One of the main reasons for the lively discussion that surrounds the
doctrine of baptism among contemporary Presbyterians is the historic
Reformed conviction that “the Holy Spirit claims us in the waters of
baptism” (“Brief Statement of Faith”). In an age when serious Christian
commitment is less and less in step with our society’s changing values,
it is not easy to understand the precise nature and implications of
God’s baptismal claim on us. Most of us no longer have any illusions
that we live in a “Christian culture.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean
we’ve embraced a new understanding of what it means to be God’s people
that is adequate to the new situation in which we find ourselves.
A brief return to our Reformed roots helps clarify what is at stake.
Centuries ago John Calvin identified God’s baptismal claim on Christians
with his stirring words “We are not our own, but the Lord’s.” The
crucial factor in the Christian life, he said, is that “we are
consecrated and dedicated to God.” This means that “we may think, speak,
meditate, or do anything only with a view to [the divine] glory.” That
is what the Second Helvetic Confession means when it explains that in
baptism “the elect are consecrated to God.” More recently, that is also
what “A New Brief Statement of Faith” means when it begins with the
phrase, “In life and in death we belong to God.”
We are not our own. We are God’s people. We belong to God. As
Christians, we are not at the mercy of the torrent of societal values
and cultural trends swirling and changing around us. Instead, we are at
the mercy of the gracious triune God, who claims us in the clear,
cleansing waters of baptism.
Unpacking what it means for us to “belong to God” as American
Presbyterians at the turn of the 21st century is a daunting challenge.
But now more than ever it is crucial that we recover the historic
Reformed connection between baptism and God’s claim in our lives as
Christian believers. The following points may provide a beginning.
1. God’s baptismal claim on us is gracious and unconditional.
Regardless of our divergences on other issues, Presbyterians can
certainly agree that baptism is all about grace. If we know anything
that is distinctively Presbyterian, we know that God’s grace extended to
us in Jesus Christ is prior to and calls forth our own response of
faith. We know our relationship with God depends primarily on what God
has done and only secondarily on what we may or may not do. As
Presbyterians practice it, baptism is a powerful sacramental enactment
of this truth. And because God’s gracious call precedes and evokes the
human response of faith, it is normal for Christian parents who are
active church members to present their children for baptism as infants
or very young children.
The grace God extends to us in baptism is not the kind of “cheap
grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against. Through faith, grace is
certainly free to us, in the sense that it is not earned or merited. But
it was not free to God. Its price was the life of God’s only Son,
Jesus. And on the human level, it costs us our own lives, which now
belong unconditionally to God. Baptism acknowledges our intention to
live as God’s people.
When Presbyterians speak of baptism as a covenant, we emphasize the
multiple commitments involved. First and most basic, there is God’s
commitment to us. Then there are the commitments the community of faith
makes to us. Finally, and no less important, are the commitments we make
to God, to our children, and to the church. That is why our Book of Order echoes Calvin’s own two-sided treatment of baptism’s gracious character when it says:
“Baptism enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God’s redeeming
grace offered to all people. Baptism is God’s gift of grace and also
God’s summons to respond to that grace. Baptism calls to repentance, to
faithfulness, and to discipleship. Baptism gives the church its identity
and commissions the church for ministry to the world.”
Many contemporary Presbyterians may be a bit uncomfortable with the
thought that God’s claim on us in baptism is unconditional. But it all
depends on how we define “comfort.” The Heidelberg Catechism begins with
the question, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The
answer: “That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself
but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ . . . “ It goes on to recount
the wonderful comfort we can gain from the assurance that Christ
forgives us, liberates us from evil, protects us, governs circumstances
for our salvation, promises us eternal life, and gives us the will and
the strength to live for God. Practically speaking, the point is that
Christ has stood in our place, fulfilling all the divine conditions for
our salvation, wholeness and future hope. Nothing we do or fail to do
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans
2. God’s baptismal claim on us is corporate and communal.
In many areas of American life the unbridled individualism that has
long characterized our culture has now been tried and found wanting.
However, it still lingers in many of the popular ideas we bring to
church. Baptism is no exception.
Many of us still cling to cultural ideas of baptism as a source of
grace that is subject to our personal schedules, opinions, demands,
tastes and preferences. We may regard baptism as a private right that
goes along with being listed on the church roll. We may even find
ourselves assuming that in baptism God is at our disposal. With these
individualistic assumptions it is difficult to appreciate the Reformed
understanding of baptism as a sacred covenant in which we and our
children are inseparably united as members to Christ and to the living
community of faith by the Holy Spirit.
In contrast, a Biblical understanding of baptism underlines and
profoundly reinforces its corporate and communal nature. Chapter 12 of
First Corinthians emphasizes that together Christians constitute the
Body of Christ and are individually members of it. In this same context
the apostle Paul can say, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into
one body . . . and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).
Baptism implies active membership in Christ’s Body: the community of
faith. The basic meaning of “member” is a part or limb. All this implies
that trying to live the Christian life apart from the church is a
contradiction in terms.
Baptism calls us to the kind of mutual caring and sharing that
characterized the early Christians, and that made others say about them,
“See how they love one another!”
3. God’s baptismal claim on us is transforming and liberating.
Traditionally Presbyterians have understood the efficacy of the
sacrament of baptism to be centered in the transforming power of the
Holy Spirit. New Testament baptismal texts like Colossians 2:8–3:17
remind us that baptism initiates a lifelong process of transformation
and liberation, both in the community of faith and in the individuals
who belong to it. In that process we die to all that is evil in both our
common life and our personal lives–as we are raised together to new
life in Christ.
There is a troubling tendency in the church today to define
liberation in terms that set it over/against personal transformation .
Too often freedom is misunderstood as the right to follow some
self-defined path to personal fulfillment on the assumption that the
transformation of our desires, habits, values or natural tendencies is
Baptism calls us to hope in God for more. We baptize in the strong
name of the Trinity. God is not only our Creator. In Christ, God is also
our Redeemer. As the Holy Spirit, God is also our Liberator and
Transformer. As Christians, we are not left to resign ourselves to the
natural limitations and possibilities of our world, our culture or our
The triune God who created the world is also actively at work in that
world, to redeem and transform it according to the vision of the divine
Through faith in this triune God, baptism calls us all to share in
the ministry of transformation and liberation that is the work of the
Spirit who lives in our midst. As we embrace this call in this life, we
will find ourselves being personally and corporately transformed by the
living God as we receive foretastes of that genuine freedom that
consists in harmony with God’s ultimate purpose for the whole creation.
This article originally appeared in the June 1995 issue of the Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today).