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Water, Baptism, and Reformed Theology

Responding to a “pew to pulpit” question:

Why do some churches perform water immersion baptism while others just do the “sprinkling” on the forehead or head? Is there a theological reason for choosing the method of baptism?

Let’s break this down into three parts:

  1. Why we use water in a baptism
  2. What a baptism means, both for the individual and the church, and how God is involved in it all
  3. How the Reformation and our branch of Presbyterianism has come to understand and view baptism in comparison with other churches and denominations

The efficacy of a baptism is not tied to the amount of water used. It is tied to the amount of openness we have in our hearts for God.Water

Why do we use water in a baptism? Why not use something like oil, or chocolate or aloe?

Here is a passage in the Bible that specifically uses water in regards to baptism:

“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” [Then], About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. (Mark 1:8-9 CEB)

Later in the Great Commission found in Matthew, Jesus calls us to go forth and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He does not specify what element we are meant to use, but we do know that He and other were baptized with water.

And since we are not capable of baptizing others with the Holy Spirit, we use what John the Baptist used: readily available water.

Our Book of Confessions, which is one-half of our constitution in the Presbyterian Church (USA), tells us:

“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary, but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.” (Book of Confessions, 6.156 – pg. 155)

In the other half of the constitution, the Book of Order, tells us:

“The water used for Baptism should be common to the location, and shall be applied to the person by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. By whatever mode, the water should be applied visibly and generously.” (BOO W-3.3605 The Water)

This means we could do immersion, but for convenience and accessibility purposes, we mainly stick to the sprinkling.

Sacrament of Baptism

In the Presbyterian Church of Reformed faith, we believe in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. In Paul’s letter to the people of Ephesus, he writes:

“There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6 CEB)

We believe in one God; in this one faith that we hold, and hold dear; and that there should only be one baptism, provided it is done properly – in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), this means each person is baptized only once in their life.

Even though we are baptized only once, baptism is not a one-time event. It does not happen and is then complete and finished for life. Our baptism is a continual, ongoing, life-long process. It requires our own personal responsibility as well as the promises to be kept of the church and parents or guardians who made them at our baptism.

Think of it as an ongoing cleansing. Yes, it happened once, but it continues to renew us, regenerate us and cleanse us.

Why we do it the way we do

Our reformed beliefs are that the Word (the Bible) and the two sacraments we celebrate of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Communion) should be inseparable, meaning that they should take place during a time of worship. That makes immersion in a river, ocean or even a lake impractical for many congregations.

Some churches only do baptisms by immersion because they want to baptize as closely as they can to the way John the Baptist did it. Others believe that while water is important and essential, the efficacy of a baptism is not tied to the amount of water used. It is tied to the amount of openness we have in our hearts for God.

Whenever you have a glass of water, take a shower or bath, or go for a swim in the ocean, a lake or a pool, remember your baptism.

Water is the source of so much life, and it is the core to our own gift and blessing of a baptism.

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