Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Baptism: What is it Good For
This blog is taken from interview questions that I was asked to prepare for. Some students at Chattanooga State are interviewing pastors for a reaserch paper. Here are my answers to the questions

What is the significance of Baptism in your church?

Being United Methodist, I have a long standing theology of baptism that goes back to John Wesley. Wesley believed that baptism was a sacrament of the church and that when an infant received baptism that person was regenerated (born again, saved). At the same time, Wesley also believed that a person had to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and make a profession of faith. The later Methodist had a hard time working out the tension in Wesley’s belief. While Methodist still practiced infant baptism, conversion and profession of faith were emphasized. Baptism became more symbolic than anything else. However, in the last 40 years or so, Methodism has experienced an awakening of sorts and is not rediscovering the meaning of baptism as a sacrament of the church. Therefore, the Wesleyan understanding of baptism incorporates both elements of Sacrament and Symbolism.

Baptism is a sacrament of the church in that it is a “physical object of creation that becomes the bearer of divine presence and therefore is a means of conveying God’s grace to us.” Baptism itself is not “salvation”, but it is one mean by which salvation can be experienced.

The sacramental view of baptism makes perfect sense in Wesley theology. We believe humanity was created in the image of God, capable of making a free decision to worship God. However, due to the fall, the image of God has been so distorted that we have no choice but to reject God. However, due to the grace of God and Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power of sin in our lives has been conquered. Through God’s grace we can repent and give ourselves back to God. It is God’s grace than enables us to see ourselves as a sinner and to repent. This grace is called “prevenient grace.” This is the grace that comes before. God’s prevenient grace works through the world we live in and calls us to repentance. Because of this grace, we can repent and be forgiven. Baptism is one of the ways in which God covey’s God’s saving grace. It is in baptism that we make a covenant with God and with the congregation. In making the covenant we are then a part of the body of Christ, the church.

Baptism is also a symbol in that we follow the example of Jesus when he was baptized in the gospel. Jesus also commanded us to “baptize one another.” The earliest disciples practiced baptism so we also baptize as they set the example. The water symbolizes the washing away of our sins. It is also the “outward sign of an invisible grace.” Baptism, like circumcision in the Old Testament is a sign of our commitment to God.

Who can be baptized?

The document “By Water and the Spirit” says, “There are no conditions of human life that exclude persons from the sacrament of baptism.” It then goes on to say that even if a person does not fully understand the implications of baptism, they can receive the sacrament because baptism is not about the person being baptized, rather it is about what God is doing to the person being baptized. We have no idea how God is working in their live. Again, Baptism is a means by which God offers salvation to the person being baptized.

This also means that the Methodist church performs infant baptism. We do this with integrity because we believe that God’s grace is a free gift that is offered to us without us doing anything to merit it. If this is the case, who better to receive the sacrament of baptism than an infant who has done nothing to deserve it? This is not the same thing a baby dedication. In baby dedication, the parents are making promised to God while in infant baptism; God is making promises to the child.

This does not mean that Methodist believe the child is some how magically regenerated. The infant will one day make a confession of faith and confirm the vows made at the baptism by the parents. At the same time, we believe that something special has happened to the child in that God has entered into a covenantal relationship with the child.

One of the best ways of explaining what happens in a sacrament is this: There are three aspects involved in a sacrament. Is it a (1) Valid Sacrament (2) Effective Sacrament (3) Normal Sacrament.? The first and primary role is played by God. God validates all sacraments. God is the one making the covenant with us and God always keeps God’s commitment. The second involves our role. We make the sacrament effective by our faith response. God has come to us and shown grace to us and enabled us to freely respond to God’s grace. When we respond in faith, the sacrament becomes effective in our lives. Finally, a normal sacrament is normal when it is done by the proper folks in the church.

Here is an example: Billy Bob and Mary Jo bring their infant son Harley to be baptized in the church. After the baptism, Billy Bob and Mary Jo move and fail to find a new church home. Harley grows us outside of church and does not really understand what is going on until finally one day his girl friend takes him to the Baptist Church revival and he goes forward and makes a profession of faith. Based on our three criteria you would say: Harley’s baptism was valid, because God validates it. Even though Harley did not confirm his baptism in the sixth grade, this was not fault of Gods. God was still working in his life the entire time. Harley’s baptism was made effective when he made his public confession of faith in the Baptist Church revival. (I hope he will come back to the Methodist! lol) Finally, it was a normal baptism because it was done in the church by the proper person.

According to your Church’s teachings, does baptism in, and of itself, suffice to make someone a Christian? Is there any permanent spiritual change to the person?

I would answer this question with a Yes and a No. Baptism is surely a means for making someone a Christian, but not by itself. In order for someone to become a Christian, they would have to respond positively to God’s grace in baptism. The amount of change a person makes as a result of the baptism would depend on their faith response to what God offered through the baptism. Baptism can be salvific (a means of salvation) when a person accepts God’s grace by faith.

Can a baptized Christian ever choose to be re-baptized within the Church? If the person who was baptized in a different Christian denomination chooses to join your Church, would they require baptism?

A person who is baptized cannot be rebaptized primarily because baptism is a gift of God’s grace that God is bestowing on us. God is the one making a commitment to us and by being rebaptized we are saying that God failed to live up to God’s commitment. I can understand a person wanting to be rebaptized because they have failed at their end of the commitment, but we should find other means to show this. The person can reaffirm their vows at baptism, since this is what they have failed to live up to. However, God was not the one who failed. Being rebaptized would signify that the whole baptism would be invalid and it is not.

The same is true for someone coming to the Methodist church from another denomination. Even when we may have some theological disagreements with other denominations, we recognize that the individual’s baptism is a gift from God and that it is valid because God is the primary player. Therefore, we accept any baptism from a Christian denomination.

Can someone who is not baptized, but who professes beliefs in your Church’s basic doctrines legitimately call him/herself a Christian? Can someone be “saved” or gain eternal life without baptism?

I know I have said this quite often, but again salvation, God’s grace, and baptism are all gifts from God. We do not do anything to earn or merit them. Being baptized is no different. Baptism is not the only means by which God gives salvation. Someone does not have to be baptized to have salvation. However, baptism is import for people who confess the Christian faith. While it may not be what saves a person, it surely represents the work and act of salvation that God is doing in your life. It is a means of God’s grace and it can be salvific. I would wonder why someone who professed to be a Christian would not want to be baptized. It is a way to open the door to Christian discipleship and growth. We would ask that someone be baptized when they join the church because baptism brings a person into the church universal and into the local church.

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