Baptism is the initial sacrament of the New Testament, by which the covenant people of God are sprinkled with water, by a minister of the church, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost - to signify and to testify the spiritual ablution which is effected by the blood and Spirit of Christ. By this sacrament, those who are baptized to God the Father, and are consecrated to his Son by the Holy Spirit as a peculiar treasure, may have communion with both of them, and serve God all the days of their life.
The author of the institution is God the Father, in his Son, the mediator of the New Testament, by the eternal Spirit of both. The first administrator of it was John; but Christ was the confirmer, both by receiving it from John, and by afterwards administering it through his disciples.
But as baptism is two-fold with respect to the sign and the thing signified - one being of water, the other of blood and of the Spirit - the first external, the second internal; so the matter and form ought also to be two-fold - the external and earthy of the external baptism, the internal and heavenly of that which is internal.
The matter of external baptism is elementary water, suitable, according to nature, to purify that which is unclean. Hence, it is also suitable for the service of God to typify and witness the blood and the Spirit of Christ; and this blood and the Spirit of Christ is the thing signified in outward baptism, and the matter of that which is inward. But the application both of the blood and the Spirit of Christ, and the effect of both, are the thing signified by the application of this water, and the effect of the application.
The form of external baptism is that ordained administration, according to the institution of God, which consists of these two things:
The primary end of baptism is, that it may be a confirmation and sealing of the communication of grace in Christ, according to the new covenant, into which God the Father has entered with us in and on account of Christ. The secondary end is, that it may be the symbol of our initiation into the visible church, and an express mark of the obligation by which we have been bound to God the Father, and to Christ our Lord.
The object of this baptism is not real, but only personal; that is, all the covenanted people of God, whether they be adults or infants, provided the infants be born of parents who are themselves in the covenant, or if one of their parents be among the covenanted people of God, both because ablution in the blood of Christ has been promised to them; and because by the Spirit of Christ they are engrafted into the body of Christ.
Because this baptism is an initiatory sacrament, it must be frequently repeated; because it is a sacrament of the New Testament, it must not be changed, but will continue to the end of the world; and because it is a sign confirming the promise, and sealing it, it is unwisely asserted that, through it, grace is conferred; that is, by some other act of conferring than that which is done through typifying and sealing: For grace cannot be immediately conferred by water.
In baptism the Church follows the example of Jesus. Followers of Jesus fulfill all righteousness through baptism. Those who are baptized enter into a process by which a relationship of love with God is built. How that process is conducted involves God, the individual, and the Church. Persons err when they try to make this process mechanical, magical, or legalistic; or when they try to limit God’s activity, the activity of the individual, and its meaning of baptism. They err when they use baptism as a means of separating Christians instead of uniting Christians.
Christians have a wide range of theology and practices related to baptism. Any specific emphasis should be celebrated as a particular perspective that enriches all other perspectives. Baptism should be a source of unity within the Church and among believers.
Ultimately the key to the physical act of baptism is the reception of the Holy Spirit. One can truly say that baptism is the outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace from God and in the life of a believer (outward and inward are joined in unity).
The Gospel of Matthew 3.1-17; 21.25; 28.19-20
The Gospel of Mark 1.1-11; 11.30; (16.16)
The Gospel of Luke 3.3-22; 7.29-30; 20.4
The Gospel of John 1.15-37; 3.5; 3.26; 4.1-2
The Acts of the Apostles 1.5-8; 1.21-28; 2.1-4; 2.38-41; 8.12-17; 8.34-7; 8.47; 9.17-18; 10.37-48; 11.16; 13.24-25; 16.13-15; 16.30-33; 18.8; 18.24-28; 19.1-7; 22.16
The Letter to the Romans 6.4
The First Letter to the Corinthians 1.13-17; 10.1-2; 12.3; 15.29
The Letter to the Galatians 3.26-27
The Letter to the Ephesians 4.5
The Letter to the Hebrews 6.1-2
The First Letter of Peter 3.18-22
Mark 16.16 and Acts 8.37 are considered by many scholars to be later additions to their respective books. However, these two verses in this case consistently reflect the position of the early Church that the response of belief was needed with baptism.
How Should Christians Baptize?
All Christians agree about the importance of baptism. Yet Christians disagree about the practice and method of baptism.
