By Laurie Haas
The sacrament of baptism is the outward sign of God’s inward grace. Calvin defines baptism as “the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children.” (Institutes, XV 1, p. 1303.) The emphasis on being received into the church family is demonstrated by baptisms taking place within a worship service. The congregation has a question to answer and a promise to make to the child who is being baptized and to his or her family. In the Book of Order, the minister asks the congregation, “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture N. and N. by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?” (p. 406) Baptism is a visible sign that cleanses us from all sin: past, present and future. This is why a person only needs to baptized one time. The waters of baptism must also be accompanied by the Word proclaimed. The water is merely a symbol of Christ’s blood that is sprinkled for an internal cleansing, not a bathing or “removal of filth from the flesh.” (Institutes, XV 2, p. 1305) In baptism we are sealed by the promise and we acknowledge the gift of salvation offered in Christ.
As Calvin states, baptism also engrafts us to Christ as one of God’s children. First, it is important to note that God has claimed us even before we were born. “He promises that he will be our God and the God of our descendants after us [Gen. 17:7].” (Institutes, XV 20, p. 1321) Our response to this love either for us or for our children is a public proclamation of binding us to Christ and his church. In “grafting” ourselves to Christ through baptism, we die to our sinful life and are reborn by the Spirit to the new, righteous living offered in Christ. We acknowledge our dependence on Christ, like the twig needs the roots for nourishment to which it is grafted. We don’t completely drown out our sinful lives in baptism, as we are sinful in nature. “Baptism indeed promises to us the drowning of our Pharaoh [Ex. 14:28] and the mortification of our sin, but not so that it no longer exists or gives us trouble, but only that it may not overcome us.” (Institutes, XV 11, p. 1312)
Regarding the method of Baptism, I think that dying with Christ and being reborn into new life with him is best expressed through full immersion baptism. In the Lutheran tradition, I was sprinkled as an infant. In our PCUSA church, our Senior Pastor cups the water three times and wets the head of child or adult. Although full immersion was practiced by the ancient church as well as some of our contemporary churches today, Calvin allows for the individual church to choose its best practice: sprinkling, pouring or wholly immersing the body. The amount of water is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that we call upon the Holy Spirit to penetrate the hearts and souls of those who desire to respond to the call of Christ on their life. The sole purpose of baptism is to be a testimony to God’s grace for each of us; through which our faith will be sustained, nourished, confirmed and increased.
I have an observation and a question. First, my Director of Student Ministry resigned in December to serve at a local nondenominational church. He has worked in youth ministry for 9 years; his college degree is in graphic design. I just saw pictures of him on Facebook baptizing (full immersion) two high school students. I’m conflicted by this, because I am spending a lot of time and money to prepare for ordination, so that I can baptize people and preside over the Lord’s Supper. He can just go down the street and have the privilege, honor and authority to baptize these young men? (Of course, the early church did not have a Seminary and those followers of Christ baptized anyone and everyone.) It seems to cheapen what I am doing and also ties my hands with other Student Directors. He would never be allowed to do that in our PCUSA church! Are we bound by too many rules and regulations?
My question is related to the “experience” of baptism. Most of our 8th grade Confirmands do not remember their baptism, because it was done when they were infants. In Confirmation, these kids are claiming their faith as their own. I wonder about doing a meaningful and memorable “re-enactment” or “re-dedication” to Christ and the church through a special full immersion ceremony at the beach. I know that it can’t be “baptism” per se, but could it be a recommitment that uses other language and truly creates a memory for them to hang onto as they begin navigating their high school and then college years?