Long before the New Testament writers spoke of baptism, the Greeks used the very same word to describe the process of dipping, immersing, or submerging something. The root word “bapto,” from which baptism is derived, is translated as a form of dip in several passages: “dip the tip of his finger in water” (Luke 16:24); “when he had dipped the sop” (John 13:26); and “he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood” (Revelation 19:13). When English scholars began translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek, they sought to avoid controversy by transliterating the word for baptize (that is, substituting the letters of our alphabet for the Greek letters), rather than translating the word (giving the actual English equivalent). This allowed people to continue to believe and teach that either sprinkling, pouring, or immersion was scriptural baptism, despite the clear meaning of the original language. “Immersion” properly translates “baptism.” For example, a literal translation of Acts 2:38, “repent and be baptized,” would be “repent and be immersed.”
The first recorded practice of sprinkling came some two hundred years after the establishment of the church. Ancient historian Eusebius said that third century church leader Novatian, supposing he was dying, “received baptism, being besprinkled with water, on the bed whereon he lay (if that can be termed baptism).” Sprinkling, or “clinic baptism,” was reserved for the ill, and was held in disfavor generally until the council of Ravenna, in 1311, said that baptism was equally acceptable by sprinkling or by immersion. Substitution of sprinkling for immersion is an ancient innovation, but is not biblical.
Only immersion fits the Bible pattern. The nature of baptism is such that it requires “much water.” “John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized” (John 3:23). Sprinkling or pouring requires only a “handful” of water, but immersion requires “much” water.
Also, baptism requires a going down into the water, and a coming up out of the water. Luke records the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch: “As they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? . . . And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip” (Acts 8:36-39). They both went down into the water so Philip could immerse him.
Finally, New Testament baptism requires a burial and a resurrection. Paul describes the act of baptism this way: “We are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:4-5). Sprinkling and pouring do not picture a burial and a resurrection as immersion does.