What Actually Happens at Baptism? [Questions That Haunt]

What Actually Happens at Baptism? [Questions That Haunt] September 17, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Drew:

Hi Tony, The haunting question that I want to submit is this: Does anything REALLY happen to a baby’s spirit at its baptism? I am NOT a Baptist in the sense that I think it is a requirement as a Christian to be baptized as a “believer.” But I don’t think that infant baptism is magic. In fact, it makes more sense to me to have babies grow up in church and decide for themselves if they want to be baptized.

I am the youth minister at a baby-baptizing Congregational church, and my wife and I decided to not have our son baptized. In spite of this, I don’t believe that anyone should force a person to be re-baptized if he or she was baptized as an infant. So I guess that means that I think infant baptism is “valid.”

But what MAKES it valid? What happens in that infant baptism? It seems that SOMETHING has to happen, or else it really isn’t anything. And it seems that that “something” should happen in the spirit of the baby because baptism is supposed to a spiritual event. But I guess I have some doubts about this. So, does something really happen in a baby’s spirit at its baptism?

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below:

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  • Ric Shewell

    We had our daughter baptized. As we understand it, baptism is an initiation rite into the people of God. It is a declaration that this person belongs to God, this community and to the community of Christ. Our daughter, Clementine, didn’t have a choice. She is a part of the church. As she grows, she will have to opportunity to decide if she wants to remain a part of the church or leave.

    Also, her baptism wasn’t a ritual for her alone, but a ritual for the whole community, where they take vows to support the family and help raise the child in the faith. In that moment of baptism, my daughter becomes my sister in Christ and sister in Christ to all in the church.

    So as she grows, she might choose to leave the church, but as she grows, she will know that she belongs, that we have taken vows on her behalf, and that the church has vowed to love and care for her.

    As she grows, she will not have the opportunity to join the church. She already belongs.

    I grew up going to a church that did dedication and baptisms, but most dedicated their babies. This became thorny when it came to communion. The minister said that communion was open to all baptized believers, so children who were not baptized were not permitted to the table. In a sense, we tell children that they are not “in” until they make the decision to accept Christ and come in. When we baptize babies, we tell them that they are “in” until they make the decision to leave.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      What Ric has here well articulated, is fundamentally the classic Protestant view on “household”, or “pedobaptism”. Those of the Roman Catholic tradition, would strongly disagree, Eastern Orthodoxy would agree with Ric. Protestantism is itself then further divided into three categories: those that support pedobaptism/household baptism, those that support only “believers baptism”, and those that do not practice ANY sort of water ritual. Many Christians are surprised to learn, of the third category, but the Christian sects of Bullingerism, and the Berean Bible Society affiliates, do not water baptize, at all. These two groups, are often called ultradispensationalists. My own personal opinion, is that nothing spiritual happens, to the child, at infant baptism. What realy happens at infant baptism, is that the baby just gets WET. Parents and church communities, can make “vows of support and inclusion”, without getting the baby wet, at all. It is possible, that the various expressions, of these water rituals, that divide Christendom, are nothing more than unnecessary carry-overs, from the legalistic Judaic Mikveh.

      • Ric Shewell

        There might be a religious nostalgia that perpetuates the practice of these church rituals, but is that all there is? I think there is more. First, the water ritual teaches the story that we are part of. It is an object lesson about God’s work in the world and Christ’s identification with humanity. Secondly, it affirms the material world. We worship God through the sacraments in a unique way. Worship and grace is mediated in a way that is beyond words or simply mental assent. Our bodies are involved in a prayer. Thirdly, the water ritual identifies you with others that have gotten wet, including the Ethiopian eunuch and Jesus Christ. It marks you.

        There are other reasons why I think its good, but these are a few. I don’t think that the water baptism saves you or changes your condition before God, but it is more than an empty ritual.

        For these reasons I think that it is good for churches to baptize, rather than avoid the ritual altogether, even with its baggage.

        • Mark Kirschieper

          If some sort of water ritual “floats your boat/ark”, I say, “Go for it”. Enjoy! I also forgot, the Christian Quakers, also do not baptize (or practice communion, for that matter). For consideration… Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach…”. As an Apostle, if water baptism were essential, Paul could not have said that. However, we both already agree, that the water ritual does not effect the baby’s reconciliation to God. I am more that thankful, and grateful, for that. Colossians Chapter 2, also has much negative, to say, regards “ordinances”.

