What happens when someone is baptized? The question is important not only because baptism is the ritual that marks entrance into the Christian Church, but also because because different strands of the larger Christian tradition have come to different conclusions with regard to the meaning of baptism. Is it primarily a sign of faith? Is it an instrument of God’s grace to us? Should it be given to adult believers only? Or are the children of believers proper candidates for baptism? Well, we won’t answer all these questions today, but since a couple of recent posts (here and here) have dealt with John Wesley’s “Treatise on Baptism,” I thought I’d keep the topic going and share Wesley’s account of the benefits of baptism. One question you may want to ask along the way is this: Who, for Wesley, is the primary actor in baptism? God? Or the baptized?
1. Guilt Cleared
For Wesley, baptism clears the guilt of original sin, a doctrine Wesley believed wholeheartedly and which asserts that every person comes into the world in a state of brokenness and guilt. No one starts off in a right relationship with God. Baptism deals with that handicap and paves the way for further workings of grace. Wesley points to scripture, the baptismal liturgy, and the ancient fathers to make his case.
2. New Covenant Status
Baptism brings us into covenant with God. Whether infant or adult, baptism marks a person’s
entrance into the the new covenant. It is God’s everlasting commitment, Wesley says, “to be their God, as he promised to Abraham, in the evangelical covenant which he made with him and all his spiritual offspring” (II.2.). Wesley here sees baptism as analogous to circumcision in that it is a covenant sign, but also surpassing circumcision as the sign of the realized new covenant.
3. Church Entrance
Baptism also marks a person’s entrance into the Church. For Wesley, the sacrament incorporates a person into the body of Christ, who is the head of the Church. He points here to Galatians 3:27, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” This is one of the key ways that Wesley understands baptism as a means of grace. Grace is nothing more or less than Jesus. To be baptized is to be connected to the Church, which is to be connected to Christ, which is to be worked on by his grace as we participate in its privileges and the promises Christ has made to it.
4. Made a Child of God
Now this one will make evangelical types squirm a little (or a lot!). I should know. It does me, at least a little. But Wesley believed that “By baptism, we who were ‘by nature children of wrath’ are made children of God” (II.4). Wesley was apparently quite comfortable using the language of baptism alongside the language of regeneration: “By water then, as a means, the water of baptism, we are regenerated or born again” (II.2). He was comfortable with this because he found it in the Bible. Check out Titus 3:5, to which Wesley appeals along with John 3:5. He was, after all, homo unius libri. Now if you believe that salvation, once given, cannot be lost, this is going to feel a lot like some sort of legalistic works righteousness, where you do something to gain God’s favor. Remember, though, that Wesley didn’t have a “once saved, always saved” theology. Grace must always be responded to with faith; otherwise salvation can be lost. Note the conditional statement he makes later in the treatise, “Baptism doth now save us, if we live answerable thereto; if we repent, believe, and obey the gospel” (II.4., emphasis added). To put it differently, the means of grace are only effective for salvation when received through faith in Christ. So, his theology of baptismal regeneration does not mean that a person will necessarily be fully and finally saved. It simply means that God is working in them by grace to renew them in a substantial way that must be received by faith, lest they fall away and lose this benefit of their baptism.
5. Heirs of the Kingdom
If baptism makes us children of God, then it also makes us heirs of the kingdom of God. Wesley turns to Romans 8:17 to make this point: “if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” But again, don’t make the mistake of thinking Wesley believed that inheritance could not be forfeited.
Well, there you go. Baptism according Wesley. Grounded in scripture. Shaped by worship. Striving to hold fast the ancient faith. What do you think? Does Wesley’s attitude toward baptism make you feel uncomfortable? Has he missed the mark? Or does it shed light on a mysterious means of God’s good grace?