Baptism of Infants and Others Who Cannot Answer for Themselves
Christians for a long time have debated the issue of baptizing infants. The practice of baptizing infants developed early in the history and theology of the Church. The Book of Worship states the United Methodist position:
Persons of any age are suitable candidates for baptism because Christ’s body, the Church, is a great family that includes persons of all ages.
...We are not to practice indiscriminate baptism. Children and others who have not reached the developmental stage of making decisions for themselves are presented by parents and/or sponsors (godparents) who make the same profession of faith that a candidate would make and who promise to nurture the candidate in their family and in the Church family, so that they will come to accept God’s grace for themselves....
The debate centers not on whether God loves children, but who the primary actor is in baptism. If a person believes that baptism is primarily God’s action toward us (baptism as a sacrament), then the age or mental and moral awareness of the person is irrelevant. Churches that follow this sacramental practice usually have an additional rite called confirmation in which a young person may, in a sense, recall his or her baptism and personally confirm his or her faith. In many instances the confirmation process has become an intellectual exercise of indoctrination rather than an expression of the young person taking on his or her baptism. Formal confirmation, when it is abused, inappropriately attempts to replace the gift of the Holy Spirit with intellectual assent to doctrine as the Church’s validation of baptism.
Certainly the practice of baptizing infants and others who cannot answer for themselves (for example, the mentally handicapped) expresses God’s love and sovereignty. The Church’s pastoral concern for these persons; the primary importance of a spiritual relationship with God rather than intellectual assent to doctrine; and the efficacy of faith though it be only the size of a mustard seed informs the baptism of infants.
The problem is, however, the paucity of support for such a practice in the New Testament. One argument is that in the household baptisms of the early Church even children were baptized (Acts 16.14-15, 31-33). Another argument is that infant baptism follows the Old Testament practice of circumcision of infants as a rite of entry into the covenant relationship with God and the community. One must admit that the scriptural evidence is limited, but one reference (Acts 2.38-39) suggests that at the very earliest the Church included children in baptism.
The denominations that limit baptism only to those who are morally and intellectually accountable and who are able to answer for themselves as new believers, hold that the person being baptized is the primary actor in the rite. These denominations see that baptism is an ordinance.
It is puzzling, however, that some churches that hold ordinal view of baptism also suggest that baptism is not an act of the universal Church but of an individual congregation. This practice removes sovereignty from God and the individual and places it with the local body. The local congregation becomes the primary actor. Baptism is transformed into a rite of entry into the local church rather than a person’s statement of new faith or conversion. There is no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that a person’s baptism is not transferable for one congregation to another. In the New Testament a person’s baptism traveled with him or her.
To place both feet firmly on either side of the fence limits the richness of the Biblical view of baptism. In baptism God is sovereign but the individual expresses free will, either in conversion or confirmation.
The important issue is the context of the baptism. If an infant or another who cannot answer is a part of a loving Christian family and church which nurture the individual in the Christian faith, then the baptism of such a person is appropriate. Remember, the reception of the Holy Spirit is what validates the baptism, and that can occur at any time.
For a person who comes from a context of separation from God and His Church and is experiencing a true change in his or her life, believer’s baptism is certainly appropriate. In this case, however, one must not ignore the activity of God in the process.
The New Testament does not give any indication that baptism was related to any specific congregation or baptizer (First Corinthians 1.13-17). Baptism should not, therefore, be repeated, but certainly may be renewed at important junctions in a person’s life.
The Methods of Baptism
We notice immediately in reviewing passages of the New Testament which contain the word “baptism,” that they are clustered in two sections - the ministry of John the Baptist and the witnessing of the early Church. Jesus did not add much to the development of the method of baptism. Indeed, after His own baptism we find very little directly from Jesus concerning this practice. The Church baptizes in continuation of Jesus’ own practice and command.
Most of the methodology of baptism, then, was developed by the Church that sought to communicate truth through the symbols used. There appears to be a lot of room for individual emphases about baptism and much flexibility concerning the practice of baptism. These emphases and practices should not exclude one another, for baptism should be one source of unity in Christianity. The wide range of beliefs and practices should be welcomed by all Christians. Though we may emphasize different images and symbols in baptism, we should not eliminate or denigrate different ones.
