Baptism (Greek baptizō, to dip, to plunge; to perform ritual washings) is the act of cleansing in water that admits one as a full member of the Church. Most Christian churches call it a 'sacrament', a sacred and holy act.
Baptism is a covenant, sort-of like marriage, sort-of like a contract, but really something of a more cosmic scale than either. These kinds of covenants are based on the promises God has made to us. God is trustworthy, and sticks to these promises though we fail in our responsibilities.
Baptism is a promise with a sign; a covenant of grace given to us in a way that we can see, hear, feel, and grasp. It is the promise of God's forgiveness, applied personally. It is also the gift of the Spirit's presence. What an adult is doing in the public ceremony is saying to the Spirit, 'Come on in!'.
Baptism is not :
There are times for each of these things. But there are many other ways to do them, and a baptism does not depend on them at all. Baptism is something very different. Baptism is a start of something big -- bigger than you are, and longer than your lifetime. Baptism is the start of following Christ, when God lays claim to you. If it is not that, it is not baptism. If it is that, then there are many things that can go with it.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus had commanded his followers to baptize. The sayings of Jesus, of course, are not to be treated simply. Modern scholars may be right in saying that Matthew's precise wording is not Jesus' wording, but those of the author. It is very likely Matthew's précis or summary of what Jesus told us to do when He last left us. We can judge that best by what the apostles did thereafter. The church in Acts acted as if the command to baptize was indeed a command from the Top, right from the start. To put it another way: there were lots of things that Jesus had said were good to do. The early church did those things. But their activity in baptizing (as also with teaching) is done in such a way that it stands out as something they were responsible for doing -- not 'if I feel like it' or 'when I get around to it', nor as a ceremony like other ceremonies that can be exchanged for another if they thought it would help. It was something they did right away. They were not baptizing for their own purposes or in their own behalf. They were acting on orders from God: DO IT!
Jesus himself was baptized, by a man John who had become known far and wide for his baptisms of repentance. But this was no baptism of repentance, since he had no wrongs to turn away from. It became an initiation, marking the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. He did it "to fulfill all righteousness". And when He was baptized, the Holy Spirit came to Him, as Scripture reports, in the form of a dove. Thus, Jesus' baptism started a ministry in the fullness of the Spirit.
Baptism is something of a threshold. It is a threshold of more than a dream: one crosses into a renewed reality which *will* take full hold and be completed, and which is already kicking in right now. You need only cross over once, but you still need to return to the crossing place repeatedly.
Baptism's root is in Jesus, and our tie-in to Jesus is through the Holy Spirit working in and among Jesus' followers.
When you're baptized, you are completely covered with God's grace, so that God acts not by your righteousness, but by what Jesus did on the cross. In fact, you are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. Faith, grace, salvation, and the Spirit's work in you are gifts, not achievements -- mystery rather than knowledge. We don't merit them or have any right to them, but God gives them anyway.
When you're baptized, God is acting on you as a person -- on you as a specific person or entity, and never as a 'thing' or object, nor just as a part of a larger group. Yet, you really do become part of a larger group : you're counted among Jesus' followers, and the Spirit comes into you to set up shop and start full-time work.
When you're baptized, you're putting your life down a different road, getting off of the road of surrender to evil's power, and onto the road of the faith journey of surrender to the Spirit. You can be fearless about this, because no matter how risky this world gets, God is with you.
Repentance, forgiveness, and renewal are the follow-through on Baptism, for every moment of the baptized's life. These are repeated over and over again. The act which starts it, the baptism, needs to be done only once, and it works from then on. The Holy Spirit takes hold of spiritual life and growth, and is constantly at work, for it takes a lifetime to kill the Old You. No human being, society, authority, or government can take that away or add to it. God is adding and taking all the time, pruning dead wood and growing new branches and blossoming buds for an ever-changing new life.
Ambrose of Milan wrote quite a bit about the Holy Spirit's presence at baptism. He drew on several images from the Bible concerning God and water :
The focus of these is not the water of baptism or what the water does, but on the Spirit and what the Spirit does.
Ambrose went on to point back to the bitter water of Marah (Exodus 15:22), to the water used in healing Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), and to the paralytic at the Bethsaida pool at Sheepsgate (John 5:1-9).
The liturgies of most liturgical churches refer to these other baptismal themes:
Another important image of water is found in Ezekiel 47:1-12. The image here is of flowing water that bring life and growth where it flows.
