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Baptismal Re-Affirmation

Why do we affirm (or re-affirm) our baptisms rather than being re-baptize?

The Manual calls baptism “the sign and seal of the new covenant of grace” (800.1). It is one of two undisputed sacraments among all branches of orthodox Christians. However, in our day, baptism has often been demeaned to being a Christian’s personal expression of faith and, therefore, at the discretion of the Christian as to whether they should be “re-baptized” as an expression of either renewal of faith or after a time of backsliding. However, both of these miss the aim of Romans 6:3-5 and, certainly of 6:10-11, which states that “[t]he death [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” If we, the Church, are participants in Christ’s death and heirs to his resurrection-life through the sacrament of baptism, then we recognize that baptism is not a thing which we do, but something which God does in us.

To phrase this differently, we affirm that baptism is “a sign and seal of the new covenant of grace,” but signs do not merely point at reality. They also effect the reality that they signify. Thus, in agreement with the historical witness of the Church, Thomas Aquinas believes “that in the sacraments God shows us what he does and does what he shows us.” (Being the Body in the Age of Management, Lyndon Shakespeare, 2016, Kindle Loc. 4119) As God shows us what salvation looks like in the sacrament of baptism, God also effects that salvation in and for us by the Holy Spirit. It is not dependent on our maintaining a faithful life before God.

With that knowledge, “rebaptism” in our day either amounts to claiming that the first attempt did not take or that baptism is a kind of religious activity to be participated in when one feels like it. To the latter point, it becomes a way of participating in a feeling of religious significance, but that significance is collapsed into the desires of the individual Christian and does not relate to the Church into which people are baptized. It participates in the narratives of perpetual anxiety, crisis and release that is the unfortunate heritage of our revival tradition and it becomes something that a Christian in a state of spiritual turmoil asks for or expects from their pastors without seeking counsel on the purpose or meaning of baptism. Even worse, rebaptism sometimes becomes a sign that faith has been fully turned into a commodity and Christians sometimes look to “trade up” their unimpressive baptism for a more significant or momentous one–with family members who are also being baptized, with a more prestigious or desirable pastor or in holier water (e.g. the Jordan River). Baptism becomes commodity used to expand the Christian’s spiritual horizons.

The former point, that the first baptism just did not “take,” simply makes a muddle out of our soteriology. Baptism is not ours to effect. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to do that and if we do not have to faith to trust this Spirit-work to God, then we have a prayer and discipleship problem, not a baptism problem. We are often asked to “rebaptize” those who have been baptized in other Christian traditions than our own, as though baptism were a certain kind of denominational branding that was ours to offer. There is, of course, the subtle but deadly anti-Roman Catholic bias that often lingers behind these discussions in which one is “rebaptized” in order to redo their infant baptism. To this, we would remind all Nazarenes that we are a tradition that not only acknowledges infant baptisms–we perform them. And the theology that stands behind these baptisms is no different from the theology that stands behind adult baptism. Whether following a child baptism or someone has backslidden or simply feels like it would be personally significant to be “rebaptized” now, we feel that the clear pastoral response is a gentle, but firm, “No, that’s not something I am willing to do and let me talk to you about why.”

Wherever people have been baptized according to a Trinitarian formula (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the tradition of the Church and the witness of Scripture are clear that there is no room for rebaptism. It is at best, a concession, and at worst, a betrayal of our core theological assumptions. However, the pull is still strong to these practices and ritual space has been made in the church for those who feel that a recommitment is necessary for them. This is not rebaptism, but a renewal of vows at such time that the person is returning to communion with the church or responding to the work of the Spirit as it draws them out of a backslidden or apathetic state. Caution should be given not to give into the commodification of faith “experiences” that is so prevalent in our culture. In those cases, people should be encouraged to pray and regularly attend to the ordinances of God.

See the baptismal liturgies for possible liturgies used to reaffirm baptismal vows.

– written by Rev. Jeff Bassett

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