“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Matthew 28:19
Baptism is commanded by Jesus, one of the two sacraments he commands. “Do this in remembrance of me”, he tells his disciples when he breaks the bread and shares the cup.
In the catechism, we were asked, “How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?” and the answer was, ” Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord”. Then we were asked, “What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?” to which we answered, “I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof”.
The outward and visible sign of baptism, the catechism told us was, “Water, wherein the person is baptized In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”
Baptism as an outward and visible act did not begin with the church. If we look at the Bible, we see it begins with the Jewish people who used it as an outward and visible sign of washing away their past and beginning anew; it was an outward sign of repentance, of a desire to get rid of the impurities of one’s former life and begin anew. The people who went to the Jordan to be baptized by John went for a baptism of penitence. It was not a baptism that was undertaken once and for all, but rather was one that might be repeated if the penitent person felt it was necessary.
John the Baptist is baptizing people who have sinned and want to outwardly show that they are sorry and want to start again and when Jesus comes to the Jordan for baptism, it disturbs John. We read in Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verse 14, John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus understands John’s concern, and answers him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness”. John has recognized that something begun within his community as an outward and visible sign of repentance is an inadequate response to Jesus. Jesus agrees, “let it be so now”.
John’s baptism for repentance was not seen as bringing the inward and spiritual grace that Christians associate with baptism. “What is the inward and spiritual grace?” asked the catechism, and we answered, “A death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness; for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace”.
Baptism in the early days of the church was a move away from being the outward penitential washing of John the Baptist’s time, though part of its symbolism is still the washing away of sins, to being seen as bringing the inward and spiritual grace of sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Romans Chapter 6 Verse 3-4 Saint Paul writes of this spiritual meaning. “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life”.
As well as an inward dying and rising with Jesus and baptism became the moment when people received the grace of the Holy Spirit. Peter declared to the crowd in Acts Chapter 2 Verse 38, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.
Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles follows a person declaring their trust in Jesus. In Acts Chapter 2 Verse 41 we see baptism being administered in response to faith, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day”.
Faith for Jewish people was something that had a community dimension, it wasn’t individualistic, faith was about one’s whole household. We read in Joshua Chapter 24 Verse 15, Joshua declaring faith in God, but not just on behalf of himself. He says to the people, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”.
We see baptism as a moment for a whole family, for a whole household to receive grace. In Acts Chapter 16 Verses 14-15. we are told Lydia “was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message”. Lydia’s faith leads to the baptism of her household. Verse 15 tells us “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.”
Peter calls for repentance, Lydia declares herself a believer: repentance and faith are necessary for baptism. “What is required of persons to be baptized?” asked the catechism, and we answered, “Repentance, whereby they forsake sin; and Faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God made to. them in that Sacrament”.
So, if repentance and faith were necessary, how did our current practice develop? It is a question that catechism tried to answer. “Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?” it asked, and the answer given was, “Because they promise them both, by their Sureties; which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform”.
The practice of baptizing infants began early in the history of the church. Building on the custom of baptizing whole families where the Christian faith was accepted by the parents, it became the discipline of the church to baptize children. Infant baptism was followed by confirmation, initially at a very early age, but later when people reached an age at which they could make a declaration of faith for themselves. Confirmation owed its origins to Acts Chapter 8 Verses 15-17, “When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit”.
The practice of infant baptism continued until the Sixteenth Century Reformation brought challenges to the practice of baptism as it had developed in the church. Anabaptists became so called because the main churches saw them as baptizing again. The people thus described rejected the name, for them infant baptism was not valid, the baptism of adult believers was the only valid baptism. Balthasar Hubmaier, one of their leaders, wrote, “I have never taught Anabaptism. . . . But the right baptism of Christ, which is preceded by teaching and oral confession of faith, I teach, and say that infant baptism is a robbery of the right baptism of Christ”.
Believers’ baptism became the practice of most evangelical churches and there are times when the case for it seems particularly strong, when one looks at history, when one looks at the trivialization of baptism by many who bring children to receive it, the days of Lydia and her household seem very remote.
If we are to be able to stand over the words of the catechism, if the church is to continue the tradition of infant baptism that goes back to the days of the early church, it needs to take God’s grace seriously. The catechism tells us that baptism is a means by which we receive God’s grace, but our lack of discipline has made that grace into something cheap.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazis in World War II, wrote a book called “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer talks about “cheap grace”.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ”.
Bonhoeffer contrasts the “cheap grace”, which tends to be what we offer through our practice of baptism, with the costly grace offered by Jesus, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'”
The power of baptism depends upon the acceptance of its “inward and spiritual grace”, whether at the moment of baptism or years later. Without such acceptance, its power is lost. Without repentance and faith, the sacrament can bring us no grace.