-- by Brant S. Copeland, Pastor
Note: Although this essay is addressed to parents or guardians who want to know more about Baptism for their children, I hope that adults considering this sacrament for themselves will also find it helpful.
There is nothing that I do as a pastor that gives me greater joy than to administer the sacrament of Baptism. It is a high privilege to proclaim the promises of the gospel and to "seal" them with the waters of Baptism. No other ritual, save Holy Communion, communicates as powerfully God’s love, grace, and faithfulness. Every time I take part in a Baptism I remember that I am baptized and rejoice. As a pastor and as a Christian believer, I love Baptisms!
I would be less than honest if I did not admit, however, that there are occasions when I am troubled by requests to baptize a child. I fear that some parents do not sincerely intend to take part in the life and work of a Christian Church following their child’s Baptism. I sometimes suspect, also, that parents think of Baptism as a kind of spiritual inoculation that guarantees protection in earthly life and salvation in the life to come. I even think that some parents present their children for Baptism in order to keep from disappointing their own parents. After all, it’s hard to disappoint a proud grandparent!
I hope in the brief essay to explore the meaning of Baptism and to discuss how this sacrament is administered at First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee. I hope this essay will help parents to make an informed decision about Baptism for their children, but just as important, I hope that is will prompt a personal discussion between me and you.
Baptism is a sacrament. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a sacrament is a "holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers." Presbyterians recognize two New Testament sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist).
Both sacraments are signs of God’s initiative, not ours. In them God in Christ takes the first step toward us. The sacraments are signs of God’s reaching out to us in the past and of God’s ongoing concern for us now. The most important aspect of Baptism is not what we do, but what God does. The sacraments are the tangible, concrete "seals" of the promises of forgiveness, freedom, and new life offered in the gospel. In Baptism we are reminded especially of God’s promise: "I will be your God and you shall be my people."
On the individual level, Baptism is the action by which we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Baptism we are reminded that we have died with Christ to the old life of sin and bondage to sin, and have been raised with Christ to a new life of freedom and service. The waters of Baptism hearken back to the story of Israel’s exodus. As we "pass through the waters," we recall our liberation into a new humanity.
At the corporate level, Baptism places us in the community of those who likewise have received God’s grace in Christ. Baptism is the seal of our incorporation into the body of Christ, the Church, where barriers of race, sex, and social status are transcended. To use other Biblical metaphors, Baptism confirms our engrafting as branches of the vine who is Christ and our adoption into the family of God as heirs of the covenant of grace. In Baptism God claims us and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God. The images are many but the reality is one.
Baptism is administrated to all those whom God calls. Since the initiative lies with God, and since, in any case, we need the Holy Spirit’s help to respond to God’s call, the key factor in Baptism is not the age or maturity of the person being baptized, but rather the church’s corporate response in claiming the promises sealed in the sacrament. Both parents and the congregation are part of that corporate response.
In the case of those who have reached the "age of discretion," and are able to claim for themselves the promises of grace, Baptism is the seal of their discipleship and the sign of their entry into the covenant community. Children or infants, of course, are unable to claim God’s promises for themselves. When a child is baptized, parents or guardians declare their own baptismal identity and promise raise their child in the faith. Adults do not make promises "on behalf of their children." Instead, they make their own promises before God and the congregation.
Whether the person baptized is an adult or a child, the congregation also makes its promise to nurture the baptized person in the faith. The vow of the local congregation, which represents the church universal, is an important aspect of the Baptismal rite. Presbyterians do not practice "private Baptism."
In Baptism you make a commitment to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and to Christ’s church. What’s more, you dedicate your child to God and promise to bring up your child in the Christian faith. In Baptism you promise to pray with and for your child, to teach her/him the doctrines of the Christian faith, to read the Bible with her/him, and, to use the language of one Baptism rite, "to strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring her/him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord."
Our congregation, representing the church as a whole, also make a commitment. We pledge to assist you in bringing up your child in the "nurture and admonition of the Lord," and to share the gospel with you and your child. Much of the congregation’s life of worship, education, fellowship, and service is ordered to that end.
It is impossible to fulfill the vows of Baptism apart from active participation in a community of Christian believers. If you do not sincerely intend to be active in the worship, fellowship, and service of a Christian church, there is simply no point in presenting your child for Baptism. If you are not presently active in such a church, you should become active as a sign of commitment before you present your child for Baptism.
