BAPTISM: ITS MEANING AND MODE

Smyrna First United Methodist Church

 

What Is Baptism

What is behind the meaning of the ceremony of baptism? Perhaps you have never had a chance to study the meaning of baptism at all. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the church universal. United Methodists agree with most Christian denominations that baptism is a sacrament given to the church by Jesus Christ. "A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ." The sacraments are in a sense the Word of God made visible. Karl Barth called them "eventful witnesses to the truth of the gospel."

 

Christ has appointed material things—water, bread, and wine—not only to represent spiritual truths, but also to seal and apply those truths to the believers. The visible sign in baptism is the washing with water, which signifies our cleansing, our regeneration, our being made new by the work of Christ. The sealing is the work of the Holy Spirit in the person, wherein one is stamped as God's child. Baptism is done in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

At Smyrna First a baptismal font is placed on the floor level, close to the pulpit. Persons to be baptized stand near the font for the service of baptism. When an infant is baptized, the pastors and the family gather at the font. At a given time in the worship service a pastor will take the baby in his/her arms during the act of baptism. For the sake of order, a clergy member always administers baptism. Normally the sacrament is administered in the presence of the congregation as part of the corporate worship.

 

The Form of Baptism

There are two forms or modes of baptism: immersion and sprinkling or pouring. Each of these forms seems to have good spiritual backing and is deeply meaningful to millions. Sprinkling is the form of baptism, which has been practiced by the vast majority of Christians down through the centuries. For United Methodists, sprinkling or pouring, symbolizes our cleansing from sin. It roots in certain biblical expressions, such as Ezekiel 36:25, 27, "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean…And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes." (See also Isaiah 44:3-5; Joel 2:28-29; and especially Acts 2:1-4, 14-18, and 37-39.) Just as Jesus, at his baptism was anointed by the Holy Spirit, so are we at ours. This is what the poured or sprinkled water symbolizes.

 

United Methodists also recognize the validity of another form of baptism, namely immersion. The symbolism of immersion, based largely on Romans, chapter 6, is that of dying with Christ to sin and rising with him to a renewed life. Immersion is a biblical form of baptism, and we accept into our membership, without requiring our form of baptism, anyone who has been immersed and who continues to adhere to his/her baptismal faith.

 

In this ecumenical era, normally we accept as permanently valid the baptism of any person baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although some United Methodist ministers today will baptize by immersion upon request, most United Methodist ministers will baptize by sprinkling or pouring, as that is the recognized form. Both forms have good spiritual footage, and both forms were practiced in the life of the early church.

 

Infant Baptism

In company with most of the major denominations of the world, United Methodists baptize the infants of believing members. Our reason is theological. We baptize infants because the covenant of God with his people made first Abraham, renewed at various times, and brought to fruition in Jesus Christ, also include the New Israel, the new people of God, and the church. In the Old Testament, it is clear that the children were considered to be heirs of the promise, a part of the covenant people of God (Genesis 12:1-2, 17:7). On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him" (Acts 2:38-39).

 

Traditionally, baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision, just as the Lord's Supper is the New Testament equivalent of the Passover. When parents present a baby for baptism, they do so because they believe they already belong to God by virtue of God’s covenanted mercies. We believe that the visible church is composed of believers and their children.

 

It is impossible to prove or disprove the validity of infant baptism. But, United Methodists have long believed there are some strong arguments in its favor. In the New Testament the several references to household baptism would seem to indicate that infants were baptized, for normally there are infants in households. (See 1 Corinthians 1:16; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Acts 16:33; and Acts 18:8.)

 

Further, in the time of Christ, when proselytes were received into the people of Israel, they were baptized along with their children. Again, some of the sects described in the Dead Sea Scrolls apparently baptized infants.

 

One of the strongest reasons for infant baptism may be inferred from the account of Jesus’ blessing little children, "nestling them in the crook of his arm," and saying that of such is the Kingdom of heaven. This leads some to believe that these little ones already belong to Jesus and therefore should be baptized as a symbol of their membership in the family of God.

 

Historical tradition also supports infant baptism. At his martyrdom Polycarp said, "Eighty and six years I have been his slave." Polycarp was born around A.D. 70, before the latest books of the New Testament were written, leading some to clearly suggest that he was baptized in infancy. Many of the church fathers can be quoted concerning the accepted custom of infant baptism as well.

 

The teaching of modern psychology about the significance of the first few years of life reinforces the concept of infant baptism. Many scholars believe that a child's basic attitude to the universe is formed in his first year of life. By the time he is a year old a child has learned either to trust or to distrust life. The child learns love, acceptance, and order long before he goes to school, or he has a difficult though not impossible time ever learning them.

 

Horace Bushnell wrote in 1847, "…the child is to grow up a Christian, and never know himself as being otherwise." He meant that the child of believing parents should so grow up in Christ. His concept grew out of the doctrines of the covenant, and of infant baptism. It is enormously important to treat our children from the beginning as members of Christ's body.

