I was asked a question yesterday about baptism – specifically, infant baptism. I wasn’t able to answer this at the time, since I was busy with homework, but I promised an answer as soon as I could get to it because it was a good question. However, I’ve decided to turn my answer into a blog post, because I’m sure there are others out there with questions about it. The subject of baptism seems to have been coming up frequently.
Christi P. from Indiana asks: “Joshua, not to start a debate but I’m curious about your view of baptism. I am familiar with the Presbyterian (which is Calvinist) view on baptizing infants but not familiar with the Methodist view. Do you believe that unbaptized infants and young children remain depraved?”
A fair question. (For context, the discussion had to do with something that John Calvin allegedly said about the depravity of infants and small children. It’s not exactly necessary for this discussion.) I want to answer the question, but it brings up a broader subject that I’d like to talk about as well, and that means that this post is quite long. If you’re just interested in the “tl;dr” version, skip down to the final paragraphs.
The Methodist understanding of baptism begins with the Anglican understanding. Wesley was an Anglican priest until his death, and his desire was not to form a new denomination (in fact, he adamantly opposed the formation of the Methodist Church his whole life), but to bring reform and renewal to the Church of England. To Wesley, baptism was both an ordinance and a Sacrament. This means that it is not only something we do because Jesus told us to do it, but it is something we do that has a spiritual component as well. An ordinance focuses on what we do. It is therefore empty of any meaning, and we have to come up with things to give it meaning. On the other hand, a sacrament is about God in action as we participate in the rite. It is therefore meaningful in and of itself, and does not need us to manufacture any. Meaning doesn’t come from what we say as much as the action of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the rite to grant us grace. Baptism is said to be “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The rite itself is our way of verbalizing (and acting out) what God is doing inside the person being baptized.
This excerpt from www.umc.com’s “frequently asked questions about baptism” section also sheds some light:
In all forms of Christian baptism, God claims those being baptized, whatever their age or ability to profess their faith, with divine grace. Clearly an infant can do nothing to save himself or herself, but is totally dependent on God’s grace, as we all are – whatever our age.
Most traditions that practice or recognize as valid the baptism only of believers – those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ for themselves in some public way – practice baptism not as a means of grace by which God saves and claims us, but rather as a further act of public profession and/or an act of obedience to the command of Christ that his followers be baptized. That is why these “believer’s baptism only” traditions generally refer to baptism as an ordinance – an act ordained or commanded by Christ – rather than a sacrament. The term sacrament means “an oath” and refers to God’s covenant with us (first of all) and ours in response to God’s gracious provision of salvation in Jesus Christ.
What this means for Methodists, then, is that the rite of baptism is something very special, made even more so by the fact that God uses the rite to do a special work inside the person being baptized. This special work “sticks”, so to speak, so that even if that person later rejects God and then returns to God, rebaptism isn’t necessary – or even allowed. The Holy Spirit’s work was sufficient the first time, even if the person was away from God for a time. This is why Methodists never rebaptize people, even if doing so would be very meaningful for the people involved. The meaning isn’t in the outward rite (although it can be and quite often is meaningful), but in the inward work of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is the entrance rite to the Church. It marks an important part of our journey with Christ. It can be the beginning of our walk, or it can come at some point further along. Most American Protestants are most familiar with the “believers’ baptism”, and that is indeed the pattern closest to early Church practice. However, infant baptism began in the fourth century after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. More and more people were baptized as infants, and baptisms of older people who were new to the faith became fewer and fewer.
Infant baptism is never specifically mentioned in the Bible. Then again, neither are several other things that we kind of take for granted. For instance, we allow women to receive Communion, even though it’s not specifically mentioned in the Bible. Many faith traditions have robed clergy, even though that's only mentioned as a reference to common clothing items of the time. If we exclude the things that the Bible is silent on, we have to sell our cars, forbid dancing, get rid of our instruments and microphones, sell our church buildings, and toss out our pews and offering plates. See how ridiculous that gets?
What we do know is this: Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14, NRSV). The kingdom of heaven belongs to the little children. The Greek word that is translated “little children” is the word τεκνίον (tek-ne-on), which means "a little child; (figuratively) someone deeply loved (endeared)" (Strong's Concordance). Certainly Jesus meant that we are to have a child-like faith and dependence on God. But he also meant that everyone, even the littlest, most vulnerable people, are welcome in God’s kingdom.
Second, baptism is an initiation into the Church. We baptize our infants because we want them to be a part of the body of Christ, and because we recognize that every means of receiving God’s grace is important. We need God’s prevenient grace to help us to find and choose God at a later time. In some ways, baptism takes the place of the Jewish practice of circumcision. God told Abraham that circumcision would be a sign of the covenant between God and his people. It was to be done on the eighth day, and it marked that boy permanently as a child of Abraham and a part of the covenant. Baptism doesn’t leave a physical mark, but it is something that is done to mark the person as one of God’s. It isn’t necessary for salvation. It isn’t sufficient for salvation. But it is an important step we take on our journey.
Third, baptism, especially for infants and those unable to answer for themselves, is a chance for parents or guardians and the wider congregation to make a covenant with God and each other to teach the one being baptized about Jesus. A couple of excerpts from the United Methodist baptismal liturgy are helpful.
The first one is in Baptismal Covenant I, which is printed in The United Methodist Hymnal, beginning on page 33. For those who are unable to answer for themselves (we will assume through the rest of this discussion for the sake of brevity and clarity that the one being baptized is a baby girl), the pastor turns to the candidate’s parents or guardians and asks, “Will you nurture this child in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God’s grace for herself, to profess her faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?” The parents both answer, “I will.” The pastor then asks the congregation, “Do you, as Christ’s body, the church, reaffirm both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ?” The congregation answers, “We will.”
