The Sacrament of Baptism

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

How one understands the function and significance of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is, in my opinion, one of the most debated questions in all of Christian Theology. Indeed, in a group of 100 Christians you’ll probably find 101 different opinions as to what Baptism means and does for the believer! Indeed, this is even true among Christians of the same denomination -- and especially within The United Methodist Church.

The official doctrinal position of The United Methodist Church on the sacrament of Holy Baptism can be found in the Methodist Articles of Religion and in The Confession of Faith:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church. (Article XVII)

We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship. (Confession Article VI)

It should be noted that these two doctrinal statements establish that Holy Baptism is more than just a symbolic act that Christians make when professing their faith; indeed, something is actually happening in the act, for it is "a sign of regeneration or the new birth." To use a bit of evangelical terminology, baptism is the normative sign of the "born again experience." In other words, all faithful, baptized and confirmed Christians have been "born from above." (John 3:1-10) Secondly, these two doctrinal statements tell us that Baptism is the normal means by which believers are made members of the body of Christ. And, thirdly, the doctrines support the continued practice of infant baptism.

All three of these points should make it clear that Holy Baptism is more than just an ordinance: something we do because we are told to do it. Rather, Baptism is a Sacrament: something God does for us. Just as God is the primary actor in the Lord’s Supper, conveying Divine Grace to those who, with faith, receive it, so also God is the primary actor in Baptism. Christians come to the Sacrament because, through it, God’s presence is made known and active in their lives. It is a means of grace through which the believer is not only made a member of the Church Universal, but also is set upon the road of sanctification to perfection through the active power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

We affirm that Baptism is a Sacrament, and not an ordinance, and hence it is an Act of God. This, however, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a response to make. Quite the contrary, we have the responsibility of responding to God’s gift of Grace with faith; in other words, we should "confirm" our baptisms by professing our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Indeed, an affirmation of our faith is required before our baptisms are "complete." The Sacrament is God’s act, but it is incomplete until we respond. This is why the rite of Confirmation is found in the United Methodist Baptismal Liturgy; we understand Confirmation as an integral part of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism: you cannot have one without, at some point in time (if not immediately) having the other. This holds true for adults, who can confirm God’s Grace at the time of their baptisms, as well as well as for infants, who must wait a period of years before they may be confirmed.

Some people have a bad habit of talking about Infant Baptism as if it were something other than real baptism. Often times they will reference it as "Christening," a term which I find absolutely fascinating because that’s what we do to a ship when we break a bottle of Champagne on its prow and both name and officially launch it. We don’t go around breaking bottles over babies heads, do we? No, we sprinkle or pour water over an infant’s head, baptizing the child in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "Christening" is the term for the part of the Baptismal liturgy in which the child receives her Christian name, it is not (properly speaking) an alternate term for Infant Baptism. Said a different way, Baptism is Baptism regardless of the age or cognitive abilities of the recipient. Do any who speak of Infant Baptism as a "Christening" also make reference to an Adult Baptism as a "Christening?" I seriously doubt if the thought of doing so has ever entered their minds; and why not? ... because many protestants tend to look upon Infant Baptism as something other than real Baptism.

Well, my friends, Infant Baptism is as real as it gets; in some ways it is a far more striking illustration of the reality of our receptiveness in the Sacrament than is adult baptism. An infant cannot make a decision to be baptized, nor can an infant immediately affirm her faith in Jesus. As such, an infant’s baptism cannot be misinterpreted as a "believer’s baptism." While an adult’s baptism holds both God’s action and our response together at the same moment in history--an adult is baptized and immediately makes his confirmation--an infant’s baptism breaks the baptism apart from the confirmation, imposing a necessary separation of 10 or more years until the child is old enough to confirm her baptism. However, in a fundamental ("ontological") sense both forms of baptism are identical; both are acts of God, and both require a human response of faith. For some reason we seem to think that it matters to God that 10 or more years might pass between an infant’s baptism and his confirmation. Nothing could be further from the truth! Be they divided by 10 years or 10 seconds, in Baptism God acts and we respond. It’s a simple as that.

As for the means of baptism (how we actually administer the water), The United Methodist Church allows for sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Yes, that’s right, Methodists can dunk! We used to hear that the difference between Baptists and Methodists was that Baptists "dunked" and we did not. I’m sorry to blow that one out of the water, but all Christians have practiced immersion at one time or another--it’s just easier not to have to immerse. No, the real difference between Baptists and other catholic Christians (including Methodists) comes in our understanding of who is the primary actor in Baptism. Is Baptism something God does, or is it just an act of the believer? If it is God’s act of imparting Grace, then the mode of Baptism — sprinkling, pouring, or immersion — is irrelevant. If, on the other hand, it is an act of the believer — as the Baptists believe in believer’s baptism — the mode of the application of the water is of extreme importance. And this is the fundamental difference between how we understand Baptism and how our baptist brothers and sisters understand it. For them it is their act; for us it is God’s act.

© 1995 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from