Is Literal Baptism Defined by Metaphorical Pouring?



Is Literal Baptism Defined by Metaphorical Pouring?

A Discussion of One of the Common Objections

to Baptism/Immersion 

This study discusses an objection that is promoted by various religious groups, such as Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, and others.

The objection to Baptism as Immersion:  

“The baptism of the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit being ‘poured out’ on the recipients.  Water baptism (the typical baptism) is to be the same as Spirit baptism (the real baptism).  Therefore, shouldn’’t water simply be ‘poured out’ on the subject?”

This popular argument for pouring may be further developed in the following way.  John said: “I baptized you with water; but He [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; cf. Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:33).  Jesus also repeated the promise just before Pentecost: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5).  There is some similarity between the act of water baptism and that of Spirit baptism.  He went on to say to His followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (v. 8).  Describing how Cornelius and his family received the Spirit, Peter later said: “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:16).  This is must be an important teaching since it was repeated by all four of the Gospel writers.

As we turn to the fulfillment of this promise on the day of Pentecost, we see that the words of the prophet Joel came to pass on that occasion: “I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind . . . . I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit” (Acts 2:17,18).  Peter verifies this by saying: “He [Jesus] has poured forth this which you both see and hear” (v. 33).  Regarding the experience of Cornelius, we read: “The Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44).  Luke interprets this “falling” in this way: “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (v. 45).  When Peter explained all of this on a later occasion, he said that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them” and this fulfilled the promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (11:15-16).  This terminology is similar to that of Luke in the case of the Samaritans whom Philip baptized.  He says that the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen upon any of them” (Acts 8:16).  Moreover, Paul says that God has richly “poured out” the Holy Spirit on us as well (Titus 3:5-6).  According to this view, the “pouring out” of the Spirit and the “falling” of the Spirit is the baptism of the Spirit.  If the giving of the Holy Spirit involves a pouring—according to this argument—then water baptism also involves a pouring![i]

This is the chain of reasoning of those who would look to this incident in support of pouring as the “form” of baptism—and, at first glance, it does seem to define the baptism as a pouring.  A typical anti-immersionist argument is made by one writer: “We must certainly agree that water baptism is a symbol of Holy Spirit baptism.  If then the Holy Spirit was poured out, it is fitting that baptism be after a like mode, for the same Greek word (baptidzo) is used of both Spirit baptism and water baptism.”[ii]  Another statement of this argument says: “We know that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers at the first and is yet today.  Therefore, it is safe and proper to conclude that the water was poured out by John the Baptist and by the Apostles in the founding of the Christian Church and should be poured by us today in the administering of Scriptural Christian water baptism.”[iii]  But is there anything wrong with the reasoning here?  Yes, there is.  Although the argument appears reasonable, there is serious fallacy in this view.  Let us consider the reasons why.

First, the Greek is clear that the term ekcheo means “to pour out”[iv] and the term baptizo means to dip, to immerse, to sink, and to overwhelm (many sources have so defined the term).  We simply cannot equate the terms.  Pouring and dipping are two distinctly different actions, although both may involve the element of water.  We cannot say that to baptize (to dip) means to pour and to pour means to baptize.  This would be a clear contradiction of terms.

Second, the argument we are dealing with confuses the means with the effect.  It is true that the Holy Spirit was “poured out” and “fell” on people at Pentecost and in Cornelius’ household.  In fact, the Spirit is also “poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus. 3:6).  This is the action of God but it is not a literal use of the term ekcheo but a metaphorical one.  The Holy Spirit is personal and as a divine Person cannot literally be “poured out.”  This simply is a way of describing the fact that God graciously gives and bestows the gift of the Spirit abundantly to His people (cf. Gal. 4:6).  Perschbacher points out that ekcheo is used metaphorically to denote “to give largely, bestow liberally” in Acts 2 and 10.[v]  Thus, “pouring” is the metaphorical means of the Spirit’s bestowment.  This pouring looks at the action from the perspective of God the Giver: He is the One who pours out or gives the Spirit in abundant measure.

On the other hand, when John promised the people, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8), he was speaking of the effect of the Spirit’s bestowment.  The result of the pouring out of the Spirit was a “baptism” in the Spirit!  This is looking at the action from the standpoint of man, the receiver.  Just as pouring was metaphorical, so is the baptism.  The disciples were “overwhelmed” or “immersed” in the Spirit—and thus “filled” and “controlled” by the Spirit (cf. Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; Eph. 5:18).  The argument that equates the pouring with the baptism fails to distinguish between the means and the result or the effect.

