:15 that the Suffering Servant will “sprinkle many nations,” what do we think he is talking about? Our Lord, Jesus gave His own blood to cleanse us from our sins. In the sacrament of baptism we are given a picture of that cleansing and of being set-aside to serve Him. When Aaron and his sons were consecrated for sacred service, they went through a seven-day ritual in which they wore their holy robes and had the blood of the sacrificial ram as well as the anointing oil sprinkled on them each day. At the end of the week they stood in their blood-stained robes and God declared them consecrated to serve Him (Exodus 29:21). Since it is Christ’s blood that sets us apart to serve the living God as priests (Revelation 5:10), let us rejoice in the wonderful blessing of our union with Christ and in the attendant symbolism of baptism.

“For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13-14, NKJ)

5 Comments

  1. Phil Pockras September 24, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Sprinkling signs the remission of sin. Pouring signs the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ac 2.38). I try to grab a handful of water and half dribble, half pour it on the child/adult.

    It might be useful to think of the validity/regularity distinction. Not all things done validly are done regularly. That is, the right thing may be done, but not in the proper way. In the case of baptism, what defines each is Scripture. While immersion is valid, if done in the name of the Trinity in conjunction with the right preaching of the Word in a true church, it is not *regular*. It is not done in the Apostolic fashion. Therefore, while we do, indeed, receive someone baptized in a true church, and accept their baptism as valid (even though done irregularly, though conscientiously), we must not do it ourselves in an unBiblical way.

  2. Dan September 24, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    Why is baptism in the New Testament so often associated with going down to a river or some body of water if only sprinkling was involved?

    Also, what about the passage in Romans about baptism’s connection with being buried and then rising again with Christ?

    These are honest questions…not seeking to argue 🙂

    • Kyle Borg September 25, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

      Dan,

      Welcome to GR! Thanks for stopping by.
      I’m sure Rich will weigh in, but I liked your question so I thought I’d give it a stab.

      1. The “going down” to a river isn’t indicative of immersion. Rather, it’s simply a statement of geographical location. For instance, in Acts 8 when Philip baptizes the Eunuch “they both went down into the water” and “they came up out of the water” (vv 38-39). To read into this that baptism should be by immersion would also mean that Philip was baptized at that moment.

      2. As to Romans 6 and being “buried” with him, I’d say that first we need to remember what Paul’s point is. He’s not in this text prescribing a means/method of baptism, he’s talking about baptism’s significance–identification with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. Secondly, rather than prescribing a mode to baptism I think what needs to be kept in focus is the theological significance of burial. Paul is saying that we have died with Christ. What proved Christ was dead? It was his burial. And it’s this burial that gives meaning to resurrection–if Christ didn’t truly die, neither did he really rise again from the dead. So Paul’s emphasis in Romans 6:1-4, and he’s saying it in the strongest terms possible, you have truly and fully died to sin and been raised with Christ. Theologically, it’s “burial” that makes both of those possible. Now someone might say that the mode of baptism should reflect that–i.e. immersion. But if that’s not Paul’s point in Romans 6:1-4 (and it’s not) then there doesn’t seem to be legitimate reasons to conclude that.

      Hope that helps!

      Every Blessing,
      Kyle

  3. Steve Rhoda September 24, 2015 at 5:42 pm #

    Thanks, Rich. I used your article today in my catechism teaching with each of my two oldest. I don’t think I’ve ever read a stronger defense of sprinkling. -Steve

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  1. Why We Sprinkle - September 28, 2015

    […] Holdeman is the pastor of the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, IN. This article first appeared on Gentle Reformation and is used with […]

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