Baptism: Is Immersion Necessary? (Shaw)

The Reformed Faith: Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Reformed churches do not insist on baptism by immersion. Instead, in Reformed churches various modes of baptism with water are acceptable. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that “[the] dipping of the person is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person” (XXVIII.3). What’s the biblical background for this view? Robert Shaw (d. 1863) wrote a helpful summary in his exposition of the Westminster Confession:

This is a subject which has occasioned much controversy among Christians, and the dispute is still carried on with unabated zeal. A large and respectable body of Christians strenuously contend that baptism can only be valid when performed by immersion, or by dipping the whole body under water. Our Confession does not deny that baptism may be lawfully performed by immersion; but maintains that it is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person.

No conclusion can be drawn from the word baptize, or from the original term; for it has been most satisfactorily proved that it signifies to wash with water in any way. Several instances of the administration of baptism are recorded in the New Testament; and in some of these cases it is not credible that baptism was performed by immersion. When three thousand were baptized in one day, it cannot be conceived that the apostles were capable of dipping all this multitude in so short a space of time. When whole families were baptized in their own houses, it cannot be thought that, on every occasion, a sufficient quantity of water could be found for immersion. Besides, the application of the spiritual benefit signified by baptism is in Scripture frequently expressed by sprinkling and pouring out (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 10:22; 12:24; Tit. 3:5, 6).

It may be added, that baptism by immersion cannot, in some cases, be dispensed with convenience or decorum; nor in some countries, and at certain seasons, without endangering the health of the body. This affords, at least, a strong presumption against the absolute necessity of dipping the person into the water; and from all these considerations we must conclude that it is sufficient and most expedient to administer baptism by sprinkling or pouring water on the person.

Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 364-5.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015