The New Testament does expose a baptismal practice at the church in Corinth
To base an understanding of any Christian practice on what was occurring in the church at Corinth
Baptism-by-proxy for a dead person will neither be accepted at all by persons who stress the importance of belief prior to baptism nor by persons who see baptism as initiation into the body of Christ. The practice at best is motivated by love and concern for the deceased person, but it precludes preaching and hearing of the good news, belief and repentance, and instruction in the faith which we have seen is an important part of the process of discipleship to which baptism belongs. Presumably, baptism for a dead person also eliminates the possibility of any validation of that baptism by the reception of the Holy Spirit by the individual.
One could argue from the sovereignty of God that God can save anyone He chooses with or without any of these elements in the process of discipleship. While this is certainly true, one could also say that God can save anyone regardless of baptism, which makes baptism for the dead irrelevant at best.
One could pursue the argument and say that after the death of a person God may give opportunity for preaching, hearing, repentance, belief, and instruction. This too may be true, but so then could God also provide the opportunity for baptism. In short baptism-by-proxy must be rejected as irrelevant and inconsistent with the wide range of images and symbols of baptism in the New Testament.
In its essence baptism should be viewed in the context of a person’s loving relationship with God. Baptism involves God, the person being baptized (the baptized), the baptizer (priest) representing the Church through ordination, the imposition of water, and the repetition of certain words. Neither the elements (water and words) nor the role of the priest should be seen as something magical, mechanical, or mysterious so as to invoke the presence of God or a response in the baptized. God and the person (with the Church) are coming into or enhancing their relationship of love.
An argument here could be made that an ordained person need not participate in a baptism. Today’s concept of ordination certainly stems from the call and validation of the leaders of the early Church, but the actions of the “clergy” were not the validating element. The presence of the clergy at baptism decreases the opportunity for abusing the ritual through instruction and continuity.
There is no specific amount of water specified for baptism. The important issue is what is being represented or symbolized in the water.
Though there is evidence in the New Testament that baptism was performed in the name of Jesus (Acts 10.48), the preference and tradition of the Church is a threefold “formula” reflecting the Trinitarian theology of the Church and the instructions of Jesus. Christian baptism should be performed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28.19).
What Is Needed with Baptism?
“Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8.36b, NIV)
“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” (Acts 8.47a, NIV)
At this point it would be tempting to provide a list of prerequisites for a person to establish eligibility for baptism, but this approach would be missing the spirit of baptism. Indeed, the reception of the Holy Spirit is what validates a baptism.
It appears that the early Church did not view baptism as a limited event, but as a part of a continuing journey of discipleship. Baptism was a part of the maturing process of the believer. From the scriptures above (Acts 8.36b, 47a) it is apparent that the early Church did not seek to limit the baptizing of persons, but rather, much to its credit, had a hard time saying “No” to a request for baptism.
Baptisms, however, were not performed indiscriminately by the early Church. There are in the scriptures certain continuing actions which accompany baptism as a part of the maturing in faith. These actions are not prerequisites but occur before, during, and after the baptism itself, and they provide a means by which the believer understands baptism and through which God gives His grace.
One action which is needed with baptism is God’s opening of the person to hear the message about Jesus Christ (Acts 8.34; 16.14, 30). How God creates this opening or how the individual is involved is not explained in the New Testament. What is said is simply that God acts to open the person.
Another action is the Church’s proclamation of the message about Jesus Christ. The Church proclaims and the individual responds (Acts 2.41; 8.35; 16.14, 32; 18.8).
A third action which is needed with baptism is belief or acceptance of the message about Jesus Christ as true (Acts 2.41; 8.12-13; 10.42-44; 16.31). The message must be believed.
A fourth action which is needed with baptism is repentance (Acts 2.38). Repentance may be understood as an awareness of sin and a turning from that sin and toward God. Continuing instruction in the Christian faith is a fifth action that is needed with baptism (Matthew 28.20; Hebrews 6.1-2).
Opening of a person to the message; the proclamation and hearing of the message; belief; repentance; and continuing instruction in the faith are the five actions needed alongside baptism. In this process God acts, the Church acts, and the believer acts.
