After I wrote my recent blogs on baptism, my friend Tod Moses asked several questions regarding the supernatural participation of God in the ritual of baptism. First, Tod found it odd that baptism is thought to be supernatural, when “most people feel nothing special upon baptism (other than knowing that they have done something good in terms of faith and duty.” Later, Tod added, “I have known some pretty fine people of faith and had this baptism conversation with many of them. I’ve never come across one who said it felt supernatural or saving. Good, positive, affirming, obedient…. yes.”
And so, the questions Tod is asking are these: If baptism is a supernatural experience, then why didn’t I feel anything? Why have I not met people who thought that baptism felt “supernatural?”
These are all good questions.
Fundamental to the question is the assumption that because the act of baptism is supernatural, then baptism must therefore be miraculous. Because we believe that God is the actor in baptism, we wonder why all baptisms are not like the one in Acts 19 where twelve men, immediately upon their baptism, began to speak in tongues and prophesy. But in fact, even in the New Testament, that sort of supernatural demonstration was rare. When Simon the Sorcerer came to faith in Acts 8, he is baptized by the Apostle Phillip, follows Phillip and was “astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.” Luke never claims that the act of baptism was, in itself, at all astonishing.
Likewise, our theology makes no such claim.
In Wesleyan theology, baptism is held to be a “means of grace,” a path through which God comes close to us and pours grace into our lives. Moreover, even though baptism is a sacrament of the church and the sacraments are considered to be among these “means of grace,” in his sermons, John Wesley “does not list baptism in the places where the means of grace are discussed.”[i] While baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace, and it is an avenue through which God draws near to us and through which chooses to pour out grace, and while it is a potent symbol of our membership in the body of Christ, baptism is not, in and of itself, transformative.
Baptism is, however, a beginning. It is the opening of a door that leads to grace. When we choose baptism, we can choose to walk through that door and receive God’s grace and at an infant baptism, the parents vow to raise that child in an environment of grace. But ultimately it is our choice whether or not we will follow the path that leads onward from that door.
If baptism was transformational or at all miraculous, baptized people wouldn’t go off the rails and do all sorts of unchristian things. We all know it happens and it isn’t a new problem. John Wesley once said, “Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners? What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”[ii]
Baptism is a gift, an invitation, an opening. It is, as Tod declared, “Good, positive, affirming, obedient” but not, in and of itself, saving or miraculous. The supernatural aspect of baptism is not that we are miraculously transformed in some way, but that, as in communion, God promises to be present and uses that opportunity to open the door to grace. So is baptism ever feel supernatural? Sure, it happens for some people. I have met one or two over the years, but for most of us, “Good, positive, affirming” and “something good in terms of faith and duty.” is about as much as we can expect.
For most of us, that grace flows into our lives a little at a time, sometimes in waves but at other times in what feels like a trickle but truth be told, the limiting factor is not God, but us and our willingness “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” with our God. (Micah 6”8)
I once stood on a dock in England from which the HMS Beagle, the Mayflower and many other famous ships had set sail. All along the dock, signs were erected to remember them. It was not the dock that made those voyages famous or memorable, but the adventures themselves. Likewise, we mark the occasion of baptism, not because baptism itself is remarkable, but because, knowing that God chooses to be a part of that life, we have confidence that the adventure that is beginning will be remarkable.
Why do we baptize infants?
Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor
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[i] United Methodist Doctrine, The Extreme Center
, Scott J. Jones, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p.244