Does It Really Matter How We're Baptized?

Matthew 3:13-17
January 9, 2011

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

About ten or eleven years ago we had an interesting situation here at Calvin Church involving one of our confirmation class students. The young man went through the confirmation class and gave a great statement of faith. When it came time for the actual confirmation, there was some question about whether he had been baptized or not. I tried calling his mother, but she was out of town and unavailable. So I called his father. I asked him if his son had been baptized, and he said that he thought so but wasn’t sure. He remembered bringing his son forward in the church, having something take place in the front, and he said of it, “I think they called it a ‘christening.’” I told him that christening is another word for baptism. We could go ahead and confirm him, and didn’t need to baptize him. No worries…

…Or so we thought. After we confirmed him with the rest of his class, his mother called me and said, “You know, my son was never baptized. Before joining here we went to a church that believed in adult baptism.” I told him what his father had said, and she replied, “That was a dedication service, not a christening. I can’t believe he didn’t know that.”

So, we were in a bit of a pickle. We had confirmed him without baptizing him. Confirmation is a “confirming” of a person’s baptismal vows, but without a baptism can a person confirm? I talked with the young man a few days later and told him that we needed to schedule a date for his baptism. That’s when we hit a snag. He said to me, “What if I want to be baptized by immersion?” I told him that we didn’t do immersion because there was no immersion tank in our church, like they have in the Baptist churches. He then told me that the pastor of another church in town was willing to baptize him by immersion at a member’s pool. I told him that this was fine, but that this would make him a member of that church. “I don’t want to join that church, but I want to be baptized by immersion.”

I explained that from the Presbyterian point of view, baptism was always done in front of a congregation because they are part of the baptism. They take vows to care for the baptized person since all the members of the church become godparents at baptism. That’s why we don’t have godparents stand up during baptism. The whole congregation are the godparents. To take him to a pool or the Connoquennessing Creek would take the congregation out of it.

Round and round we went, discussing all of this, but no matter how we kept trying to resolve it, he wanted to be baptized by immersion. Finally, I asked him why he wanted to be baptized by immersion. He said that he wanted to have the kind of spiritual experience some of his friends had talked about, and that he had read about—where people come up out of the water feeling renewed and reborn. I told him that this kind of experience is a gift from God, and that the style of baptism doesn’t guarantee that kind of experience. Also, I mentioned that only a small number of Christians have that kind of experience at baptism, but that many have it in other contexts. It’s up to God to grace us with that experience, and it’s dependent on our need, not our desire, for that kind of experience.

We were still at an impasse. So we agreed on a course of action. We would let things stand as they were, since he was already a member of Calvin Church. If he wanted to be baptized by the other church and become a member there, that would be up to him and God. Otherwise, there would probably come a time in the future where he would move somewhere else and join another church, or decide to be baptized in the way we practice it. At that point he could decide how to be baptized.

So what do you think? Does how we’re baptized matter? I suppose the answer depends upon whom you ask. There’s been an ongoing argument between adulters and birthers for centuries, ever since the Reformation. I don’t mean an argument between adulterers—those who commit infidelities—and birthers—those who believe President Obama was actually born in Kenya and should be disbarred from being president. I mean an argument between those who believe in adult baptism and baptism soon after birth.

I’ve been in a number of conversations over the years with people about the “right” way of being baptized. Because I come from a tradition where we baptize infants, it’s normal for me to support infant baptism. Still, my Baptist, evangelical, and Pentecostal friends would tell me that I’m leading people down the wrong path. For them the method of baptism is crucial.

So what are the arguments for the two styles of baptism? The argument for adult baptism is primarily scriptural. Jesus was baptized by immersion as an adult. The disciples were baptized by immersion as adults,… or were they? Other than John, Andrew, and maybe Philip, who were previously disciples of John the Baptist, we don’t know if anyone else was baptized as adults. In fact, there aren’t a large number of scriptural accounts of baptism at all. The other argument for adult baptism is that it offers people a chance to make a mature choice at baptism, not have that choice made for them.

What are the arguments for infant baptism? There isn’t much there scripturally, although there are some inferences. For example, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says, “I did baptize also the household of Stephanas…” This implies that he baptized everyone, including infants. Also, in the second letter of Timothy, Paul says to him, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The implication of this passage is that Timothy has been a Christian since birth. Of course, both of these are inferences, but not proof, of infant baptism. The other argument for infant baptism is that we do invite people to become confirmed, which means that they “confirm” the baptismal vows that their parents took on their behalf when they were children. Confirmation becomes the second half of baptism, and it invites people to make the same kind of mature choice that takes place with adult baptism.

There’s also one other argument. This argument is that despite the scriptural example of adult baptism, the fact is that there couldn’t be any other example. The first Christians were adult converts. So they would only have received an invitation to follow Christ as adults and then become baptized as adults. Scripture cites adult baptism because that was the only possibility. The fact is that within the first hundred years of Christianity infants were baptized.

Still, the debates rage on. I have a very simple way of cutting through the arguments, though. My way involves a question. Look at the great Christians of history. Did the method of baptism make a difference in how they turned out. Certainly, if we look at Jesus, the disciples, and people around the world throughout history who became mature Christians after being baptized as adults, it says that adult baptism can be the foundation of becoming a mature Christian. But look also at all those who were baptized as infants and still became mature Christians. Look at all the Christians from about 100 to 1600 A.D. Look at people like John Calvin, Martin Luther, George Fox (the founder of the Quakers), John Wesley (the founder of the Methodists), Mother Teresa, most of us. What matters is not the method of baptism, but our openness to God after we’ve been baptized. Let me repeat that: What matters is not the method of baptism, but our openness to God after we’ve been baptized.

