Baptism and Remembrance of Baptism in The United Methoidst Church
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Congregational Reaffirmations of Baptism — or "Baptismal Remembrance" services — are very important for the life of the church. I believe this is so because, all too frequently, we forget what it means to be part of the "Baptized family of God," both in terms of calling and responsibility. Indeed, we sometimes forget what it means to be Christians. And, so, it is important for us to be frequently re-membered to the Body of Christ. In the United Methodist Church we have many ways of doing this, but two of the most important are found in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
Holy Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, can and should be frequently celebrated. Each time we faithfully partake of Holy Communion we receive the real presence of Jesus Christ into ourselves in a life-transforming, sanctifying way. In this means of grace we are re-membered to the Body of Christ, united together by His peace, and empowered by His grace for Christian living. We can, and should, partake of the Sacrament of Holy Communion frequently ... and on a regular basis.
Unlike Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Baptism is not a repeatable event. With most other Christian denominations, we in the United Methodist Church allow for Baptism only once in a person’s lifetime. We hold our position because we understand this sacrament as being, most importantly, a means of initial grace (frequently called "prevenient" or "before-going" grace), symbolizing and actualizing God’s universal call for all of His children to respond in faith. As such, Baptism is God’s action, not ours; in Baptism we receive and are empowered to respond to God’s grace with faith, but we do not act. I want to make this perfectly clear: the United Methodist Church does not practice believer’s baptism – i.e., Baptism as a means of professing one’s faith. We baptize adults and infants alike, and in both cases the baptism is God’s action, not the act of the person being baptized. It is a means of grace through which we are made members of the Church universal and are set upon the road of sanctification to perfection through the active power and presence of the Holy Spirit. For Methodists, Baptism is not just another way that people "join the church." Nor is it something that can or should be repeated because we may have experienced a "new beginning" in our walk of faith. Baptism does not need repeating.
In my pastorates I have, periodically, had people saying things like, "I was baptized as a baby, but now that I’m an adult and know what I’m doing I want to be really baptized." My response is to ask them to consider the question of God’s grace in the sacrament. "Did God’s grace in your infant baptism fail because you, as a child, couldn’t respond at the time with faith?" No, of course not! God’s grace never fails, even though we often do. Rather, God’s grace in baptism goes before we do or say anything, calling and enabling our response of faith. I was baptized as a baby, and when I grew to accountability I confirmed the grace which was proclaimed by the church and my parents for me by affirming my faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. One can confirm God’s grace many times, and in many different ways. Indeed, in a real sense Holy Communion – as an act of faith – is a repeated confirmation of the Grace of God in our lives, which began with our baptisms.
One of the ways in which we can reaffirm our baptismal covenant is through a simple ritual of Remembrance that even includes the sprinkling of water. This is not, in any way, to be thought of as being a re-baptism. When the ritual is performed, I do not pronounce, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." No, this is a reaffirmation of one’s baptism … a time and a way to become reconnected with the grace which began one’s Christian journey.
"But I was a baby when I was baptized! How can I remember it and be thankful?" That’s a good question. I like to consider it in a way similar to that in which we receive the elements of Holy Communion. We were not present at the Last Supper, and yet Jesus called us to eat and drink "in remembrance of" Him. This is not just a memorial act, it is a re-membering – it is a faith-action through which we are brought back into membership with Christ – when we eat and drink. Likewise, when we "remember our baptisms" and are thankful, we are allowing the Holy Spirit to re-member, to re-connect, us yet again with that wonderful grace which began us in our Christian journey and will see us home.
Since we can be remembered to that initial grace through many different acts of faith, and since we understand that there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all," there truly is no need for re-baptism.
I encourage all Christians to avail themselves of every opportunity to Remember their Baptisms, and I urge all church pastors to make such rites available to the congregation on a regular basis. We should participate in the rite with thanksgiving, knowing that God’s powerful grace has been working in our lives from the beginning, and will continue to work in us until God takes us all home.
© 2002 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
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 Amazon.com.