One Baptism: Re-Baptism, the Christian Faith

Question: Ok, so the pastor is throwing water at us. Does that mean we are being re-baptized?

An ordained pastor says a prayer over the water at the Font and then sprinkles people with water? To an outside observer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism might look a lot like the asperges. So is the pastor re-baptizing the congregation?

Short Answer: By no means! Baptism follows a very particular formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”). The grace poured out in that Sacrament is sufficient for a lifetime, and the Church has long held that Baptism is not something that need be repeated — nor can it be repeated.

Long Answer: There are a lot of overlapping issues here: differing views of Baptism, ancient heresies,

Let’s start by considering what happens in the Sacrament of Baptism, revisiting Luther’s words in the Small Catechism:

It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.

font.jpg
Baptistery, Church of St. Joseph, Speyer, Germany

If the Sacrament of Baptism brings about forgiveness, does a person need to be re-baptized every time they sin? Or perhaps weekly, just for good measure? In more realistic terms, our Baptist siblings would suggest that Baptism (which they consider an ordinance, not a Sacrament — an act of obedience rather than a means of grace) is merely “an outward sign of an inward change,” and is something that can and should be repeated. Some Baptist congregations require re-baptism for those who were baptized as infants.  (And while we in the 21st century may most commonly associate this practice with the Baptist denominations, its roots date back to the 16th century German Reformation.) Other modern Baptist congregations encourage re-baptism if someone dedicates their life to Christ, regardless of how many times that decision has been made. Because their understanding of Baptism is rooted in the idea of an “inward change,” the outward sign is performed to signify that the person has truly entered into relationship with Jesus Christ. If a person was baptized as a teenager, then left the Church for twenty years, and then returned to the life of faith, they might very well be baptized again as a sign that the “inward change” has finally happened. It’s not unheard of for a Baptist (or those in semi-Baptist “non-denominational” congregations) to be baptized two or three times.

In the Sacramental understanding, though, Baptism is a means of grace. It’s not merely an outward sign but works some discernible difference in the person being baptized. In those waters, the Christian really does die and rise in Christ. They really are a new person. The “outward sign” causes an “inward change” by God’s grace. The grace given in Baptism is real and permanent; it can’t be thrown away or rejected, no matter how egregious the sin. The “inward change” can’t be undone by human effort.

This may seem like a post-Reformation issue, but the Church confronted this controversy a thousand years before the Thomas Müntzer began preaching re-baptism in Germany. During the Roman period, as various Christian communities faced imperial persecution, some of the faithful, including deacons and bishops, fell away from the Church. The chaos created a conflict within some Christian communities: must those returning to the Church be re-baptized? If the bishop fell away but then returned to administering the Sacraments, were those Sacraments valid? For instance, if an apostate bishop baptized ten people, were those ten people really and truly baptized? Two different groups, the Novatians and the Donatists, held that Christians could not be re-admitted to the Church and that lapsed clergy could not validly celebrate the Sacraments. Others, including Saint Augustine, held that the Novatians and Donatists were heretics, arguing that it is God’s grace at work in the Sacraments, not the clergy’s. God’s grace in Baptism, Augustine said, is sufficient to cover the repentant sinner; those who have fallen away and wish to repentant need not be re-baptized.

A Second Question: If God’s grace poured out in Baptism is sufficient, why should we show up on Sunday morning? Why not just sleep in or go out for an early brunch?

This is a good question. After all, it would be so easy to just get baptized as an infant and then move on with your life. But consider what is happening in the Sacrament: We are being united into Christ. This brings us to two over-lapping reasons for continued participation in the Church:

Reason A) In Baptism, we are united into the Body of Christ. Just as your finger would not survive if it were severed from your hand, so to must the members of Christ remain attached to each other through Christ to remain healthy. It is in the Divine Service that we are nourished by hearing the assurance of God’s grace, reminded of God’s salvific work in human history through the reading of Scripture, and we nourish each other through the love and support of the community. We are branches in the True Vine, and without this nourishment, we wither and perish. God is at work, binding us together as the Body of Christ as we read Scripture, pray together, sing joyfully, and even as we spend time together chatting and eating cookies in the narthex.

Reason B) Related to Reason A, it is on Sunday mornings that we celebrate the Eucharist. This is the culmination of the Divine Service. In receiving the Body of Christ, we are nourished and upheld as the Body of Christ. The grace we receive in the Sacrament of the Altar every week continues the work done by the grace we received in the Sacrament of the Font all those years ago. Just as Baptism works the forgiveness of sin, so to do we celebrate the Eucharist and receive the Body of Christ “given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” In Baptism, we are joined to the Body of Christ; in the Eucharist, we receive that same Body week after week, strengthened by divine grace.

I was baptized as an infant, before my first memories were formed. How can you expect me to remember such an early event?

If we aren’t being re-baptized, then what are we doing? As discussed in last week’s article on asperges, the practice of sprinkling or flinging water from the Font into the Assembly is a means of remembrance — not merely a mental act but a tangible method of remembering our Baptism. In the sacramental understanding, remembrance is more than a cognitive act. That is to say, when we talk about remembering your Baptism or celebrating the Eucharist “in remembrance” of Christ, it’s not just something that takes place in the mind. For one thing, the Sacraments are physical and tangible; you can feel the coolness of the water, taste the sweetness in the wine, smell the bread. More than that, though, just as we believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, our understanding of remembrance is that the thing remembered is actually present. How this works is one of the great mysteries of the faith, a miracle unto itself. Regardless of our inability to understand how, though, and even though it may be decades in the past, when we remember our Baptism, that grace poured into us is still present in our lives, still working God’s good will in us.

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