Although Romans 5:5 does not use the term baptize, we may illustrate this matter of means and result.  The passage says, “The love of God has been poured out [ekkechutai] within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”  Just as God “poured out” the Holy Spirit upon us (Titus 3:5-6) to such an extent that we are baptized (immersed or overwhelmed) in the Spirit, so it may be said that God’s love has been “poured out” to such an extent that we are “baptized” or immersed in His love.  In this case, the “pouring out” of God’s love is the means or method by which we are “baptized” or overwhelmed (or even “filled,” to use another metaphor) with the love of God, which is the result or effect of such pouring.

Another illustration may help.  Let us say that you have a pitcher of water and have an empty glass.  You place a spoon in the glass and then proceed to “pour” the water from the pitcher into the glass.  The result of the pouring is that the glass is “filled” with water and the spoon is “immersed” in the water.  The pouring was the means and the filling and immersion were the effects or results of the pouring.  This makes it easy to see the metaphors involved in the giving of the Spirit.  God (Acts 2:17,18) and Christ (v. 33) both “pour out” the Holy Spirit on the recipients, to such an extent that they are “filled” with the Spirit (v. 4), and are “immersed” in the Spirit (1:5).  Christ, therefore, “baptizes” or immerses believers with the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).  As Plumptre notes: “As heard and understood at the time, the baptism with the Holy Ghost [Spirit] would imply that the souls thus baptized would be plunged, as it were, in that creative and informing Spirit which was the source of life and holiness and wisdom.”[vi]  This should clarify what is being said in this passage.

Third, the argument for pouring (by defining literal water baptism by a reference to metaphorical Spirit baptism) employs faulty grammatical logic.  This point is brought out quite clearly in the following exposition.[vii]



            Do we ever, by any law of grammar, determine a word’s meaning from a related phrase in the context?  Observe the phrase, “pour out,” as used in various different settings.  Observe with each case, the result of that pouring out—and then consider whether the words “pour out” define the result:

  Action and Result

1. (Acts 2:17)

God will pour out His Spirit– baptism (Acts 1:5)

2. (Rev. 16:1)  

God will pour out His wrath– judgments (vv. 5, 7)

3. (2 Chron. 34:21)

The Lord poured out His wrath–calamity (vv. 24, 28)

4. (Gen. 7:12) 

God poured out the rain–flood (v. 24)

5. (Mal. 3:10) 

God will pour out His blessing–blessed and delightful land (v. 12)

6. (Isa. 53:12)  

The Savior will pour out His soul unto death (v. 12)

            Now, consider thoughtfully, does the phrase “pour out” give us a proper definition for any of the above result words?  The word “judgment” has a meaning as also the word “calamity” has a meaning.  The word “flood” has a meaning.  The word “blessed” has a meaning.  The word “death” has a meaning.  Likewise, the word “baptism” has a meaning.  The phrase “pour out” cannot replace or in any sense overrule the inherent meaning of any of these words.  In each case, the phrase “pour out” simply tells how the result came about.

            Consider the word judgment.  It is defined: “A decree or sentence by a judge or court of law; a divine sentence.”  God poured out His wrath, and thus His divine sentence was realized—by the people in Noah’s day; by Korah, Dathan and Abirim; by the murmuring people of Israel; by Ananias and Saphira; and by the ones in Revelation 16.  Do the words “pour out” define the word judgment?  Most certainly not.  The words pour out do, however, portray how the judgment (in this case) came about.  God poured out His wrath.  As a result, the people experienced God’s sentence.

            Consider the word flood.  It is defined: “An overflowing of water in an area . . . ; deluge.”  The words “pour out” show how this flood came about (along with the springs from beneath).  In another case, a dam crest might break and cause a flood or one might pump water into a field and flood it.  The words “pour out” do not give a definition of the word flood but simply show how (in this case) this great flood came about.

            Consider the word death in Isaiah’s prophecy.  Jesus would “pour out” His soul unto death.  He, unlike in most deaths, would give His life.  Death comes to some through disease or accident.  Jesus, however, poured out or gave His life unto death.  The words “pour out,” again, do not define the word death but simply show how (in this case) this death came about.

            In a similar way, the word baptize has a meaning.  Its meaning has been well established by the Greeks who knew their language well.  Yet people have come to think that that meaning must be set aside because the phrase “pour out” is used in the context when the Pentecostians were immersed in the Spirit.  So immersed were they in the Spirit that the account says they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4) and were regarded by some as being drunk with wine.