I say this not to be legalistic, but to make clear the meaning of the sacrament. In order to grow in their own faith, children must see their parents take Christian commitment seriously. If you do not intend to "seal" your own promises with active participation in a church, your children will grow up with a distorted sense of their own Christian identity. Children must learn from their parents and from the Christian community what their Baptism means. You are your child’s principal teacher in the school of faith.
If, for reasons of conscience, both parents are not able to take the Baptismal vows, the parent who is a Christian believer may make the vows alone. It could be that your spouse would be willing to stand with you during the ritual to support you in your commitment. The point is, no one should take vows he or she does not intend to carry out.
The Baptismal rite is a rich one, rooted deeply in the earliest worship of the church.
Following the reading and preaching of the Word, the minister addresses the congregation, giving the scriptural warrant for the sacrament, and inviting the people to rejoice in their own Baptism as the sacrament is celebrated. Next, an elder, on behalf of the session, presents those to be baptized. Then the minister asks those being baptized to declare their commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior, and their intention to live as his disciples. When a child is being baptized, its parents or guardians declare their own faith and pledge to rear their child as a Christian.
This is the formula that is used. The minister asks the parents:
"Do you desire that _____________ be baptized"
Response: I do
"Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach that faith to your child?"
Response: I do.
Then the minister asks the congregation to promise to guide and nurture the person being baptized.
The service continues with the "Renunciation and Affirmation," questions that date back to the early days of the Christian Church:
"Do you renounce evil and its power in the world, which defies righteousness and love?"
Response: I do renounce them.
"Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?"
Response: "I do renounce them."
"Do you turn to Jesus Christ, and accept him as your Lord and Savior?"
Response: I do
"Do you intend to be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word, and showing his love, to your life’s end?
Response: I do.
In the words of the Apostle’s Creed, another early Baptismal formula, the whole congregation next proclaims the faith of the church.
A prayer of thanksgiving then offered, recounting briefly the mighty acts of God, giving thanks for the gift of Baptism, and including a blessing over the water. It is important to note that this is simply a prayer that God might use the water as a fountain of deliverance and rebirth – an appeal that the Holy Spirit be present. The water remains ordinary water; it is its use, not the water itself that is "holy."
The minister then calls the person by his or her Christian (given) name and pours water generously on the person’s head, saying:
"_____________," I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
To this the congregation adds its confirming "Amen!"
A blessing of the baptized person then follows as the minister lays hands on the head of the person being baptized. Again the congregation responds "Amen."
With anointing oil the minister makes the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and says:
"________," child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever."
Now the Elder declares the person to be a member of the holy catholic (i.e., universal) church, and the congregation responds with its welcome and pledge to share the gospel with this new member.
It has become the practice at First Church for the minister to carry the baptized child into the congregation following these actions, simply to let the congregation see its newest member.
Since there is only one Baptism, those baptized in the name of the Trinity in any Christian denomination are not re-baptized in our church. Although we usually administer the water by pouring, Presbyterians recognize – indeed practice – Baptism by sprinkling and by immersion. We do not, however, rank one mode of administering the water over another
In our tradition the whole congregation serves as "godparents" to baptized children, so there is no provision in our service for people to play that role. The session may, however, designate "sponsors" to accompany parents during the service, and to make additional vows of support and encouragement. This is a concession to our mobile society, in which children may well move from one congregation to another as they grow. Designating certain people as sponsors in no way de-emphasizes the role of the session and congregation, but rather seeks to provide continuity through the years.
In order to see what happens in Baptism, the children of the congregation are usually invited to come forward and stand by during the sacrament. The older siblings of children being baptized are encourage to be present. If they are able, I encourage them to have a role in the service such as reading the scripture lesson or helping me to prepare a prayer for their sister or brother being baptized.
Since through Baptism a child becomes a member of the church, God’s family, any baptized child may take Communion, the family meal of the people of God. Parents are encouraged, however, to explore the meaning of this sacrament with their young children. Communion is, to use the language of the 16th century reformers, a "converting ordinance." Even young children can grow in the faith through participation in this sacrament, but they need the guidance of their parents and congregation.
Nothing is more joyful – and nothing is more serious – than Baptism. I hope that by emphasizing the seriousness of this sacrament I have not diminished its joy. I also hope that, having read this essay, you still want to talk to me about your child’s Baptism. I am anxious to hear from you.
Phone me at the church (850) 222-4504 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.