It’s apparent to me that the method of baptism doesn’t correlate at all with spiritual growth and spiritual maturity, since people who choose to commit their lives to God are able to grow and become mature regardless of how they were baptized. I agree with something that John Calvin often said: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, charity. He was saying that in things that really matter to the Christian life, such as belief in God, trusting in Christ as our savior, and being available to the Holy Spirit, we should be united. But in matters of theology to which people disagree, such as the virgin birth, method of baptism, who’s saved and who isn’t, we should be charitable and caring toward one another, knowing that we ourselves may be wrong.

I believe that the people who get caught up in arguing over the “right” method of baptism forget about the power of God’s grace. What do I mean by this? Think about what Paul says about grace. In his letter to the Romans he says that we are justified by grace through faith. In other words, we aren’t saved by our deeds, by our knowledge, or by our ability to be obedient to the law. God gives us grace as a gift, a gift that we haven’t earned. And our role is simply to have faith, and through faith to receive God’s grace in our lives so that it can make a difference for us and for others through us. The point that Paul makes is that it’s God’s love and grace that matters, not our beliefs and deeds. People who claim that the method of baptism matters are now taking away grace as a gift, and saying that grace is only given to us if we are baptized in the right way. So, if we are baptized as adults, we receive grace. If we aren’t, we don’t. When they do this, they are proclaiming Paul’s words to be false.

This argument over the method of baptism is one more example of the constant tendency of humans to try to wrest control of salvation from God’s hands. Throughout the history of Christianity and Judaism, people have tried to find a way to be in control of grace and salvation, rather than trusting in God to be in charge. The Jews tried to take grace out of God’s hands by emphasizing the righteousness of following the law. For them, justification came through perfect obedience to the law, and so God ceded to us the power to obtain grace. For them grace wasn’t a gift, but an earned reward. But as Christ taught, obedience to the law does not lead to salvation. It just leads to better moral behavior, a better moral behavior that can also come through openness to God.

The Roman Catholics, at the time of the Reformation, also became guilty of trying to control grace. They made salvation and grace dependent upon contributions to the church. Even today the Roman Catholic tradition restricts grace by emphasizing what deeds need to be undertaken to receive grace. For instance, to receive grace we have an obligation to weekly worship and participation in the mass; an obligation to confess our sins to a priest; and an obligation to other acts of charity. Again, these are attempts to restrict God’s grace from being a free gift by making it contingent on our acts.

Evangelical Christians have their form of restricting grace. They make God’s grace contingent on declaring Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior. In other words, the name you give God (calling God Christ) is what matters. I don’t disagree that we need to declare Christ as our Lord and savior to fully receive that grace, but God can dispense grace to us regardless of what our declarations are. Pentecostal Christians tend to make evidence of grace contingent on whether we have gifts of speaking in tongues, prophecy, holy laughter, healing, or other gifts. The implication is that if these gifts aren’t present, our faith isn’t good enough and therefore God’s grace isn’t in our lives. This is another restriction, seemingly putting grace under our control, not God’s.

We mainline Christians (those of us in denominations such as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, among others) have our own version of restricting grace. We emphasize living by the Golden Rule and doing good deeds as ways of getting into heaven. Again, the emphasis is on our behavior that merits grace, not on grace that is freely given and that changes our behavior.

And we can say the same kinds of things about those who proclaim adult baptism as the only way. What they are saying is that if we aren’t baptized in the right way, we don’t really receive the fullness of God’s grace. Well, God’s grace is a free gift. It is not contingent upon our acts or beliefs. The beliefs we have and the deeds we do can help grace work more thoroughly in our lives, but the grace is available still as a gift, not as something earned. If the method of baptism matters the most, then God’s grace really isn’t a free gift, and Paul was wrong.

What I think people really miss is the fact that ultimately it is God who is in control of our salvation, and God’s criteria is love, not deeds, law, works, golden rule, manifestation of gifts, or anything else. We believe in a simple idea. Grace is out there as a gift, and we don’t need to do anything to get it. It’s much like Christmas. How many of you were given a gift for Christmas, and before even opening it up, said, “You know, I haven’t done anything to earn it it. How about if I make everyone breakfast, clean up the house, clear the gutters, muck out the garage, and chop wood before opening it? That way I will have earned it.” This would be silly because gifts are given out of love, just as God gives us grace out of love.

The way we Presbyterians look at it all is to say that God’s grace is freely available, and all that we do is a response to grace. We worship to thank God for grace, and to learn to live lives that allow grace to flow more freely in our lives. We do good deeds because we want to share that grace that is already there. We engage in ministry and mission in order to share this grace. The grace is there. What we want to do is to share it.

The sacrament of baptism reveals of the nature of God’s love and grace. For us, baptism is an act that shows the nature of God’s grace by telling us something simple: “Do you see this child, this youth, this adult before you? This person has been loved by God from the moment God thought of him or her. That doesn’t mean that God has loved him or her from the moment she or he was conceived or born. It means that God has loved her or him from the moment God decided that this person should be created. The washing of baptism shows what God has done, which is to wash the person from the very beginning, saying, ‘I love this person and do not see, nor will see, the person’s sin. Sin may be there, but I will always be there to wash this person clean, and I will always look upon her or him with Christ’s eyes of love, forgiveness, and blessings.’” Baptism reveals God’s blessings in a person’s life, regardless of when he or she is baptized.

Ultimately, the issue is not how we are baptized, it’s whether we have the kind of faith that allows the grace of our baptism to flow throughout our lives