            Yes, Jesus had predicted that they should tarry in Jerusalem for they would be immersed in the Spirit not many days ahead.  And indeed, God poured out His Spirit and they were so immersed in the Spirit that they went forward, endowed with power from on high and proclaimed the undeniable message of Christ.

            The phrase “pour out” no more defines the word baptism than it does the word judgment or flood or death.  Yet, such is our reasoning if we ignore the inherent meaning of the word baptize and then force on it a meaning totally foreign to its established and ordinary meaning.  And in defiance of all rules of grammar, we nicely set aside its usual and ordinary meaning and seek to give it a meaning totally foreign to its use elsewhere in Greek writings—all on the very faulty basis of finding the words “pour out” in the context.  Shame, shame on us!

            Peter says that the unstable and untaught distort the Scriptures.  Is not this precisely what we do if we cast aside the established meaning of the word baptize and say that it means “pour out”?  To be consistent (or rather, consistently inconsistent), we should also then claim that the phrase “pour out” defines the  words judgment, calamity, flood, blessed, death, etc.

            No, our love for truth and our fear of God cannot allow us to so carelessly play such games with God’s word.  May we, with the apostle, be able to say, “We have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully” (2 Cor. 4:2).

Fourth, some may object that Scripture says we are “baptized with the Spirit” and this lends support to the pouring or sprinkling theory.  The problem here is that the term “with” is from the Greek en which may be rendered “in” as well as “with” or “by.”  Actually “in” is a more accurate rendering here.  Note the following table:

Water and Spirit

Matt. 3:11  en hudati (in water) —en pneumati hagio (in Spirit holy)

Mark 1:8  hudati  (in water) en pneumati hagio (in Spirit holy)

Luke 3:16   hudati  (in water) en pneumati hagio (in Spirit holy)

John 1:33  en hudati   (in water) en pneumati hagio (in Spirit holy)

Acts 1:5   hudati  (in spirit) en pneumati hagio (in Spirit holy)

Acts 11:16   hudati (in spirit) en pneumati hagio (in Spirit holy)

­­­The point to this is that the apostles were baptized (immersed or overwhelmed) in the Holy Spirit just as one is to be baptized (immersed) in water.  This is why the ASV uses “in” in Matthew 3:11: “I indeed baptize you in water . . . he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (cf. Mark 1:8).  The JB, Simple English, and the NIV margin also render this, “in water” rather than “with water.”  Sadly, the KJV, which has influenced millions upon millions of people for some four centuries, perpetuates the phrase, “with water,” which seems to justify either pouring or sprinkling.[viii]

A.T. Robertson notes that hudati, in Mark 1:8, is locative case, literally “in water.”[ix]  He goes on to note that Matthew 3:11 “has en (in), both with (in) water and the Holy Spirit.”[x]  More plain are Gordon Fee’s comments: “The use of en with baptizo throughout the New Testament is locative, expressing the element into which one is baptized.”[xi]  Just as some were baptized (immersed) “in water,” so Christ would baptize (immerse) some “in the Holy Spirit.”  As Morris says: “They were immersed, engulfed, ‘baptized’ en, ‘in,’ the Holy Spirit.  It was not a ‘sprinkling’ by the Holy Spirit, or with the Holy Spirit.  It was an immersion in the Holy Spirit.”[xii]

Even if we were to accept the rendering of some translations, “with water,” there would be no real problem since one who is immersed in water is also immersed with water in regard to the element.  Dorris explains this well:

From the expression “with” many contend the water was applied to the individual, not the person baptized in the water.  The first meaning of the word translated “with” is “in,” but “with” does not carry the idea of applying the substance to the person.  A woman colors her cloth with dye; the smith cools his iron with water; but neither does it by sprinkling or pouring water on the substance.  The woman colors her cloth and the smith cools his iron by dipping—immersing them in water, and “baptizing with water” shows the substance used in baptism and not the manner of applying it.[xiii]

In some cases, the Greek has hudati and in other cases it has en hudati.  “Although in other passages in the NT [besides Mark 1:8] en is sometimes used and sometimes not used before ‘water’ it is always used before ‘Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16).”[xiv]  Some see a distinction between the two forms of expression.  The idea is that without the preposition en, “the element hudati becomes the instrument with which the act is performed.”[xv]  In other words, water is the “instrument” or m­eans of baptism (Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5; 11:16) and water is also the element into which one is immersed (Matt. 3:11; John 1:33).  Plummer argues: “The simple dative marks the instrument or matter with which the baptism is effected; the en marks the element in which it takes place.”[xvi]  Whether this distinction is justified or not is open to question.  If so, water immersion is yet sustained.

