The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. Those within the covenant constitute the community we call the Church; therefore, the services of the Baptismal Covenant are conducted during the public worship of the congregation where the person’s membership is to held, except in very unusual circumstances.
The basic service of the Baptismal Covenant is Holy Baptism, by which we are incorporated into the Church, which is the body of Christ, and made one in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-28). Because baptism initiates us into Christ’s whole Church and not only into a denomination, United Methodists recognize all Christian baptisms and look upon baptism as something that should unite, rather than divide, Christians.
United Methodists may baptize by any of the modes used by Christians. Candidates or their parents have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; and pastors and congregations should be prepared to honor requests for baptism in any of these modes. Each mode brings out part of the rich and diverse symbolism given to baptism by the Bible. Each is a form of washing which symbolizes the washing away of sin (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21). Being totally buried in water and raised from it is also a powerful symbol of our burial and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12) and of being born anew of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5; Titus 3:5). Pouring or sprinkling water upon the candidate’s head also signifies God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:9-10; Luke 3:21-22; Acts 2:38; 19:1-7).
Baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace has already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God’s grace, and it looks forward to what God’s grace will accomplish in the future. While baptism signifies the whole working of God’s grace, much that it signifies, from the washing away of sin to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, will need to happen during the course of a lifetime. If an act of personal Christian commitment has taken place, baptism celebrates that act and the grace of God that has made it possible. If such an act has not yet taken place, baptism anticipates that act, declares its necessity, and celebrates God’s grace that will make it possible. In either event, baptism signifies the entry of the candidate into the general ministry of all Christians.
Baptism anticipates a lifetime of further and deeper experiences of God, further acts of Christian commitment, and ministries in the world. Confirmation, ordinations and consecrations to particular ministries, and all other steps in ministry grow out of what God has done as declared and signified in baptism. The covenant of Christian marriage reflects the Baptismal Covenant. Finally, as declared in the Service of Death and Resurrection, baptism signifies and anticipates death and resurrection to eternal glory.
Persons of any age are suitable candidates for baptism because Christ’s body, the church, is a great family that includes persons of all ages. On the day the Church was born, Peter preached: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (Acts 2:38-39). The New Testament repeatedly records that when a believer was baptized, the believer’s whole household was baptized (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16). Nowhere does the New Testament record, or even suggest, that any Christian family delayed the baptism of their children until they could make their own profession of faith. Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come to me, do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14b), tell us that our Lord has expressly given to little children a place among the people of God, which holy privilege must not be denied them.
As these scriptures make clear, we are not to practice indiscriminate baptism. Children and others who have not reached the developmental stage of making decisions for themselves are presented by parents and/or sponsors (godparents) who make the same profession of faith that a candidate would make and who promise to nurture the candidate(s), in their family and in the church family, so that they will come to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life. If there are sponsors or godparents, they should be selected carefully because they will help nurture the person to be baptized in the Christian faith. This role is not only an honor; it is a serious responsibility. Parents or sponsors (Godparents) should be members of Christ’s holy Church; and it is the duty of the pastor to instruct them concerning the significance of Holy Baptism, their responsibilities for the Christian training of the baptized child, and how these obligations may be fulfilled.
Care is also essential with candidates who take the vows for themselves. They also need instruction in the significance and responsibilities of Holy Baptism. The infant being presented for baptism and the adult seeking baptism has more in common, spiritually speaking, than may at first appear. God’s grace has taken the initiative and is already at work in the lives of both. Both are making responses to God’s grace that are appropriate to their ages. Both need to grow in Christ within Christ’s family, the Church, and with the nurturing help of other Christians. There may be sponsors or godparents when candidates can speak for themselves as well as when they cannot.
Regardless of the age of the candidate, the Christian community responds in faith to God’s grace by claiming and incorporating this new member of Christ’s holy Church. The congregation corporately sponsors each candidate and takes vows at each baptism that are to be taken just as seriously as the vows of parents or individual sponsors. When someone is baptized, it is a crucial event in the life both of that person and of the Church. What happens to that member of the body of Christ will make a difference to every other member, and the rest of the Church can never again be the same. By the Sacrament of Baptism the Church pledges to that member: “Your joy, your pain, your gain, your loss, are ours, for you are one of us.”
While the baptism of a child facing imminent death may be perceived as an emergency by the persons concerned, and while baptism may be an appropriate rite of initiation into the family of Christ under such circumstances, it should be made clear that United Methodism does not teach that infants who die before they are baptized will be denied full salvation. United Methodism has always strongly affirmed the biblical teaching that Christ died for all, and that God’s prevalent grace is available to all and is sufficient for such children.
Whatever further steps in faith and life the baptized may take, baptism is not administered to any person more than once, for while our baptismal vows are less than reliable, God’s promise to us in the sacrament is steadfast. Once baptized, we have been initiated into Christ’s body the Church and are members of Christ’s family.
Those baptized before they are old enough to take the vows for themselves make their personal profession of faith in a service called confirmation. Those who are able to take the vows for themselves at their baptism are not confirmed, for they have made their public profession of faith at baptism.
After confirmation, or after baptism when candidates take the vows for themselves, Christians are encouraged to reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant at significant moments. Individuals may make such a reaffirmation when transferring into a congregation, when renewing participation in the church after a time of lapse, or when taking further steps in their personal faith journey. Congregations make such a reaffirmation as a part of every service of the Baptismal Covenant and may do so at other appropriate times as well. Such a reaffirmation is not, however, to be understood as baptism.
Source: The United Methodist Book of Worship, Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, pp 81-84