I’ve been sharing, in these posts on baptism, a way to get at the common question, “What does baptism do?” by way of two other questions that help us hear more faithfully what the New Testament actually has to say about baptism. Those two questions are:
1. What did they say? Or, what meanings are associated with baptism from the biblical writers?
2. What did they do? Or, what was their practice of baptism?
As for the first question, “What did they say?” the biblical writers say the following–not exclusively, but primarily that 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
And, we should add that Jesus’ unique baptism informs Christian baptism though it is not the same as Christian baptism. Jesus’ baptism underscores 2 important aspects, that baptism is a marker (1) of identity and (2) of vocation. Our identity is “child of God” and our vocation as Christians is service to God in his Kingdom mission.
As for the second question, we see that in the book of Acts, people were baptized more or less in two scenarios:
a. Upon making a personal faith decision for Christ
b. Belonging to a household in which the leader makes a personal faith decision for Christ
Two critical observations here. First, that baptism in scenario “a” (upon making a personal faith decision for Christ) follows believing chronologically, but is not presented as something performed by the person being baptized in order to witness to their profession of faith. This is an important point not to be missed if only to clarify what is really going on in a biblical understanding of Christian baptism, contrary to sermons and explanations I have heard by “conservative” churches who claim a more conservative view of the Bible and whose practice of baptism is restricted to persons making a profession of faith, or “adult believer’s baptism.” There may be avenues biblically to press the issue of a “adult believer’s baptism” exclusively versus inclusion of infants in baptismal practice, even though I land with the UMC and most churches on the side of including infants after endeavoring upon a careful reading the NT. However, I do not find support for “baptism as profession of faith on the part of the baptized one” in the New Testament. Profession of faith is a part of the ritual of baptism. But baptism itself is not a person’s profession of faith.
Second, that in scenario “b” (belonging to a household in which the leader makes a personal faith decision for Christ), it is most likely that persons were baptized without themselves making a profession of faith, or at the very least not one like the leader of the household was making. Also, it is quite reasonable to conclude that their were infants baptized in those households, and at the very least, we cannot rule out that infants were baptized in the household baptisms.
Let me go on to add that in the Great Commission in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus commands the disciples to make disciples of all nations by going to them, by baptizing them, and by teaching them everything he has commanded. The Great Commission once again emphasizes that baptism is an initiation into a particular sort of life. Further, Matthew does not presuppose a profession of personal faith at the time of baptism. He only supposes that baptism will initiate one and must be followed by teaching in the Way of Christ.
So, we return at last to the question that we started with: “What does baptism do?” Said differently, “What happens at baptism?”
1. God acts through the Church to mark our new identity and vocation in him. Baptism is God’s gift through the Church. Though there are many participants in the full rite of baptism (the baptized, parents and/or sponsors, congregation, pastor, etc.), God does the baptizing act. That is why we say that baptism is “God’s action through the Church.”
2. Grace, forgiveness, cleansing & restoration is proclaimed to all and received by the person being baptized. In any baptism, there is mystery as to how this “works.” We might nitpick about how much of this happens when one truly believes and gives themselves to God through Christ, prior to receiving the sacrament of baptism. But I think it best to think of it all as more of a unified event, even though it is separated by chronology to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the case. In the case of infants, the mystery is particularly acute. Perhaps we may see this as God’s claim upon that person that is completed by their own believing and submission to God through Christ–something that we United Methodists allow for in our practice of confirmation.
3. The person is initiated into the life of discipleship within the community of God’s people, the Church—therefore, baptism is referred to as the “Sacrament of Initiation.” Like our UMC understanding of Holy Communion, we believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the act of baptism, albeit in a holy mystery sort of way. The above 2 things that happen lean heavily on the holy mystery of Christ’s “real presence.” This third thing does too, but it is a little more earthy. Baptism is an initiation rite practiced by a community of faith. This can be said of it by an outsider who believes that nothing particularly mysterious or divine happens, as we do. But just the same, we should not miss the initiatory role of baptism and treat it with the utmost seriousness. This is a communal action, not a private one. It is intensely personal, but within a corporate context and not as an isolated individual.
Much more could be said here, of course, but I will stop with that three-fold answer to our overall guiding question. I do have a few more concluding thoughts on baptism, but they can be presented in one more epilogue-like post (OK, maybe two).