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.