The Mystery of Baptism

October 13th, 2011
This article is featured in the Rites of Passage (Nov/Dec/Jan 2011-12) issue of Circuit Rider

Baptism is the rite to celebrate the beginning of life, whether it is a brand new life in the world through birth, or a brand new life in Christ through conversion. Baptism is one of the two rites, or sacraments, that Jesus instituted for the church to follow and use, and as such, it has been a part of the Christian way of life for nearly two thousand years. It is also a grand celebration of God’s grace working in a person’s life, and as such, it is a joyous time of celebration in the life of the person and the life of the community of faith.

Even though baptism has been with us from the beginning of the church, and even though baptism can be a joyous occasion, anyone who has lived or served a congregation in an area that is theologically dominated by “believer’s only baptism” knows it can also be the source of disagreements and hard feelings. This is because The United Methodist Church sees believer’s baptism and infant baptism as equally valid. Our official statement on baptism, By Water and the Spirit, states

The United Methodist Church does not accept either the idea that only a believer’s baptism is valid or the notion that the baptism of infants magically imparts salvation apart from active personal faith. Pastors are instructed by the Book of Discipline to explain our teaching clearly on these matters, so that parent(s) or sponsors might be free of misunderstandings.

If it were only that simple! It is difficult to “explain our teaching clearly” when so many people have different preconceived notions of what baptism is. It is also difficult because our own understanding of baptism pulls us in two different directions. United Methodists try to hold “the Wesleyan blend of sacramental and evangelical aspects” of baptism, which is a difficult balancing act.

The sacramental aspect of baptism recognizes that, in the act of baptism, the sacrament is the outward sign of that inward grace cleansing and renewing the person; sin is washed away and the person baptized undergoes a new birth. This is as true of an infant as of a believer. The baptism is the same. In fact, Article XVII—Of Baptism in our Articles of Religion succinctly states

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.

The evangelical aspect of baptism recognizes that, in the act of baptism, there is a necessary component of faith, of the person accepting and appropriating the grace of God offered for himself or herself. It is because of this aspect that United Methodists strongly encourage the rite of confirmation (and the fact that we have two categories of membership: baptized and professing). In fact, Article VI—The Sacraments in our Confession of Faith states:

We believe children are under the atonement of Christ and as heirs of the Kingdom of God are acceptable subjects for Christian Baptism. Children of believing parents through Baptism become the special responsibility of the Church. They should be nurtured and led to personal acceptance of Christ, and by profession of faith confirm their Baptism.

What gets confusing is how these two understandings, that infant baptism is sufficient and that infant baptism ought to be followed by confirmation, are explained in By Water and the Spirit. Trying to hold the sacramental and evangelical aspects together, the document states

The baptizing of a person, whether as an infant or an adult, is a sign of God’s saving grace. That grace—experienced by us as initiating, enabling, and empowering—is the same for all persons.

Through the Church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign.

These two statements show that the baptism of adults and infants is equal in every way, that God’s grace is at work in each life, and that each person is now a member of the Church. The document continues

God’s gift of grace in the baptismal covenant does not save us apart from our human response of faith.

After baptism . . . a crucial goal is the bringing of persons to recognition of their need for salvation and their acceptance of God’s gift in Jesus Christ. Those experiencing conversion and commitment to Christ are to profess their faith in a public ritual.

These two statements show that there is a difference between infant baptism and adult baptism, as the infant did not make the profession of faith herself or himself. The document then tries to smooth over the differences by stating, “A misunderstanding developed of confirmation as completing baptism, with emphasis upon human vows and initiation into church membership.” But then it follows this with two more statements that show this “misunderstanding” is still present in our baptismal understanding.

No separate ritual of confirmation is needed for the believing person.

The profession of Christian faith, to be celebrated in the midst of the worshiping congregation, should include the voicing of baptismal vows as a witness to faith and the opportunity to give testimony to personal Christian experience.

If confirmation is not necessary for an adult because the baptismal ritual is the profession of faith, and if confirmation re-does the baptismal vows as the profession of faith, then it would seem that confirmation does indeed complete baptism.

Of course, we United Methodists come by this confusion about baptism honestly. John Wesley himself gave mixed messages concerning infant baptism, stating that people had to have a profession of faith (be born again) whether or not they had been baptized, but then did not create a service for confirmation for the new Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1784.

It is no wonder, then, that we can have problems when we try to “explain our teaching clearly” to parents who do not understand infant baptism because they were raised in a culture that frowned upon it. Ought infants be baptized? Yes. Are they saved? Not necessarily. Will they go to hell if they are not baptized? No. Are they incorporated into the Body of Christ? Yes. Do they still have to make a profession of faith that includes the baptismal liturgy? Yes. Then are they Christians before they make that public profession? Yes. Then are they saved? Not necessarily. So why should we have our baby baptized?

By trying to hold the sacramental and evangelical aspects of baptism together, we end up running around in circles trying to explain what does and does not happen in infant baptism. Rather than get embroiled in arguments and debates concerning the nature of baptism or who ought to be baptized or who ought not, or whether God is the primary mover or whether our response is necessary, we United Methodists ought to admit that baptism really is a mystery to us. Just as we cannot fully explain the Trinity or how God could become human while still being God, we do not know how the Spirit works within an individual. This is also a perfectly biblical statement to make. In the Greek New Testament, the word mysterion became the Latin sacramentum. Baptism (like the Lord’s Supper) truly is a mystery. We do not know why the actual new birth seems to coincide with baptism in some people, happen years later in others, or even comes before the sacrament in still others. We do not know how simple water, over which a prayer has been said, can convey God’s grace and cleansing power to a soul.

All we know is that for the last two thousand years we have seen God at work through the sacrament; and as Wesley wrote in his Treatise on Baptism, it “is the ordinary means God hath appointed for that purpose.” We know that God will give a child the freedom to make a free will choice to follow God or not, to profess faith or not. And we know “the evil powers of this world” will not give such a fair chance, if they can help it.

If we can keep the focus on the mystery of God’s acting in the lives of individuals, both infants and adults, then we can keep the joy at the forefront of every celebration of the baptismal covenant and avoid needless debate, for who, really, is to say how God can and cannot work in an individual? It is a mystery. Thanks be to God.

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