A specific chronology should not be forced onto God’s process. In a sense all of these elements are continuous. Hearing, belief and repentance by the person are on-going. God’s opening of the person remains constant. The Church is always proclaiming and instructing. Just as there is not a rigid and limited system by which the Holy Spirit validates the baptism of the believer, so too, there is no predictable order in these actions. That the elements in the process are necessary is not challenged in the New Testament, but their timing in the life of a believer is a part of that person’s relationship with God. How God chooses to establish a loving relationship with a person is God’s own choosing.
The Book of Worship gives further instruction on the function of baptism in the Christian’s journey:
Baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace has already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God’s grace, and it looks forward to what God’s grace will accomplish in the future. While baptism signifies the whole working of God’s grace, much that it signifies, from the washing away of sin to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, will need to happen during the course of a lifetime. If an act of personal Christian commitment has taken place, baptism celebrates that act and the grace of God that has made it possible. If such an act has not yet taken place, baptism anticipates that act, declares its necessity, and celebrates God’s grace that will make it possible. In either event, baptism signifies the entry of the candidate into the general ministry of all Christians.
Baptism anticipates a lifetime of further and deeper experiences of God, further acts of Christian commitment, and ministries in the world.
What Happens in Baptism?
Jesus did not teach extensively about baptism. He must have assumed a common understanding of baptism in His audience. His followers, however, did develop a wide range of images and understandings of what happened in baptism. The need to explore and explain baptism in the early Church grew out of the Church’s expansion from sectarian Judaism into the Greco-Roman world that did not understand this practice. The baptismal theology of the early Church is contained in various places throughout the New Testament.
The Image of Water
The use of water in baptism is a strong symbol that comes to Christianity through the Old Testament. Water carries several symbolic meanings in the Old Testament. Water is used in every day life for cleansing and washing. The Old Testament has examples of the ritual usage of water for the symbolic cleansing or purifying of a person of his or her sins. In this respect baptism can be seen to have a role in the removal or forgiveness of sins. This concept is continued in the New Testament (Acts 2.38; 22.16; 1 Peter 3.21).
In the Old Testament water also symbolizes abundance, fertility, and blessing. To desert wanderers who later settled and became farmers, water meant life. On a daily basis water was consumed to maintain the body, but it also was used in healing and to soothe and refresh. Water used in baptism, therefore, also carries this image of renewal of life, even rebirth (John 3.5).
In contrast to these positive images, the Old Testament also used water as a symbol for chaos, destruction, death, and the forces which are opposed to God. In this sense the idea of baptism carries with the sense of being overwhelmed by evil or even dying, and being brought out of the chaos or raised from death into new life.
Here we can see also a strong identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus. In going under the water we participate in His death (Romans 6.3-4) and in coming out of the water we participate in His resurrection (Romans 6.4; 1 Peter 3.21).
Another way we can identify with Jesus in baptism is to share in the response of God to Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3.17; Mark 1.11; Luke 3.22): “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well-pleased.” In baptism God claims us as His own children (Galatians 3.26-7). As with Jesus’ we too should anticipate the coming of the Spirit into our lives.
Water is a symbol taken from real life. The water for baptism in many traditions is fresh, not brackish; “living” or flowing, not stagnant; and abundant. Any amount of water, however, can carry these meanings.
The Image of Fire
In both Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist announces that Jesus will come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3.11-12; Luke 3.16-17). The reference to fire most probably is figurative, though some early Christians really had to endure such a baptism for their faith. Fire in the Old Testament represented the presence of God and purification. Primarily, the Old Testament authors used fire as a symbol for judgment and punishment. In reading the context of the references in Matthew and Luke we conclude that John the Baptist intended this image to be one of God’s judgment.
Noah and the Flood
Peter and Paul borrow two different Old Testament stories to illustrate what baptism means for them. Peter uses the illustration of Noah and the flood (First Peter 3.18-22). Peter suggests that Noah and his family were saved through the water which symbolizes baptism. Even though Peter reinterprets the story of the flood in Genesis, where the water was actually God’s means of punishment, not salvation; we cannot ignore Peter’s point about baptism a means by which God saves. Peter’s usage of a poor analogy should not diminish the truth of his statement. In baptism God acts to give his grace that saves (Acts 16.30-33). We also see in Peter’s example the idea that baptism is not only God’s action to save, but it is our response to God’s action for us.
