Last Sunday, an anonymous person, let’s call him Paul, stopped and asked me about last week’s blog, particularly the question regarding private baptisms. As you recall, I said private baptisms are not allowed. Paul countered that Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was a private baptism and that my answer was mistaken. In times like these, I have several options. I can excommunicate Paul and send his membership to a church in the Northern North Alaskan Presbytery (that’s where all inappropriate question mongers go). Or I can demand that Paul read our Book of Church Order five times while standing on his head (chapter 56:2 says it clearly: “Baptism is not to be privately administered, but in the presence of the congregation under the supervision of the session”). Or I can quote from The Blues Brothers where Jake tries to explain to the “Mystery Woman” why he jilted her on their wedding day, and I quote: You know I love you, baby. I wouldn’t leave ya. It wasn’t my fault! Honest! I ran outta gas. I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from outta town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake, a terrible flood, locusts! It wasn’t my fault! I swear!” Or I could have admitted that Paul was right, private baptisms are not prohibited in the New Testament (case in point, the Ethiopian Eunuch). And which of these four options did I choose? Easy. I quoted The Blue Brothers.

Now, a better answer would have been that while the Bible never specifically prohibits private baptisms, there is great wisdom in having baptisms, especially infant baptisms, administered in the context of a worship service. Bonhoeffer explains why. He writes:

With regard to infant baptism this means that the sacrament should be administered only where it is certain that the act of salvation already accomplished once and for all will be repeatedly remembered in faith. And that can only be the case in a living-church-community. Infant baptism without the church-community is not only an abuse of the sacrament; it also betrays a reprehensible thoughtlessness in dealing with the children’s spiritual welfare, for baptism can never be repeated.

In case you didn’t notice, there’s a hint of irritation and frustration in Bonhoeffer’s words there, like he is put out by the abuse of the sacrament. You find that same tone from the Anglican Michael Green. In a warning to church leaders, and especially pastors, Green writes:

“[Baptism of infants] is often administered with a token sprinkling of water, without instructions of the parents and godparents, without preaching, and in the middle of the afternoon when nobody else is there. ‘We want it nice and private, Vicar!’ Alas, all of that is totally indefensible. The mark of entry into the covenant should be a time of celebration, of public welcome into Christ’s body, the church. It should take place after careful instruction of the parents and godparents beforehand, and of the congregation afterwards.

Biblically, my friend Paul is absolutely right; and yet, I would strongly caution against private baptisms. From the very beginning of this series, we have maintained that it takes a whole church to baptize someone because the whole church will be involved in the candidate’s spiritual growth. It is the duty of the church to pray for the individual being baptized and to be involved in his or her spiritual journey by providing teaching, encouragement, wise advice, mutual support, godly examples and a loving church home. And the parents also need the prayers and encouragement of the church.  And starting a person’s faith journey with a baptism in the church reaffirms a central truth of our faith: we need each other. Bottom line: being a Christ follower is incompatible with solo work. Scot McKnight makes this observation: “The biggest challenge to infant baptism today comes not from the Bible so much as from rampant individualism.” We need each other, and there is no better way to illustrate that truth than with the whole church participating together in a baptism. So, Paul’s right, the Book of Church Order is right, Bonhoeffer’s right, Green’s right, and McKnight is right. I am the only one who was wrong. But “it wasn’t my fault! Honest! I ran outta gas. I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake.” 

And yet, public or private, dunked, sprinkled or poured, earthly symbols or spiritual graces, what is most important in baptism is what is being symbolized. And interestingly, it is the words we use that allow us to see the richness of baptism. Here are the words of the sacrament: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How many times have we said those words? And how many times have we actually thought about what those words mean? Four thoughts as we conclude this series.

First, baptism is all about all that God has accomplished in Christ. When we are baptized into “the name of Jesus” we are baptized into his life, his death, and his resurrection. To say it another way, to be baptized is to be incorporated into Jesus.  And incorporation is everything.  

  • We are redeemed in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24)
  • We are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3)
  • We are free in Christ Jesus (Gal. 2:4)
  • We are being sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2)
  • We have been made a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)
  • We are one body in Christ (Rom. 12:5)
  • Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39)

Jesus, in his life, identifies with us fully so that in his death and resurrection we may be incorporated into him. Scot McKnight (A Community Called Atonement, page 109) says it this way: “Everything good happens to the Christian by virtue of union with Christ.”

Second, to be baptized “in the name of Jesus” implies being brought under Jesus’ lordship. We pray “in Jesus’ name.” When we do so, we are asking our requests to be filtered through the will and character of Jesus. In Acts 4, the Sanhedrin arrest Peter and John for healing a lame man (who would then go walking and leaping and praising God). The Sanhedrin want to know how they performed this miracle. Peter says (Acts 4:10): “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by this name this man stands here before you in good health.’” It was through the power and authority of Jesus that this man was healed. And when baptize someone in the name of Jesus we are placing them under the authority of Jesus the Lord.

Third, to be baptized “in the name of Jesus” calls us to live a new life. Baptism not only looks back on what Jesus has done for us, but looks forward to what he will do in us. In Romans 6, Paul is debating with some believers who think that grace and forgiveness are automatic, so it doesn’t matter what we do (why fight against sin when we have a “get out of ‘sin jail’ free card”?). Paul strongly disavows any such thinking, and he does so by recalling their baptism. Paul writes (Rom. 6:3-4):

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

We baptize someone in the name of Jesus’ death and resurrection so that they may have new life. Baptism, then, is a call to offer ourselves to God so that our lives may become an instrument of righteousness (Rom. 6:13).

Last, to be baptized “in the name of Jesus” is to be baptized into the power of his resurrection.  In Colossians 2, Paul is wrestling with another group of believers who felt that the way to spiritual power was through ascetic practices. How else could we experience this new life that Romans 6 talk about expect by beating ourselves literally and metaphorically? But Paul rejects this idea as well, and he does so by pointing again to their baptism. Paul writes (Col. 2:9-12):

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Baptism in Jesus’ name proclaims that our victory and power come from our union with Christ which was accomplished in Jesus’ resurrection, but seen first-hand in our baptism. Baptism pictures all that Christ did for us and proclaims that, when we are incorporated into Christ, we also have been raised with Jesus. And if that is so, then his resurrection power is alive within us so that we may do his will. The key to spiritual power is not in our striving, but in resting in all that Jesus has done for us.  And all that Jesus has done for us is pictured beautifully in our baptism.  

A few posts ago, we asked what actually took place in baptism. And now, we know. Baptism is all about proclaiming our union with Christ, and few things are more important than that. And when we are struggling in our faith–struggling to hold on to God’s goodness, struggling to hold on to our call, struggling with temptation, struggling with our weaknesses, and struggling with our identity–we can look back on our baptism and find an anchor, firm and secure, that overcomes all obstacles. 

Now, I would love to continue this conversation on baptism because it is such a rich topic, but I’ve been told this has to end this week. If you show up next week looking for more discussion on baptism and feel betrayed that I am not there for you, I apologize, but please realize it’s not my fault. I ran outta gas. I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake, a terrible flood, locusts! It wasn’t my fault! (It worked for Jake in The Blues Brothers; I hope it works on you!).