some thoughts on baptism, part one

This is the first of several posts dealing with baptism. This post from my friend JD and the discussion it generated got me going on baptism (A follow-up post is here). Early in that conversation, I knew I wanted to write a series of posts on baptism here. But I also knew it would be a little while until I got to writing them. So, here’s the first one.

Baptism is a sacrament in the United Methodist Church, as it is in most, if not all, Christian churches. The Sacraments (for Methodists, Baptism and Holy Communion) are considered “means of grace”—meaning that they are ordinary ways of experiencing God’s grace and that in them God’s grace is available in a peculiar way.

John Wesley described the means of grace this way:

“I use this expression, means of grace, because I know none better; and because it has been generally used in the Christian Church for many ages—in particular by our own Church [of England], which directs us to bless God both for the means of grace and hope of glory; and teaches us, that a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.’” (from Wesley’s sermon, “The Means of Grace”)

A common question people often wonder and begin the discussion with is: “What happens at baptism?” or “What does baptism do?”

I’d like to suggest that a better question to ask first would be this: “What does baptism mean?” or, put another way, “What are we saying about God when someone is baptized?”

To answer this question, we look to the Bible for two things:
1. What did they say? In other words, what meanings are associated with baptism from the biblical writers?
2. What did they do? In other words, what was their practice of baptism?

I’ll offer my brief answer to those two questions in this post, then get more specific in subsequent posts. Incidentally, much understanding of baptism would improve dramatically if folks would read the United Methodist liturgy for baptism slowly and attentively. One benefit to being clergy is performing baptisms. Not only does one experience baptism from a different vantage point, but one also has a chance to read through the liturgy over and over again. This has helped me significantly in my thinking about baptism.

As to the first question, there are many meanings associated with baptism in the New Testament; I’ll try to gather most of them up into a smaller list, but I certainly do not claim to have captured them all here. The ritual act of baptism may be compared to a sermon because we are proclaiming something about God when we do it. So, when someone is baptized, we are saying that when God saves us, he…

a. Forgives & Cleanses Us of Sin
b. Raises Us to New Life with Christ
c. Unites Us with Others in Christ
d. Initiates Us into the Christian Life

As to the second question, the one about how they actually baptized converts, in the book of Acts, people were baptized in two scenarios…

a. Upon making a personal faith decision for oneself
b. Belonging to a household in which the leader makes a personal faith decision

As I said, I’ll expand on the answers to those two questions in upcoming posts.

For now, I’ll close by saying a little about what baptism is not. It is not the christening of an infant. As my current Sr. Pastor has said, “We do christen–name–the child, but there is more going on. We christen ships, but we baptize babies.”

Baptism is not a conveyor of prevenient grace, that is, grace that God gives us prior to our response of faith and obedience to him. It powerfully proclaims God’s prevenient grace, but it does not convey that grace. So, no one’s baby is in spiritual jeopardy if they have not been baptized. And, baptism is not a way of enacting our profession of faith, if we make that first-time profession in conjunction with the event of our baptism.

I look forward to future posts. This is something I get exciteed about.


UPDATE: Some thoughts on baptism: part two is here.

Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

4 thoughts on “some thoughts on baptism, part one

  1. Year before last I did a sermon series on worship. For my message on baptism I used the baptismal liturgy as my text, explaining each part – spoken and acted – in terms of its biblical and theological context.

    I find that I am increasingly heretical in this area as the UMC appears to be moving in a more sacramentalist direction. The catch phrase, “God is the one doing the action in baptism” seems trite and inaccurate. While this view makes it natural to see re-baptism as an insult to God (“God didn’t do it right the first time”), it faisl to pay sufficient regard to our own liturgy (let alone scripture). Surely God is one of the actors in baptism. But so is the pastor, the one baptized, the parents (if it’s a child) and the congregation.

    In JD’s post – and in some of the comments – the litmus test problem is mentioned. It’s really convenient to use as a litmus test since liberals and conservatives alike can hold to it. Since for all an outside observer can tell, it’s just another religious ritual, there’s no challenge to modern sensibilities. Who needs the Incarnation, the Resurrection, miracles, or the doctrine of the Trinity (which are so divisive!) when we can have infant baptism as the sine qua non of UM theology. So what if we have to toss a few folks like Bill Easum & Geoffrey Wainwright – it’s no big deal.

  2. When I say that God is the one doing the action, I mean that God is the one doing the baptizing through the church and that the baptized is receiving baptism. The differentiation is not ignorant of the fact that others do things in the ritual, but between baptism being something that God does (through the church, etc) versus baptism being what we do to tell God that we love him or as synonymous with professing our faith in Christ. Seems to me that we’re distinguishing ourselves within the context of other traditions.

    But I don’t find an emphasis on God as the actor (understood as the initiator and the one doing the baptizing through the church)to be trite or inaccurate according to Scripture or our liturgy.

    As for your second point about the “litmus test” dynamic, I am fine with having a standard for sacramental practice, especially regarding baptism in the UMC. But I wouldn’t want it to stop there. As I understand the Book of Discipline, we are to practice a “litmus test” on the doctrinal concerns that you list–they’re in our Doctrinal Standards, after all, and the Discpline lists teaching doctrines contrary to them as reason for dismissal as an elder in the church. The fact that we break our own rules on those issues in the way they are not applied as they should be does not suggest that we ought also to lay aside unity in our teaching and practice of baptism.

    We should, rather, get just as serious about the essential need for adhering to our core doctrine (the essentials, of course) as we are about our practice of baptism and our ordination of women.

  3. What seems trite to me is simply sayins “Baptism is something God does” and stopping there. You don’t do that. You don’t over simplify. Too many do.

  4. Fair enough, I can go with you on that–Thanks.

    I’m glad that you mentioned doing a sermon series on baptism. For the two years I was the lone pastor prior to coming here to be an associate, I also made a point to preach a sermon or a series on baptism or on communion on occasion. I liked the double benefit of using something that we’re doing to impress the truths that they proclaim and enact on the people’s lives and you enrich the practice of the sacraments since people have a better understanding of their meaning.

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