What Does Baptism Do?

Baptism is a sensitive subject for me. 

I was baptized as an infant.  And while I love the church I grew up attending, the truth is that my faith came alive through a para-church ministry.  So for a dozen years, I’ve wrestled with the meaning of my infant baptism: If baptism is a sign of repentance, a response we make to the Gospel, then what on earth did my infant baptism mean?   It wasn’t that I didn’t approve of infant baptism – I understood the theological justifications of it, and agreed with them enough in theory to pursue ordination in a denomination that baptized infants.  But on a practical level, those justifications just didn’t fit with my experience. I don’t feel like I was a Christian from birth – I feel like a convert.  So I’ve wrestled with my baptism a lot.  A lot.  Internally and sometimes externally

But over the past few months some of that wrestling’s paid off.  God’s brought me around a corner in my understanding of baptism.  So here goes some more external processing:

I think the reason my infant baptism was so puzzling for me is that I was seeing it with too human eyes.  Most ordinary Presbyterians are closet Zwinglians (i.e., see the baptism and the Lord’s Supper as metaphorical, rather than a tangible acts of grace).  The Reformers did move away from medieval Catholic understandings of the Eucharist, but they didn’t all reject the idea that grace could be communicated through tangible acts.  Their western descendents who are shaped by Enlightenment rationalism, though, don’t usually know this.  And, because we’re products of the Enlightenment, we tend to look at the sacraments metaphorically, or as symbols without an actual connection to an action of God.  In short, we act like they are purely human actions.  We perform them, but we don’t really believe God does anything through them.

But what if God actually does do something in baptism and the Eucharist? As a pastor of a church that calls itself “Sacramental”, we’ve been celebrating the Lord’s Supper together every week for more than a year.  It’s at the center of our worship gathering.  And while I have always believed that there’s something more-than-what-meets-the-eye going on in the Eucharist, that conviction has been strengthened by regular practice.  Nevertheless, baptism has remained much harder for me to see as more than a human act. 

Until last fall.  Then I read some things in Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and No Man is An Island that opened my mind up to the possibility of God acting through the human action of baptism.  Now, as I’m continuing to read the Church Fathers with my friends from ACFI, I’m seeing how much they really believe in the power of God’s action in baptism.  Some quotes from the Philokalia:

Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ; and it becomes active within them to the extend that they actively observe the commandments.  – St. Mark the Ascetic, #61 of No Righteousness by Works

Everyone baptized in the orthodox manner has received mystically the fulness of grace; but he becomes conscious of this grace only to the extent that he actively observes the commandments. – St. Mark the Ascetic, #92 of No Righteousness by Works

From the instant we are baptized, grace is hidden in the depths of the intellect, concealing its presence even from the perception of the intellect itself. – St. Diadochos of Photiki, # 77 of On Spiritual Knowledge

Grace at first conceals its presence in those who have been baptized, waiting to see which way the soul inclines; but when the whole man has turned towards the Lord, it then reveals to the heart its presence there with a feeling which words cannot express, once again waiting to see which way the soul inclines. – St. Diadochos of Photiki, # 85 of On Spiritual Knowledge

These quotes make me picture baptism this way: in baptism, a seed of grace is planted which then grows and bears fruit at the appropriate times, depending on how (and if) it’s watered.  One is united with Christ (“baptized into Christ”, in biblical words) in the act of baptism, but growing to full “maturity in Christ” or sanctification happens later, depending on the nourishment received. 

I didn’t know how to process this at first.  On the one hand, it gave meaning to my infant baptism.  Or, more accurately, now the meaning ascribed to my infant baptism matched my experience.   But is this view of baptism Reformed?  Do Presbyterians believe this?  Happily, yes.  Yesterday I was surprised to discover that Calvin says something very similar in the Institutes. In section 4.16.20, he’s defending infant baptism and says “children are baptised for future repentance and faith. Though these are not yet formed in them, yet the seed of both lies hid in them by the secret operation of the Spirit.” Again, it seems that baptism deposits a seed which then grows and bears fruit later in life. 

This may sound like common sense to some, or it may sound shocking and bizarre to others.  I think the difference in perception again may lie in whether we look at baptism with human eyes or the eyes of faith.  And if the Church really is the Church, then why can’t the action of the Church in the sacraments be an extension of God’s action?  Is that too much to believe?

1 comment
  1. No, it isn’t too much to believe. Not at all.

    I think the challenge here is to see baptism as evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than just a Zwinglian remembrance. It can be the manifestation of the Spirit as it moves in the lives of those who are coming into knowledge of God, as is the case in volitional baptism. It can be the manifestation of the Spirit as it moves in the church, which pours out the love of Christ to a newborn child.

    Whichever way, it’s a work of the Holy Spirit and fire.

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