By Rev. Gregory Stover
A theologically and spiritually renewed church is the goal of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. As we seek this renewal, we have opportunity to re-discover and re-affirm our historic convictions, including our theological understanding of baptism and its power in the ministry and life of the church.
Baptism occupies a distinctive place in Christian faith and plays a vital role in life of the Christian church. Through vivid symbolism baptism dramatizes the way God’s grace works in our lives to bring us salvation and launch us on the road of holiness. Even more, we believe that God works in real-time in and through baptism to connect us to the beauty of God’s transforming love in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Experienced and Commanded Baptism
Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist (cf. Matthew 3, Mark 1:1-13, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-32). Although Jesus was sinless, he explained that he needed to “fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:16).” John the Baptist baptized as a part of a call to repentance, but he told his followers that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit bringing God’s power to our lives.
In the Great Commission given to his disciples just before he ascended to heaven, Jesus made baptism an integral part of our mission to make disciples, telling them to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:1).
What Scripture Teaches Us About Baptism
The New Testament links baptism with God’s gracious working in our lives in three ways.
First, baptism signifies God washing us clean from the guilt of our sin. The water of baptism provides a vivid image of God’s pardon and forgiveness through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The author of Hebrews draws this connection between baptism and God’s cleansing when he writes “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). Paul states clearly that, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4) (See also Colossians 2:9, 12). Baptism is an avenue of God’s justifying grace in our lives.
Second, baptism signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us by God’s grace. Through the Holy Spirit, God gives us spiritual birth (cf. John 3:5) and enables us to grow in holiness of heart and life. In kindness and love God our Savior, “… saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit …” (Titus 3:5). Jesus himself used water as an image for God pouring out the Holy Spirit with life-giving power into our lives (c.f. John 7:37-39). In our historic understanding baptism points us not only to God’s justifying grace, but to sanctifying grace as well.
These first two dimensions of baptism correspond to three methods of baptism that are used in our Wesleyan tradition. We baptize by sprinkling (“sprinkled clean”), by immersion (“buried and raised with Christ in baptism”), and pouring – symbolizing the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into our lives.
Third, baptism signifies our initiation into the body of Christ. Throughout Christian history, baptism has been understood to be the way we are marked as Christians and has served as the sign of initiation into the Christian community. Paul writes, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Although we may say, “I was baptized as a Methodist,” the great truth here is that we are not baptized a Methodist. We are marked as a Christian and baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Church of Jesus Christ which includes people from every time and all nations and races.
Baptism is a Sacrament of the Church and a Means of Grace
Christians in the Wesleyan tradition understand that baptism is a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. This means that baptism involves more than our human actions, more than the application of water, and more than merely our witness to our faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism, as a sacrament, signifies and dramatizes the way God interacts graciously through the Holy Spirit to bring us salvation and strengthen us along the path of discipleship. Baptism is something we participate in, but even more, it is one of the ways God incorporates us into grace and strengthens our faith. Because we believe that baptism is first and foremost God’s action, we discourage rebaptism. To be rebaptized implies that God somehow failed to accomplish God’s purpose in baptism.
Article XVII of the Methodist Articles of Religion states, “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or new birth…” The EUB Confession of Faith, Article VI adds, “We believe baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, but also a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.”
That’s why we call baptism a means of grace. While we would not say the mere act of baptism saves us, we believe the sacraments (as well as spiritual disciplines like prayer, Scripture reading and holy conferencing) are God-ordained ways God uses to draw us near and transform our lives in Jesus Christ.
What About Infant Baptism?
The practice of infant baptism can be traced to the early second century church and has been a historical practice of it down through the ages. Many people believe that when “household baptisms are mentioned in the Book of Acts these would have naturally included the baptism of all in the household regardless of age (cf. Acts 16:15; 18:8). Further, in the Old Testament, Jewish males were circumcised and marked as a part of Israel at eight days of age – before a child could exercise faith. In the New Testament baptism, rather than circumcision, serves as the mark of initiation into the Christian community (cf. Colossians 2:11-12). Consequently, John Wesley and most of his spiritual descendants have encouraged the baptism of infants and children as a vital part of God’s work in their lives and an important step in their spiritual journey.
God’s Grace Working
Half a dozen years ago the church my wife and I were serving became involved in a tutoring program in an urban school. That ministry and a desire for baptism became the avenues through which God worked to transform the lives of an entire family.
Brianna and Dante had enrolled Clyesha and Amya, two of their five children, in the tutoring program. One of the members of our congregation tutored the girls and invested herself in a relationship with the family. She brought the older children to church. Sometimes the rest of the family attended as well. Clyesha and Amya learned about the Gospel. Then they began to ask about baptism. During a visit with the girls and their parents I learned that Brianna and Dante really wanted their younger children to be baptized too. I also learned that Dante and Brianna had never been married. They regretted this decision and wanted to be married, but it seemed that meager resources and life events had always caused them to delay.
Soon Dante and Brianna were ready to renew their faith and be married. One Sunday morning all five children were baptized in our sanctuary. A few weeks later Brianna and Dante were married in our chapel. Despite meager resources, Dante found a way to purchase a ring for his wife and a few members of our congregation arranged for a small reception and others joined to celebrate the wedding. These first steps forward in Christ were the result of God’s grace in a caring ministry and in the hearts of two young women. God worked through their desire for baptism to touch a whole family. That’s the power of Christ’s love and the beauty of baptism.
The Rev. Gregory Stover is a retired clergy member in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Stover has also served as a district superintendent, and represented his annual conference as a General Conference delegate. He is a member of the Confessing Movement’s board of directors.