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Further Teaching on Baptism


Entering into a new relationship with God


1. The new relationship God offers to us.

Baptism and confirmation are part of the wider picture of God’s saving activity.

According to the witness of the New Testament the plan of God the Father is to unite all things in heaven and earth to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10). This does not mean that we will become absorbed into God and lose our personal identity. What it means instead is that God the Father wants us to have the same kind of relationship of love with Him that Christ has, the kind of relationship that we find described for us in the four gospels.

The New Testament describes this in terms of adoption (Galatians 4:5, John 1:12 ). Someone who is adopted becomes part of a new family and enters into a new set of relationships with the other members of that family. That is what God wants to happen to us. He has created a new human family open to everyone, in which those who belong to it relate to Him as their Father and to all other human beings as their brothers and sisters, and He wants us to become members of it.

However, we have a problem. In our own strength we are incapable of living as part of God’s new family. This is because we are all affected by a bias towards evil (what the Bible calls ‘sin’) that means that we are unable to have the kind of loving relationships with God and other human beings that being part of God’s family involves. We love ourselves and the things we want for ourselves more than we love God or other people (Romans 1:18-3:20).

In order to deal with our inability, God the Father sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world. Because He was both fully God and fully human, Christ was able to bridge the gap between God and humanity by doing three things:

  • First, He declared the possibility of living as part of God’s new family by accepting God’s forgiveness, turning our back on sin, and becoming a follower of Christ, living in obedience to His teaching (Luke 15: 11-32, Mark 1:14-20, Matthew 7:21-27).
  • Secondly, He showed in His own life what living as part of this new family meant in practice by living a life that was based on total trust and obedience  to God, was free from ambition or a desire for material possessions, and was marked by a self-giving and sacrificial love that was shown to everyone, including those who we were the outcasts of society. (John 1:14, 5:19, Matthew 8:20, 9:9-13).
  • Thirdly, He identified Himself with the plight of human beings trapped by sin and, by means of this identification, transformed their situation from the inside.

At His baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist, Christ identified Himself with the sinners who came to be baptised by John (Mt 4:13-17) and this identification reached its culmination on the cross on which Christ voluntarily took upon Himself the physical death and spiritual separation from God that are the result of sin (Mk 15:33-39). He did this so that our old human nature dominated by sin might perish in His dying and be replaced by a new form of human nature free from sin and death. This new nature was manifested when on the third day Christ rose from the dead (Rom 4:25, 6:5-11, 2 Cor 5:14-15).

Forty days after the resurrection Christ ascended into heaven and from there He sent the Holy Spirit from God the Father on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:6-9, 2:1-4). The Holy Spirit is often thought of as an ‘it’ - an abstract force, but is in fact as personal a form of God’s existence as God the Father or Christ Himself. Within the life of God the Spirit is the ‘bond of love’ through whom Christ relates to God the Father. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost means that this relationship between Christ and the Father, a relationship of total love and obedience that is untainted by sin and death and that will endure for ever within a renewed creation, is now open to all human beings through the Spirit’s presence in them by means of which they are enabled to call God ‘Father’, are gradually transformed so that they become more and more like Christ (Romans 8:14-16, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ) and are united as sisters and brothers with all the other members of God’s family (1Corinthians 12:12-13).

2. How we can become part of this new relationship

Although this new relationship is open to all human beings they do not automatically share in it. Being part of this new relationship normally involves responding in four ways to the good news of what God has done for us:

  • First, by understanding and accepting what God the Father has done for us through Christ, and embracing the promise of a new life in the Spirit that He offers to us (John 3:16, Romans 4:23-25). This is what Christians means when they talk about ‘faith.’
  • Secondly, by being willing to confess publicly our commitment to Jesus and our willingness to follow Him (Romans 10:9-10).
  • Thirdly, by being willing to turn away from our old life of sin and to enter into the new life that Christ offers by being baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19 Acts 2:38). There are two biblical images for baptism that help us to understand its significance. One is the image of going under water and rising out of it again. This image points us to the way in which in baptism we die to our old self and rise to a new life (Romans 6:1-4). The other is the image of being cleansed by water. This image points to the way in which through baptism we are given a new start cleansed from sin (Titus 3:5-6).
  • Fourthly, by taking part in Holy Communion (also known as the Eucharist, the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper), the family meal which Christ instituted for His followers. At this meal they recall what He did for them on the cross, are fed spiritually by Him as they receive His body and blood through the bread and wine, grow in unity with Him and all those who belong to Him, and look forward to being with Him for ever in God’s new creation (something which the Bible describes in terms of a great feast or banquet) (Luke 22:14-20, John 6:53-58, 1 Corinthians 10:17). 

