Commentary: Our understanding of baptism — What’s at stake?

“Many Voices, One Faith” is a forum for sharing theological perspectives on topics of interest in The United Methodist Church. We are a global community rooted in the Wesleyan tradition, yet diverse in views and experiences. This forum is designed to put the voices of the church in conversation with one another and build understanding of what it means to be United Methodist today.
The Rev. Beth Galbreath is a deacon in the Northern Illinois Conference, an instructor with BeADisciple.com and founder of Galbreath Digital Culture Ministries. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Galbreath.
The Rev. Beth Galbreath

It’s strange. Despite the importance of baptism in Christ’s church — mass baptisms at 18th-century camp meetings, fierce defenses of infant baptism and sprinkling — American Methodists had no written teaching about baptism until General Conference 1996 adopted “By Water and the Spirit.”

Not a moment too soon! After all, when people challenge our understanding and practice of baptism, answering, “Because that’s how we do it” is simply not adequate.

Scripture often refers to early baptisms, but it gives little detail about what it means or how to do it. Only the Great Commission (Matthew 28) offers words to use. Only the baptisms of Cornelius and the Ethiopian mention water.

But biblical witness is clear that:

  • Baptism initiates all ages into the Body of Christ. It is seen in Philip’s ministry in Samaria and his baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), in Peter’s baptism of Cornelius and his group (Acts 10), in Saul’s baptism (Acts 9), in the baptisms of Lydia’s and the jailer’s households in Philippi (Acts 16).
  • In baptism, God washes away our sin. We read that God’s justifying grace is available in baptism in the Pentecost story of Peter’s sermon and its results (Acts 2).
  • Baptism is about change. It is about dying to sin and our old life, and rising with Christ in a new life (Romans 6:2-4, Colossians 2:12).
  • Baptism enables what Jesus told Nicodemus about “new birth,” rebirth, being “born from above” (John 3), or “regeneration.”
  • Baptism is a sign of equality in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) and the unity of all (Ephesians 4:5, 1 Corinthians 1:13-17).

The Holy Spirit acts in baptism, though manifestations of its activity are not mechanically connected. In Philip’s work in Samaria, baptism precedes the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit at the hands of Peter and John. But in Peter’s preaching to Cornelius, the Spirit falls on the assembly before baptism. In other stories, ecstatic experiences are not mentioned. Ananias promises Paul that he will be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” but we have no details.

Peter also promises his Pentecost hearers that they would “receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), but we aren’t specifically told what that meant. Paul insists that receiving the Holy Spirit did not always mean “speaking in tongues,” rather, the Spirit’s main gift is the certainty of God’s grace (2 Corinthians 1:21-11; Romans 8:15-16; Galatians 4:6).

But Paul is clear that the Spirit gives every Christian gifts to use in ministry (1 Corinthians 12). So baptism is the only ordination needed for Christian service.

Now, all of these intertwined scriptural meanings are about what the Holy Spirit does for us:

  • Prompts repentance and forgiveness.
  • Renews and rebirths us.
  • Fills us with the Spirit and spiritual gifts for ministry.
  • Ordains us for service using our gifts.
  • Initiates us into the Body of Christ, united and equal.
  • Unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Notice, none is about what we do, even though at baptism:

  • We repent, reject all evil forces, profess our faith in the Trinity and trust in Christ.
  • We covenant with church and congregation and promise our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
  • Parents and godparents vow to raise a baptized child in the faith.
  • The congregation renews its baptismal vows and promises to help the new members grow in faith.

Baptismal liturgy includes our covenant with God and one another. But the baptism itself is all God’s doing. It’s something God does for and in us.

So, what is at stake when parents resist baptizing their children, or when adults, after powerful experiences of God’s justifying grace, ask to be re-baptized?

At stake is our core understanding that baptism is a sacrament in which God is the primary actor. Do we understand how God’s grace is poured out on us? No! Can we map out a one-size-fits-all spiritual journey? Also no!

So how can we insist that a person be “old enough to understand and believe”? Everyone — no matter what age — comes to faith, as well as to baptism, empty-handed. We come as ignorant infants. We come, prompted by prevenient grace, to receive the justifying grace of God. Over our lifelong journey of sanctifying grace, we live into our baptism, whenever it occurs. Our baptism becomes more real to us as we grow in love of God and neighbor.

And because God never fails when God acts, we United Methodists recognize one baptism. We reaffirm but don’t “re-baptize” anyone who has ever been baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the two ancient requirements.

So, let’s create powerful reaffirmation rituals and intentional discipleship (youth/adult confirmation) systems to help the journey. Because God does baptism right the first time!

Galbreath is a deacon in the Northern Illinois Conference, an instructor with BeADisciple.com and founder of Galbreath Digital Culture Ministries.

"Many Voices, One Faith” is a forum for sharing theological perspectives on topics of interest in The United Methodist Church. The forum is designed to put the voices of the church in conversation with one another and build understanding of what it means to be United Methodist today. Read more commentaries.

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