What Is Baptism?
Do you remember anything about your baptism?
If you’re like me – that is, if you were baptized as a baby – the answer is probably “no.”
A second question: do you remember any stories about your baptism that your parents or others present have told you over the years. The two details of the day that I was told about were 1) that my baptism fell on Palm Sunday (1965 – yikes!) and 2) that my grandfather, a Lutheran pastor and missionary, performed the baptism.
I ask and tell all of this in response to one of the keen and vexing contradictions of our present life together in the church, a contradiction made up of two equally true elements. First truth: We confess that baptism is the pivotal event in the life of a Christian. Second truth: Most of us have no memory of our baptism, no clear idea of what it means or why it’s important, and no active sense of how it might shape our daily lives. In fact, I’d be willing to go so far as to say that most of us almost never think about baptism with the exception, perhaps, of when we see a baptism at church or one of our family members or close friends is having a child baptized.
So where do we go from here?
Let me suggest two ways forward. First, I want to share just a little bit of why I think baptism is so important. Second, I want to share a couple of the questions I have about baptism and ask you to share yours. Later this month and next I’ll be working on a fourth volume in the Making Sense series of books I’ve been writing, due to come out this summer. So far I’ve written on Scripture, the Christian Faith, and the Cross. This fourth volume will be Making Sense of the Christian Life, and one of those chapters will be on Baptism. And quite frankly, I’d love, love, love your help in making sure that in that chapter I address the actual questions you all have.
So a couple of things about Baptism right up front:
1) Baptism is first and foremost God’s activity. Ever wonder why mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christians all baptize infants whereas Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians baptize adults? Here’s the reason. While both traditions confess that Baptism is a gift from God, most Christians, following the earliest practices of the church, place the dominant emphasis on God’s unconditional promise to accept us as we are, adopt us into God’s family, and forgive us all of our sin. There can be no greater symbol of that than bringing babies to the font, babies who have not particularly done anything for or against God (actually, most haven’t done anything at all except eat, sleep, gurgle, and you know what :)). Utterly passive in the face of God’s grace, infants remind us that all we can really do is receive God’s love with gratitude and try to live as the persons we’ve been called. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, focus more on our response to God’s grace. God’s grace, in this case, is like a blank check that still needs us to sign and cash it, hence their emphasis on “believer Baptism,” Baptism where the candidate is old enough to choose to be baptized.
2) Baptism is primarily about identity. Notice that in the various gospel accounts of Jesus’ Baptism, a voice from heaven invariably announces to Jesus, “You are my beloved son and with you I am well pleased.” So also in our Baptism, God conveys to us our identity as God’s beloved children, children and people so precious to God that God would go to any length to communicate to us that love, even to the point of dying on the cross. Which is why Baptism is so important, as in an age where figuring out “who you are” has never been more complex, Baptism suggests that we best understand “who” we are by paying attention to “whose” we are – God’s beloved children. Baptism reminds us that we have infinite value and worth, that God wants only good things for us, that God will always seek to draw us back into relationship with God and each other and forgive us when we stray, and that God will be with us all the days of our lives.
Now, some questions that, while I may have hunches about, I still puzzle over.
1) What does Baptism have to do with sin? This is a question that actually vexed the early church, particularly in relation to Jesus’ Baptism. John’s baptism is routinely described as one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” But if Jesus is sinless – a primary confession of the church – why would he need it? In later centuries, the church suggested that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for the sake of sin but did so anyway so as to identify with us. Indeed, as the centuries wore on, Baptism came to be associated more and more with the forgiveness of “original sin” – the idea that we are born in a state of sin inherited from Adam and Eve and therefore initially and immediately out of favor with God. But I wonder if this is the best way to address this question. Indeed, I wonder if the issue of “identity” isn’t just one of the primary elements of Baptism but the primary element of Baptism. Part of that identity is that because God loves us God promises always to forgive us. But is Baptism’s chief function really to remedy our “inherited sin”? I don’t know, but it seems like that would help explain why we don’t think much about it, as Baptism is then something that took place once, a long time ago, and there’s not much reason to focus on it anymore. If Baptism is more about identity – including our ongoing need to be restored to relationship with God – then it seems like something that could matter to us every day.
2) Does Baptism “make” us part of God’s family or does it “announce” to us that God includes us in God’s family? I think how you answer this one greatly shapes your sense of why we baptize in the first place. If it’s the former – Baptism makes us part of God’s family – then Baptism becomes a requirement of life with God now and in the life to come. At its best, this greatly stresses Baptism’s importance, but at it’s worst, it devolves into a “ticket to heaven” mentality where parents want their children “done” just to be on the safe side. If, on the other hand, it’s the latter – Baptism announces God’s inclusion of us into God’s family – then perhaps we can feel some urgency to keep reminding ourselves and each other of that tremendous gift and be willing to imagine how God might also reach out to those who have never been baptized. But does this risk the particularity and uniqueness of Baptism?
Well, those are two of my honest questions about Baptism, and I’d love to hear yours. So if you’d be willing to share some of your questions in the comments, we can perhaps kindle some discussion here and, trust me, help me write a better book! Thanks so much!