The use of baptizein (“to baptize”) in the passive voice illustrates why, from a semantic standpoint, the meaning must be “immerse.” Take Mark 1:9 as an example. Jesus was baptized, not the water, by John in the Jordan River. When it comes to baptizō, the passive form grammaticalizes the mode as immersion. Never is water the subject of the passive use of the verb baptizō. The subjects of the ordinance are baptized, the water is not. Sprinkling or pouring simply do not make sense.

Nor is the Paedobaptist case helped by appeal to the use of the Greek preposition en or eis here or elsewhere since the verb, in this case the passive verb, dictates the usage of the preposition. When either of these prepositions is used with the verb baptizō, the focus is on being baptized “in” or “with” water, specifying location. In fact, Carson noted the “absurdity” of translating baptizō in Mark 1:9 as “sprinkle” or “pour.” “You can dip someone in the water but you cannot sprinkle them into the water unless you have used a mincer beforehand!”[1] Oliver studied the use of the preposition en with baptizō, with the noun hudati “water” as well as the use of hudati without the preposition and concluded “according to the strict sense of baptizō, it would seem impossible to make hudati or en hudati out as instrumental.”[2] Semantically, baptizō necessitates the locative use of the preposition en — “baptized in….”

It has been suggested that when the preposition eis means “into” it is used before the noun as well as the verb. Since eis is used only once in Acts 8:38, it is sometimes surmised that Philip and the eunuch did not go into, but only to, the water, and the conclusion is drawn that the eunuch was not immersed.[3] However, J. M. Pendleton pointed out, correctly, that in numerous places eis is used only once to express the same idea of entrance. Paedobaptists admit eis means “into” in all other places except where baptismal waters are referred to.

Pendleton’s sarcasm is pointed:

This little word eis is a strange word indeed if all said of it is true. It will take a man into a country, into a city, into a house, into a ship, into heaven, into hell, —into any place in the universe except the water. Poor word! Afflicted, it seems, with hydrophobia, it will allow a person to go to the water, but not into it.[4]

Other indications in Acts 8:36-39 support a baptism of the Eunuch by immersion. The use of katabainō and anabainō, “to go down” into the water; “to come up” out of the water certainly suggests immersion.[5]

H. Marshall has attempted to modify the meaning of baptizō from the root idea of immersion by a consideration of its metaphorical uses, specifically the notion of the baptism of the Spirit and of fire.

“We must conclude that when John spoke of baptism with the Spirit he had in mind the descent of the Spirit from above like a stream of water pouring over a person… But if this is how the verb ‘baptize’ is to be understood in relation to the Spirit, then the same can also be true when it is used in relation to water.”[6]

Marshall suggested that the idea of immersion is not the best to employ with the Spirit, therefore our understanding of baptism “may stand in need of revision.”[7] Paul’s theological case in Romans 6:4 is not drawn from the literal act of baptism according to Marshall; hence it is not tied to a particular mode of baptism. Immersion fails to offer a fitting symbolism for the concept of sprinkling and pouring, which is associated with the baptism of the Spirit in the New Testament.

Marshall concluded that in the case of literal baptism involving water and metaphorical baptism involving the Spirit, the reference is not so much to the mode as to the result. He makes the linguistic mistake of deriving the literal usage of a term from its metaphorical usage. This is linguistically backwards. The metaphorical meaning of a word is dependent upon its literal meaning, not the other way around.

For a metaphor to work, there must be something which by analogy is compared to baptism. How could Paul’s use of the phrase “all were baptized in the cloud and in the sea” in I Cor. 10:2 be effective for the readers unless the literal meaning of the term was a part of the common vocabulary of the people? Expressions such as “baptized in the Spirit” in Acts and “baptized in the Spirit and fire” in the Gospels depend on the literal meaning of immersion to provide sense to the metaphorical meaning.

When Jesus referred to his death as a “baptism,” again the notion of immersion looms in the background. James Dunn, wrongly in my view, asserts that Paul in Romans 6:3-5 is speaking metaphorically and not about literal baptism, yet his article “‘Baptized’ as Metaphor,” makes it clear that the meaning of “immersion” for baptizō is foundational for the metaphorical use of the term. He noted: “The imagery of being submerged in a river of spirit (ruah) and fire may strike modern readers as odd and repellent. . . but it would have been by no means surprising for John or his hearers.”[8]

Again, baptism in the New Testament means….only immersion.

[1]Herbert Carson, “The Mode of Baptism,” in The Ideal Church, 2nd Carey Conference, 1971, in Nottinhamshire, England (Haywards Heath: Carey Publications, 1972), 25.

[2]A. Ben Oliver, “Is BAPTIZŌ Used with EN and the Instrumental?” Review & Expositor 35, no. 2 (April, 1938), 195.

[3]So Thomas Summers, Baptism, a Treatise on the Nature, Perpetuity, Subjects, Administration, Mode, and Use of the Initiating Ordinance of the Christian Church (Richmond, VA: John Early for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1852), 100.

[4]J. M. Pendleton, Distinctive Principles of Baptists (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1882), 131. For a thorough analysis of J. M. Pendleton’s views on baptism, consult Thomas White, “James Madison Pendleton and His Contributions to Baptist Ecclesiology,” unpublished PhD dissertation, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005. See especially 62-117.

[5]Everett Ferguson, “Christian and Jewish Baptism According to the Epistle of Barnabas,” in Porter and Cross, Dimensions of Baptism, 222-223, noted “the express statement that ‘we go down into the water’ and ‘we come up’ (11.8.11) is sufficient to indicate immersion.”

[6]I. H. Marshall, “The Meaning of the Verb ‘Baptize,’” Dimensions of Baptism, 22.

[7]Ibid, 17.

[8]James D. G. Dunn, “‘Baptized’ as Metaphor,” Baptism, the New Testament and the Church, 304.