As an “aside”… you will notice at various points that there are references made to certain portions of the Bible. Please look these up, read them together, and discuss any questions you may have or observations you made while reading these passages. Baptism is deeply rooted in the Scriptures, and being familiar with some of these texts only further serves to reinforce our sense of the wonder of baptism.
What is the difference between “baptism” and “christening”?
In short: There is no difference at all. To “baptize” means: to “immerse in, or wash with water” in a religious rite. To “christen” means to do this in the name of Christ. We (Presbyterians) simply prefer to use the word “baptism”, because this is the word that the Bible uses in this regard. In both cases we are referring to a rite of entrance into the church – a symbol that celebrates God’s acceptance of us in Jesus Christ, and marks us in a very special way as belonging to him.
Where does the practice come from?
We can paint a “broad strokes” picture of how baptism developed and what it meant before the Christian church adopted it as a practice of our own…
Contrary to popular opinion, the practice of baptism originated long before Jesus’ own baptism and ministry… The ancient Jews used to bathe or wash in water as a religious rite. This was done in order to make them clean, not just outwardly, but in a ritual or religious sense especially, so that they could then take part in acts of worship – it was a symbol for the cleansing they needed in order to be welcomed into God’s presence.
In later centuries, not too long before Jesus’ time, a practice developed where Gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to embrace the Jewish faith underwent a special bathing – and by doing so would be considered members of the Jewish faith community. First a man and his sons were circumcised to mark them as adopted children of Abraham and so members of the Jewish people, then the whole family (parents and children) all bathed in water, in a ritual act to wash away their unclean past.
When John the Baptist appeared on the scene, during the same time that Jesus lived and ministered, he went about proclaiming the need for repentance by all (Jews and non-Jews), and he employed the act of baptism as an outward sign of that repentance (Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-9).
What does Christian baptism signify?
When we consider this rich symbolism and meaningful history to baptism, it becomes quite easy to see why Jesus and his disciples would have chosen to make use of it in their own ministry (John 4:1-2).
However, we must be careful to note that Christian baptism is very different from the baptism that John practiced, or that which the ancient Jewish communities used. In Christian baptism, we are baptized “into Christ Jesus”, in whom we are forgiven and washed clean of all our sin (Acts 2:38 & 22:16, I Corinthians 6:11, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 5:26, I Peter 3:21), and by whom we are made children of God through his Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15-17).
Indeed, the New Testament teaches us that through baptism God:
- Gives us his Spirit (Mark 1:8, John 1:33, Acts 2:38, 11:16);
- Washes away our sin and frees us from our old selves; raises us to new life with the risen Christ, and offers us new birth as children of God (Romans 6:1-14, Colossians 2:12-13, John 3:5, Titus 3:5);
- Incorporates us into the Body of Christ, which is the Church (I Corinthians 12:13); and
- Declares us free from the power of death (Romans 6:3- 11).
In this sense then, Christian baptism builds on the rich symbolism of the baptism practiced by the ancient Jews and it becomes something entirely different.
Does the rite of baptism itself accomplish all this?
No. Baptism in itself, as a human action, is merely a ritual with no inherent spiritual or magical power.
However, when we believe in the gospel and understand that Jesus instituted the act of baptism to be a symbol of his grace, a visible expression of the Gospel, then God uses it to do exactly what it signifies. It ceases to be just a sign and becomes a ‘sacrament’ (a mystery in which God makes real the truth to which the sign points). So, when we respond to the Word of God by accepting baptism with faith in Jesus Christ, God uses this rite to apply to us all that Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross and being raised to life again.
This means that a person coming to be baptized must come with faith in Jesus Christ. In the case of infants, the parents profess this faith and promise to raise their child in the same.
What about children?
Of course infants or very little children cannot understand all this, and are too young to make their own declaration of faith. So why do we baptize them?
Most often those who ask this question have been led to think of baptism merely as a person’s act of confessing that he or she has come faith. But we must remember that we are not the chief actors in baptism: God is.
God’s action began centuries ago with the covenant made with Abraham and his children: “I will take you as my people and I will be your God” (Genesis 17:7 & 13, Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12, Jeremiah 11:4 etc.). This was “an everlasting covenant” that Jesus did not replace but renewed and reaffirmed (I Corinthians 11:25). In this new covenant all Christian believers are adopted as God’s children (Galatians 3:6-9).
The apostle Peter specifically declared about baptism and the gift of the Spirit, “The promise is for you and your children”, so that they too should be baptized (Acts 2:38-39). Through the faith of even one parent a child is included among God’s people (1 Corinthians 7:14). Hence the New Testament refer to the children of Christian families as being “in the Lord” and within the Christian community (Ephesians 6:1-3, Colossians 3:20).
