A regular feature of our worship services at Faith Presbyterian Church is the sacrament of baptism. In the more than twenty-five years of my pastorate we have witnessed some 377 baptisms (as of the end of January 2004) which means that on nearly 30% of the Lord’s Days over those years we have had a baptism. In the first month of 2004 we had a baptism every Sunday. Understandably the largest number of these baptisms were infant baptisms, but through the years people of all ages have received baptism in our services.
Given our practice and that of the vast majority of Christian churches, it is an interesting fact that there is no precedent in the Bible for performing the ritual of baptism in a Sabbath worship service. The baptisms recorded for us in the New Testament were performed in large gatherings out-of-doors immediately after evangelistic preaching (Acts 2:41), in private homes or desert wastes after Christian witness had led to conversion (8:38; 9:19; 10:47-48; 16:15, 33), or immediately upon believers receiving instruction in the sacrament (19:5). Circumcision, baptism’s predecessor, was likewise a ritual practiced generally in a home setting and never, so far as we know, in a church setting. In the same way that we have taken weddings out of the home – where they were conducted in the ancient Near East – into the church, we have taken the ritual of baptism out of the home, the city square, and the byway and brought it into church. It was not difficult to do this and certainly not improper, for the ritual is itself the sign and seal, the embodiment of everything that Christian hearts confess in a service of worship on the Lord’s Day. As baptism is initiation into the church there is certainly nothing improper in its being celebrated in the church. The other Christian sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, is naturally a part of Christian worship and has been from apostolic times. Christopher Wren, the great English church architect, proposed that the narthex of the church should be large enough to accommodate the congregation standing and that the baptismal font should be located there. Baptisms then would take place, as in the New Testament, outside the church service, and only after the baptism would the congregation, enlarged by the one or several just baptized, enter the church service together. That, alas, is not possible in our case and we continue, happily enough, the tradition – for that is what it is – of placing baptisms in our Sunday worship.
Several things are important for a congregation to remember when baptisms occur in a worship service. First, the congregation’s role in baptism is primarily that of witness. In our tradition – a very worthy tradition – we have the congregation take a vow at most baptisms. But that is a small and secondary part of the ritual of baptism. It would be no less a baptism were that vow to be omitted or, for that matter, were the vows of the parents to be omitted when their infant children are baptized. Such vows are not required in Holy Scripture and the Bible finds the nature and meaning of baptism in the ritual itself: the application of water by a Christian minister in the name of the Triune God. Second, as with so much else in Christian worship, the congregation must witness the baptism by faith as well as by sight. The great actors in the drama of a baptism are God and the individual being baptized. We are tempted to think, for example, that in an infant baptism the really important thing is the exhortation of the minister or the vows taken by the parents. That is natural enough. We can hear the minister and see the parents. But the minister is there because he is appointed to act on Christ’s behalf and it is the Lord’s doing it that makes baptism so important. Could we see the Lord Jesus sprinkling water on a person’s head, could we hear him utter the divine name over that life, we would know that a very great thing had just happened, something that would, that must change a person’s life, place it on a different foundation, and hold promise of the greatest conceivable blessing in time and eternity even as it lays a person under the greatest conceivable accountability. As with everything else in the Christian life, we need to come to a baptism with our faith awake and working, “seeing him who is unseen.”
American evangelical Christians, including those of the Reformed type, have a greater difficulty with ritual than other Christians have and do. We have been taught a highly intellectualized view of faith and a profoundly voluntarist view of the Christian life (voluntas is the Latin word for the human will and so “voluntarist” refers to views that emphasize the exercise of the human will). Because in the baptism of infants the person being baptized is not thinking anything, doing anything, or willing anything, we find it hard to see how it can be of any great importance. In the case of adult baptism, on the other hand, in order to make it more significant evangelicals have subtly transformed baptism into less what God does to and for someone and more what the person does for God. If baptism is a public confession of the person’s faith and demonstration of his loyalty to Christ then it seems more important. Not so! What makes the difference between heaven and hell for any and every sinner is what God does and what God alone can do. This is profoundly demonstrated in Christian baptism, a ritual in which the person is passive, in which something is done to him and for him, not by him. The very nature of baptism is in this way a picture of salvation by grace alone. There is, to be sure, some doing on our part in baptism – the parents take vows, the adult convert takes vows – but our doing is an aftereffect of the rite, not the meaning of the rite itself. It is God’s doing, Christ’s doing that makes baptism so significant, so solemn, so life-changing. That doing, however, can be seen only by faith. The danger of Christian ritual, even those appointed for us in Holy Scripture, is the possibility of it being considered and practiced apart from living faith. Just as parents must bring their children in faith, give answer to their children’s baptism by raising them in faith; just as the children must in due time “improve” their baptism by the practice of their own faith; just as the adult convert must follow his baptism with a life of faith, so a Christian congregation must exercise her faith as she witnesses baptisms Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. We do this not only by seeing the Lord by faith as he acts in baptism, but by taking that great moment to heart for ourselves: giving thanks for the promise of salvation so wonderfully and solemnly given, joining our hearts in love to that newest member of the church, remembering our own baptism and that of others, and consecrating ourselves once again to that salvation signified and sealed to us when we were baptized.
At a Christian wedding we witness two people becoming a family, surely a most important moment. In Christian baptism, we witness by faith something still more wonderful and more important: the Lord Christ adding another human being to his church. No rite, no ritual in the world compares to this!