Meaning(s) of Baptism

Three things demand clarity before we look into the meaning(s) of baptism. 1. With The Open Door Community, there is plenty of room for diversity in theology and practice.

2.  However, one issue of clarity seems pertinent: Baptism does not save.  Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) that expresses itself in repentance and confession of Jesus as LORD (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9).  Participating or not participating in the ritual does not impact a person’s eternity.  Therefore, while we enthusiastically encourage baptism, we refer to the practice as a non-essential.

3.  In so doing, we affirm the sentiment of Reformer Rupertus Meldinius who once said, "In the essentials we need unity, in the non-essentials we need freedom; but in all things we need love."

Now, to explore the meaning(s) of baptism.

Consider Jesus' baptism.  In order to identify with the community that He had come to redeem (all of humanity through Israel) Jesus experienced John the Baptizer's water baptism of repentance.  Immediately following that moment, Mark exposes the fusion of the three Persons of the Trinity.  The Spirit descended on the Son as the voice of the Father sounded.  Jesus' baptism served as the anointing and inauguration of His ministry.

We could say that we pattern our baptisms after Jesus' baptism and, to some degree, we do.  However, there was something far more significant and far more symbolic going on at Jesus' baptism that serves as the pattern for our own: it pointed to the climax of His work: His death and resurrection.

Jesus' baptism pointed to the defining moment through which all things would be made new.

Thus, when we experience baptism, rather than participating in the baptism of Jesus, we participate in His death, resurrection, and reign.  Baptism, therefore, is a symbolic declaration that:

  • Christ died my death: I am united with Him in His death.
  • Christ is alive: I am united with Him in His life.
  • Christ reigns today: I am united with Him in the work of the Kingdom.
  • I am fully immersed in the life of Christ.
  • I do not save myself.  I am saved through the work of Christ.
  • I belong to God as His beloved.  He is my home.  He is my hope.
  • I choose to go and live out the life of Christ in community with others.

But wait!

Fully functioning, cognitive adults who have been captivated by the Story of God made tangible in the Person of Jesus might be able to symbolically declare this with their baptism, but what about infants?

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we see children included in the Covenant Rituals exchanged between God and humanity.  In each Covenant, God's interaction was usually with an adult representative but the covenant love of God always reached children before they were even aware.

In Mark 10, we watch the intentional inclusion of children continue in the life of Jesus.  As His disciples tried to restrict inclusion to adults, Jesus, who didn't seem to mind whether a child understood or not, accepted and blessed them.

In Acts 2, Peter gives voice to the new thing that God has done and is doing among a community of people who understood that with a new thing came new initiation rituals.  When they inquired of Peter what that should do, his answer included an initiation ritual: repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit, you and your children!  The baptism of children is implied five times throughout Acts in household baptisms, however, repeatedly throughout the New Testament, baptism, regardless of the timing of it, meant nothing if one's life did not demonstrate the truth of what that baptism represented.

Thus, when we experience an infant baptism, rather than declaring the salvation of the little one, we declare that:

  • God is the initiator in salvation.
  • God's covenant is complete prior to any response.
  • God's redemptive activity is focused on the entire community of humanity and reaches us before we can even understand it.
  • Before we recognize it, God is working to incorporate us into community with Him and others.
  • Even the sweetest, most innocent newborn is in desperate need of God's grace.
  • We rest on the on God's Promise to be that child's God.
  • We commit ourselves to stewarding that child in God's Way.

To sum it up:

The center of attention in baptism is not on who is baptized nor who baptizes. Neither is the focus on when or how.  Rather, the center of attention in baptism is on the Triune God: baptism is an expression of our union with the Father and Son through the Spirit.

For the adult: Baptism is a unique, whole-person, experiential way of participating in and narrating the redemptive Story of God.  In the ritual, we experience God's most extravagant moment of love in an other kind of way.

For the infant and family: Baptism is crying out to God to make good on His promise to apply His redemptive work to their child.

Open Door's Approach to Baptism:

We are not interested in making religious practices essential that don't appear to be essential in the Scriptures; however, whether you're an infant, you've been following Jesus for a lifetime, or are brand new to following Him, we do encourage baptism simply because its a beautiful participation in the Story of God.