A little boy whose family went to a Baptist Church was very intrigued one day watching a baptism by immersion in the pool take place. As children sometimes do, he decided to try this at home. The next day he took the three family cats into the bathroom, ran water in the tub, and began baptizing them by immersion. The two kittens took it without much fussing, but the old cat wasn’t interested. Her claws were out and she writhed and kicked and slashed to get out of the boy’s hands and away from the water. After several tries, the boy gave up and said in disgust, “All right, if you want to be a Presbyterian that’s fine with me!”
Having talked about the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper last Sunday, I’m doing the same with the Sacrament of Baptism today. Next Sunday I will talk about the five other practices which are regarded as Sacraments in the Catholic Church but not the Presbyterian Church.
As with the Lord’s Supper, the practice of baptism has had an interesting and varied history in the Christian church and has been the cause of more than a few arguments, splits, and divisions. The problems have primarily concerned two questions: When should people be baptized, as infants or upon their profession of faith? And how, by sprinkling or by immersion. The deeper question is: What role does baptism play in salvation. An elder in my first congregation who grew up in the mountains told the story that when he chose to be baptized at the Presbyterian Church as a teenager and came home and announced it, his grandmother, who was a staunch Primitive Baptist, started crying and wailing that her grandson was going to hell. That’s how strongly people believe about this issue.
There are no simplistic answers to the baptism questions as far as I am concerned. There are good arguments for both ways of approaching it, and there are probably situations in which each is more appropriate. I am more concerned to emphasize the spirit and the meaning of baptism than I am to make sure that we practice baptism in exactly the same way that the New Testament church did or that other churches in our day do. So we will look this morning both at what the New Testament has to say about baptism, and at what the church has understood the meaning of baptism to be through the years.
Let’s begin with the easiest question: What was the baptism of Jesus like? Well, to begin with, Jesus was baptized as an adult, right before he began his public ministry, at around the age of 30. He was evidently baptized by immersion, because Mark tells us he was baptized by John in the river Jordan and heard God speak as he was coming up out of the water. Some say that because Jesus was baptized by immersion as an adult, that is the way the church should do it. But that reasoning leaves out some important facts. For baptism was not a usual practice before John the Baptist. Jesus was born a Jew, and the Jewish equivalent to baptism was the rite of circumcision. Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old, just like every male Jewish child, to signify his entry into the covenant community of Israel. In Judaism, children were always included in the covenant community as God’s chosen people. The first to be circumcised was Moses, as an adult.
As far as the rest of the New Testament is concerned, adult baptism seems to be the norm. But how else could it have been, because a new community was being formed, indeed a new faith, the Christian faith. Baptism signified the entry of these new people into the community. In several places in the book of Acts, though, it is stated that such and such number of people were baptized and brought into the Christian fellowship, along with all their households. In today’s passage Peter said, “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” So while it is not stated explicitly, it may be that children were baptized when their parents became Christians. But that is unclear, and seemingly unimportant to the early church as it is not argued one way or the other.
As the Christian church gradually developed and became a separate entity from Judaism, it no longer understood circumcision to be a religious act which signified entry into the covenant community. Circumcision was not required for being a Christian. So for the church, baptism began to take the place of the rite of circumcision as the sign of entry into the Christian community. And it was a much more inclusive symbol since both males and females could be baptized. So some people practiced infant baptism, understanding it to be symbolic of God’s love for us before we can ever love God, and which includes even children in the covenant community. But others insisted on adult, believer’s baptism. They said that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of sins, and thus repentance was necessary for baptism to be effective. So it is when a person repents and decides to live a new life that he or she should be baptized.
I talked last week about how extreme literalism has caused conflict in our understanding of the Lord’s Supper because of the assertion that the bread and juice are actually transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Well, as given as people are to taking things to extremes, it is easy to see how both baptism positions have been taken to extremes in the history of the church.
Some who believed in infant baptism decided that it was the act of baptism that assured salvation for the child, so that if a child died without being baptized it was a terrible tragedy. If a baby became sick they would panic and go to any lengths to get a priest there to baptize that baby before it died in order to ensure its salvation.
On the other extreme, some who believed in adult baptism reached the logical conclusion that if this was truly a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then only the sins which were committed before the baptism were forgiven by it. After baptism you were expected to have repented in order to live a new life without sin. So at one point this part of the church decided that the wise thing was to put off being baptized as long as possible. If you could be baptized one minute before you died, that would be ideal, because you wouldn’t have long to commit sins which would not be covered by your baptism.