In the six statements of baptism in the Holy Spirit, all have the preposition en and all regard the Holy Spirit as the element of the immersion.  This includes the words of John the baptizer (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16), God through John the baptizer (John 1:33), Jesus (Acts 1:5), and Jesus through Peter (Acts 11:16).  All of the passages look upon people as overwhelmed in the Spirit.[xvii]  Furthermore, since the article is absent before the Holy Spirit (note the six examples above), this lends additional support to the Holy Spirit as the element involved in the baptism.  “The absence of the article indicates that the Spirit is regarded here as an element, a pervading presence, like the air, in the ocean of which we are submerged.”[xviii]

It is clear that one cannot make an argument against immersion by appealing to the phrase “with water” since the Greek, en hudati, may better be rendered “in water” and even if “with water” is accepted, this merely indicates that water is the means by which one is immersed.  As F.H. Chase renders this thought: “The forerunner ‘immerses in water’; the Lord Himself immerses in the Holy Ghost.”[xix]

Fifth, another metaphor is used in Acts 2, along with the pouring out of the Spirit.  “And they were all filled [eplesthesan pantes] with the Holy Spirit”(v. 4a).  They received not simply a small sprinkle of the Spirit or a small pouring, but received the Spirit in abundant measure.  They were “filled” with the Spirit (see also 4:8, 31).  McLendon states: “Thus, they were brought completely under the influence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power—their souls were completely immersed in Him.”[xx]  Even the noise that accompanied the pouring out of the Spirit “filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2).  All of this describes a circumstance in which the apostles were actually “overwhelmed” by the Spirit or “immersed” in the Spirit.  Just as a few drops of a liquid would not “fill” a glass, so a small “measure” of the Spirit would be insufficient to “fill” people.  “He gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34b).

Sixth, a further point that leads us to see baptism as immersion or overwhelming may be found in the promise of the Spirit that we already noticed.  In Matthew 3:11, the promise reads: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (cf. also Luke 3:16).  Not only were some to be baptized with or in the Holy Spirit, but some were to be baptized in fire!  Some people see this fulfilled in the “tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:3), and they suggest that the apostles were not “immersed” in the fire since only a small tongue rested on their heads.

One anti-immersion writer even says this: “Notice that this dividing caused that it sat on each of them.  God’s Spirit sits on each as each one meets the conditions necessary for the blessing. . . . No immersion here, though a great outpouring that overwhelmed the multitude in awe.  It was performed by pouring.  It sat on each.”[xxi]  Actually, it was the “tongues as of fire” (they were not fire but “like” fire) that “rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:3).  This writer thinks that God’s Spirit was what “sat” on each one and this supposedly supports pouring.  In contrast, the Spirit was poured out to such an extent that the people were “all filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 4).  The Holy Spirit was inside of the people—not on their heads!  (See also John 14:17; Romans 8:9,11; 1 Cor. 6:19.)

The context in the gospels would lead us to suggest a different interpretation of the baptism in fire than that suggested by this writer.  In Matthew 3:10, John issues a solemn warning to those who refuse to repent: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Then, John speaks of God holding a “winnowing fork” in His hand so that He might “thoroughly clear His threshing floor” and “He will burn up the chaff [the unrepentant] with unquenchable fire” (v. 12).  Since verses 10 and 12 speak of the fire of judgment or hell, in all probability verse 11 also refers to this.[xxii]  Two classes of people were in John’s audience—the repentant and the unrepentant.  What is the warning to those who fail to repent?  They will be “baptized” or immersed in fire!  “The Messiah would entirely immerse the penitent ones ‘in the Holy Spirit,’ and those who were impenitent, he would overwhelm with the fire of judgment, and at last in final perdition.”[xxiii]

We should recall all of the descriptions of hell fire in Scripture: one’s whole body will be “thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29; cf. v. 30); one will be “cast into the eternal fire” (18:8) or “cast into the fiery hell” (v. 9); one will be thrown into a furnace of fire (13:42, 50).  The lake of fire is another depiction in Revelation (20:14,15; 21:8).  All of this means that the unrepentant will not simply be “sprinkled” or “poured” with a little fire, but they will be thrown into a lake of fire.  They will be “baptized” or “overwhelmed” in fire unless they repent.

