Rev. Keith M. Watkins
Part 2 – The Symbolism of Baptism, The Spirit of the Gospel
AS was stated in Part 1 of this article in the April issue, the 1996 Free Presbyterian Youth Conference paper on the Mode of Baptism, published last year in The Free Presbyterian Magazine,1 led to a reply by Mr B.A. Ramsbottom in The Gospel Standard (hereafter referred to as the G.S.) magazine, 2 in which he insists on immersion as the only valid form of baptism. Over the years our Church has strongly resisted the claims of immersionism, earnestly contending for sprinkling (or pouring), and now a number of brethren have urged a defence. The issues involved are so important that we must respond to the G.S. article.
Having responded in Part 1 to a number of G.S. points under the heads of “New Testament Greek”, “New Testament Baptisms”, and “The Teaching of the Reformed Divines”, we now proceed to the symbolism of the sacrament, and the spirit of the gospel.
The Symbolism of Baptism
Our paper’s third argument was drawn from baptism’s symbolic import. The G.S. reply admits that this includes purification, but denies that biblical purification is better represented by applying water to the person (sprinkling) than by applying the person to water (immersion). In the Bible, we read, “Sprinkle water of purifying upon them” (Num. 8:7), and “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean” (Ezek. 36:25). The G.S. resorts instead to man’s word: a believer “plunged in that crimson ocean, Christ’s atonement made for sin.” So says an uninspired hymn, but immersion in Christ’s blood is foreign to inspired Scripture. We read of “the blood of sprinkling” (Heb. 12:24), and the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:2), but never of an ocean of blood. The attempt to turn Zechariah’s precious fountain (see Zech. 13:1) into a pool is unsuccessful. A fountain is a spring that pours out water, not a pool containing water.
Does baptism symbolise burial? Dismissing the rich breadth of baptism’s symbolism, the G.S. harps instead almost entirely on the single string of burial. Without Scripture to help, a man-made hymn has to be employed to support the idea that “the baptismal pool represents the grave of the Lord Jesus.” The attempt to equate immersion under water with Christ’s burial above ground in a cave (because in both the “whole body was hidden from sight”) is desperately unconvincing. Water is transparent! And baptism is about washing, not hiding. How right John Owen was when he wrote, “There is not one word nor one expression that mentions any resemblance between dipping under water and the death and burial of Christ.” 3
Preoccupation with burial has led the G.S. to accuse us falsely of denying any significance to Christ’s burial. We endorsed Robert Dabney’s point that Christ’s burial is not a cardinal transaction of redemption, and therefore not to be sacramentally commemorated. The Saviour’s burial is precious indeed, but nothing is advanced to refute Dabney other than the idea that the “summary of faith [in 1 Cor. 15] lists three things”, including burial. However, we find four things there, not three. Christ died; He was buried; He rose again; and He was seen. The cardinal points remain death and resurrection. 4 Being seen was proof of resurrection, and burial was proof of death.
No attempt is made in the G.S. article to expound the “proof-texts” adopted by immersionists (Rom. 6:3,4 and Col. 2:12). There is no interaction at all with our paper’s objections to using these texts to decide mode. Therefore, the dogmatic claim of the G.S. article, that in the mode of baptism “the Holy Ghost does use the symbol of burial,” remains entirely unsubstantiated from Scripture.
Romans, chapter 6, links baptism with Christ’s death as surely as with His burial. We asserted that if mode is taught here, it would have to represent crucifixion as well as burial and resurrection. The G.S. suggests no answer. How could it? Immersion bears no resemblance to crucifixion, the mode of Christ’s death. Joseph Irons did not overstate the case: “It is grossly absurd to suppose that baptism represents the death . . . of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 5
Galatians 3:27 links baptism with being clothed with Christ: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Yet immersionists do not attempt to represent putting on a garment in their mode of baptism. 1 Corinthians 12:13 links baptism with being united together in one body: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body”. Again, immersionists do not try to symbolise unity in one body by their mode. The G.S. reply contains no exegetical attempt to defend the arbitrary contention of immersionism that, whereas Romans and Colossians teach baptism’s mode, Galatians and Corinthians do not.
