What is baptism?

Baptism is an outward sign that, in life and in death, we belong to God. Presbyterians believe that baptism is the sign and symbol of inclusion in God’s grace and covenant with the Church. It is the sign of inclusion into the community of faith—the body of Christ—the Church. As an identifying mark, baptism signifies our participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Baptism represents our dying to what separates us from God, and it represents our being raised to newness of life in Christ.

Baptism is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, we read that Jesus commissioned His faithful followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Baptism has always been a celebration marked by the use of water, and it has always been a rite in which persons are summoned into a relationship with God and with each other through Jesus Christ.

How is baptism a sign of God’s grace?

Baptism is God's gift of grace and also God's call to respond to that grace. Presbyterians believe that baptism is all about grace. The grace which God has extended to us in Jesus Christ is prior to and calls forth our own response of faith. Our relationship with God depends primarily on what God has done and only secondarily on what we may or may not do. As Presbyterians practice it, baptism is a powerful enactment of this truth.

The grace which God extends to us in baptism is not a "cheap grace"—a grace which costs nothing. Through faith, grace is certainly free to us, in the sense that it is not earned or merited. But it was not free to God.   Its price was the life of God's Son, Jesus Christ. And on the human level, it costs us our own lives, which now belong unconditionally to God.  Baptism acknowledges our intention to live as God's people.

How is baptism a sign of God’s people?

The sacrament of Baptism is a visible sign and a proclamation to the world that we are members of the Church—the body of Christ. Baptism implies active membership in Christ's body—the community of faith.  Trying to live the Christian life apart from the Church is a contradiction in terms.  The Scriptures witness to the corporate and communal nature of baptism. In his correspondence to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul emphasizes that together Christians constitute the body of Christ and are individually members of it. He writes, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13).

How is baptism a sign of God’s covenant?

When Presbyterians speak of baptism as a covenant, we emphasize the multiple commitments involved. First and most basic, there is God's commitment to us. Then there are the commitments which the community of faith makes to us. Finally, and no less important, are the commitments which we make to God, to our children, and to the church. Our Book of Order states the matter as follows:

Baptism enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God's redeeming grace offered to all people. Baptism is God's gift of grace and also God's summons to respond to that grace. Baptism calls to repentance, to faithfulness, and to discipleship. Baptism gives the church its identity and commissions the church for ministry to the world.   (Book of Order; W—2.3006)

Do Presbyterians observe the baptism of infants?

Like all Christians, Presbyterians believe that baptism is a sacrament for those who, by faith, respond to God’s reconciling grace. But we also believe that baptism is more than a matter of faith.

Some Christians believe that repentance must precede baptism and that baptism may be offered only to those who can profess personal faith. This, of course, presupposes cognition and awareness. Such a position clearly rules out any possibility of the baptism of infants.

This, however, is not how Presbyterians understand baptism. It is not human repentance which precedes baptism; but God’s grace. We believe that baptism emphasizes God’s initiative. The baptism of infants and young children witness to the truth that God’s love claims us before we are able to respond in faith.

It is by the grace of God that an infant is born to Christian parents and into the Christian community. Because God's grace precedes any human response of faith, it is normal for Christian parents who are active church members to present their children for baptism as infants or very young children. Presbyterians believe that baptism is a sacred covenant in which we and our children are inseparably united as members to Christ and to the living community of faith by the Holy Spirit.

Is baptism required for salvation?

No! There is nothing in the water of baptism which achieves our salvation. Salvation is not ours by our own doing. Presbyterians believe that salvation is an act of God.  It is a gift which comes from God’s love for us.

Baptism is not a thing which we do in order to make ourselves right with God. Rather, baptism is our discernible response to the grace which reconciles us to God and to one another. We baptize not to save but to signify that we belong to God and to each other.

Do Presbyterians baptize by immersion in water?

Because baptism is a sign of God’s grace, we do not regard one mode of baptism as better than another. Baptism, whether administered by immersion, by pouring, or by sprinkling, is regarded as one and the same baptism.

From its Greek root, the word to baptize means “to dip,” “to immerse,” or “to wash.” Accordingly, Presbyterians can baptize by immersion in water. But, we believe that the water of baptism can be applied to the person by pouring or sprinkling as well. So long as the water is applied visibly and generously, it does not matter which of these modes of application are used in baptism.