 

At the baptism of an infant, there are four parties involved, (1) the infant, tiny helpless, a person to become; (2) the parents, who take upon themselves, after reaffirming their Christian faith, the vow to bring up their child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; (3) the congregation, which symbolically stands with the parents and joins them in their vow—the congregation is godparent; and (4) God.

 

If God were not actively present in his Spirit, it would all be mere symbolism, beautiful but not potent. But we believe God is present, confirming his promise. At baptism we claim and believingly receive the covenant promise of God. The child is baptized because of the covenantal promise and grace of God, grasped by his parents in faith and responded to in the obedience of the Christian nurture they pledge to give their child. Infant baptism is therefore not merely an act of dedication; it is also the claiming of God's covenant promise. The baby's church membership is affirmed.

 

It is expected that at the proper age, normally somewhere between twelve and fifteen, the child will confirm for himself (accept Jesus Christ as his/her personal Savior) the vows of faith made for him/her by his parents. He/she also accepts for himself/herself the call of Christ to be his disciple; and, upon attending a confirmation class, he/she becomes a member of the church.

 

The question is often asked, if faith is requisite for baptism, why should we baptize infants who are obviously incapable of faith? This question ignores the profound truth that the most significant aspect of baptism is not the believer's faith, but God's "prevenient (prior) grace". We have to accept the adult's word that he believes; in the case of an infant, we accept the promise of the parents and their renewal of faith. We do this in full expectation that the parents will engage in Christian nurture, that the child at the proper time will make his own profession of faith, and that God will honor his promise of the covenant. Apparently both with adults and with children, sometimes there is failure. While faith is essential for adult baptism, the fundamental aspect of all baptism is the call of God. Even our faith is a gift of God.

 

Our baptism depends not upon our own faithfulness, but upon the faithfulness of God. It is God's action which creates all human response to Him; no date can ever be set for the beginnings of a response. No one can say when or where the regenerating grace of God may take hold of a person and make of him/her a new creation. John Calvin thought it could occur even in the womb!

 

The fundamental point here is that it is not primarily what we say or do in baptism that matters. What matters is what the Spirit of the Sovereign God does. As United Methodists we believe God may and does act to place His stamp of loving approval upon our infants. We baptize our infants because we believe they, with us, are heirs of the promise of the covenant of grace.

 

What Happens At Baptism

Baptism is a sacrament, herein the washing with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our engrafting into Christ. To be baptized is to be received into the house of God. To be in grafted into Christ is to be placed in his body, the church. We need to enter the church but once; when we are incorporated in Christ's church, we belong to it permanently; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we grow into it quite naturally.

 

United Methodists believe that baptism is essential to salvation as an act of discipleship, but we do not believe that we are saved by baptism. We believe that the normal mode of entrance into the church is by baptism, but we recognize that not all genuine believers have been baptized. The baptized person is, to be sure, God's child, as is that one, who publicly professes his faith in Christ, even though he has not become a member of a church through baptism.  God counts us as His; He accepts us as his; in fact we are His. This is the basic meaning of "partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace." God honors His promises which we claim at baptism. These promises boil down to one: I will be your God. Our God is one who saves his people. Baptism symbolizes the receiving of God's gracious love.

 

From time immemorial, water has been used for cleansing. Naturally, in the religious realm the water of baptism came to be used as a symbol of cleansing, of purification. The whole man is purified for life by the redeeming work of Christ. The water poured on our head does not cleanse us, but Christ in his death for us on the cross cleansed us from our sin. The sign of water points to cleansing; the reality is that we are truly made clean by the mighty act of God in Christ, specifically by the power of the blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit applies to us the work of Christ.

 

In baptism we receive the fulfilled promise of the Holy Spirit, to make us a new creation in Christ. Something happens in baptism; it is not mere play-acting. Sacraments are not mere signs; they partake of the reality of that to which the sign points. Baptism does not make a person new. Baptism is not a bit of magic performed by a minister. It does more than point to the reality of God's saving power and merciful love. When a believing person confesses his faith in Christ and is baptized, God honors his confession and receives him into the church.

 

The moment of baptism is not necessarily the actual moment when this occurs. "The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time when one becomes 'a member of Christ.' The Holy Spirit gives us the grace of God in Christ." The baptismal water is a symbol of our cleansing. The sacraments are not only expressive of truth; they are also effective in making that truth a living reality. "By the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost."

 

It is said that Martin Luther, in his hours of deepest discouragement, in those dark times when he wondered if he were saved, and if life had any real meaning, would recall to himself one renewing fact, baptizatus sum, "I have been baptized." For Luther, and for all believing members of Christ, that is enough.

 

By baptism one testifies to the world that he/she belongs to Christ. In that baptism that person has marked himself/herself as God’s own. We shall have our rough days; the storms of life will beat upon us; temptations will assail us; and sometimes we will fall, but ever and always, we have been baptized — we are Christ's. It is, indeed, entered into in deep faith and loyal commitment. By being baptized in Christ, we become part of his body, wherein we are to serve Him loyally.

 

*Adapted from an article by Harry G. Goodykoontz