The truth is that none of these texts teach mode. Symbolising all these things (crucifixion, burial, resurrection, putting on a garment, union into one body) simultaneously with water is impossible. Louis Berkhof’s point, that these passages do not speak of water baptism, receives no answer. Baptizo does not always refer to water baptism!
The unbiblical weakness at the heart of immersionism is revealed. Its major contention, that baptism represents burial, cannot be drawn exegetically from the Word of God. Romans 6 does not teach it. Colossians 2 does not teach it. Here, in the biblical texts, the very heart of the controversy is reached, and the G.S. is silent! It has nothing to say to defend its position. This failure to expound the crucial texts of the Word of God is a tacit admission of the unbiblical nature of immersionism.
Water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism. What does baptism represent? Rev. Donald MacLean provided the key to the Reformed and scriptural answer in 1954: “It is clear that the main use of baptism in the Word of God refers to the baptism of the Holy Ghost.” 6 Baptism by the Holy Spirit (in regeneration) unites a soul to Jesus Christ. By that union, the soul becomes a partaker of the benefits of the covenant of grace. This is what water baptism is designed to symbolise, and it all begins with Holy Spirit baptism.
From the outset of the New Testament, in John the Baptist’s preaching, water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism are joined inseparably: “I indeed baptize you with water . . . but . . . He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 3:11). This was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost (Acts 2:16,17), and again when He fell on the household of Cornelius, giving them faith and repentance (Acts 11:15-18). Whenever a soul experiences “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5), he is baptised with the Holy Spirit. It is called baptism because it washes the soul from sin. The New Testament is clear. Water baptism symbolises baptism with the Holy Spirit! “Water baptism is to represent and prefigure the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the communication of divine influence to the soul in regeneration.” 7
Yet we search the G.S. article in vain for even the vaguest reference to Holy Spirit baptism. The G.S. silence on this all-important aspect of the subject is easily explained. The purifying influence of the Holy Spirit is never likened to a soul being immersed in Him! When Holy Spirit baptism, not burial, controls our approach to water baptism, we see that water should come upon the person (by sprinkling or pouring), just as the Spirit comes upon the soul. No place is left for immersion. Joseph Irons details the biblical teaching: “The Holy Spirit’s baptism is set forth in a variety of expressions which imply the communications of His influence to the person, but none which give any idea of the person being immersed into His influence. I have been particularly struck with the following phrases, descending (John 1:32), pouring (Acts 2:17), shedding forth (Acts 2:33),falling (Acts 11:15), anointing (Acts 10:38), giving (Acts 15:8), sealing (Eph.1:13), breathing (John 20:22). All these relate expressly to the Holy Spirit’s baptism, and are to me quite sufficient to decide the mode”.8
Immersionists are wrong to force water baptism into Romans 6:3,4, for these verses speak of a baptism that unites the soul to Christ in all His saving virtue. Only Holy Spirit baptism can do that, not water baptism. The true meaning of the passage may be represented thus: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized [by the Holy Spirit] into Jesus Christ were baptized [by the Holy Spirit] into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by [Holy Spirit] baptism into death.” Whereas, the immersionists’ insistence that the passage teaches the mode of baptism would make it read: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were dipped under water into Jesus Christ were dipped under water into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by dipping under water into death.” If the immersionist interpretation were true, it would make Romans 6 teach the heresy that water baptism savingly unites a soul to Christ in the efficacy of His death! Therefore, Romans 6 “can have no reference to water baptism, but points exclusively to the baptism of the Holy Ghost, which separates us from the world as those who are dead to it.” 9 The same key of interpretation unlocks the meaning of the other passages too: it is not by water baptism, but by Holy Spirit baptism, that we are crucified, risen and clothed with Christ, and united in one body. 10
This interpretation alone preserves the twofold aspect of the sacraments. In the Old Testament, circumcision represented the Spirit’s work in us, and the passover represented Christ’s work for us. So also in the New: baptism represents the Spirit’s work in us; and the Supper represents Christ’s work for us. Immersionism excludes the Spirit’s work and makes both sacraments speak only of Christ’s work.
