What Presbyterians Believe:
Living and dying in God’s enveloping care
By Charles Wiley III
Presbyterians believe that baptism envelops our lives as Christians. As part of the covenant community, we baptize children as they grow into their faith. Believers are baptized as they make a decision to enter the covenant community and to follow Christ. When Christians die, we say that they have completed their baptism in death.
Why is baptism so central to our lives as Christians?
One way to answer that question is to consider the many dimensions of the meaning of baptism. When you ask, “What does baptism mean?” you will get a lot of answers. Baptism is
“dying and rising with Jesus Christ;
pardon, cleansing, and renewal;
the gift of the Holy Spirit;
incorporation into the body of Christ;
and a sign of the realm of God.”
[from proposed Directory for Worship, W-3.0402]
Dying and rising. Water gives life and water kills. We cannot live without water. And yet few things are as terrifying as being at the mercy of fast-moving, deep water. In baptism we speak of dying and rising with Christ. This is visually demonstrated in baptism by immersion, when we simulate going into the watery grave with Christ and coming up to new life in Christ.
Cleansing. In baptism we see the cleansing, the cleaning power of water. We experience daily the cleansing power of water with our food, our bodies, our things. In baptism we experience the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit. The practice of the pouring of water visually demonstrates the cleansing power of water.
Being gifted with the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures speak of the Spirit’s presence as anointing. In some mysterious way, the act of baptism brings with it the anointing, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The practice of making the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead or similar acts demonstrate the anointing power of water.
Being incorporated into the body of Christ. Baptisms are not private, but take place in the Christian community. You cannot baptize yourself. The practice of welcoming the newly baptized into the community visually demonstrates this incorporation. Sometimes when a young child is baptized, the minister takes the child away from the parents/sponsors and walks through the congregation with the new member of the body. This shows that the primary relationship for this person is the body of Christ, not the blood relationships of family.
Seeing a sign of God’s realm. When Jesus came along, echoing the prophets, that the day of the Lord had come, it signaled that his followers were to live in a new way. The waters of baptism communicate a newness of life, in which we repent of our old ways and turn and follow Jesus in a new direction.
We Presbyterians emphasize the covenant aspect of baptism. When we baptize infants we emphasize God’s gracious movement toward human beings, connected to us, through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The most profound articulation of this covenant understanding of baptism can be heard in the words of the French Reformed Church baptismal liturgy:
Little one, for you Jesus Christ came into the world:
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, “It is accomplished”;
for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;
for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, little one,
though you do not know it yet.
And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled:
“We love because God loved us first.”
(Book of Common Order, Church of Scotland)
God loved us first. That is what we hold dear. Whether with a believer or a child, baptism enacts this enveloping love of God — the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, who comes to us in the power of the Holy Spirit, a love that will not let us go. That is the story of Scripture, and that is the story of baptism, whether an infant in arms or a saint who is finally at rest.
Rev. Dr. Charles Wiley III is associate director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
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