Reflections on baptism

A few weeks ago, my church had a baptismal service, followed the next week (Mothers’ Day) by a “baby dedication” service. Everything was good as far as it went, but it could have been so much better:

First, tomorrow is Pentecost. It’s one of the seven major holidays of the Christian year that my church somehow ignores every year, but centuries ago it was the traditional day for baptisms–if I recall correctly, it was the only day each year on which people were baptized, except when the person was close to death. In fact, in some denominations the holiday’s primary name is “Whitsunday” because of the white robes worn by the candidates for baptism.

Second, my church’s understanding of baptism is correct as far as it goes, and even minimally sufficient: Christians are baptized because Christ commanded it and to follow Christ’s example, and to show that we were buried with him, so we are and will be raised with him to new life. But the script (which meets the definition of “liturgy,” I note in passing) for the “baby dedication” service was a far better explanation of what is actually going on in baptism.

Baptism is the sign of entrance into the church, and of participation in its covenant with God. It is a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and invisible work in the believer’s life. Baptism is a sign of the believer’s commitment to follow Christ and of God’s commitment to the believer, to which are added the church’s commitment to help the believer grow in Christ. In other words, it is a sign of the covenant between God, the believer, and the church.

Baptism is a symbol, and believers and the church are commanded to be baptized and to baptize. But while that is all we need to know to see we need to obey, that is not all. God’s commands are not burdensome, but are rather for our good. What exactly is going on in baptism is not exactly clear (as I mentioned for sacraments in general), but it seems more than a little incomplete to treat it as a mere symbol.

I said earlier that the “baby dedication” service explained the working of baptism better than the baptismal service. In fact, the only difference between it and a true baptism was its lack of water and the words “I baptize you …” My one complaint was with the texts, or rather Scriptural examples, cited to support the practice of infant dedication: Samuel and Jesus. First, I don’t think you need to cite anything to justify the practice, except perhaps to support your reasoning for denying infant baptism. (About which I do not want to get into an argument; if, as I hold, believers’ children properly brought up in the fear of the Lord are regenerate from infancy, they will make profession of faith and be baptized as young children, so baptism as infants is not necessary.) But second, the only two principles I think can reasonably be derived from the account of the birth and upbringing of Samuel are that God answers prayer and that we need to keep any vows we make, while the story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple has its own foundation in the Law: every first-born male, man and beast, belonged to the Lord because he spared them when Israel escaped from Egypt, and every first-born son had to be redeemed. I don’t think that applies here. If you must find a proof-text, I’d suggest “Children are a heritage from the Lord” or some such verse.


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