Baptism is one of two sacraments of United Methodists, the other being Holy Communion. In a sacrament, God uses common elements — in this case, water — as a means of divine grace. Baptism is administered by the church as the Body of Christ. It is the act of God through the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the act of initiation and incorporation into the universal church of Jesus Christ, The United Methodist Church, and a local congregation. Baptism is offering by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion.
In Christian baptism, God claims those being baptized, whatever their age or ability to profess their faith, with divine grace. We offer baptism to people of all ages who have not previously received Christian baptism. In services of profession of faith and confirmation before the congregation, we respond to God’s grace by repenting of our sins, declaring our faith in Jesus Christ, and becoming professing members of the church. Clearly an infant can do nothing to save himself or herself, but is totally dependent on God’s grace, as we all are — whatever our age. The baptism of a baby assumes that the child will be nurtured and formed in the faith at home and at church. Those baptized as infants or young children do not become professing members until they are able to profess their own faith.
Through appropriate remembrances and celebrations, our children can be enabled to “remember” their baptism as much as they “remember” their physical birthday.
Even when the people being baptized are believing adults and are ready to profess their faith, our first emphasis is upon the gracious action of God who establishes the covenant of baptism with us rather than upon the individual’s decision.
United Methodists recognize the baptism of other Christian denominations who baptize people in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as generally understood in historic Christianity. We do not re-baptize as baptism is an act of God who always remains faithful on the divine side. Our side of the covenant relationship with God will need recommitment and reaffirmation.
Traditions that only practice “believer’s baptism”– those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ for themselves in some public way — practice baptism not as a means of grace by which God saves and claims us, but rather as a further act of public profession and/or an act of obedience to the command of Christ that his followers be baptized. That is why these “believer’s baptism only” traditions generally refer to baptism as an ordinance — an act ordained or commanded by Christ — rather than a sacrament. The term sacrament means “an oath” and refers to God’s covenant with us (first of all) and ours in response to God’s gracious provision of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Baptism does not mean a person is “saved.” Salvation is a lifelong process during which we must continue to respond to God’s grace. Baptism offers the promise that the Holy Spirit will always be working in our lives, but salvation requires our acceptance of that grace, trust in Christ, and ongoing growth in holiness as long as we live. To refuse to accept baptism is to reject one of the means of grace that God offers us.
United Methodism stands in the historic heritage of the Christian faith through the ages and, specifically, in the legacy of John Wesley. Wesley was an Anglican priest. As a result, United Methodism has inherited a “high” understanding of the church, the sacraments, and other aspects of worship. Wesley was also an evangelical revivalist. As a result, United Methodism emphasizes the necessity of conversion, personal relationship with Christ, and witnessing to others. Neither of these aspects alone represents who we are. As United Methodists, we hold the two together in our baptismal theology and practice and in our broader understanding of how God works in our lives for salvation.