Moses and the Deliverance
Paul makes use of Moses and the exodus in his explanation of his understanding of baptism (First Corinthians 10.1-2). The specific act of the people of God going through the sea was God’s deliverance of them from bondage. For Paul this analogy gives an explanation of what happens in baptism.
Baptism and the Unity of the Church
There is a wealth of symbols and images in the New Testament which communicate what happens in baptism. Cleansing, purify, or washing of sins by forgiveness; renewal of life and rebirth; experience of the chaos and death related to sin, or death of the old life; identification with the death and resurrection of Christ; God’s gift of abundance and the blessings of the new life in Christ; God’s deliverance of us from bondage; God’s claim of us as His children; God’s action to save; God’s judgment; and our response to God’s action for us – all of these ideas are a part of the Christian understanding of baptism and what happens in baptism. We may stress one view over another, or we may hold all views to be equally valid. What is important to remember is that the early Church saw baptism as a source of unity, not disunity (First Corinthians 12.3; Ephesians 4.5). Regardless of our theology or practice, we are united in the mystery of our baptism.
The Relationship between Baptism and the Holy Spirit
The gift of the Holy Spirit is essential to baptism. The Holy Spirit validates baptism. Christian baptism always involves the Holy Spirit.
The scriptures show that baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit did not need to occur simultaneously in the believer for either to be valid. The Holy Spirit could be received before (Acts 9.17-18; 10.44-48), during (Acts 19.6), or after (Acts 2.38; 8.12-17) the baptism by water. The time between baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit or whether baptism preceded or followed the reception of the Holy Spirit is not a critical issue in the early Church and the New Testament..
Furthermore, there did not seem to be any restriction in the early Church concerning who baptized persons, though the person who “presided” at the baptism was a recognized leader in the Church. The one exception to this observation is the baptism of John which the early Church apparently recognized because of John’s unique role (John 1.37, Acts 1.22), though on occasion those who had been baptized by John were re-baptized because they had not received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19.1-7). Even still, persons baptized by John, but who apparently had not been given the Holy Spirit, were considered disciples of Jesus (Acts 19.1-2) and were able to understand and agree with the teachings of Jesus (Luke 7.29-30) and even provide leadership to the early Church (Acts 18.24-28). What validated all Christian baptisms was the reception of the Holy Spirit.
What appears, then, in the early Church is a flexible approach to baptism. Baptism is linked to participation in the community of faith and accompanies understanding and believing the message of and about Jesus Christ. Still, the early Church stressed the importance of the reception of the Holy Spirit as the validation of baptism.
Baptism by Jesus and the Twelve
There is some indication that either Jesus or His disciples baptized persons following Jesus’ baptism by John at the very beginning of His ministry (John 3.26). There is even some indication that Jesus and John had rival baptizing movements (John 3.26; 4.1) and that as Jesus’ baptizing activity increased, the people turned to him instead of John (John 3.26; 4.1). The preponderance of the scriptural evidence, however, suggests that Jesus Himself did not perform a water baptism, though His disciples probably did baptize in some manner (John 3.26; 4.2).
The gospel writers do want us to see that Jesus’ baptism is different and superior to John’s baptism, for Jesus’ baptism actually includes a passing of the Holy Spirit to His followers (Matthew 3.11; Mark 1.8; Luke 3.16; John 1.33; Acts 1.5; 11.16). These verses could suggest that the baptism by Jesus was not a water baptism but involved only the gift of the Holy Spirit, but probably the physical act included a water baptism.
The important point to understand here is that baptism by Jesus for the Christian is not primarily the physical act of immersing the individual with water or pouring or sprinkling water on the individual. Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3.11-12; Mark 1.8; Luke 3.16; John 1.33). The believer is invested (baptized) with the Holy Spirit. Jesus passes on to His followers the Holy Spirit with which He was invested. This emphasis does not exclude the use of water, but places the importance not on the physical act or method or even water itself, but on the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew and Luke also include the statement that in addition to baptizing with the Holy Spirit and there is baptism with fire (Matthew 3.11-12; Luke 3.16-17). This inclusion comes to these two gospels from an unknown source. We will look at its meaning in Chapter Four, “What Happens in Baptism?”