          • Ric Shewell

            I think the New Testament is not going to help you as much in this argument. 1 Cor 1:17 doesn’t imply that baptism is not essential, he assumes that they are baptized, but for the sake of the argument, he’s glad he wasn’t the one to do it. Colossians is probably about issues of circumcision and idol meat, I’d say that is a stretch to say that includes baptism and communion (although, I do agree that Paul’s line of thinking is consistent with his Christian Liberty stances in other places–1 Cor 8-10). As far as Paul goes, Romans 6 lays out for Paul how baptism links us to Christ’s death and resurrection. Maybe he doesn’t come out and say that it necessary, but that’s probably because it wasn’t a question at the time. We also have to deal with Christ’s example of baptism in all the Gospels, and John 3:5, where being born of water is a requirement for the Kingdom of God. Some have argued that just means being born, but that’s some interpretive gymnastics.

            • Mark Kirschieper

              Paul is an Apostle. If water rites, were such a valued tradition, to the gentile church; then as an Apostle, Paul should be rejoicing about having performed water rituals, not be unhappy about it. I understand you, I just don’t agree, we’ll have to leave it at that. I’ve totally let go of the “Jewish mindset”, so as a gentile believer, I don’t have much value for remnant rituals. I’m guessing you may be a member of a replacement theology/supersessionist denomination; so there may still be some Judaic element, lurking about. I’m not into denominationalism. We’ve already agreed, that water baptism, is not salvific. I think your concerns, might be better directed, to a Roman Catholic. Your daughter has experienced household baptism, you already have way too much invested in her, to have the freedom to be misinformed. You and I are already, on the same page, anyway. I was baptized Roman Catholic as a child, I was then re-baptized, in high school via. classic, immersive, Protestant believer’s baptism. In both cases, both you and I would agree, that all I got was “wet”. I think we’ll have to leave the issue of ritual continuance, for another posting.

              • Silva Helmer

                What Paul was happy about in this passage is that he did not create a “Paulian” faction in the Corinthian church. The context of the quotation (an in fact much of this epistle) are about the dangers of factionization in the early church. He wanted the Corintians to be followers of Jesus, not followers of Paul. Apparently, who you were baptized by was quite important back then.

                • Mark Kirschieper

                  I do agree, that Paul was not in favor of factions, in the Body of Christ. I’d suggest his concern is still valid, and evidence of it is ever present, in the various factions, and denominationalism, of Christian churchianity. Unfortunately, the various genres, of a water ritual, are still splintering the Church universal, to this very day. Most denominations absolutely insist upon some form of water ritual, to attain formal “membership, into their private club.” I find this a deplorable, and unnecessary form of overt, and premeditated exclusionary behavior.

                  • I understand that there are about two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom understand baptism as the means of entering into the faith.

                    I cannot understand how something so truly universal in time and around the globe, involving between two fifths and a third of humans now alive, can in any sense be “a deplorable, and unnecessary form of overt, and premeditated exclusionary behavior.” If that’s “exclusive,” what in the world is your idea of open?

                    Isn’t it plain as day that this new insistence that what you call a “water ritual” is a terrible thing will increase the splintering of the Church, which is rightfully deplored? Is it really such an awful thing to accept what we have received from our predecessors in faith, without having to re-do everything that’s been done to conform it to our expectations?

                    • Silva Helmer

                      I think that baptism can be a wonderful, transformative experience, but if we require it in order for us to call some one Christian, how is that not exclusionary?

                    • Mark Kirschieper

                      One of my HUGE mistakes in life, was to NOT question authority, and tradition. If there is a time, when we stop doing that, then we’re saying we have attained an understanding of absolute truth. That sounds way too much like any religious fundamentalist world view, with which, I’m very uncomfortable. It was very liberating, for me, to start asking really, really tough and controversial questions…If you’re content, in the traditionalist camps, may the good Lord bless you! The Christian Bullingerites, Bereans (Bible Society), Quakers, many emergent gatherings, and home churches, etc., do not FORCE baptism, upon their congregants. To me, they’re just as much missional Christians, as any other faction, with a water ritual. I can always be wrong, and intend to never stop challenging myself, authority figures, traditions, or institutions, be they secular, or religious. Thank you very much. Our predecessors in faith, have been sincerely misinformed in the past, so I see no reason to presuppose that condition is still not possible. Even the RCC, has been constantly evolving throughout time, and those folks view themselves, as “the one true church”. What’s changing, is merely our understanding.

                    • “One of my HUGE mistakes in life, was to NOT question authority, and tradition.”

                      It was indeed a huge mistake. I have pretty much been taught to question those things all my life, and Christian scripture and tradition have not been exempt. St. Paul himself tells us to test the spirits.

