February 9, 2015

5 Benefits of Baptism according to John Wesley #UMC

What happens when someone is baptized? The question is important not only because baptism is the ritual that marks entrance into the Christian Church, but also because because different strands of the larger Christian tradition have come to different conclusions with regard to the meaning of baptism. Is it primarily a sign of faith? Is it an instrument of God's grace to us? Should it be given to adult believers only? Or are the children of believers proper candidates for baptism? Well, we won't answer all these questions today, but since a couple of recent posts (here and here) have dealt with John Wesley's "Treatise on Baptism," I thought I'd keep the topic going and share Wesley's account of the benefits of baptism. One question you may want to ask along the way is this: Who, for Wesley, is the primary actor in baptism? God? Or the baptized? 

1. Guilt Cleared

For Wesley, baptism clears the guilt of original sin, a doctrine Wesley believed wholeheartedly and which asserts that every person comes into the world in a state of brokenness and guilt. No one starts off in a right relationship with God. Baptism deals with that handicap and paves the way for further workings of grace. Wesley points to scripture, the baptismal liturgy, and the ancient fathers to make his case.

2. New Covenant Status

Baptism brings us into covenant with God. Whether infant or adult, baptism marks a person's
entrance into the the new covenant. It is God's everlasting commitment, Wesley says, "to be their God, as he promised to Abraham, in the evangelical covenant which he made with him and all his spiritual offspring" (II.2.). Wesley here sees baptism as analogous to circumcision in that it is a covenant sign, but also surpassing circumcision as the sign of the realized new covenant.

3. Church Entrance

Baptism also marks a person's entrance into the Church. For Wesley, the sacrament incorporates a person into the body of Christ, who is the head of the Church. He points here to Galatians 3:27, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ." This is one of the key ways that Wesley understands baptism as a means of grace. Grace is nothing more or less than Jesus. To be baptized is to be connected to the Church, which is to be connected to Christ, which is to be worked on by his grace as we participate in its privileges and the promises Christ has made to it. 

4. Made a Child of God

Now this one will make evangelical types squirm a little (or a lot!). I should know. It does me, at least a little. But Wesley believed that "By baptism, we who were 'by nature children of wrath' are made children of God" (II.4). Wesley was apparently quite comfortable using the language of baptism alongside the language of regeneration: "By water then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again" (II.2). He was comfortable with this because he found it in the Bible. Check out Titus 3:5, to which Wesley appeals along with John 3:5. He was, after all, homo unius libri. Now if you believe that salvation, once given, cannot be lost, this is going to feel a lot like some sort of legalistic works righteousness, where you do something to gain God's favor. Remember, though, that Wesley didn't have a "once saved, always saved" theology. Grace must always be responded to with faith; otherwise salvation can be lost. Note the conditional statement he makes later in the treatise, "Baptism doth now save us, if we live answerable thereto; if we repent, believe, and obey the gospel" (II.4., emphasis added). To put it differently, the means of grace are only effective for salvation when received through faith in Christ. So, his theology of baptismal regeneration does not mean that a person will necessarily be fully and finally saved. It simply means that God is working in them by grace to renew them in a substantial way that must be received by faith, lest they fall away and lose this benefit of their baptism.

5. Heirs of the Kingdom

If baptism makes us children of God, then it also makes us heirs of the kingdom of God. Wesley turns to Romans 8:17 to make this point: "if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." But again, don't make the mistake of thinking Wesley believed that inheritance could not be forfeited. 

Well, there you go. Baptism according Wesley. Grounded in scripture. Shaped by worship. Striving to hold fast the ancient faith. What do you think? Does Wesley's attitude toward baptism make you feel uncomfortable? Has he missed the mark? Or does it shed light on a mysterious means of God's good grace?  

8 comments:

Karl Kroger said...

I continue to struggle with our infant baptismal practices. As a progressive leaning United Methodist, I see the gift of God's prevenient grace making all five of these items possible. I don't dispute the the emphasis upon God and God's actions. But to me, all of these things could be connected with a child blessing/dedication where we announce God's prevenient grace.

The dominant New Testament witness surrounding baptism is then associated with repentance and discipleship. As United Methodist deeply concerned about us having far fewer disciples and Christians in our churches, surely baptism should remain more closely tied to justification and sanctification.

As a progressive/almost evangelical who thinks he's right, but for some reason can't seem to get any of my paedobaptists and credobaptists to agree with me:) I'd love to hear your thoughts.

David Oliver Kueker said...

I'm not sure if this fits with the original post, but most of what we would call salvation in Wesley is people praying for an experience of proof of salvation - Romans 8:16 - important in the historic context of Catholic and Calvin it assertions that you cannot know.

The assertion that baptism by itself saves one from the wrath to come and hell is entirely false and not of Wesley. So as to the dichotomy that frames the OP, it's not that simple.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi David, thanks for stopping by to read and for taking the time to comment. Just to be clear, neither I nor Wesley suggest that baptism alone saves anyone from the wrath to come. As indicated in point #4 above, Wesley affirmed baptismal regeneration, but also insisted that repentance and continued faith after baptism was necessary for reaching final salvation. Hope that helps.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Karl, thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I'm altogether clear on the question, but I'll make a few comments, and then you can follow up if you have further thoughts.

First, I would say that infant baptism is an ancient practice that is easily inferred from scripture even if not explicit.

Second, traditionally infant dedication is not invested with these sort of emphases and is not seen as a sacramental act or as a means of grace.

Third, I don't really think the big problem in the UMC is our baptismal theology, though I do think we could do a better job generally of teaching our people about our sacrament theology and heritage.

Fourth, in my thinking the image of God extending substantive grace to a child before that child is even aware of his or her need for grace is a massively big and beautiful picture of grace. I think we should teach it that way.

Hope that is helpful. Feel free to push back. Thanks again for stopping by.

Clark Chilton said...

This is an excellent post. Thank you for sharing this. As a provisional deacon preparing for the BOM next year, these are questions I've been pondering.

I do have a question: while I do understand the practice of not rebaptizing anyone (as one baptism is a final enough act of grace. God's grace doesn't need renewal, per se), the comment about a Christian potentially losing their salvation is curious. Not saying I disagree, but I do see a pragmatic issue, which is this: we teach once baptized always baptized, but not once saved always saved?
A fruit of the emphasis on infant baptism is teaching God as the initiator of grace, the parents' involvement etc, but one "negative" fruit I struggle with is the lack of adult baptism, adult profession of faith, etc that I see. At least in my context, I rarely see anyone over the age of 12 baptized anymore.
I'm not sure what my question is on that, but its one of the real world implications of stressing infant baptism/one baptism only.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Clark,

Thanks for your comment. Before I say anything about the lack of adult baptisms that you cite, may I ask about your evangelistic practices and the evangelistic practices you observe in your context. How often do you tell unbelievers about the person and work of Christ on their behalf with a view to their conversion?

Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment. I look forward to reading your response.

danielhixon said...

I ran across this Treatise a while back and found it very helpful, as I discussed on my blog here:
http://gloria-deo.blogspot.com/2013/05/wesley-on-baptism.html

Russ said...

Great post Matt,

I'm curious what were Wesley's views on baptisms for people who thought they were saved, but really were'nt?

Russ