The Sacrament of Baptisms
Provided below are answers to the kinds of questions most frequently asked about baptism. They were written with the hope that they will assist your understanding of your own baptism or that of your child or children.
What is baptism?
Baptism is a religious ritual used by Christians as a form of initiation into the membership into the Christian church. It is the moment that sets in motion what we hope will be years of growth toward a more complete and fulfilling relationship with God. Without a committed follow-up for growth in knowledge and faith, baptism is largely without meaning. Baptism at its most honest is a ceremony in which all the participants promise to make every effort to grow the relationship between God and the child of God. It is a solemn, yet joyful, covenant. That is, baptism is a commitment between God and the person being baptized. For that reason, we believe it is important to get written permission for the baptism from both parents in the case of a child baptism.
Is it right to baptize babies?
Yes, it is. Of course, there are good Christian denominations which think differently on that matter. There’s never been a time when all Christians agreed on all matters concerning baptism. We don’t have to all agree on everything.
We Presbyterians believe that baptism is a sign of God’s grace ― God’s freely-given love and forgiveness ― that’s readily available to people at any age. So we encourage parents to baptize their children within a few weeks after birth so they may enter into a formal agreement with the church to help raise those children within the faith.
Then, when the children grow older, they may either choose to confirm or deny the promises made for them as infants in baptism. They do that through a formal educational process followed by a ritual called “confirmation.”
The Bible never says we should or should not baptize children. However, the weight of the Biblical evidence is that Jesus was careful to fully include the children. He said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16) And when Peter called the people to be baptized at Pentecost he said, “For the promise is to you and to your children...everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Him.” (Acts 2:29.)
Neither these nor any other passage proves the validity of infant baptism. They do suggest, however, that children and adults enjoy the same status in God’s promises to us. So, we baptize infants. We think it is important to mark that great commitment very early in life.
Is baptism essential?
No, it isn’t, but it is very important. Why do we say that? If baptism were somehow required as an “entrance ticket” to heaven, then a minister or priest could thwart God’s will to save someone by simply refusing to perform the sacrament. But clearly an omnipotent God can’t be limited by our human failures or sinful nature. That said, the Presbyterian Church (and most other denominations) require baptism for membership as a sign of a person’s commitment and faith.
How is baptism done?
There are three common and ancient methods. All three were practiced by the New Testament Christians. They are all acceptable. The least common is pouring. The person kneels and bows his or her head. Or the parents hold their baby in their arms. The pastor then pours a small quantity of water over the head of the person being baptized. When this was done in New Testament times, it was often done at the seaside. A shell (like the half shell of a clam) would often be used to scoop up the water and pour it. As a result, one of the earliest symbols of the Christian faith was the sea shell, often showing drops of water falling from it.
Another very common method is immersion. A believer is lowered into a river or tank of water until he or she is totally under water. Then he or she is raised up again. It has the advantage of symbolizing the burial of one’s former, sinful life and rising to a new Christ-centered life.
Some groups insist that this is the only acceptable method and if one hasn’t been baptized this way then one has not been baptized at all.
One problem with such an insistence is that it makes the act something magical. It seems to tie the hand of God to one way of allowing people into the gracious relationship God offers. We believe that method is beautiful and meaningful, but is not the one-and-only-way God can get through to a believer.
Another method is sprinkling. The pastor places a few drops of water on the forehead of the baptized.
Presbyterians can use any of the methods, but in this congregation we usually use sprinkling. It has a practical simplicity which we like. We know that all three methods were used and accepted in the earliest Christian era. Whatever method is used, none has any value unless it is coupled with a willingness to be immersed into the Spirit of the Lord. That is the real commitment we make in baptism.
The act is always accompanied by what is referred to as the “Trinitarian formula.” That comes from the last verses of Matthew 28, where Jesus told his followers to baptize people, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” And we do.
Should we have sponsors or God-parents?
No. God-parents are no longer needed because the historical reason that led to the creation of sponsors is no longer a significant issue. Years ago God-parents were really a set of back-up parents to be used in the event of the premature death of the real parents. People would often die young, leaving unfulfilled their responsibility to raise their children in the Christian faith. Therefore, they had another Christian couple stand with them to make the same promises at the same time. Those sponsoring parents then were prepared to complete the covenant if called upon to do so.
That’s hardly ever a problem anymore. Life expectancy rates allow us the freedom to assume that one or probably both parents will live for many years. Back-up parents are not needed.
Therefore, many years ago our denomination transferred the sponsoring role to the congregation. The congregation makes solemn promises to assist the parents by providing a community of faith that will help raise the child to have an understanding of the Christian faith through things like Sunday school, Vacation Bible School and confirmation.
That leads us to the next question...
Can we have our grandson baptized here while his family is home for Thanksgiving?
The initial answer is “Yes, we can if at least one of your child’s parents is a member of a church.” However, I must add that we’re reluctant to do the baptism for a very specific reason. We want the vow-taking in baptism to be as honest as possible. When the members of our congregation are asked to witness a baptism and promise that they will do all they can to help raise a child in the Christian faith, they are put in an awkward position. Our members can’t begin to fulfill their promise if a child leaves town shortly after baptism to go to another town or even another state. It would be best for that child’s faith relationship if he or she were to establish a relationship with a congregation in their hometown. The hometown congregation can more realistically make the sponsoring vow and then follow up with a Christian Education program for the child. And, more importantly, if the family doesn’t belong to a church in their hometown, the baptism lacks the basic integrity it needs.
However, that said, our denomination does allow one congregation to conduct a baptism on behalf of another Christian congregation. If that is important to you and your family, we’re willing to talk with you about possibly doing the baptism.
Can I have a private baptism?
Baptism by its nature isn’t a private matter; it is the method by which someone joins a community. Therefore, baptism has to be done as part of a congregational worship experience.
Can I (or should I) be re-baptized?
People sometimes feel the need for re-baptism when they reach a stage of life during which Christ truly becomes important in their lives. They come to recognize the significance of baptism and wonder if they should have it done over now that their faith has become more important to them. We suggest not.
When that feeling happens, it’s simply good to know that the act of baptism has finally taken. Give God thanks for that and go on from there to your new life in Christ and in service.
If you would prefer something more concrete, we do offer services which provide for the reaffirmation of a baptismal covenant. The distinction is that the baptism which was done at an earlier time remains fully in effect ― it is a once-in-a-lifetime event; yet, the reaffirmation service allows the believer to recommit themselves to the baptismal promises.
If you have any other questions please be sure to ask the pastor:
Rev. Jim McCrea
The First Presbyterian Church
106 N. Bench Street
Galena, IL 61036
(815) 777-0229 (church)
(815) 777-3328 (pastor’s home)
FULL name of the person to be baptized
Full name of his or her parents (if a child)
Date of birth of the person being baptized
City and state where he or she was born