The origin of baptism
The term “baptism” stems, etymologically, from the Greek “baptõ” which means to dip in water or immerse. It was actually very often practiced in the first century A.D. at the time of Jesus, but could be traced further back in some religions. For instance, similar rituals were practiced by some strands of Judaism to purify and integrate new members into the community. Later on John the Baptist used it, during the fist century, as a sign of repentance. Since the origin of Christianity it has fulfilled the commandment of Jesus Christ, according to Matthew, chapter 28 verses 19-20 : “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy-Ghost…” Baptism is one of the features of the Christian Church.
What baptism means
Baptism is considered as the first of the two sacraments recognised by the main branches of Protestantism, the second being the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. For the Reformers the sacrament is a manifestation of God’s grace and of the help God offers to sustain the believers’ faith. It symbolizes a covenant between God and men. Thus baptism can be defined as the union of Christians in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection according to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans chapter 6, verse 4: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death : that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
But baptism is also the visible sign of an invisible grace. Grace is manifested through baptism as the baptised starts a new life and becomes part of the New Covenant between God and men. It is a concrete sign that helps us comprehend spiritual ideas such as :
- Baptism is a sign of the gift of the Spirit without which there can be no new life. Indeed, “being Christians means having received the Spirit which makes us his children”. God’s promise, according to John chapter 7, verses 36-38, is that the Holy Spirit lives in believers, reassuring them of their adoption as God’s children and permits them to lead a new life.
- Baptism is also proof that the Christian becomes part of the Church. God unites himself with all those who make up his people on earth, whatever their race, gender, social status. To symbolise becoming part of the community of believers, if baptism takes place during worship, the pastor, in many Reformed Churches, takes the child in his arms after having baptised him, and after the parents have committed themselves, and presents him to the members of the parish.
- Baptism is linked to conversion. Transformation by Jesus Christ is not automatic. It calls us and expects us to change our attitude. Baptism is the sign of a new life, marked by God’s and our neighbour’s love.
- Baptism testifies to the forgiveness of sins.
In addition, baptism can be defined as “a divine ordinance” by which God welcomes us into his Kingdom, into the midst of his people. Baptism is a public manifestation of God’s Covenant and calls us to his service here on earth. It is both a testimony and enables us to demonstrate what God gives us and does in us. At baptism we confess before the community of believers, and before the world, what God means to us, and we declare our commitment to the gospel.
The practice of baptism
In Protestantism baptism is a rite of entry, of welcome into the life of the church community. It belongs to the so-called rites of passage, such as ceremonies marking the passage from one state, situation or status to another.
So baptism is celebrated by an ordained minister or an authorised lay person. In all traditions water is used to baptise. Water is the symbol of purity and life, but also of death, as one recalls flooding and drowning disasters. The ambivalence is symbolised in baptism, indeed the baptised “dies” to all his sins but is reborn to a new life in Jesus Christ.
There are, however, several types of practices. In the Lutheran and Reformed traditions baptism can be of three types, namely immersion, effusion (water poured over the head), or aspersion (a few drops sprinkled on the head as a symbol). But both traditions generally practice baptism by aspersion. In the Evangelical tradition, baptism is exclusively by immersion, which means that the baptised is totally immersed in water.
This difference is explained by the characterstics of each Church. Indeed, the Luthero-reformed branch, also called “multitudinist”, practice confessant baptism. So divine grace offered to all is foremost, hence the baptising of children. Whereas the Evangelicals, in the so called professing churches, stress the individual commitment of the believer.
The age for baptism
The Reformed and Lutheran Churches, also called pedo-baptists because they baptise children, normally celebrate baptism at the request of the family. As for teenagers who are being catechised, those who are not baptised ask to be baptised when they are 16, while the others just confirm their baptism. Lastly, adults who have come to faith may ask to be baptised. There is no age limit to receive the sacrament.
Conversely, in Baptist churches where the faith of the believer is a pre-requisite to baptism, young children are not baptised as they are not able to confess their faith. So the various branches of the church present a complicated and different front. For instance the Luthero-reformed strand acknowledges baptism in a Baptist Church, but the Baptists do not acknowledge the baptism of young children, even though current dialogue encourages tolerance within the various churches. Baptism, however, is mutually recognised within the Lutheran and Reformed Churches on the one hand and the Catholics on the other hand. This resulted from ecumenical dialogue which led to a general recognition.
So it can be stated that, in spite of differences on the baptism of young children, Protestantism is of one mind concerning the sacrament. The Reformed, the Lutherans, the Baptists agree that baptism is the visible sign of a invisible grace, and the symbol of communion in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also the instrument God’s Spirit uses to bring new life and to turn sinners into God’s children.