Seventh, the “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit is a metaphor that signifies an “abundant measure” of the Spirit.  White says that the idea that “sprinkling better symbolizes cleansing, and also the outpouring of the Spirit, though frequently asserted, is quite obviously not true.”  He notes: “Even in Joel the emphasis is upon the fulness of the spiritual inundation which coming ‘from above’ must resemble pouring—but never sprinkling.”[xxiv]  God, in grace, “pours out” the Spirit in abundant measure—so abundant that the recipients are “overwhelmed” or “immersed” in Him and are under His control.

As for the “tongues as of fire” that appeared and “rested on each one of them” on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3), evidently this is not what John meant when he said that Jesus would “baptize” in fire (and the Holy Spirit).  They were not “overwhelmed” or “immersed” with the tongues.  Furthermore, apparently this was a phenomenon that occurred on this one day alone and not at other times when people were baptized in the Holy Spirit (such as occurred in the incident of Cornelius in Acts 10-11).[xxv]

Eighth, let us examine the use of metaphors a little more fully.  A metaphor is “the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept it does not literally denote, in order to suggest comparison with another object or concept.”[xxvi]  John said: “I baptized you with [in] water; but He will baptize you with [in] the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; cf. Matt. 3:11).  In this case, John literally “baptized” the people with or in water.  He then compares what Christ would do with the Holy Spirit to his (John’s) literal baptism.  In terms of the definition above, John applied the term “baptize” (baptizo) to Christ’s giving of the Spirit to believers, comparing His activity with the baptism of John.  We must understand the literal in order to understand the metaphorical.  Note this well:  “If baptizo is used in a metaphor, correct principles of interpretation require that the literal meaning of that word shall be ascertained, and the metaphor interpreted in harmony therewith.”[xxvii]  We must understand the literal meaning of “baptism” in water in order to understand the metaphorical meaning of “baptism” in the Holy Spirit.  We must not reverse this procedure:

Baptizo is used in figurative senses in the New Testament, but always in harmony with the original and literal meaning of the word.  The baptism of death, of fire, of the cloud, of the Holy Spirit, all preserve the same imagery of the literal usage.  The way to learn the real meaning of a word is not from the metaphor, but from the literal usage.[xxviii]

  This highlights the importance of understanding the literal meaning of baptizo, which we have discovered means to dip, to immerse, to sink, to plunge, or to submerge.  Only then will we understand the metaphorical usages of the same term.

Some, however, seek to understand the literal meaning of baptize by looking at what they think is the metaphorical meaning.  They argue that Jesus “baptized” by pouring the Holy Spirit, then reason back to the literal meaning of water baptism and conclude that it must be a “pouring” of water.  This is poor hermeneutics that results in a faulty practice!  It misunderstands the very meaning of metaphorical language and it also fails to see the distinction between the means or method of bringing about the effect or result (that we noticed above).  First, it assumes that the metaphorical pouring of the Spirit is the baptism of the Spirit, and secondly, it argues back to literal baptism in saying that it also must be a pouring of water.  Therefore, this kind of argument is wrong on both accounts.  Briney offers insight into the bizarre interpretations that we may make if we employ this “reverse” hermeneutical procedure

The following cases will illustrate the impropriety of interpreting the literal meaning of a word by its figurative use.  The Lord said of Herod, “Go and tell that fox.”  Now, shall we find out what a literal fox is by studying Herod, a figurative fox?  Let us try it.  Herod is a fox.  But Herod is a being with two hands and two feet.  Therefore a fox is a being with two hands and two feet!  Herod is a fox.  But Herod talks.  Therefore a fox talks!  The language applied to Judah will serve a similar purpose: “Judah is a lion’s whelp.”  But Judah is a man.  Therefore a lion’s whelp is a man!  No, we must begin at the other end, and then discover some striking analogy between the fox and Herod, and between a lion’s whelp and Judah.[xxix]

Since literal baptism is immersion in water, metaphorical baptism must be like or similar in some respect to immersion.  What happened on Pentecost gives us a clue.  There was a noise like a “violent, rushing wind.”  This filled the whole house.  Tongues of fire appeared.  All were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and spoke with other tongues.  These phenomena give the impression of overwhelming power.