The Spirit of the Gospel
Our fourth argument, that immersion was less in keeping with the spirit of the gospel, is vigorously resisted, sadly in a very personal way. The G.S. claim of immersion effecting a modern “miracle”, when one of their current ministers “crawled or hobbled to the baptismal pool, but walked away”, does nothing to shake our conviction that immersionism is contrary to the gospel’s universality. Unlike sprinkling, immersion cannot be applied in any climate and in any condition of health. Surely a New Testament rite was never meant to be so practically onerous as immersionists would make baptism.
Our paper’s account of immersion in practice is said to be “most exaggerated.” It is to be regretted that our honesty is impugned. Having once held to immersionism, we wrote nothing but what we had seen with our own eyes in various “baptist” churches in England. No doubt some do endeavour to immerse with decorum, but I was dealing with immersionism as a whole, of which the G.S. denomination represents only a small part.
When we drew attention to the danger of immodesty in female immersion, we only followed in the steps of others. Samuel Miller of Princeton warned, “Public baptism of females with all the delicacy and care which can possibly be employed, is certainly, as thousands attest, a practice little in keeping with those religious feelings and impressions with which it is desirable that every Christian solemnity should be attended.” 11 Thomas Witherow observed that “dipping in the presence of a multitude implies an exposure of the person, from which many, especially modest and delicate females, shrink.” 12 William MacIntyre wrote of immersionists “having, particularly in the case of females, to guard against unseemly mishaps.” 13 A G.S. minister wrote to assure us that they take “all proper precautions.” This proves our point. No such precautions are needed for sprinkling, but the dangers inherent in immersion require them.
We resist the G.S. idea that immersionism must be right because some souls think that they have felt God’s presence at an immersion. So have many parents when their children were sprinkled. Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron experienced God’s presence in a special way when he sprinkled a certain infant. That boy was to become the eminent minister, Alexander MacColl of Lochalsh. 14 Subjective, personal experience cannot resolve this debate; it must be settled only by the objective Word of God.
We take no delight in controversy for its own sake, yet we are to contend earnestly for truth, praying that Zion’s watchmen will see eye to eye. Until then, the sad fact remains that although we recognise Gospel Standard baptism as valid, they contend that Free Presbyterians have not been baptised. The Rev. Donald MacLean’s conclusion, written more than forty years ago, still holds: “You can rest satisfied that when the godly compilers of the Confession declared that dipping was unnecessary and that the proper method of administering Baptism was by pouring or sprinkling, they were on firm scriptural ground.” 15 The G.S. reply contains nothing to disturb our thoroughly biblical position.
1. Keith Watkins, The Mode of Baptism, The Free Presbyterian Magazine (F.P.M.), Vol. 102, pp 11-17, 41-45.
2. B. A. Ramsbottom, Immersion: The True Meaning of Baptism, Gospel Standard, Vol. 163, pp. 118-25. Unless stated otherwise, all quotations, etc., attributed to Mr Ramsbottom or the G.S. refer to this article.
3. Ibid., p. 268.
4. “For to this end Christ both died and rose” Rom. 14:9; “Him which died for them, and rose again” 2 Cor. 5:15; “Jesus died and rose again” 1 Th. 4:14.
5. Quoted in Y.P.M., op. cit., Vol. 18, p. 86.
6. On Baptism: Some Conclusions, Y.P.M., Vol. 19, p. 18
7. Irons, in Y.P.M., op. cit., Vol. 18, p. 86.
8. Ibid., p. 89.
9. Irons, in Y.P.M., op. cit., Vol. 18, p. 87.
10. Rom. 6:3, Col. 2:12 (the baptism of verse 12 is “made without hands” like the circumcision of verse 11), Gal. 3:27, and 1 Cor. 12:13.
11. Samuel Miller, Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable: and Baptism by Sprinkling or Affusion the Most Suitable and Edifying Mode, Philadelphia, 1835.
12. Witherow, op. cit., p. 12.
13. MacIntyre, op. cit., p. 31.
14. Referred to by John P. MacQueen, Baptism: A Reply, Y.P.M., Vol. 22, p. 78.
15. On Baptism: Some Conclusions, Y.P.M., Vol. 19, p. 18f.