Question: Various churches use water to perform a rite they call baptism. What is the purpose of water baptism? What method of baptism is correct according to the Bible?
Answer: Few in modern Christianity understand the real meaning of water baptism. There is also much confusion about how baptism should be done. Some churches sprinkle and some pour, while others practice complete immersion in water.
Most professing Christians today practice "sprinkling." Yet the word "sprinkling" occurs only a few times in the New Testament—but never in connection with baptism. "Pouring" is also mentioned several times, but never in connection with baptism.
The word "baptize" comes from the Greek baptizo, meaning "to immerse" or "plunge into" or "put into." This Greek word cannot mean "sprinkle" or "pour." The Greek word for "sprinkle" is rantizo, and "pour" is cheo.
Therefore, by the Bible’s own words, "sprinkling" or "pouring" are not baptizo. Baptism means immersion—being put completely under water.
The Bible tells us that John the Baptist was baptizing "in" the river Aenon (John 3:23). John would have needed only a handful of water to sprinkle repentant believers, or a cupful to pour. But baptizing requires "much water" (v. 23).
Even though Jesus Christ was sinless, He was baptized by John, setting the example for His Church to follow (Matthew 3:13–15; 28:19–20). We know that Jesus was immersed because He "came up immediately from the water" (3:16). He could not have "come up" from a sprinkle or pour!
When Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, they both went "into the water" (Acts 8:38). Philip need not have gone "into" the water to sprinkle or pour water on the eunuch, if that were the proper mode of baptism. But to plunge the eunuch into the water, Philip too had to go into the water.
These examples clearly show that total immersion in water was the baptism practiced by the Church Jesus founded. And that is the baptism being practiced by His Church today!
But what exactly is the purpose of baptism? What is the meaning of being immersed in water? Water baptism has no mystical or "magical" effect. Its only physical consequence is that one becomes thoroughly wet from head to toe! Yet God commands baptism as an act of obedience, demonstrating our faith in our living Savior, Jesus Christ, and in His shed blood for the forgiveness of our sins. He gives the obedient and forgiven sinner the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:17–19; Revelation 1:5; Acts 2:38).
Why does God insist on this symbolic act of immersion? Baptism symbolizes one’s death, burial and resurrection from a "grave" (Colossians 2:12–13; Romans 6:3–13). Just as Jesus died for our sins and was buried, the one being baptized undergoes the symbolic death and burial of his old, sinful life, then emerges from the watery "grave" in which he was immersed. Just as Jesus was resurrected "in newness of life," our coming up out of the waters of baptism symbolizes our resurrection to live a new life of obedience to God, free from the guilt of past sins and the death penalty those sins have incurred (Romans 6:23).
Baptism is a symbolic expression of our sincere repentance from sin, and our desire to end and bury our past, sinful life. When we are baptized, we come up out of the water acknowledging that our selfish, vain and sinful old self has died, so that we may live a new life of spiritual obedience to God’s commandments, as made possible through the power of His Holy Spirit.