The Next Faithful Step

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Baptism

What is the relation between what God does and what humans do in the act of baptism?

Introduction

While different churches recognize various practices of baptism, there is a baptismal unity which underlies them since all Christian churches share in the one baptism (Eph. 4:5). The church's universal practice of baptism from its earliest days is attested to in Scripture and churches today continue this practice as a rite of commitment to the Lord who bestows his grace upon his people. Christian baptism is rooted in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, in his death and his resurrection. It is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ, uniting the one baptized with Christ and with Christ's people. Baptism is both God's gift and our human response to that gift.

Along with the Lord's Supper, baptism is considered a sacrament of the church—something that is a vehicle for God's grace. As we think about what baptism means for our relationship to God and to one another, we are informed by how we understand God's grace to be present in the sacrament of baptism. What is the relationship between what God does in baptism and what we are doing?

Key issues in historical perspective

The rite of baptism has a biblical basis which grew out of the Old Testament whereby water and blood were used to cleanse from sin. This view was maintained in the New Testament through the relationship of baptism to the story of Jesus, particularly as it relates to Christ's death and resurrection. Cleanliness is an element of baptism associated with holiness in the Old Testament where water and blood were used to cleanse from sin. This familiar symbol of cleansing was a part of John the Baptist's baptism and he continued this tradition by calling people to wash in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Baptism's connection to the Old Testament is also demonstrated in the redemption of the Israelites and their passing through the Red Sea.

While there is a correlation between the Old Testament and New Testament views on baptism, the story of Jesus in the New Testament provides the crucial resource in understanding the meaning of baptism. Jesus' own baptism by John included repentance and the promise of forgiveness of sins, but it was not merely preparation for the Kingdom, it was the sign of its coming. Baptism was the entrance into the Kingdom. What does that mean for us? Through Scripture and Christian tradition we see various images which express the meaning of baptism:

  1. Participation in Christ's death and resurrection. By baptism, Christians are immersed in the liberating death of Christ where their sins are buried and the power of sin is broken. Fully identified with Christ, they are buried with him and are raised to a new life in the power of the resurrection of Jesus.

  2. Conversion, pardoning and cleansing. Baptism is not merely symbolism, but brings about a change in human lives. Those who are baptized are pardoned, cleansed and sanctified and, therefore, given a new orientation for life. Baptism sets the sinner in a different place, as justified before God and adopted into a new family, into a new set of relationships both with God and with each other.

  3. Incorporation into the Body of Christ. The act of baptism incorporates us into the Church and a common discipleship. Through baptism there is a radical equality for the members of the Body of Christ in which all are united with Christ and the work of the Church. Martin Luther emphasized this relationship through the concept of the priesthood of all believers. In baptism, every member is called to discipleship and commissioned for ministry.

  4. The gift of the Holy Spirit. We receive the Holy Spirit into our lives through baptism. It is a sign and seal of our union with God which has taken place through the action of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of people before, in, and after their baptism. We are purified of sin and born anew in the Holy Spirit, which makes us co-heirs with Christ. This has individual and communal, ecclesial effects.

  5. A sign of the Kingdom to come. There is an eschatological dimension of baptism, that is, it is a sign of moving into a new age in which one is already a part of the coming Kingdom. It is a sign of the Kingdom of God and the life of the world to come and anticipates the day when all will confess the lordship of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of Christ that is conferred at baptism is an anticipation of the full reality that will be realized when Christ returns.

Theological implications for Christian life

From the earliest times baptism was seen as the means of becoming part of the Church. It marks our initiation into the narrative of the Christian fellowship. Through it we are freed from sin and reborn as children of God by the action of the Holy Spirit, becoming members of Christ and incorporated into the church. It is the sign-act of entrance into the Church, illustrated by the traditional practice of placing baptismal fonts at the door of a church.

While there may be differences between baptismal practices within the Christian Church, the multiple meanings of baptism indicate that there are several elements that should be included, such as reading and proclaiming the word of God, calling upon the Holy Spirit, and utilizing water. The relationship of Scripture to baptism's practice and significance is affirmed by the proclamation of God's word. We invoke the Holy Spirit and affirm the Trinitarian work of baptism because through it we are united with God and incorporated into Christ's death. The use of water makes the symbolic connection to Christ's death and resurrection as well as to Old Testament imagery of death and new life.

Tell me a story…

[Something related to becoming part of God's story and that by doing so, we are changed. God is doing something and we respond and participate in it. Could it be like when we commission a missionary? A person called by God to participate in the work that God is doing in the world, accepts that call and is blessed by their local congregation to go out and join in that work. There is a three-fold action of God, individual, and church. The person will be changed by accepting this call and is aware that it is not his/her own efforts, but the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in which he/she will participate.]

ldp 5-4-10