                      What I have found is that they stand up to questioning very well. And I have also learned that, if I am to question authority, it also makes sense to question my own judgments. I find that there are very few questions asked today that haven’t been asked a hundred times before. And that some of my own judgments are just as tainted by self-interest and intellectual laziness as those I am questioning.

                      No one knows his own future. Can I say I won’t leave the Church in the future? I wish I could, but I can’t. But I do know that it has not ceased publishing and proclaiming the gospel, since the beginning of the Roman principate, that it gathers in all peoples, rich and poor, in a common ritual and a common creed, all over the world, that it provides both guidance in compassion and self-control, as well as and a mile-wide avenue for forgiveness, repeatedly. It can be improved, and many are working to do so. But, on the whole, I find it much more suited than my own personal gospels and utopias.

                    • Mark Kirschieper

                      We have religious liberty, in this country, so I say do as you see fit. I mentioned, in my very first response, to Ric, that a Roman Catholic, would strongly disagree…So you have. I’m glad someone of that persuasion, did so. May the good Lord bless and keep you. A fellow member, of the Church Universal, only by the grace of God, through the person and work of Christ, Amen. Peace!

                  • Silva Helmer

                    I completely agree. I just don’t think that was what Paul was talking about in the Corinthians passage.

  • CurtisMSP

    Well, obviously, there is no one single answer. Baptism is a big point of disagreement between some Christian denominations. So, what happens in baptism is sort of whatever you think happens.

    Definitely something happens, but I don’t think you can easily pin it down. You have to explore baptism within your own faith tradition.

    • Drew

      I agree that people do explore baptism through their own faith tradition, but I’m curious what paedobaptists actually believe happens at baptism. If baptism is a spiritual event, then it seems to me that something spiritual must happen to a person when he/she is baptized. So if there really is a spiritual change that coincides with or follows from the water baptism, does not this seem a bit like magic? And if so, can we affirm it as valid? I want to affirm infant baptism, but I don’t want to affirm magic.

  • Silva Helmer

    I recently heard that infant baptism serves a similar purpose to circumcision. It serves as an introduction of the baby to the church community. This makes more sense to me that the Catholic idea that the baby needed to be cleansed from some original sin.
    I was recently re-baptized (as an adult) and for me it served as a transition in my life from going to church because it was what you do to having a relationship with God because I wanted to. I guess, for me, it means what you want it to mean.

  • Guest

    I do know if you are of one faith tradition, and walk into a gift shop that caters to a different faith tradition, it is almost impossible to find an appropriate baptism card or gift! I ran into that experience a few months ago myself.

  • Jewish boys were to be circumcised eight days after birth. What did that do for their spirits? Not a thing. It only meant their parents intended to raise ’em under the Law. If they fell away from the Law later, that was on them.

    The problem is when the parents have no such intention. I’ve had Jewish friends whose parents had ’em circumcised, but they were never bar-mitzvahed, don’t bother with the holidays or customs, and put bacon on everything. I was likewise baptized Catholic as an infant, but my family did neither jack nor squat to ensure I grew up Catholic. Hence I’m Protestant.

    What did that baptism do for me? Some will argue it preconditioned me to follow Jesus as I got older. I don’t buy that. I know too many people whom it clearly didn’t precondition. The only way it would’ve preconditioned me is if my godparents, taking the baptism seriously, did any preconditioning, and got me confirmed. That didn’t happen.

    They had me baptized because (despite what Catholics actually teach) they thought I couldn’t go to heaven without it. It was entirely based on folk religion, on superstition. Same with my Jewish friends who were circumcised solely because their parents figured, “He’s a Jew; seems appropriate.” And plenty of people likewise go through similar rituals for the sake of folk religion, and have no intention of actually introducing the kids to God.

    Does God honor such behavior? I doubt it.

  • Lausten North

    The United Methodist Church welcomes everyone to communion, regardless of what previous rituals you have done or what you had for breakfast. I would never have joined a church with any type of restriction like requiring baptism. I know there are many like me, so really this becomes a question that should be haunting churches that want to attract members.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      It may surprise some Christians, to know, that the Bullingerite Christians, I mention above, also do not practice Communion/Lord’s Supper. So they can’t practice ANY form of exclusion. I do understand though, that there are many Christians, who are highly conditioned to the rituals of churchianity, who would find the total absence, of sacraments/ordinances, very threatening (or even heresy). I am not one of them.

      • Lausten North

        I wasn’t trying to sell the UMC or suggesting dropping rituals. I was suggesting rituals should not exclude anyone.