So how do we make sense out of all this today? I will share some of my thoughts, which you can weigh as you find your own positions. I stand in the Presbyterian tradition of favoring infant baptism for those families which intend to be active in church and living the Christian life. I am not in favor of parents who have no intention of raising their children in church coming once in order to have their child “christened” for the great voyage of life.
Why do I prefer infant baptism for church families? The first reason is the symbolic way in which it shows that God loves us long before we can ever love God, and that God chooses us before we choose God. We are children of God by adoption, because of what Jesus has done for us – we have not and can not do anything to deserve being called children of God. It is totally God’s doing. Paul wrote, “While we were yet helpless, at the right time God in Christ died for us.” A baby symbolizes that helplessness, although a baby also represents the time when we are more lovable than at any other time in our lives.
The second reason I prefer infant baptism is that it shows that salvation is a process, not something that is magically conferred upon baptism. Whether it is a child or adult that is baptized, continued growth and maturity in faith is essential. Baptism is a sign of incorporation into the church, the body of Christ, where the individual finds opportunities for growth, nurture, and service with other Christians. Believers’ baptism puts pressures and expectations on us that we will never be able to live up to. I’ve seen the light, I’ve changed my ways, I’m a new person now. But very soon we realize that we are still very flawed, still very human, still need a lot of washing on a regular basis. It’s easy to get discouraged and give up if you don’t see the life of faith as a lifelong journey of ups and downs, peaks and valleys, successes and failures in living for Christ. The perseverance of the saints means that when we have messed up we are going to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off and trust God to still love us and welcome us in spite of everything.
The third reason I prefer infant baptism is that it keeps before us all of our important tasks as a community of faith, most of all the task of teaching each new generation the good news of the Gospel so that in time they will choose this faith for themselves and teach others in turn. Baptism asks the parents of the child being baptized to take on specific obligations. It reminds them of the privilege of being part of the church and asks them to pledge to provide a Christian home for that child to grow up in and to bring that child to church so that he or she will have every opportunity to learn about Christ and in time confess him as Lord and Savior. The congregation is asked to go out of its way to nurture this new child of God, to provide a supportive church home, and to share itself fully with the child. Parents can not ensure that their children will be Christians by having them baptized. That is just the first of many steps, and the children will eventually have to profess their own faith. But parents and congregations can commit themselves to doing everything possible to give their children the experience and knowledge they need to come to that point.
These are the reasons I like the practice of infant baptism. But the act of baptism, however it is administered, saves no one. It is not a magical act. I do not believe it has to be administered to a child before it can go to heaven. Do you want to believe in a God who would punish a child in that way for the omissions of the child’s parents or the brevity of the child’s life? Nor is baptism something which simply wipes out the sins you have committed before your baptism, as though you would need to be baptized again and again throughout your life.
And since it is not magical, it may be that if parents are not serious about their intention to follow through with their vows at baptism it would be better to wait and let the child be baptized upon profession of faith. It should not be done “because it is supposed to be” or to make someone else happy. It should be done out of gratitude for God for his loving us before we can love him, in humility that knows we are only the earthly parents of this child, and with the determination to bring the child up in the community of believers.
I was baptized as an infant, by my grandfather. I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen the black and white pictures. I am thankful that my parents cared enough about my spiritual well-being that they had me baptized then. I am thankful my parents were willing to make promises to God about the kind of home and experience they would provide for me, and that they were faithful in fulfilling those promises. My life was a lot different than many of my contemporaries as a result. They took me to church and Sunday School and Sunday night programs and Wednesday night programs. They read Bible stories to me at home and prayed with me. They showed me an example of a Christian life.
I am thankful for the congregation in Kingstree, SC, which pledged on behalf of the whole church that they would love and nurture me. They only had five years to do it, but other congregations picked up the ball through the years. I am thankful for the congregations, including this one, which have played that role for my children, and I pray that others will continue that role in the future.
Above all, thinking about my baptism makes me thankful to God for loving me from the beginning, before I even had any awareness of who God was, and for sticking with me through all the ups and downs and promising to be there all the way to the end. I am thankful for Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection provide the continuing promise of forgiveness of my sins. As Hebrews says, he offered his life up once for all time, making it unnecessary for priests to continue to offer up sacrifices day after day for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to be children of God.
We all share that, after all, whether we were baptized as adults or infants, by sprinkling or by immersion. And in the end, that’s what really matters: baptism brings us together in the family of God as children of God. The water is a visible sign of an invisible grace. Thanks be to God!
David J. Bailey
August 20, 2017
Central Presbyterian, Anderson