Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two-edged Baptism

It’s probably safe to say that most church-related folks think of baptism as the event that marks the entry of an individual into the community of faith.

What happens in the sacrament is that the person receiving the sacred bath becomes a Christian, officially. One image used to describe this happening: the person “dies” and is “raised” with Christ to “live a new life” with him. Another very physical image is that the baptizand is thereby “incorporated” into the “body of Christ,” the church, becoming a “member.”

Simple enough. Baptism is the way one takes on the Christian identity, is linked solidly with the Risen Lord, and enters upon a life-long journey of shared discipleship with others so identified.

In order to accomplish this, however, it’s expected that certain promises, commitments, affirmations will be made. Usually these are in “Q&A” format, but sometimes a creedal statement is used, like the Apostles’ Creed, which scholars tell us was in fact originally a baptismal creed.

In the Book of Common Worship (1946), parents presenting a child answered this question: “…do you confess your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour; and do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your Child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?” An adult standing before the font had four other questions to answer, essentially getting at the same thing.

The Worshipbook (1970) updated the liturgical language, and rearranged the questions somewhat, but covered much the same territory. The new liturgical contribution in the Worshipbook was a question directed head-on to the congregation about their responsibility “to tell this new disciple (this child) the good news of the gospel….”

Up to this point in the recent development of liturgy, however, only one side of the baptismal blade was honed. The Book of Common Worship (1993) whetted the other edge razor sharp with a series of questions to the parents/guardians or adult, starting with this introduction:
“Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.
“(The minister then asks the following questions of the candidates for baptism and/or the parents or guardians of children being presented for baptism.)
“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

This is followed by three alternative sets of questions, each of which begins with a question asking, in one way or another, the parent/guardian or candidate to “turn from the ways of sin” and “renounce evil and its power in the world.” Renunciation of evil is the first step of turning toward Christ. The questions and answers spell out the meaning of repentance, “turning around,” facing the other direction,” away from all that is bad and wrong in the world to the only One who is good and righteous.

Lest you think this is something new, the renunciation of evil at baptism dates back to the early centuries of the church, and has continued off and on in various and sundry forms. I don’t know why it fell to the roadside for Presbyterians, but I can imagine why it has been recaptured in the current liturgy.

Signing on with the church of Jesus Christ comes at a cost. It’s not enough to say, “Sure, I believe in Jesus Christ….” The other edge of being a Christian is to reject all that keeps one from Jesus Christ, all that is against Christ, all that is evil.

Renouncing evil and turning away from sin takes positive effort, not just passive avoidance. It’s more than just trying to stay out of trouble and being nice. It also means rejection of what is wrong in the world, ethical denial of sinful behavior.

Evil comes in many shapes, of course, and it’s not always easy to recognize it, much less reject it, especially when it’s alluring and seductive. Which is why there is a church that welcomes us at baptism to give us “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” we so dearly need. Repentance is an on-going activity in the Christian life. Over and over again we have to pivot our lives around away from the disaster of sin to face the healing forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

Baptism needs these two edges, renunciation as well as affirmation. Otherwise the affirmation will grow blunt over time and lose its keenness of witness and service.

Does your church use the renunciation of evil in the baptismal liturgy?


  1. There is renunciation of evil at our baptisms as well as new members joining (which has happened the past two Sundays here).

    What is missing in the PCUSA liturgy is a promise to bring the child up in the church. The Directory of Worship talks about it, but our BCW liturgy fails to incorporate it in the questions. It is a serious oversight and plays into the great American hersey of individualism in all things, including faith.

  2. Don, A great blog on Baptism. Thanks. Another take on that: that rejection of evil has a lot to do with all the instructions Calvin gave to the parents, teaching the children to pray and how to pray, instructing them on how to interpret their environment, their ethos, etc. It should have been enough to scare the begesus out of parents who came to him with children to baptize, and then he made them make a public affirmation of their willingness to accept this responsibility -- and of course, indicating to the congregation that that is their responsibility too.

  3. Bruce's point is well-taken.

    However, the second and third questions asked of parents in the BCW are:
    Relying on God's grace,
    do you promise to live the Christian faith,
    and to teach that faith to your child?

    Do you promise, through prayer and example,
    to support and encourage N.
    to be a faithful Christian?

    And then to the Congregation:
    Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ,promise to guide and nurture N. and N.
    by word and deed,with love and prayer,
    encouraging them to know and follow Christ
    and to be faithful members of his church?

    All of which add up to implying "bring the child up in the church." But perhaps it isn't as straighforward as Bruce indicates it should be.

    What Arlo recalls from Calvin's day is worthy of our revisiting, and speaks to that very issue.

    Even though "bringing up the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" is a shared responsibility among parents, sponsors and congregation, it is still a 100% responsibility for parents. Without theirs being fulfilled, the congregaton will not stand a chance to do their major part.


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