        • Mark Kirschieper

          I know, no intent to slight the UMC…It just seemed like it could technically require formal members, to have been first baptized, before they could receive communion. I’m sure they don’t have “Communion Gestapo” at the alter, with members presenting their baptismal certificates, prior to communion. (Although, technically, they could.) I guess then, the UMC really must practice open communion, so even a practicing Satanist, Atheist, Muslim, or Jew, could go forward for communion, if it is as you say. I’ve been to many, many UMC services, and honestly, can’t remember exactly how the Pastor instructs the congregation, prior to serving communion.

          • Lausten North

            I can’t speak for all churches, but the pastor in my town takes a few steps out into the congregation, open his arms and explains “open communion” every time.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      The United Methodist denomination is exclusionary, regards actual membership, though…A potential candidate for formal membership, must be water baptized, and must have made a profession of faith via the confirmation process, or by a direct statement of faith. Therefore, I view the United Methodist Church as exclusionary, regards membership, but not regards participation, in the Communion ritual, itself.

  • Jimmy Collins

    I’m a Baptist who has had to explain both infant baptism and believer’s baptism at many Walk to Emmaus/Chrysalis events. I explain infant baptism as a celebration of God’s “yes” to us and believer’s baptism as a celebration of our “yes” to God. Which one each tradition practices reflects which “yes” they tend to emphasize.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Baptism for the earliest Christians was a symbolic act of “letting go of the old and putting on the new” . . . .it was considered a very serious thing, but it was so serious because of the commitment it entailed in following a Christian life after it, not that some magical occurrence happened during a baptism. It evolved into that later on (thus infant baptisms). Most Protestants realized that infant baptism didn’t mean much, but due to the ridiculous notion of Sola Fide they held onto the “magic cosmological” significance of it. Thus evangelicals getting on their knees, pouring out tears, making a scene, getting their eternal salvation ticket stamped, and then the next day doing the same thing they were doing the day prior.

    It doesn’t “save” you. It doesn’t predestine you. It is a community symbolic ritual. It’s significance resides in how a person decides to treat it.

    As for infant baptism, I don’t necessarily have a problem with it as a symbolic ritual done in community, but I don’t believe it is needed because my baby is tainted with the sin of Adam.

    And just for good measure, the earliest citations of the Matthew Great Commission verses don’t mention baptism . . that was (it appears clearly) inserted later on by scribal copyists.

    • Ric Shewell

      What are you talking about with the “baptizing” being added later into the Great Commission? Mt 27:19 appears in all the manuscripts as it is commonly read, with the exception of a “nun” added in some texts and “baptizantes” replacing “baptizontes” in two uncials. The belief that the baptism portion wasn’t originally there was based on a church father, centuries later, misquoting the verse.

      • Andrew Dowling

        The church father “misquotes” you cite are older than any manuscripts of Matthew with the Great Commission known.

        • Ric Shewell

          Yes, but Eusebius is not older than Tertullian (by about a century), and he quotes the great commission with the baptism and trinitarian form. Ignatius, a century early, quoted it with the baptism and trinitarian form as well. Since every Greek and Latin MSS contains it, and church fathers older than Eusebius quote it, I think it’s a little to much of a jump for Conybeare to say that it wasn’t in the original. We can’t say that with any certainty.

  • St. Cyril of Jerusalem:

    “Great is the Baptism that lies before you : a ransom to captives; a remission of offenses; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot to heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom; the gift of adoption! But there is a serpent by the wayside watching those who pass by: beware lest he bite you with unbelief. He sees so many receiving salvation, and is seeking whom he may devour. You are coming in unto the Father of Spirits, but you are going past that serpent.”

    I have always liked St. Cyril’s words. It is an inner transformation. But it is also preparation for a difficult journey. I more typically remember the words in a form that Flannery O’Connor used: “We go to the Father of Souls. But first we must pass by the dragon.”

  • Guest

    Well, nothing metaphysically. Physically you get wet and feel spiritual.

  • Guest
  • Ric Shewell

    Who’s giving me the vote downs? Haha, show yourself! Just kidding. But hey, where’s Drew in the comment section? I feel like its been a while since a person that gets there question up hasn’t engaged the comments. Not a hard rule I guess.

    The back and forth with @markkirschieper:disqus has stirred up some good questions about ritual in general I think. When should we as a community of believers carry on a ritual (foot washing, communion, baptism, fasting, wedding rings, tithing, going to church, observing the sabbath, etc.), and when should we abandon rituals like we have with baptisms for the dead and doing penance?