What Jesus’ own baptism meant to Him is a matter of conjecture, as we said above. We understand the meaning of His own baptism to Jesus by what God did after the baptism.
There is some indication of the twelve disciples’ understanding of their own baptism. Some of the disciples were baptized by John and came to Jesus later (John 1.37). We find no evidence that Jesus re-baptized these “converts,” but welcomed them – even called them – into His intimate group of followers.
The disciples found in their baptism by John and the gift of the Holy Spirit by Jesus to be the basis for their continuing the work of and faith in Jesus (Acts 1.8). They understood John’s baptism of them to be the starting point of their following of Jesus and their unity and authority within the group of followers after the resurrection (Acts 1.21-22). The addition of the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 2.1-4) gave to the disciples the validation of their continuation as followers and the authority and motivation to continue. Again, the important element is not the physical act, but the spiritual gift.
The Baptism by John
Baptism is not unique to Christianity. The Christian practice of baptism has it roots in the Judaic practice of baptism especially during the time of Jesus.
Self-immersion was certainly a part of the ritual of conversion into Judaism along with male circumcision and a sacrifice performed in the Temple. There is strong evidence that the Essenes, an influential sect within Judaism at the time of Jesus, practiced a ritual self-immersion of the follower on a daily basis. The Essene practice of baptism was probably seen as a cleansing of sin a preparation for and continuation in a life committed to righteousness.
John’s Message and Practice of Baptism
The baptism of John, called the Baptist, is another form of the practice baptism in sectarian Judaism during the time of Jesus. The New Testament gives a full picture of John’s message, activity, and role from Christian perspectives.
We can be certain that John baptized in the Jordan River (Matthew 3.6, Mark 1.5; Luke 3.3; John 10.40) in Judea near Jerusalem (Matthew 3.5; Mark 1.5). The Gospel of John (the Evangelist) locates John the Baptist’s activities more specifically near Bethany (John 1.28) and at Aenon near Salim (John 1.23). The location was probably well-known during Jesus’ day (John 10.40). The period of John’s activity was also known to many (Luke 3.1-2). John’s baptism was the source of much controversy in Judaism even after his death (Matthew 21.25; Mark 11.30; Luke 20.4).
John did not invite people to baptize themselves, but he baptized them instead (Matthew 3.6). His call was not to self-baptism, but to submission to baptism as a sign of their repentance.
John called for a confession of sins to accompany or precede his baptism (Matthew 3.6; Mark 1.5). John’s baptism was a sign of the person’s repentance of sins (Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.3; Acts 13.24). The result of this confession, repentance, and baptism was forgiveness of sins (Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3).
The gospel writers viewed John as one who came before and pointed toward Jesus (Matthew 3.1-3, 11; Mark 1.1-3, 7-8; Luke 3.4-6, 16; John 1.15, 26-7; Acts 19.4). John’s authority to baptize came from the one who sent him to baptize (John 1.33) and from his role as the one who comes before the Christ (John 1.22-27, 29-31; Acts 10.37; 13.25).
Repentance preceded baptism, and evidence of a repentant and new life was to follow John’s baptism (Matthew 3.8; Luke 3.8-14). John severely chastised those persons whom he suspected were neither repentant in coming for baptism, nor able to lead repentant lives after baptism (Matthew 3.7; Luke 3.7).
Jesus’ Baptism by John
Jesus was baptized by John. Jesus sought John’s baptism on His own initiative (Matthew 3.13; Mark 1.9). We can accept this as a fact because of the difficulty it apparently causes all of the gospel writers while at the same time they report its occurrence.
In Matthew, John protests Jesus’ request asking instead for Jesus to baptize him. Later he relents when Jesus convinces him otherwise (Matthew 3.14-15). Mark and Luke simply make a passing reference to Jesus’ baptism by John, and then move quickly away from the subject (Mark 1.9; Luke 3.21). John actually excludes any specific mention of Jesus’ baptism.
Since there is strong evidence for John baptizing Jesus in three of the four gospels, we must ask, “Why did Jesus respond to John’s call to baptism?” Jesus’ motivation behind His own baptism is where the problem lies, because if Jesus’ was sinless, as Christians teach and believe, then He should have had no need for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Matthew suggests that Jesus reasoning that in the act of His baptism by John He was fulfilling all righteousness (Matthew 3.15). This particular reference is a vague attempt to provide some justification for Jesus’ response to a call to repent and be baptized and leaves us with very little indication of Jesus’ thought process.