3. Patterns of response in the history of the Church

During the history of the Christian Church these four ways of responding to the good news of what God has done for us have been combined in a variety of patterns of what has come to be known as ‘Christian initiation.’

Although the precise details varied in different churches, during the early centuries a broadly similar pattern of Christian initiation seems to have developed in both the Eastern and Western parts of the Church.

In this pattern those who wished to become Christians underwent a period of instruction (technically known as ‘catechesis’) so that they would understand the basics of the Christian faith and what it meant to live as a follower of Christ. At the end of this period of instruction there was an extended ceremony presided over by the bishop as the representative of the whole family of God’s people, which normally took place at either Easter or Pentecost. At this ceremony, those who had been through the period of instruction renounced evil, confessed their faith and were baptised in water in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They were then solemnly blessed by the bishop by the laying on of hands and/or were anointed with oil representing the Holy Spirit and were admitted to Holy Communion. 

As time went on three significant developments took place that led to changes in the pattern of initiation just described.

  • First, infant baptism became the norm. The pattern described above was on the basis that those who wished to become Christians were adults who were able to answer for themselves. However, as the Christian faith became more established and widely accepted the practice of Christian parents bringing infants to baptism (a practice which seems to have existed from the very earliest days of the Church) continued to grow until a situation developed where the majority of those who were baptised were infants rather than adults. This meant that the traditional pattern of catechesis prior to baptism and personal confession of faith at baptism ceased to be viable in the case of most of those who were being baptised. The pattern that replaced it was one in which the personal confession of faith and commitment at baptism was undertaken by parents and godparents on behalf of infants on the understanding that these infants would receive catechetical instruction as they grew up and would then be able to confess the faith for themselves.
  • Secondly, in the West the growth of infant baptism lead to a breaking of the direct link between baptism and admission to the Eucharist. Admission to Communion was postponed until the infants who had been baptised were old enough to receive with a proper degree of understanding. 
  • Thirdly, as the Church grew both geographically and numerically, it became increasingly difficult for the bishop to be present at all baptisms and so in the Western Church baptism came to be administered by a priest acting on behalf of the bishop. The laying on of hands and anointing with oil after water baptism then became the separate rite of confirmation. This was administered by the bishop to those who had been baptised as infants and had subsequently received catechetical instruction, with the understanding being that at confirmation they received additional strength from the Holy Spirit to live a Christian life.

At the Reformation the Church of England retained with some changes this later Western pattern of initiation. As a result the standard pattern of Christian initiation in the Church of England until very recently has been one in which people have been baptised as infants on the understanding that they will then be brought up as Christians, receive instruction on the Christian faith, confess the faith for themselves when they are confirmed in their early teens and then be admitted to Holy Communion.

There are four reasons why the Church of England, unlike some other Christian traditions, has retained the practice of infant baptism.

  • First, infant baptism is a practice that goes back to the very earliest days of the Church and is therefore something that the Church of England does not feel free to discard.
  • Secondly, the Church of England believes that God’s merciful love, what Christians call God’s ‘grace’, always precedes our human response and enables it. Personal confession of faith following on from and responding to the grace of God received in infant baptism is consistent with this fact. 
  • Thirdly, we read in the gospels that Christ welcomed and blessed those infants that were brought to Him (Mark 10:13-15) and the Church of England believes that infant baptism is a way He continues to do this today.
  • Fourthly, the Bible as a whole tells us that the children of believers are themselves part of God’s family and therefore The Church of England feels that it is right that they should have the sign of belonging to the family just as Jewish children in the Old Testament had the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14, Acts 2:39, 16:31, 1 Corinthians 7:14).

4. Patterns of initiation in the Church of England today.

Today the traditional Church of England pattern of initiation is changing in three ways.

  • First, in most dioceses provision now exists, subject to agreement by the bishop, the parish priest and the congregation or the Parochial Church Council, for children who have not been confirmed to receive Holy Communion after appropriate instruction provided that this is in the context of a programme of continuing nurture leading to confirmation.
  • Secondly, increasing numbers of people who have been baptised as infants are not being confirmed as teenagers but are being confirmed later as adults, often either as part of a journey to Christian faith or as part of a return to it.
  • Thirdly, increasing numbers of people are not being baptised as infants, but are being baptised when they come to faith when they are older. In this case provision is made for a return to the older Western pattern with baptism, confirmation and receiving the Eucharist taking place in the same service.

What this means is that there are now a number of different patterns of Christian initiation in the Church of England. The important fact is, however, that they all contain the four essential elements for entering into the life of God’s family that we noted earlier in this introduction.

© The Archbishops' Council of the Church of England