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Baptism, continued (The Sacraments, Part II)

Baptism “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” can also mean nothing more than the washing away of sins, which for many people is all that salvation amounts to; a kind of ticket to heaven, which is about what the word “sacrament” really means.  It is better to use such a word as “ordinance”, a practice or ritual which our Lord ordained, instituted.

Again, if this is all that baptism represents, it might be well if we were baptized more than once, for we all keep sinning even after our regeneration, all of which sins have to be forgiven.  Some early Christians put off baptism until death was imminent (since repeated baptism was not allowed then any more than now), and the Catholic custom of extreme unction, a form of baptism or anointing at the end of life, has something of that early Church idea behind it.  (Accuracy recommends stating that this 7th of the Roman Catholic sacraments originated in the good advice of James 5:15 as to anointing the sick.  This practice is sadly neglected in all communions.)  Jesus indicated our need of repeated or continuous washing in his example of foot-washing in the Upper Room (same hour that he instituted the Lord’s Supper), and it may seriously be considered whether that pious practice on the part of some churches ought not be a third sacrament for all of us.  The Bible does not say how many sacraments there ought to be, or what constitutes one.  If it be said that sacraments have to do with our relation to God, the answer is that the Lord’s Supper has a horizontal dimension as well, and most sins, for which we have to be forgiven, are committed against our fellow human beings. (Without adding another sacrament we might well imitate the Roman Catholic Church by sprinkling ourselves [!] with water at such times as entering worship services.  While this does not depict the reciprocal nature of our repeated sinning and need of mutual forgiveness, it is an apt picture of its continuing persistence as well as God’s ongoing  forgiveness.)

But in that same situation in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said plainly that there is a once and for all cleansing that makes any exact repetition unnecessary and superfluous. (John 13:10)  This was pictured in the Old Testament by the fact that in addition to the daily ablutions of hands and feet by the priests, at their ordination there was an elaborate ceremony in which they were completely bathed, shaved, and put on clean clothes.  It should be remembered – which some of the early Christians forgot – that our baptism, much like the cleansing stream that followed the Israelites in the wilderness, is a continuous thing, constantly washing and refreshing us as we move along through life. (I john 1:9)  In fact, as we all should know, future sins are forgiven by Christ’s one-time atonement as well as those of the past.  In making this point plain the writer to Hebrews asks the rhetorical question, “How many times do you think Christ was or has to be crucified in our stead?”

All this would certainly recommend immersion as a more appropriate mode of baptism than either sprinkling or pouring.  While it may not be warranted to say that immersion is the only permissible mode of baptism, if baptism represented nothing more than complete washing or cleansing from sin, it is a rather inadequate sign (poor picture) to have a baptizee touched on the head with little more than a moist finger, and even that hardly visible  to the “witnesses” outside the immediate huddle around the fount.  Many ministers are making the ceremony more visible, which is the purpose of it all; they should be encouraged to sprinkle the symbolic water on the hands and feet of the recipient as well as the head.  Are we not enjoined to present our entire bodies as living sacrifices, and do we not sing, “Take my hands…. my feet…..”?

But there is something else that the once-ness of baptism (whatever the mode) is supposed to represent, and that is our personal spiritual death and resurrection at the time Christ died and rose again, which is made literal at the time of our second birth and death to “self”, and becomes a matter of consciousness and experience as we reach maturity and discover for ourselves who we are, essentially.  There is no need to argue that for Paul this is the primary meaning of baptism.  (See Romans 6:3,4)  Jesus, of course, spoke of his death as a baptism.  (Cf  II Cor 4:10)

This being so, immersion – which happily symbolizes completeness of cleansing – would seem to be the most preferable mode of baptism on the score of its representation of burial and resurrection.  Certainly the baptismal formula should be stated exactly the way it is correctly written in Christ’s command, “I baptize you into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.  Any child knows that “the name of” is identical with the person who bears it, so that what we are saying at baptism is the person is symbolically engrafted into Christ, becomes one with him and through him with God, as Jesus prayed at the conclusion of the first Lord’s Supper.

In the Old Covenant (Testament) which is a type of the New, the symbolic death of both parties was an important element that we overlook in both the type and its fulfillment.  Parties to a solemn covenant would mix a little blood of each, as pledge of their lives to each other, and invoking death upon either or both in the event of violation.

Next post:  The Lord’s Supper (Part I), a continuation of “The Sacraments”

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