True, the New Testament reports no example of an individual child being baptized. But it does report the baptism of whole “households”. This term embraced all, including the children, who lived in a house (Acts 11:14, 16:15, 31-34, I Corinthians 1:16). And it is equally true that Jesus never excluded the children. In fact, he specifically stated that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to little children (Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:16).
How paradoxical, then, that whereas Jesus wanted adults to become like children to enter into the Kingdom, some Christians insist on children becoming adults before they can be baptized! If children are citizens of the Kingdom, how can we deny them baptism as members of the Church?
How then does baptism apply to a little child?
We need to understand that what baptism does is not limited to the day it happens. For example; a Jewish boy receives circumcision only a week after being born. It is an outward sign of an inward spiritual condition that deepens throughout his life (Deuteronomy 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, Romans 2:28f). The sign itself has his whole future life in view. Likewise the baptism of a baby has the whole of his or her future in mind. Baptism is effective for the whole of one’s life: past, present and future.
Thus baptism does not automatically save the child. It offers and promises salvation to the child by bringing him or her into the fold (so to speak) of God’s family, the Church. But the promise is subject to the child’s going on to appropriate it by personal faith. Mere outward circumcision did not make one a true Jew: one had to have a circumcised heart (Romans 2:28f.). Likewise, a child who is baptized needs to come to faith and live out that faith in obedience to Christ as Lord and Saviour. If that fails to happen, the baptism accomplishes nothing, just as the baptism of an adult who is not truly a believer accomplishes nothing.
Does baptism need to be right under water?
“To baptize” transliterates a special form of a Greek word that meant “to dip in, or under”. In its special form the word meant “to immerse, bathe, drench or wash” as a religious act. So one might ask then: Does baptism not require a person to be plunged under water?
The washing with water is a sign of what happens in a person spiritually. So long as it clearly signifies a spiritual washing the amount of water does not really matter. It is like Holy Communion: no one thinks that for it to be considered a true and effective sacrament Communion has to be a full meal, as it was at first (I Corinthians 11:21-22). A small piece of bread, and a single sip of wine, serve as sufficient symbols of the body and blood of Jesus.
Hard written and archaeological evidence already from the end of the first century shows that, as an alternative to full immersion, the Church also baptized by pouring water. Even in the New Testament itself it is difficult to imagine every baptism as full immersion. For example; where in the jail at Philippi would Paul have found a pool big enough to immerse the jailer and his family (Acts 16:33)? The point is this: the amount of water hardly matters at all… what matters is the promise of God’s grace that is active in the act of baptism.
Where can baptism take place?
Part of what baptism means is acceptance into the covenant community, the family of God, the Church. Through it, Paul says, people of every race and class are united together into one body (I Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:26-29, Colossians 3:11). In order to symbolize this more fully baptism takes place in the congregation during a regular service of worship.
This also enables the members of the congregation to welcome the new member and offer friendship and support to the parents in teaching their child about Jesus.
Only in special circumstances will a minister baptize a child at home instead of in church. Even then other members of the congregation should be present, to symbolize that the child is being baptized into the Church.
What actual vows do you need to make?
During the service the parents are asked the following questions:
- Do you believe and trust in God as your Father, in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord, and in the Holy Spirit as your Helper?
- Do you confess your sin, renouncing all that is evil, and do you know the forgiveness of God?
- Do you believe the doctrine of the Christian faith as it is contained in the Apostle’s Creed?
- In presenting your child for baptism, do you promise, with God’s help, to provide a Christian home for him/her, where by your example he/she may learn to put his/her trust in Jesus Christ and live for him?
- And do you promise to raise your child in the worship and teaching of the Church, encouraging him/her to enter fully into its life and witness in the world?
Only, of course, if the parents can sincerely declare “We do” to all these questions can the baptism go ahead.
What about Godparents?
By their faith the parents (or those who head up the family in which a child lives) link a child to the family of God. So they must confess their own faith at their child’s baptism and promise to bring up the child in the faith.
At the same time, because we share God’s love and work for him together as his family, it is good if the parents invite others to stand with them as “godparents” at the baptism.
Godparents are meant to help the parents bring up the child in the Christian faith and way of life. They are also expected to set a Christian example for their god-child, and to pray for him/her regularly. So they should be not just friends but believing, practicing Christians too. Godparents may be asked to take a vow that they will help the parents in this way.
These are the questions we as ministers need to help you think through. And this is why it so important for us to meet before the baptism takes place. Please be assured that we are not here to judge whether you are worthy, this is a matter you need to take responsibility for as parents – no one else can take this responsibility for you. We are here to help you grapple with any questions you might have, and it would be a privilege for us to make this journey with you.
I pray that God will guide you clearly and give you grace and wisdom to make the right decision regarding the baptism of your child; a decision that will draw your child closer to God.
Grace and peace to your family,
Jaco & Alistair