A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Learning more about Baptism
Last week I reflected on some of the typical questions that come up about the sacrament of Communion. I heard some positive feedback about that as well as some requests for something similar about Baptism, so I thought I’d do that this week:
Q: Why are we baptized?
A: In the Reformed theological tradition (of which Presbyterians are a part), we don’t believe that our salvation is contingent on being baptized. We believe we are baptized because we are saved, not saved because we are baptized. Our tradition is relentless in its emphasis on the sovereignty and grace of God, which essentially means that God has both the first and final say on things. That, in turn, means that baptism is a response to God’s grace, not an acquisition of it.
Instead, we talk about baptism as a sign and a seal of God’s saving grace. In baptism, we recognize and respond to that saving grace with gratitude and a commitment to a life of following Christ in our words, actions, and spirit. And so baptism is both our formal inclusion in the church, the body of Christ, and our commissioning as Christ’s disciples and ministers; every Christian is called to ministry through their baptism. That is what is “different” about us after baptism. Those who are called to ordained ministries have specific responsibilities in the church, but those are in addition to the baptismal call that we all have.
Q: Is the water holy?
A: Yes and no; it depends on what you mean by that. Our understanding of the water is similar to our understanding of bread and wine (or juice!) in Communion: it is not made holy in itself, but the Holy Spirit works through it to be really present and active in the sacrament itself. So it is holy in the actual act of baptism because of the presence of God’s Spirit in that moment, but it doesn’t stay that way afterwards. Think of the water more like a doorway that the Spirit moves through, rather than a room in which the Spirit lives.
Q: What’s the difference between baptism for infants and adults?
A: Because of our emphasis on God’s grace, we don’t believe baptism is a conscious “decision for Christ” like Baptists or some other traditions do. So we baptize infants because we believe that God’s grace is already at work before we are even aware of it or capable of any understanding of it. So there’s nothing different about baptism, per se, between infants and adults.
What’s different is that adults being baptized are also able to declare their faith in Christ and intention to follow Christ as a disciple and a member of the church. Those who are baptized as infants have to do that when they are old enough to do so in order to be full members of the church. That’s where the tradition of Confirmation came from, for example, but that’s a different article!
Grace and Peace,