After coming to personal faith in Christ as a 19-year old, I remember talking to my old junior high band director who was also a pastor. I shared my excitement about my new-found faith, and asked if I should be baptized again, since I had only been baptized an infant, and wasn’t sure that it “counted.” I remember his answer: “That raises the interesting question: can God be working in your life before you are even aware of it?”
Of course, the answer is yes. I had been baptized as a child, raised in the church, taught about Jesus, and surrounded by a community that sought to nurture me in the faith. Though I walked away in junior high, God never stopped working to call me home. In time, and through the agency of other believers, things finally “clicked:” I gave my life to Christ and embraced the meaning of the ceremony I had undergone as a child.
A key word used to talk about baptism is sign. Like a sign on the street points beyond itself to something else, so baptism points beyond itself to that grace which seeks us before we ever seek God – the love of God at work within us, even before we know we need it – drawing us to God and bending our hearts to God’s ways. In Wesleyan theology, we call this prevenient grace – the grace that comes before.
As an infant, I knew nothing of this – anymore than I understood then the meaning of the family name I was born into (which may have been a good thing!). But God already had made provision for me, just as my parents had been doing: preparing a room for me, beginning savings for college – all in advance, all before I understood a thing.
In Romans 5:8 Paul says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Speaking mainly to pagan converts, Paul was telling them that long before they came to know Jesus, he was out seeking them, like the shepherd looking for lost sheep. That is grace. And baptism points to God’s grace.
Baptism also points to our new life in Christ. Article XVII of our Articles of Religion calls baptism “a sign of regeneration or the new birth.” In Wesleyan theology, prevenient grace is followed by justifying grace – the work of God which forgives and cleanses us of sin, removes its death-hold on us, and makes us alive to God (which is what regeneration means). In Romans 6:3-4 Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
That text also suggests that the work of grace doesn’t end with our experience of new birth in Christ. Justifying grace is followed by sanctifying grace, as God’s Holy Spirit works within us to put to death all that belongs to the old life apart from Christ, so that we live (or “walk”) in ways that reflect God’s holiness. That, too, Paul says, is something to which baptism points.
But there is one more important point about baptism, and it is about community. In 1 Peter 3, the Apostle draws a parallel between Noah’s ark and baptism. In the early centuries, the ark became a symbol for the church, the Christian community – the “ark of safety,” it was sometimes called. The idea is that we find safety from the troubled waters of life within the people of God and discover there our deliverance from judgment and death. Thus, baptism historically has been the rite of entry into the people of God, making us part of Christ’s church – placing us safely within the ark.
That is one reason why we usually conduct baptisms in worship, and why the congregation has a role in the ceremony. The people make promises along with parents, for the people of God have a critical role to play in raising children (of whatever age!) to be disciples of Jesus.
There is a reason that the line in the Creed about baptism follows the statement about the “holy catholic and apostolic church.” The decision to follow Christ is not entirely an individual one. Though each person must at some point make that decision for him or herself, still, it a decision which is shaped and nurtured by the web of relationships that surround us as we grow. Community matters. The church is meant to be a place of safety like the ark – a refuge from a corrupt culture; a community where all God’s children find welcome, a home, and a place where the things of God are honored, taught, and celebrated.
I never was baptized again. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” I came to realize that just as Christ’s atoning death for us never needs to be repeated, neither does the rite which points to the new life his sacrifice purchased for me. The ritual of baptism does not save – only God’s grace saves; but baptism connects us to the promises and the people of God and is celebrated as a means of that grace. The important thing is that I had experienced what baptism was about: the forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God and new life in Christ.
That baptism – in the Holy Spirit – remains the most important thing for us all!
by Joe DiPaolo
Rev. Joe DiPaolo is the Lead Pastor at Lancaster First UMC in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.