The second comes right after the first. For all being baptized, no matter their ages or ability to speak for themselves, the pastor addresses the congregation. “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include this person now before you in your care?” The congregation’s responds, “With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround this person with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her trust of God, and be found faithful in her service to others. We will pray for her, that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.” This affirmation of responsibility to the people being baptized, even though they may be infants, is very important. Baptism is not something done apart from the wider community. Instead, God uses the gathered congregation to help nurture and minister to those who are baptized. We are to bear each others’ burdens and give each other love and forgiveness. This cannot happen if baptism is divorced from the larger community of faith.
“By Water and the Spirit”, the United Methodist Church’s official document about baptism, has this to say about Wesley and his baptismal beliefs:
[Wesley] taught that in baptism a child was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the Church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew. He said that while baptism was neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in human lives.
On the other hand, although he affirmed the regenerating grace of infant baptism, he also insisted upon the necessity of adult conversion for those who have fallen from grace. A person who matures into moral accountability must respond to God’s grace in repentance and faith. Without personal decision and commitment to Christ, the baptismal gift is rendered ineffective.
Baptism for Wesley, therefore, was a part of the lifelong process of salvation. He saw spiritual rebirth as a twofold experience in the normal process of Christian development – to be received through baptism in infancy and through commitment to Christ later in life. Salvation included both God’s initiating activity of grace and a willing human response.
This is one reason why Methodists are supposed to avoid “dedicating” their babies. The theology behind dedication is quite different from the theology of baptism. Dedication is a very human act. It is simply a pledge to give something (in this case, a baby) to God. However, baptism is a divine act. It is a pledge and a gift that God gives to us. It includes vows of dedication, and then goes further to celebrate what God has done, is doing, and will do in that child’s life.
Many parents ask, “Isn’t it better to wait until children can decide for themselves whether or not to be baptized?”
No. We no more wait for our children to decide about being in the family of God than we wait for them to decide if they would like to be a part of our human family. As parents, we make many decisions – in matters of health, safety, [and] education, for example – for our children. Of course, they may later reject what we have done for them. But, this possibility does not relieve us of the responsibility to do all that we can for them spiritually, as we do in other aspects of their lives. (From www.umc.com).
Methodists practice infant baptism because we believe that it is a means of grace for both the one being baptized and for the wider community. We believe that it is the initiation into Christ’s body. We believe that baptism is a better option than dedication because dedication is a human act, whereas baptism is God acting in the person being baptized. We believe that to be saved we can do nothing for ourselves – no matter how old or young we are – and that in baptism God claims that person with divine grace.
“By Water and the Spirit” has this to say about infant baptism:
Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the overwhelming majority of the Church throughout the Christian centuries. While the New Testament contains no explicit mandate, there is ample evidence for the baptism of infants in Scripture (Acts 2:38-41, 16:15,33) and in early Christian doctrine and practice. Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save ourselves, dependent upon the grace of our loving God. The faithful covenant community of the Church serves as a means of grace for those whose lives are impacted by its ministry. Through the Church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of handicapping conditions or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism.
The Church affirms that children being born into the brokenness of the world should receive the cleansing and renewing forgiveness of God no less than adults. The saving grace made available through Christ's atonement is the only hope of salvation for persons of any age. In baptism infants enter into a new life in Christ as children of God and members of the Body of Christ. The baptism of an infant incorporates him or her into the community of faith and nurture, including membership in the local church.
The baptism of infants is properly understood and valued if the child is loved and nurtured by the faithful worshiping church and by the child’s own family. If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available. A child who dies without being baptized is received into the love and presence of God because the Spirit has worked in that child to bestow saving grace. If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life.
Our tl;dr friends may rejoin us now. Christi’s question was whether Methodists believe that unbaptized babies remain depraved (in a large-scale sense). This is, in part, bouncing off something else I said in that conversation: “I believe in total depravity and original sin. I believe that we all are subject to the curse of sin brought onto humankind by Adam, and that the only way to escape it is to accept Christ as our Master and Lord. However, I draw a distinction between depravity in a general, human-scale sense and depravity on an individual scale. I would not say a child is depraved. I would, however, say that aside from God’s grace and mercy no one, no matter how old or young, is free of Adam’s curse. The key phrase here is ‘aside from God’s grace and mercy’. That’s the point where God’s prevenient grace has worked in a person’s life to the point that the person is able to recognize and choose to accept God’s justifying grace. Children grow at different rates, and some are able to recognize God’s prevenient grace earlier than others. Further, I believe that before a child is able to recognize God’s grace (because of age, developmental stage, or whatever), God counts the child innocent and blameless – in other words, I believe that babies and children that die before having the ability to accept Christ go to heaven.”
I believe that any unbaptized person, regardless of age, is depraved. Remember, I’m drawing a distinction between depravity on a general scale (which is just another way of saying “bound by sin”) and depravity on an individual level, which simply means that person has completely rejected God and is totally focused on pleasing the flesh. Babies don’t have any way of knowing God, so saying that they have rejected God is erroneous at best.
Baptism is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation, although it is an important step in our walk with Christ. So the simple answer to Christi’s question is that yes, I believe that an unbaptized person remains bound by sin, unless and until God’s justifying grace cleanses that person (what most people refer to as “getting saved”). At that point, a person is free of past sin and the stain of past sin, but because we’re human, we are still able and willing to sin. God’s sanctifying grace comes to help us put aside our sinful, human natures and take on Christ’s sinless nature. It’s a lifelong process.
A long post, I know, but one that was fun to write and that hopefully answers a few questions.