The Meaning of Baptism
Why does the church baptize people? The simple answer is because Jesus instructed his disciples to baptize people as well as teaching them to do all that he had taught. (Matt 28:19-20)
In baptism an individual is brought into the orbit of God’s reconciling love through the saving power of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, and becomes a member of the worldwide church.
J.I. Packer began his teaching about baptism by describing it as a sign from God that signifies inward cleansing and remission of sins. To put this in plain English, baptism signifies being for- given and cleansed of those attitudes and actions that separate us from God. However baptism is not a ritual that guarantees forgiveness and cleansing on its own as if it were magic. We read in the New Testament that baptism is a ceremonial washing that always goes hand in hand with faith in Jesus Christ or “calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11).
Baptism is also a sign of new birth. When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, a religious leader in Jerusalem, he described our human need to be born again spiritually. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5) We are all born a first time when we enter the world of parents and family and home life. In ideal circumstances a young infant is nurtured by the love and care of parents. Our identity forms as we identify with those closest to us and our environment, and our identity is given shape by our language and society’s values. When Jesus spoke of being born of “water and spirit” he was describing a second kind of birth; this time being born into a
relationship with God, in which we are nourished by the Spirit of God and shaped by our identification with Jesus Christ within the community of the church.
Baptism means all these things only because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God the Father sent God the Son to reconcile us to himself by dying on our behalf and overcoming death through his resurrection. When a person is baptized into union with Christ it is always on the basis of God’s goodness, love and kindness. We don’t do anything to deserve baptism. As the messy, prone to break things, human beings that we are, we are reconciled and brought into relationship with God as a result of the grace and forgiveness God extends to us through Jesus, not through our own moral effort. The New Testament makes this abundantly clear in Titus 3:5, “God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Having said this, baptism gives a certain moral shape to our character. When he wrote to the Christian church in Rome the Apostle Paul reminded them that their baptism was to have an impact on the way they lived their lives. He wrote, “Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? 3 Or have you forgot- ten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death?” (Romans 6:3). When someone is fast asleep on the couch and un- aware of what is going on around them we might say, “He won’t hear you; he’s dead to the world”. In the same way those who have been baptized are to practice being “dead” to sin, in other words not participate in activities that are hostile to God’s ways. In the light of Christ’s death and resurrection baptism becomes a powerful symbol of our own dying and rising with Jesus. Through faith in Christ, baptism is the doorway to a new way of life – living as though we are dead to sin and alive to God.
This means there is a positive side to baptismal lifestyle as well. Baptismal lifestyle is not a simple matter of not doing “the wrong things”. As God’s own we are invited to act in ways that are life- giving. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” wrote Paul to the Christian community
in Colossae. (Col 3:12) In some churches those who have been baptised put on white baptism gowns to represent the new way of life, guided and governed by Christ, which they are entering into. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal 3:27)
Thomas Oden describes the ongoing significance of baptism throughout our lives with these words:
“The Christian life is best described as daily renewal of one’s baptism, the sinner may every day once again return to his baptism for comfort, for it has been given as a durable sign that God is gracious to sinners.”
The Practice of Baptism
The word, baptism comes from the Greek verb baptizo meaning to immerse. While churches have different customs, Jesus’ instruction to baptize can be fulfilled by either immersing or dipping the per- son in water or by pouring/sprinkling water over them. Baptism is valid if water is used and the person is baptized in the name of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19)
A person may only be baptized once in their lifetime and the baptism is valid even if the person being baptized is secretly insincere. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Simon Magus, a man who was baptized but found to be hypocritical (Acts 8:13-24). Even if Simon had later come to a genuine, saving faith he would not have been baptized again.
Baptism is sometimes referred to as christening. The term christening is not found in the Bible but it is a way of acknowledging that the baptized person receives a new identity as a consequence of being “in Christ”. Generally speaking the term baptism is to be preferred over the term christening because baptism directly refers to the practice that Jesus commanded his disciples to do.
Some Christian traditions believe that only adults should be baptized while others believe that the children of believers may also be baptized. Historically the church has practiced both kinds and both Catholic and Reformed traditions (of which we are part) welcome both adults and infants. Infant baptism is occasionally supported with reference to Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come to me.” (Matt 19:14) This is not a good argument because Jesus was not discussing the baptism of infants. The strongest case for baptizing infants is found elsewhere in the New Testament. When the Apostle Peter called on his hearers to repent and be baptized he included the words, “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:39) Those churches whose baptismal practice is most shaped by Augustine’s teaching on original sin have emphasized the importance of infants being baptized so they may enjoy the benefits of baptismal regeneration. The Reformed tradition (including Anglican and Presbyterian) has emphasized baptism as en- trance into the new covenant community, of which children are an integral part. (1 Cor 7:14)
Churches that practice believer’s baptism do so from the conviction that a baptism should involve a personal confession of faith. Children who grow up in “believer’s baptism” churches are often dedicated during infancy as a way of acknowledging their place in the Christian community. On the other hand churches that baptize children later offer opportunities for young adults to explore and decide for themselves whether (or not) they will make a mature confirmation of their baptismal faith; a step usually made at a public worship service.
Whether a child is baptized or dedicated, in practice such children are raised in the Christian faith through being part of a worshiping community, learning to pray and discovering the stories of scripture until such time as they choose to make a confirmation of faith.
As a church we seek to be sensitive to a variety of viewpoints. We welcome both young and old to be baptized into the covenant community of the church. The New Testament is silent on many of the details later Christians have disagreed about so we endeavour to cultivate respect towards those of different opinions and practices.
I am often asked if baptized people need god- parents. It can be a good practice to have either god-parents or sponsors. In the early church candidates were instructed and then presented for baptism by their sponsor. The sponsor was a trusted person who was already part of the church and committed to journeying alongside the “new” Christian as a spiritual companion. As the western world became Christianized the term sponsor was changed to god-parent though in principle the role remained the same. There have been some historically terrible examples of god-parents, the most memorable being Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone in The God Father! It’s best if a god-parent or sponsor doesn’t exhibit the split personality of a Mafia Boss but a god-parent doesn’t need to be a super-Christian. A sponsor or god-parent should be spiritually mature, with a realistic and compassion- ate outlook and be prepared to follow up their promises with sensitive, Christian wisdom and timely support throughout the baptized person’s formative years.
Anyone considering baptism, either personally or for children, should take time to think and talk about baptism before making a decision. There is, of course, more to baptism and the life it begins than can be covered in these few pages. Baptismal spirituality is a life-long journey.
It’s my hope that we can warmly assist you to make an informed decision that unfolds into a fruitful spiritual life, grounded in the presence of God, the love of Christ, and the indwelling Holy Spirit.