On Sunday, December 7, as Bishop John Schol sprinkled water on the heads of my twin girls, Auden and Amelia, they were named as God’s own. Through an indescribable and unfathomable gift of grace, my girls were “initiated into Christ’s holy Church, incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation, and given new birth through water and the Spirit.”* It was a beautiful, holy moment.
I grew up in a tradition that does not baptize babies. Baptism is understood as an ordinance; not a sacrament, and something only for those who can understand and choose for themselves. This is typically called “believer’s baptism.” One of the primary distinguishing features between an ordinance and a sacrament is the primary actor. Who is taking the initiative? In an ordinance, the individual is the prime mover; the baptismal ordinance is an individual’s response to God’s activity. A sacrament, however, posits that God takes the action. God loves us, calls us by name, and embraces us before we can know or understand it. And let’s be honest: if any of us had to wait to receive baptism until we really understood it, most of us would still be dry. This is why prevenient grace is so clearly integral to our baptismal liturgy: it is in the Invitation and Welcome, the Thanksgiving over the Water, the Commendation and Welcome into the Body of Christ. It’s the grace greater than our understanding.
John Wesley articulated and defended infant baptism in his work “Treatise on Baptism” (you can find that here; it begins on page 225). He offered support for the practice in several ways, addressing Jesus’ welcome of children and the practice of infant baptism by the Apostles and in the early church. However, perhaps his most persuasive and nuanced argument was his understanding of covenant. He pointed to the necessary inclusion of infants in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17 and St. Paul’s linking of circumcision and baptism, namely in Galatians and Colossians. After all, under the Abrahamic covenant, infants were admitted into the covenant through circumcision. Wesley said, “Infants are capable of entering into covenant with God. As they always were, so they still are, under the evangelical covenant. Therefore they have a right to baptism, which is now the entering seal thereof.” The covenant made available through Jesus Christ — the “evangelical covenant,” to use Wesley’s phrase — is all grace. It is something God has done for us; we need not demand certain criteria such as age, understanding, or family status, to be welcomed into it.
At the same time, my wife Amanda and I, along with all those who witnessed the baptism that day, have a significant part to play in Auden and Amelia’s growth in grace. We all promised to raise them in the life of faith and to nurture that in them, until they are able to publicly profess the faith for themselves. As Amanda and I made vows to live our faith that our children may in time live out theirs, I felt the weight of this responsibility. To put an ecclesial spin on a cliched phrase, “it takes a church” to live into baptismal vows. Covenant means we who have received this sacramental gift from God are in this journey together, and it is a journey that will only bear fruit if its roots drink deeply from the generous source of Living Water.
The following is the blessing in our baptismal covenant that the presider offers after the commendation and congregational welcome:
The God of all grace,
who has called us to eternal glory in Christ,
establish you and strengthen you
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
that you may live in grace and peace.
May it be so. Amen.
* Click here to access our United Methodist baptismal liturgies.
Photo by Aaron Harrington.