1 Peter 3:20-21 speaks of the time of Noah, where eight people were brought safely through the flood waters. Then, baptism is likened to that act. But in 1 Peter, the real comparison is between the ark (which saves by floating on the water) and Christ's resurrection (which saves through giving its benefits by going into water).
back to the Top
"Lest through a confidence in the Gift of
the Font they should turn negligent of their conversation after it, he would
say, that even supposing you receive baptism, yet if you are not minded
to be led by the Spirit afterwards, you lose the dignity bestowed upon you
and the pre-eminence of your adoption..."
"Q: What does such baptizing with water
"It takes no particular resourcefulness to seek confirmations that uphold the truth, since it is self-understandable and evident from the first moment it was delivered; namely, when we received from the Lord the words for baptismal regeneration and the mystery of salvation."
Tradition on Baptism
Christian tradition holds that the water of baptism is both 'symbol' and 'means'. It symbolizes what happens in baptism, and it is the stuff of earth that actually bears the Spirit. Water cleanses; water drowns and kills; water refreshes. Water surrounds us in the womb. Water is the main ingredient of the human body, and especially in the blood which carries the stuff our cells need for life. Water makes plant and animal life grow. Yet, without God's powerful, creative Word, water can do nothing to your spirit. So, when you are baptized, the Spirit acts through that Word and the water to cleanse you and drown the Old You, surround and cushion you as your faith gestates, and carry Christ's presence into you. The Spirit starts to show you what the Word is for, and starts growing you into what God meant for you to be.
Baptized Into the Whole Church
Christians are not just baptized into their denomination or their congregation. They are baptized into 'the whole Church'. The 'whole church' is not an institutional identity, it's a relational one.
"The whole Church" spans time and place. Think about that: once you've been baptized, you're tied in with the underground that Nero was oppressing 1940 years ago, and with Christian astronauts and space adventurers of the future! You're not part of a passing fad, and you are never standing alone! "The whole Church" also spans cultural, racial, sexual, denominational, and socio-economic groupings. All are given the same baptism, under the same God, and made a part of Christ's own Kingdom by the same Holy Spirit working within them. (Paul saw this as one of the most important truths; he staked his Jewish life on reaching non-Jewish peoples with the Gospel.) But if this is true, then in Christ there is not only no cause for hatred or discrimination, but there is positive cause to live, work, love, and worship together. That's the New You the Spirit is fashioning. Ah, but the Old Yous are not dead yet, and we still use distinctions (including useful and truthful ones) as an excuse to hate or to ignore others. Thus, each Christian has what Paul termed 'the ministry of reconciliation', of living a Gospel truth that shatters the social barriers.
The New You of baptism is traditionally symbolized by a new name, meant to describe the character of their new faith. This is the original meaning of calling the ceremony a "christening" -- the new name marks the baptized's being made like Christ. "Christening" has, in the English language, lost that impact; a christening's a nice ceremony to do for babies, or maybe to launch ships, rather than a life-changing new start. But then, a person's name no longer means what it used to: in the past, the name meant the person's reputation, power, image, and authority.
"But", some will say, "this means baptism adds up to no distinction among believers. That leaves a big problem: the barriers between believer and non-believer. Baptism doesn't get rid of that difference, baptism is its defining mark. Is the Christian free to shun the non-believer, to ignore them, wall them out of the Christians' lives, and seek to socially displace them in favor of believers??"
The fact is, unfortunately,
that the Old Yous are very good at finding new ways to show themselves.
There's a difference between believers and non-believers -- perhaps the most
important difference there could be. But the believer has the task of following Christ. Christ's example is one of
service, and of highly valuing all people
instead of mastering over them. All people equally need the good news; our
outreach is a way of telling our famished earthly fellow travelers where
the food is. Most importantly, the baptized believer looks not to themselves, but to God.
God loves everyone. Jesus died not just for those who already believed,
but for everybody. The gift of saving grace was given with the aim of reconciling all people to God. The gift, of course, can be thrown in the trash bin because of a lack of faith toward the Giver, but the gift's still being given. (I don't know what happens if you're not baptized, any more than I know what happens to non-believers after they die - that's God's turf and not mine.) The point here is this: if God loves all, including non-believers, then Christians are to love all, including non-believers.
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|ver.: 22 January 2012|
What is Baptism? Copyright © 2005-2012 by Robert Longman.