    Clearly not every (or any) Christian ritual affects our justification before God. I think they fall into the beneficial but not necessary category. But how do we chose?

    • Mark Kirschieper

      Hi Ric, Thanks for the reference. Let’s proceed, and go briefly off point, (regards baptism effect), and explore your fantastic question, regards religious ritual, in general…Could you agree with me, that in accordance with the NT book of Hebrews, the current “priestly office”, of our ascended Lord Jesus Christ, is that of Melchizedek/Melchisedec (Strong’s 3198)?

      • Ric Shewell

        There’s a lot of baggage and mystery with the “order of Melchizedek” language, but sure, I’m with you.

        • Mark Kirschieper

          OK great, then we’ve discovered a simple, and logical answer, to your question, regards the proper practice of rituals, in the Church. Without any exception, an order of priesthood, always directly corresponds, to its own particular ecclesial form. (For example, the Levitical Priesthood, corresponds directly, to the ecclesial form, of Sacrificial Temple Judaism.) The first time we learn, of the priesthood order of Melchizedek, is in Genesis 14:18. Therefore, it was in existence, even before the beginning of Judaism. Let’s call this ecclesial form, corresponding directly to that priesthood, “The Church of The Most High God”. So, right this very moment, each and every one of us individual believers, is actually a member, of this ancient “Church of The Most High God”, (which actually predates Judaism, and Christianity). We can search the Biblical Canon from Genesis 1:1, to Revelation 22:21, and discover that there are absolutely NO SCRIPTURAL GROUNDS, to presuppose that this “Church of The Most High God”, which must indeed be the current ecclesial form, has any instruction, or commands, requiring its members, to practice any sort of religious ritual. The time for religious ritual, has come and gone. They have served their purpose, period. Story over.

          • Even granting (as I and most Christians don’t) the need for express scriptural warrant for every practice of the Church, there is “Do this in remembrance of me” and “baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” What the scriptures do lack is any reference to any Church of the Most HIgh God. Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine is considered by most Christians to have foreshadowed the eucharistic sacrifice. And the story continues.

            • Mark Kirschieper

              Rick, You’re very highly invested, in the classic, traditional RCC. I would expect nothing but resistance, from you. Therefore you may not have the liberty, or objective capacity, to be misinformed. Your posting on a Progressive Christian blog. I’d suggest, this is a spot for folks, who are not afraid to think way out of the box, and can be very, very open minded. Why are you here, if you just intend to defend, the status quo? Genesis 18:14 itself uses the phrase, “priest of the most high God”. So, then this priest would plausibly be representing a church, of the same name. If your happier with the “Church Universal”, or “The Body of Christ”, they’re all synonymous, with the Church of The Most High God. That’s mere semantics It’s speculation to assume that Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine, is an absolute metaphor, for Communion. It could just as well have been a cultural tradition of hospitality, at that time. Even if it was this foreshadowing, of which you speak, we have no evidence that the members of the Melchizedek church represented, are involved in any personal ritual themselves. The Book of Hebrews, is well addressed, to the mindset of Messianic Judaism, which has strong supersessionist representation, in the RCC. Hebrews dismisses foreshadowing, anyway. Rightly so, because we have the our Lord Christ Jesus, the real thing.

              • “Why are you here, if you just intend to defend, the status quo?”

                Because there is nothing terribly openminded about assailing the status quo with no one responding.

                Catholics are obviously not the only Christians who baptize. There is an express command from Christ himself to do so. To set aside the command of Christ, and the unbroken practice of almost two millenia, because of a inference from Abraham’s encounter with Melchizadek, strikes me as a little tenuous.

                What I am curious about is why you are so dead set on eliminating the sacraments. You say they have “served their purpose, period.” What was their purpose? And why is it, if they had a purpose before, do they lack one now?

                • Mark Kirschieper

                  That’s an easy response, because you’ve already answered it. The rituals pointed to, or foreshadowed, the real thing, the person and work, of Christ. The entire book of Hebrews, is an explanation of their inferiority, and the supremacy of the person, and work of Christ. That’s why Hebrews dwells on the Priesthood of Melchizedek, because it references an ecclesial form, without any evidence of ritual, and that’s why its, and my own reference, to Genesis 14:18, is so very important. The Book of Hebrews, and Genesis 14:18, are inseparable. They inform, explain, and compliment each other. I could write a book, about my issues with the RCC. This post is not the time or place. My question regards rituals, in general, was addressed to Ric, not to you So, if you want to talk about this some more with me, leave a message, on my Facebook page, with your direct contact info, and we can do so.