The apostles were brought entirely under the control and influence of the Spirit.  Their minds were thoroughly imbued with the Holy Spirit, and their powers of thought and speech were directed by him.  It is in this state of complete subjection to the influence of the Spirit that we find correspondence between the “proper and literal” meaning of baptizo, and its metaphorical use as a term to describe the wonderful and miraculous influence of the spirit of God.  Having found this correspondence, we see the beauty, significance, grandeur and power of the metaphor.  As in the baptism which is indicated by the “proper and literal” meaning of baptizo a person is wholly subjected to the influence, control and operation of water, so in this metaphorical baptism, the apostles were wholly subjected to the influence, control and operation of the Spirit.[xxx]

Since the poured-out Spirit is given in abundant measure, a person may be said to be “baptized” or immersed or overwhelmed or covered or enveloped in the Holy Spirit.  In this way, we are defining the metaphor by the literal—rather than defining the literal by what some mistakenly think is the metaphor.  Furthermore, we can see how absurd it is to think that the Pentecostal experience points to pouring with water.  “There is nothing in a slight affusion of water upon a small part of the body of a person to correspond with the stupendous and overwhelming character of the phenomena that occurred on the day of Pentecost.  But when immersion is put under this figure, it has a foundation that is adequate to the demands of the case, and the harmony between a fact and a metaphor that is built on it, which correct rhetoric demands, becomes manifest.”[xxxi]

Ninth, many of the terms used in conjunction with the Spirit are figurative in nature.  The “baptism” or immersion of the Spirit is a metaphor.  The “outpouring” of the Spirit is another.  The “falling” of the Spirit is yet another, as is the “inputting” of the Spirit and the “filling” of the Spirit.  Warren remarks: “We do not literally immerse someone in the Spirit or pour the Spirit on him simply because . . . the Spirit is neither a liquid nor a solid.  ‘Immersing,’ ‘outpouring,’ ‘inputting,’ must be figurative.  Language allows us to ‘mix metaphors,’ but it does not allow us to mix literalisms.”[xxxii]  Therefore, we must not think that a literal pouring defines a literal baptism.

Tenth, although Holy Spirit was “poured forth” or “poured out” by God (Acts 2:17,18; 10:45), where is water ever said to be “poured forth” on a person, with this called a “baptism”?  Although the Spirit “fell” on certain ones (Acts 10:44; 11:15), where is it ever stated in the New Testament that water ever “fell” on people’s heads in baptism?  In fact, never is the Greek work for “pour out” (rantizo) ever used of John’s baptism or Christian baptism!  This is significant.   God did “pour out” the Spirit and the Spirit “fell” on certain ones, with the result that people were “baptized” (overwhelmed or immersed) in the Holy Spirit.  As Peter saw the effects of the Spirit’s presence in Cornelius, he then “remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with [in] water, but you shall be baptized with [in] the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:16).  This experience could be called a metaphorical “immersion” in the Holy Spirit, just as John’s practice could be called a literal “immersion” in water.

Eleventh, we must realize that the kind of argument that is sometimes made on the “pouring out” of the Spirit defining the act of water baptism only has a semblance of rationality in English.  If we were living in a Greek-speaking land, the argument would be preposterous.  If we were using a translation in which baptizo is actually translated (rather than transliterated), the argument would be nonsensical.  What seems to be an ingenuous argument in English would entirely fall apart in such cases.  To illustrate, suppose you were to read Acts 11:15-16 in an actual English translation (or you were to read it in the country of Greece): “The Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John immersed in water, but you shall be immersed in the Holy Spirit.’”  If one were to then say, “We can see that water immersion is water poured out and falling on a person,” we would see the irrationality of the argument.  We must begin to think Scripturally and refuse to be taken in by those who would “distort” (NASB) or “twist” (ASV) the word of God in this way.

Twelfth, we must remember that receiving the Spirit is described in a variety of ways.  It is referred to as receiving God’s “poured out” Spirit (Acts 10:45,47).  It is called a “filling” with the Spirit (Acts 2:4).  It is called a “sealing” (Eph. 1:13) and an “anointing” (2 Cor. 1:21).  It is even connected with a “breathing” (John 20:22).  And, of course, it is likened to an immersion (Acts 1:5).  All of this pertains to receiving the Holy Spirit (John 7:39).  We must not assume that all of these illustrations or metaphors or figures are to be equated.  Receiving the Spirit whom God pours out is not precisely to be equated with God’s filling us with His Spirit.  And receiving the baptism of the Spirit is not specifically equated with being anointed with the Spirit.  We err when we define one image by the use of another equally-valid image.  Actually, God does give or grant us His Holy Spirit.  He “pours out” this Spirit and “anoints” us with the Spirit.  He “immerses” us in His Spirit and “fills” us with the Spirit.  But the filling, pouring, anointing, and immersing are not directly equated.  Warren makes these distinctions:

Immersion in the Holy Spirit emphasizes the overwhelming completeness of the relationship with the Spirit.  Outpouring of the Spirit stresses his coming from above us.  Falling on us draws attention to the point-in-time occurrence of the event.  Putting the Spirit in us communicates that his influence permeates us to the level of our motives, feelings, affections, and thoughts, which are all associated with the “inner man.”  The lack of cogency in this argument against immersion grows fundamentally out of a failure to distinguish language and reality, and thereafter a failure to appreciate the added difference symbolic language makes in the usage of words.[xxxiii]

We practice poor hermeneutics when we attempt to define one term (baptism) by the use of another term (pouring) which is, in fact, a metaphor.

Thirteenth, we must again stress that it is faulty hermeneutics to define a literal act by a metaphorical act.  We do not define literal water baptism by seeking to define Spirit baptism.  Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 310-386) recognized this.  Notice how he defines baptism in the Spirit in light of baptism in water, and not vice versa:

For the Lord saith, “Ye shall be immersed [baptized] in the Holy Spirit not many days after this.” Not in part the grace; but all-sufficing the power!  For as he who sinks down in the waters and is immersed, is surrounded on all sides by the waters, so also they were completely immersed by the Spirit.[xxxiv]

Fourteenth, it might be worth considering the pouring of the Spirit and the baptism of the Spirit as succeeding phases in the granting of the Spirit.  Warren states: “Pouring and immersing may look at different stages of the Spirit’s coming.  The pouring speaks of his being dispensed from the Father while the immersing speaks of the subsequent entering of the disciples overwhelmingly into him.”[xxxv]  This approaches the observation earlier that the pouring or giving is the necessary prelude to the receiving or the immersing.  This is similar to the “filling” of the Spirit.  The Spirit was first poured out and then, as a result, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).  Likewise, the pouring first occurred and this resulted in the baptism of the Spirit.[xxxvi]

Fifteenth, we must remember that the experience on the day of Pentecost is described in terms of a filling as well as a pouring—“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).  Notice Hinds’ reasoning on this point: “If John [the baptizer] poured water upon the people because the Spirit was poured upon the apostles, then for the same reason John filled the people with water; for they were filled with the Spirit.”[xxxvii]  This absurdity  shows that we must not identify pouring as the baptism promised by John and Jesus.

What is the meaning of these facts?  Since the “pouring out” of the Spirit is not strictly compared with baptism in water, one cannot cite the pouring out of the Spirit to prove the acceptability of either sprinkling or pouring.  Instead, the meaning of baptizo, that we have examined from many different angles, stands firm.  It simply means to dip, to immerse, to sink, to plunge, or to overwhelm—in water or in the Spirit.


[i] Mackay asserts: “Coming to the New Testament, we find in like manner, the Spirit of God always represented as descending upon the person, but never the person as dipped or immersed into the Spirit” (Water Baptism: The Doctrine of the Mode, p. 45).  As we shall see, the Sprit indeed is “poured out” and does “fall” on people, but the result is that people are “immersed” or “overwhelmed” in the Spirit.

[ii] M.J. Brunk, “The Greek Word Baptidzo in Relation to the Mode of Christian Baptism,” appended to E.J. Berkey’s The Bible Mode of Baptism, p. 18.

[iii] Paul Landis, The Meaning and Mode of Water Baptism (Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff Publishers, Inc., n.d.), p. 8.  Lutheran writer John E. Whitteker likewise states: “If our Baptism with the Holy Ghost means a pouring out, a shedding forth, a sprinkling, then, if language means anything, or there is any such thing as analogy, the one consistent mode for our Baptism with water is the pouring out, the shedding forth, the sprinkling of water upon us” (Baptism, p. 98).

[iv] Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 868.  Liddell and Scott (Greek-English Lexicon, Abridged Edition, p. 213) also say that ekcheo means “to pour out.”

[v] The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 132.

[vi] E.H. Plumptre, in Ellicot’s Commentary on the New Testament, note on Matthew 3:11; quoted by Burrage, The Act of Baptism, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Taken from an exposition by Paul Yoder entitled, “’Pour Out’ and The Rules of Grammar.”

