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Sacraments: baptism

Where should we place the baptismal font?

Most importantly, the baptismal font belongs in the sanctuary, or wherever the people of God regularly assemble for worship. The presence of the font in worship should serve as a constant reminder of the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus, through our dying and rising with Christ in baptism, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, our incorporation into Christ’s body and the promise of life eternal and abundant in the kingdom of God. The font should be in full view of the congregation and open and filled with water on every Lord’s Day, so that all may see and sense the depth of meaning associated with Christian baptism.

A second issue is the placement of the font within the worship space. Protestant Reformers brought the font out of secluded baptistries and into the sanctuary, sometimes attaching bowls of water to the pulpit to emphasize baptism’s relationship with the word of God (see Matt. 28:19-20). Others have positioned the baptismal font in such a way that a visual connection is made with the table of the Lord’s Supper, demonstrating the relationship between these two sacraments in Christian initiation as well as the ongoing sacramental life of the church. Another possibility — increasingly prevalent in Reformed congregations — is to place the font near the entrance to the worship space, which symbolizes baptism as the entry into the community of faith and allows worshipers to actively remember their baptism as they enter the place of worship, perhaps by touching the water of the font. In any case, liturgical leaders and designers of worship space should take care to consider the profound relationships between baptism, Eucharist and preaching and should seek ways to invite the active participation of the congregation in each of these elements of worship.

How do we baptize?

The Directory for Worship says:

“The sacrament of baptism, the sign and seal of God’s grace and our response, is the foundational recognition of Christian commitment. It is appropriately celebrated following the reading and the proclaiming of the Word, and shall include statements concerning the biblical meaning of baptism, the responsibility to be assumed by those desiring baptism for themselves or their children and the nurture to be undertaken by the church.

Those desiring the sacrament of baptism for their children or for themselves shall make vows that (a) profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, (b) renounce evil and affirm their reliance on God’s grace, (c) declare their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church, (d) declare their intention to provide for the Christian nurture of their child. The congregation shall (e) profess its faith, using the Apostles’ Creed, (f) voice its support of the baptized, (g) express its willingness to take responsibility for the nurture of those baptized. An elder may lead the congregation in these professions and affirmations.

The minister of Word and Sacrament offers a baptismal prayer. This prayer (a) expresses thanksgiving for God’s covenant faithfulness, (b) gives praise for God’s reconciling acts, (c) asks that the Holy Spirit, attend and empower the baptism, make the water a water of redemption and rebirth, and equip the church for faithfulness.

The water used for baptism should be common to the location, and shall be applied to the person by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. By whatever mode, the water should be applied visibly and generously. The minister shall use the name given the person to be baptized and shall baptize in the name of the triune God. The baptismal formula is: “_____, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Care shall be taken that the central act of baptizing with water is not overshadowed. Other actions that are rooted deeply in the history of baptism such as the laying on of hands in blessing, the praying for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, anointing with oil, and the presentation of the newly baptized to the congregation may also be included. When such actions are introduced, they should be explained carefully in order to avoid misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Declaration shall be made of the newly baptized person’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ. The welcome of the congregation is extended. Whenever the service is so ordered, the Lord’s Supper may follow baptism at the appropriate time in the service.” (W-3.3601 – W-3.3608).

What about rebaptism? Reaffirmation of baptism?

Baptism is received only once. There are many times in worship, however, when believers acknowledge the grace of God continually at work. As they participate in the celebration of another’s baptism, as they experience the sustaining nurture of the Lord’s Supper, and as they reaffirm the commitments made at baptism, they confess their ongoing need of God’s grace and pledge anew their obedience to God’s covenant in Christ. (Book of Order, W-2.309)

The point is to determine exactly what the person is asking. Is it that they do not believe that they have been legitimately baptized? See W-2.3010, where we receive the good news that: “As there is one body, there is one baptism. (Eph. 4:4-6) The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes all baptisms with water in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit administered by other Christian churches.” (For those coming to the Church having been baptized by the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or any other questionable sect, see the other available information concerning those “churches.”)

Is it that they do not believe their earlier baptism (either as a child or as an adult) is valid because of their subsequent life? See W-2.3007, which declares: “God’s faithfulness signified in baptism is constant and sure, even when human faithfulness to God is not. Baptism is received only once. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily, calling to repentance and newness of life. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those whose baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith.” See also the Larger Catechism Q. 167.

What is christening and how does it relate to baptism?

The term “christening” comes from an Old English word meaning “to dedicate to Christ.” It has the primary meaning now of baptism, with the secondary meaning of naming. It is in this second sense that “christening” has also come to be used for the naming of other things, such as a dog or a ship. In its oldest sense, however, the term “christen” is in keeping with a Christian understanding of baptism: both of them refer to the act of welcoming a person into the new life of Christ.

