Martin Luther on the Meaning of Baptizo


Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of the luminaries of the Reformation Movement.  While he was mistaken about some things in his pursuit to reform the Catholic Church, he was correct on several particulars. 

One particular that some may not realize was that Martin Luther did not hold the view that baptism was merely a washing that could be completed either by sprinkling, pouring or immersing.  He recognized that the Greek word baptizo was specific to the action of immersing to the exclusion of the other two modes.  There were other Greek words for sprinkling (rhantizo) and pouring (cheo), but these never applied to Christian baptism.

In a 1520 treatise entitled “A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” Martin Luther made the following observation about the meaning of the Anglicized word “baptism” in a section entitled “The Sacrament of Baptism”.  He wrote:

The second part of baptism is the sign, or sacrament, which is that immersion into water whence also it derives its name; for the Greek baptizo means I immerse, and baptisma means immersion.


— Martin Luther, “A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Lane Hall, Works of Martin Luther with Introductions & Notes, Philadelphia, PA:  A. J. Company, 1915,  pp. 226-227)

If one examines the history behind King James and the translation he commissioned, they will learn that the king restricted certain words from being translated.  Keep in mind one of the goals of the King James Version was to build a universal translation to harmonize the feuding religious factions in Great Britain in the various versions they used in their day; e.g., Geneva Bible, Bishop’s Bible, Miles Coverdale Bible and Matthews Bible.  Among these “hot-button” words included the Greek word baptizo.  King James insisted that this word was to be transliterated from the Latin Vulgate and Anglicized into English as “baptize”, not translated.  This may have increased the acceptance of the King James Version in that time period; however, the lack of foresight in this action has perpetuated one of the more glaring religious errors—that we can pick and choose what mode we use when we “baptize”—sprinkle, pour or immerse.  Baptism is a burial, and only one mode clearly matches that picture—immersion, not sprinkling or pouring (Romans 6:1-6).