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Of Dipping


by Dr John Owen

Dr Owen was a renowned Puritan minister of the Independent (Congregational) persuasion, whose profound and edifying works are published by The Banner of Truth Trust. C. H. Spurgeon in the 19th century said of John Owen, “It is unnecessary to say that he is the prince of divines. To master his works is to be a profound theologian.” He was born in 1616, in Stadham, Oxfordshire, England, and he died 1683 in London.


Baptw [bap’-to], used in these scriptures, Luke xvi. 24, John xiii. 26, Rev. xix. 13, we translate “to dip.” It is only “to touch one part of the body.” That of Rev. xix. 13 is better rendered, “stained by sprinkling.”


In other authors it is “tingo, immergo, lavo,” or “abluo;” but in no other author ever signifies “to dip,” but only in order to washing, or as the means of washing. It is nowhere used with respect unto the ordinance of baptism.


The Hebrew word, [taw-bal'], is rendered by the LXX, Gen. xxxvii. 31, by molunw [mol-oo’-no], “to stain by sprinkling” or otherwise; mostly by baptw. 2 Kings v. 14 they render it by baptizw [bap-tid’-zo], and nowhere else. In verse 10, Elisha commands Naaman “to wash;” therefore that in verse 14 is that “he washed.” Exod. xii. 22 is, to put of the hyssop into blood, to sprinkle it; 1 Sam. xiv. 27, is to take a little honey with the top of a rod. In neither place can dipping or plunging be intended. Lev. iv. 6, 17, ix. 9, and in other places, it is only to touch the blood, so as to sprinkle it.


Baptizw signifies “to wash,” and instances out of all authors may be given, – Suidas, Hesychius, Julius Pollux, Phavorinus, and Eustathius.


It is first used in the Scripture, Mark i. 8, John i. 33, and to the same purpose, Acts i. 5. In every place it either signifies “to pour,” or the expression is equivocal. “I baptize you with water, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost;” which is the accomplishment of that promise, that the Holy Ghost should be poured on them.


For the other places, Mark vii. 3, 4, niptw [nip’-to] and baptizw are plainly the same, both “to wash.” Luke xi. 38 is the same with Mark vii. 3. No one instance can be given in the Scripture wherein baptizw doth necessarily signify either “to dip” or “plunge.”


Baptizw may be considered either as to its original, natural sense, or as to its mystical use in the ordinance.


This distinction must be observed concerning many other words in the New Testament, as ekklhsia [ek-klay-see’-ah], ceirotonia [khi-rot-on-ee’-ah], and others, which have a peculiar sense in their mystical use.


In this sense, as it expresseth baptism, it denotes “to wash” only, and not “to dip” at all: for so it is expounded, Tit. iii. 5; Eph. v. 26; Heb. x. 22; 1 Pet. iii. 21. And it signifies that communication of the Spirit which is expressed by “pouring out” and “sprinkling,” Ezek. xxxvi. 25, and expresseth our being washed in the blood of Christ, Tit. ii. 14; Heb. ix. 14, 19, 23.


Wherefore, in this sense, as the word is applied unto the ordinance, the sense of dipping is utterly excluded. And though as a mere external mode it may be used, provided the person dipped be naked, yet to urge it as necessary overthrows the nature of the sacrament.


For the original and natural signification of it, it signifies “to dip, to plunge, to dye, to wash, to cleanse.”


But I say, – 1. It doth not signify properly “to dip” or “plunge,” for that in Greek is embaptw [em-bap’-to] and embaptizw.  2. It nowhere signifies “to dip,” but as a mode of and in order to washing.  3. It signifies the “dipping” of a finger, or the least touch of the water, and not plunging the whole.  4. It signifies “to wash,” also, in all good authors.


I have not all those quoted to the contrary. In the quotations of them whom I have, if it be intended that they say it signifies “to dip,” and not “to wash” or “to dip” only, there is neither truth not honesty in them by whom they are quoted.


Scapula is one, a common book, and he gives it the sense of “lavo, abluo,” “to wash,” and “wash away.”


Stephanus is another, and he expressly, in sundry places, assigns “lavo” and “abluo” to be also the sense of it.


Aquinas is for dipping of children, provided it be done three times, in honour of the Trinity; but he maintains pouring or sprinkling to be lawful also, affirming that Laurentius, who lived about the time 250, so practised. But he meddles not with the sense of the word, as being too wise to speak of that which he understood not; for he knew no Greek.


In Suidas, the great treasury of the Greek tongue, it is rendered by “madefacio, lavo, abluo, purgo, mundo.”


The places in the other authors being not quoted, I cannot give an account of what they say. I have searched some of them in every place wherein they mention baptism, and find no one word to the purpose. I must say, and will make it good, that no honest man who understands the Greek tongue can deny the word to signify “to wash,” as well as “to dip.”


It must not be denied but that in the primitive times they did use to baptize both grown persons and children oftentimes by dipping, but they affirmed it necessary to dip them stark naked, and that three times; but not one ever denied pouring water to be lawful.


The apostle, Rom. vi. 3-5, is dehorting from sin, exhorting to holiness and new obedience, and gives this argument from the necessity of it and our ability for it, – both taken from our initiation into the virtue of the death and life of Christ, expressed in our baptism, – that by virtue of the death and burial of Christ we should be dead unto sin, sin being slain thereby, and by virtue of the resurrection of Christ we should be quickened unto newness of life; as Peter declares, 1 Pet. iii. 21. Our being “buried with him,” and our being “planted together in the likeness of his death” and “in the likeness of his resurrection,” Rom. vi. 4, 5, is the same with “our old man being crucified with him,” and the “destroying of the body of sin,” verse 6, and our being raised from the dead with him; which is all that is intended in the place.


There is not one word nor one expression that mentions any resemblance between dipping under water and the death and burial of Christ, nor one word that mentions a resemblance between our rising out of the water and the resurrection of Christ. Our being “buried with him by baptism into death,” verse 4, is our being “planted together in the likeness of his death,” verse 5. Our being “planted together in the likeness of his death” is not our being dipped under water, but “the crucifying of the old man,” verse 6. Our being “raised up with Christ from the dead” is not our rising from under the water, but our “walking in newness of life,” verse 4, by virtue of the resurrection of Christ, 1 Pet. iii. 21.


That baptism is not a sign of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, is clear from hence, because an instituted sign is a sign of gospel grace participated, or to be participated. If dipping be a sign of the burial of Christ, it is not a sign of a gospel grace participated; for it may be where there is none, nor any exhibited.


For the major: If all gospel ordinances are signs and expressions of the communication of the grace of Christ, then baptism is so; but this is the end of all gospel ordinances, or else they have some other end, or are vain and empty shows.


The same individual sign cannot be instituted to signify things of several natures; but the outward burial of Christ, and a participation of the virtue of Christ’s death and burial, are things of a diverse nature, and therefore are not signified by one sign.


That interpretation which would enervate the apostle’s argument and design, our comfort and duty, is not to be admitted; but this interpretation, that baptism is mentioned here as the sign of Christ’s burial, would enervate the apostle’s argument and design, our comfort and duty: and therefore it is not to be admitted.


The minor is thus proved: The argument and design of the apostle, as was before declared, is to exhort and encourage unto mortification of sin and new obedience, by virtue of power received from the death and life of Christ, whereof a pledge is given us in our baptism. But this is taken away by this interpretation; for we may be so buried with Christ and planted into the death of Christ by dipping, and yet have no power derived from Christ for the crucifying of sin and for the quickening of us to obedience.



The Works of John Owen, Vol. 16, Banner of Truth 1991. pp 266-268.