A problem arises when “christening” comes to mean a private family event of naming a new child. Mark Searle says in Christening: The Making of Christians, “It was probably the loss of [the] sense of baptism as a sacrament of the whole Church which made the ‘christening’ into something which, as often as not, was a family and social occasion more than the celebration of the most profound and intimate mysteries of the Christian life and faith. To some extent that still prevails today, so that the impression often given is that this is the celebration of the birth of the child, rather than of its sacramental rebirth in Christ.” [p. 26] So one problem with the term “christening” is that it has come to have the sense of a private event of welcoming the child into a human family, rather than the church’s engrafting that person into the body of Christ.

The other problem with the term is that it has come to be narrowly associated with naming. To be sure, the giving of a name is an important act. As Searle notes, “To give the child a name is to claim him or her as [the parents’] own; but it is also to recognize the child’s right to exist as another person: we need a name for the child because he or she is not just a thing for us to use, but a person to whose freedom we must appeal and whose separate identity we must respect.” He goes on to say, “It is because a name identifies a person that God gave a new name to a number of the great people he enlisted in his work of salvation: Abram became Abraham, ‘father of many nations,’ and Simon, son of Jonah, became Peter, ‘the rock.’ From the fourth century onwards, and possibly even earlier, many adult converts from paganism took a new name when they became Christians, showing thereby that they were very much aware that in being baptized into Christ they were assuming a new identity, emerging as a new creation, a new person.” [p. 32]

Naming is important, even crucial to our identity, but when naming itself becomes the entire focus of the baptismal act, something has gone amiss. The focus should be squarely on the themes of new birth in Christ, engrafting into the covenant, washing away of sin and death and welcoming into new life.

In sum, “christening” in its original sense is a suitable term to use as a synonym for baptism. Because of its more recent implications of private family naming ceremony, however, it has become a problematic term. For that reason, Presbyterians are better off avoiding the word “christening” unless they are prepared to reinterpret it for the listener. (Source: Mark Searle, Christening: The Making of Christians. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1980.)

What is the Presbyterian practice regarding appointing godparents?

The Directory for Worship says: “The congregation as a whole, on behalf of the Church universal, assumes responsibility for nurturing the baptized person in the Christian life. In exercising this ministry, the session may designate certain members of the congregation as representatives of the church charged with special responsibility for nurture. For any person who is being baptized, sponsor(s) may be appointed by the session in consultation with those desiring Baptism for themselves or for their children and given the specific role of nurturing the baptized person” (W-2.3013).

The term “godparent” is not used in our Directory for Worship. Instead, we speak of baptismal “sponsors.” While “godparents” are often understood to assume a special role in the life of a baptized child on behalf of the child’s parents, baptismal “sponsors” serve the one being baptized, whether child or adult, on behalf of the entire congregation. Baptismal sponsors are appointed by the church session on behalf of the entire church. When presenting their children for baptism, parents may request specific sponsors, whom the session then endorses for service in this capacity. Sponsors act on behalf of the church to assure that the baptized are indeed nurtured by the community in the Christian faith.

Some churches choose to designate all members of the congregation as “sponsors” in their services of baptism. Whether certain individuals from the congregation serve especially as sponsors or not, the entire community makes a solemn promise to support and nurture the baptized in the Christian faith, and all members of the church are responsible to fulfill that promise.

When children are being baptized, the baptismal sponsors may join the parents at the font, thus signifying their special responsibility for the nurture of the child being baptized. In some cases the language of “godparents” is used by Presbyterians to refer to this practice, since it appears on the surface quite similar to the godparent role. However, it is helpful to avoid that language, since many people interpret it quite differently from the Presbyterian understanding of the proper function of baptismal sponsors.

Can someone who is not baptized be saved?

Baptism, in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, is a sign and seal of God’s gift of salvation — of the saving work that has already been done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we respond to God’s gracious gift, offering our lives to God in service and entering into covenant relationship with God as members of the body of Christ. Ordinarily, the sacrament of baptism (baptism with water and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) takes place at the time of profession of faith, whether by oneself (as in the case of adult or believer’s baptism) or by one’s parents/guardians (as in infant baptism). Either way, it is God who chooses, calls and claims us, long before we are able to articulate our faith on our own.

It is certainly possible for one to receive the gift of salvation from God without the accompanying rite of baptism. This is sometimes called “baptism by the Spirit” — though of course the Holy Spirit is present and active in the ritual act of baptism as well! The story of Cornelius and the first Gentile converts in Acts 10-11 offers an example of baptism by the Holy Spirit preceding the act of baptism with water. Moreover, the Apostle Paul argues that Abraham was saved by grace through faith (Romans 4), not by virtue of his works or by a ritual act such as circumcision. Our theological ancestor John Calvin argued strongly that “we must utterly reject the fiction of those who consign all the unbaptized to eternal death,” and “baptism is not so necessary that one from whom the capacity to obtain it has been taken away should straightway be counted as lost” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xvi.26). As people with confidence in the grace of God and faith in God’s sovereign power, we may affirm that “for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).