A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
This weekend we are attending the baptism of our infant granddaughter. It is a significant day for her; and for our family.
Along with the Lord’s Supper, the theology of baptism has created differences within the church. On this issue, a number of Protestant communions join with the Roman Catholics in affirming infant baptism as a proper practice. Those in the Anabaptist tradition opt for “believer’s baptism” (adult baptism) as the only legitimate form of baptism. This split has been around since the days of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.
The theological arguments can be intricate but what is strikingly simple is a statement from Luther that can apply both to infant and adult baptism. Luther wrote in The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519) that “there is no greater comfort on earth than baptism” (Luther’s Works, 35:34).
Even when the infant does not remember the day of baptism, the fact that baptism was administered to the child on behalf of the whole Christian church and in the name of the triune God, is significant. The meanings of baptism shine through during the whole of life.
I was recently discussing baptism with the Great Lakes Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (GLAPCE) and asked if anyone knew the difference in Greek between the aorist and the imperfect tenses. One smart seminary graduate indicated the aorist tense indicates an action, once taken, and ended. The imperfect tense indicates an action in the past which has an ongoing, continuing effect. This was exactly the answer I wanted to elicit. Baptism is like the imperfect tense. It is an act of the church, once taken—but which has ongoing, continuing effects.
Luther often counseled that when beset by despair or by falling into sin, one should remember they have been baptized. He even used this as a remedy for the assaults of the devil! He said that one’s “whole life is nothing else than a spiritual baptism which does not cease till death” (Luther’s Works, 35:29). So we can see what Luther meant that through one’s whole life, “there is no greater comfort on earth than baptism.” The ongoing power of baptism, and its meaning, continue to nurture and sustain us through all our days.
Calvin said baptism is “the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children” (Institutes 4.15.1). Thus baptism provides the comfort Luther envisioned.
For Calvin, three great “comforts” emerge here.
First in baptism, we are “received into the society of the church.” Baptism is the entrance to the church and sets an ecclesial identity that tells us who we are—always. We are those who have been baptized into Jesus Christ! No deeper or stronger sense of our true self can come to us. We are members of the people of God, the body of Christ, the fellowship of the Spirit. Our bond is with the triune God; and with those with whom we are sisters and brothers in faith through our common baptism.
Second, in baptism, we are “engrafted in Christ.” Being in “union with Christ” is a key term for Calvin (as it was for Paul). It embraces all salvation means. The sacrament of baptism testifies or witnesses to the reality of our union with Christ by faith through which we receive all Christ’s benefits for us. As we receive the blessings of Christ, we experience baptism as “the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us” (Institutes 4.15.6).
Third, in baptism, we are “reckoned among God’s children.” We are the “adopted” children of God, on the basis of our election and salvation by grace in Jesus Christ (Romans 8). As members of God’s covenant community, the church, we are baptized into the community as part of the household of God—including “children” (which we all are!). Baptism witnesses to the strongest, deepest bonds we know in life—our belonging to God, as God’s children, in Jesus Christ. This is the love with which God enfolds us (1 John 5:1) In baptism, the Spirit is “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16, 17).
The comfort of baptism does not exempt us from life’s ups and downs, from difficulties and suffering. But baptism’s ongoing comfort enables us to face what life brings with our sense of ecclesial identity, union with Christ, and the knowledge we are loved by God. This is the best gift we can receive. The gift of baptism gives us the great comfort we need.