The answer, then, must be found not in the mind of Jesus, but in the purpose of the Father as expressed in scripture. The important point is not what John did, but what God, the Father, did. Immediately following His baptism, Jesus is identified as the Son of God and is invested with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3.16-17; Mark 1.10-11; Luke 3.21-22). Whether this happened in the presence of John is difficult to say for Matthew suggests that Jesus was alone and in the hills surrounding the Jordan River (Matthew 3.16). Mark suggests that this investment and identification occurred as Jesus was breaking the surface of the water after being baptized, but make no mention of John’s witnessing the event (Mark 1.10-11). Luke’s account parallels Matthew and Mark except that he does not give a specific location and more than the other two could be understood to place Jesus by Himself during the investment and identification (Luke 3.21). The Gospel of John, which does not record the baptism by John the Baptist, does provide John as witness to the investment with the Holy Spirit (John 1.32-34).
The meaning that we should attach to the baptism of Jesus is found in what God, the Father, did after the baptism. God, the Father, revealed who Jesus is – His Son. God, the Father, gives authority to speak to the Son by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Methodism and Baptism
Methodist or Wesleyan theology reflects its dual heritage - new world revivalism and old world traditionalism. No where is the dual heritage held in greater tension that in the practice and theology of baptism in the United Methodist Church. Methodists are pulled in what seems to be two separate directions when it comes to their beliefs about baptism.
The first pull is that of an evangelistic theology. Baptism in this context is usually viewed as an ordinance which is performed by the believer as an outward sign of conversion.
The second pull is that of a sacramental theology. Baptism in this context is usually viewed as a sacrament in which God is present and the primary actor through the clergy and the church.
John Wesley felt comfortable in linking the two concepts in the context of the Methodist renewal movement within the Church of England. Within this tradition, Wesley viewed baptism as an outward sign of an inward a spiritual grace.
The doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church maintain that baptism is one of two sacraments; the other being Holy Communion. Baptism is ordained of Christ and is a sign of grace and God’s goodness toward us. As a sacrament, baptism is a means by which God works spiritually in us to create, strengthen, and confirm our faith in Him. Baptism is the means by which God brings us into His family – the Church.
Baptism is described in the United Methodist Book of Worship in covenantal and conversational terms:
The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. Those within the covenant constitute the community we call the Church...
The basic service of the Baptismal Covenant is Holy Baptism, by which we are incorporated into the Church, which is the body of Christ, and made one in Christ.... Because baptism initiates us into Christ’s whole Church and not only into a denomination, United Methodists recognize all Christian baptisms and look upon baptism as something that should unite, rather than divide, Christians.
Outwardly, baptism is a sign or mark of a person’s profession of faith and a means by which one is distinguished as a Christian. It is also the physical sign of the spiritual new birth. As such baptism must be approached with due reverence and humility.
Methodist pastors tend to be very flexible in their approach to baptism. Methodists may receive baptism at any time of life. Baptism may be accomplished by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. United Methodist Churches will accept as valid for church membership any baptism performed in any Christian church. The Book of Worship reminds United Methodists of the flexibility that is found in the diversity of Christian practices:
United Methodists may baptize by any of the modes used by Christians. Candidates or their parents have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; and pastors and congregations should be prepared to honor requests for baptism in any of these modes. Each mode brings out part of the rich and diverse symbolism given to baptism in the Bible.
The liturgy of United Methodist baptism is sacramental, covenantal, evangelistic, and spiritual. Baptism is God’s action and gift by which a person is brought into the community of faith and through which a person participates in God’s salvation. Through baptism by water and the gift of the Holy Spirit the person is reborn into the community and into salvation.
The liturgy of United Methodism expresses the triune nature of baptism - in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church calls on the Holy Spirit to enter into the person and commits to the person to discipleship as he or she grows in faith and knowing God.
The question arises, however, “Is the Methodist view of baptism correct?” We admit that there are other views of baptism and many accepted methods. Is there one right way or can we indeed accept all baptisms as valid?
The answers to these questions must be found in the Bible. We turn to the Bible as the starting point for a theology of baptism.