A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: A RESPONSE TO GOD’S GRACE
This Sunday will be a particularly special one at the 11:15 a.m. service, because we will be celebrating the baptisms of not one, not two, but three children from two families who recently joined the church! I hope you can make plans to be there and participate in this service, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to remind us of what Presbyterians believe about why Baptism is such a crucial and sacred part of the Christian life.
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.
The question about baptizing infants or young children versus adults often arises in the conversations. As you probably know, some Christian traditions will not baptize infants at all, while others (like ours) do. The reason for those differences is a theological one. 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, which is why they require people to be old enough to make such a conscious decision in order to receive Baptism.
We, on the other hand, 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 for us, 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!
Finally, in the Reformed tradition Baptism is never a private experience, but an act in which the whole church participates. That is why we always do baptisms as part of a regular worship service, because the congregation as a whole both witnesses and participates in the sacrament.
In fact, you are even asked a direct question about nurturing the person being baptized as they grow in their faith, whether they are an infant, child, or adult. That’s because, again, baptism is the formal beginning of a life of Christian faith, and we spend the rest of our lives growing in that faith, regardless of how old we are when we are baptized.
So: I hope you will be here on Sunday to both witness and participate in this sacrament, and in welcoming these newest members of our congregation into our life and ministry together!
Grace and Peace,