Renewing waters: How United Methodists understand baptism
Water sustains life for humans, animals, and plants. We clean with warm water and relax in cool water. We find peace listening to the roar of the ocean or taking a stroll in the rain.
Water is also important to our life in the church.
In the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, “we are initiated into Christ’s holy church, … incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit,” the Introduction to the Baptismal Covenant says. “All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”
Former director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism is the ordinary means of rebirth and initiation into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Our need for salvation
The Bible teaches that God made human beings in the image of God, and all of creation to be good. Sin caused a “distortion of the image of God in us and the degrading of the whole of creation,” By Water and the Spirit, The United Methodist Church’s official statement on baptism, reports.
In baptism, we reject the power of sin and begin our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Sacraments: God's show and tell
The United Methodist Church celebrates two sacraments: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Our official statement on communion, This Holy Mystery, helps us understand what we mean by a sacrament.
“Sacraments are sign-acts, which include words, actions, and physical elements. They both express and convey the gracious love of God. They make God’s love both visible and effective. We might even say that sacraments are God’s ‘show and tell,’ communicating with us in a way that we, in all our brokenness and limitations, can receive and experience God’s grace.”
By Water and the Spirit explains, “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments that were instituted or commanded by Christ in the Gospels.”
The elements of water, bread, and wine are a very important part these rites. “Because God has created and is creating all that is,” By Water and the Spirit teaches, “physical objects of creation can become the bearers of divine presence, power, and meaning, and thus become sacramental means of God’s grace. Sacraments are effective means of God’s presence mediated through the created world.”
Through the Great Thanksgiving of the communion liturgy and the Thanksgiving Over the Water of the baptismal liturgy, we pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon these objects and those that receive them.
“The ritual action of a sacrament does not merely point to God’s presence in the world, but also participates in it and becomes a vehicle for conveying that reality,” By Water and the Spirit states. “God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but it must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives. The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us."
Baptismal Covenants I, II, and IV in The United Methodist Hymnal (Baptismal Covenant III is not to be used) open with questions asked of the parents and sponsors of those to be baptized, and the candidates who can answer for themselves.
The questions ask if one renounces wickedness, rejects evil, and repents of sin; accepts the freedom and power of God to reject evil, injustice, and oppression; and confesses Jesus as Savior, trusts in his grace, and promises to serve him as Lord alongside all who are part of the universal church. (For more on the service, see This Is Your Baptism Liturgy.)
“Baptism starts that process of breaking us away from sin’s power,” Burton-Edwards clarifies, “but it is sanctifying grace throughout our lives that actually accomplishes it.”
Through the waters of baptism, we are cleansed of our sin and born into a new way of living. Whether an infant or adult, this is just the beginning.
As the circumcision of male children is the initiatory act into God’s covenant with the Hebrew people (see Genesis 17:9-14), baptism is our initiation into the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter offers the promise of baptism without regard to age, saying it is for those present, their children, and those far away (Acts 2:38-41). Later in Acts, we read of Paul and Silas baptizing Lydia and her household, and later their jailer with his entire family (Acts 16).
We continue this practice by baptizing the children of those who reaffirm their baptismal vows, receiving them into God’s mighty acts of salvation.
All those who receive the sacrament in a United Methodist congregation, are baptized members of the Church universal, the denomination of The United Methodist Church, and their local congregation, regardless of age.
By Water and the Spirit explains, “Just as infants are members of their human families, but are unable to participate in all aspects of family life, so baptized infants are members of the Church—the family of faith—but are not yet capable of sharing everything involved in membership.”
While all those baptized in a United Methodist church are members, when reporting membership statistics we count professing members, those who are baptized and have publicly professed the baptismal and membership vows for themselves.
Because baptism is an act of God, initiating us into the universal church, “the sacrament is to be received by an individual only once,” By Water and the Spirit states.
Some baptized persons may like to commemorate and celebrate profound faith experiences in a special way. For this purpose, The United Methodist Hymnal contains Baptismal Covenant IV, which By Water and the Spirit calls “a powerful ritual of reaffirmation which uses water in ways that remind us of our baptism.” The membership vows of The United Methodist Church also contain a reaffirmation of the baptismal vows.
Walking in the way that leads to life
Following the act of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the pastor then offers a blessing with the laying on of hands, which may include oil. The pastor says, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”
By Water and the Spirit teaches, “This anointing promises to the baptized person the power to live faithfully the kind of life that water baptism signifies.”
For further study
Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church provides two wonderful resources for those seeking to know more.
- By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism is the official statement of the church adopted at the 1996 General Conference.
- This is Your Baptismal Liturgy: A Resource for Understanding the United Methodist Ritual of Holy Baptism explains the purpose of each part of the service we use.
Both are free downloads that can be used for study by individuals, classes, and small groups.
One of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives is the church, local and universal, into which the Sacrament of Holy Baptism initiates us.
“In the service,” Burton-Edwards explains, “the congregation is taking vows too. They’re going to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, and pray for you, that you may be a disciple of Jesus Christ who walks in the way that leads to life.”
For this reason, baptisms are to take place in the presence of the community of faith. The congregation welcomes their newest members, and renews their covenant to live a life of discipleship.
“Baptism is not an act that imparts something just to you,” Burton-Edwards clarifies. “It is an act that brings you into a spiritual relationship with the whole body of Christ. In which you are becoming one with them and they are becoming one with you.”
Together the baptized—the Church of all ages, nations, and races—walk in the way that leads to life.
This article was published October 12, 2015.