[viii] S.E. Anderson comments: “In the Greek of Matthew 3, the preposition en is used 9 times.  The KJV has translated it ‘in’ six times and ‘within’ once—all correctly.  But only in connection with baptism does the KJV fudge or hedge, for in Matthew 3:11 ‘with’ is used deceitfully.  Their anti-immersion prejudice is showing!  The tragedy is that the phrase ‘baptized with water’ seems to justify about 800,000,000 people into KJV’s anti-immersion bias, the hundreds of millions of people depend on such counterfeit ‘baptism’ as sprinkling for their salvation” (Baptized [Immersed] Into One Body [Texarkana: Bogard Press, 1974], p. 8).  In another place, Anderson notes: “The KJV uses ‘with’ the Holy Spirit and baptized ‘with’ water.  But in Matthew 3:6 and Mark 1:5 the KJV had to say ‘baptized IN the Jordan River’ for they could not have John baptize with the Jordan!” (p. 7).

[ix] Word Pictures of the New Testament, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), pp. 254-255.  “In these texts, en is to be taken, not instrumentally, but as indicating the element in which the immersion takes place” (Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 935).  Meyer’s commentary on Matthew 3:11 states: “En is in accordance with the meaning of baptizo (immerse), not to be understood instrumentally, but on the contrary, in the sense of the element in which the immersion takes place” (quoted by Strong, Ibid.).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1987), p. 445, n. 21.

[xii] Henry M. Morris III, Baptism: How Important Is It?, p. 85.

[xiii] C.E.W. Dorris, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 21.

[xiv] Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark, p. 24.

[xv] Ezra P. Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), p. 9.

[xvi] Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), pp. 94-95.

[xvii] “Some would ask, were they baptized in the Spirit?  They were overwhelmed with [Him].  It does not mean a little of the Holy Spirit was poured out, or sprinkled, on one spot of the person.  The expressions, the baptism of the Spirit, the pouring out of the Spirit, the shedding forth of the Spirit, are figurative expressions.  The Spirit is a person of the Godhead, and we cannot pour out the person of the Godhead as a liquid from one vessel to another.  It indicates the person is brought completely under the influence and control of the Spirit of God, or that the Spirit is sent from heaven to control and guide man” (Dorris, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 21).

[xviii] Gould, Mark, p. 9.

[xix] “The Lord’s Command to Baptize,” p. 504.

[xx] The Bible on Baptism, p. 176.

[xxi] E.J. Berkey, The Bible Mode of Baptism, p. 6.

[xxii] See our earlier discussion on the metaphorical uses of baptizo for a discussion on this text.

[xxiii] H. Leo Boles, The Gospel According to Matthew (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1976), p. 84.

[xxiv] R.E.O White, The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation, p. 312, n. 3.

[xxv] The NIV Study Bible says: “Baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire: the water baptism of John will be followed by an ‘immersion’ of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment.”

[xxvi] The Random House College Dictionary.  Briney explains further: “In a legitimate metaphor there is a correspondence between the literal meaning of a word and that which it is metaphorically used to represent, either in fact, or in the mind of the one who so uses it.  It hence follows that the very first requisite to a correct interpretation of a metaphor is a knowledge of the literal meaning of its words” (The Form of Baptism, p. 70).

[xxvii] Briney, The Form of Baptism, p. 71.

[xxviii] A.T. Robertson, Baptism as held by Baptists, pp. 7ff; quoted by B.F. Smith, Christian Baptism, p. 21.

[xxix] The Form of Baptism, p. 72.

[xxx] Ibid., pp. 74-75.

[xxxi] Ibid., p. 75.

[xxxii] Virgil Warren, What the Bible Says about Salvation, p. 369.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Instruction VIII, On the Holy Spirit, II.14; quoted by Conant, The Meaning and Use of Baptizein, pp. 125-126.

[xxxv] Virgil Warren, What the Bible Says about Salvation, p. 370.[xxxvi] F. B. Srygley notes: “The pouring was not the baptism but it was preparatory to it.  It was the spirits of the apostles that were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and not their bodies.  If, then, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, their spirits must have been completely submerged in the Holy Spirit, and therefore baptism is a covering up, or a burial, and not sprinkling or pouring” (Did John the Baptist Sprinkle?, p. 17).

[xxxvii] John T. Hinds, Fire, Water or Holy Spirit . . . Which? (Austin: Firm Foundation Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 18.  Hinds goes on to remark: “This is no more absurd than the pouring argument.  They are both exactly alike, and must both be rejected because unreasonable and ridiculous.” 


Richard Hollerman





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