Article 17 of the Methodist Articles of Religion states:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.
Wesley adopted this from the Church of England’s Article 27. The key words Wesley omitted are highlighted below.
Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference by which Christian men are discerned from other that be not christened, but is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God, by the Holy Spirit are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
I think Wesley’s version is poorer for omitting baptism’s role in incorporating us into the Body of Christ. Wesley’s A Treatise on Baptism, however, is much broader in its affirmations:
By baptism we enter into covenant with God . . . .
By baptism we are admitted into the Church . . . .
By baptism, we who were “by nature children of wrath” are made the children of God …
being “grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, we are made the children of God by adoption and grace.”
I also appreciate elements of Luther’s Small Catechism on Baptism.
1. What is Baptism?
Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water contained within God’s command and united with God’s Word.
Which Word of God is this?
The one which our Lord Christ spoke in the last chapter of Matthew:
Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
2. What does Baptism give? What good is it?
It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the Devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God’s words and promises declare.
What are these words and promises of God?
Our Lord Christ spoke one of them in the last chapter of Mark:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be damned. **
3. How can water do such great things?
Water doesn’t make these things happen, of course. It is God’s Word, which is with and in the water. Because, without God’s Word, the water is plain water and not baptism. But with God’s Word it is a Baptism, a grace-filled water of life, a bath of new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul said to Titus in the third chapter:
Through this bath of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that we, justified by the same grace are made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.
4. What is the meaning of such a water Baptism?
It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again. He will live forever before God in righteousness and purity.
Where is this written?
St. Paul says to the Romans in chapter six:
We are buried with Christ through Baptism into death, so that, in the same way Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, thus also must we walk in a new life.
Luther omits the corporate elements of baptism, but he makes the important relationship among water, word and faith clear. I also like his emphasis on daily repentance as a baptismal discipline.
Luther’s Large Catechism also contains some gems worthy of reflection:
For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work. . . .
But if they say, as they are accustomed: Still Baptism is itself a work, and you say works are of no avail for salvation; what, then, becomes of faith? Answer: Yes, our works, indeed, avail nothing for salvation; Baptism, however, is not our work, but God’s . . . . God’s works, however, are saving and necessary for salvation, and do not exclude, but demand, faith; for without faith they could not be apprehended. . . .
Baptism is quite another thing than all other water; not on account of the natural quality but because something more noble is here added; for God Himself stakes His honor, His power and might on it. Therefore it is not only natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water, and in whatever other terms we can praise it,-all on account of the Word, which is a heavenly, holy Word, that no one can sufficiently extol, for it has, and is able to do, all that God is and can do [since it has all the virtue and power of God comprised in it]. Hence also it derives its essence as a Sacrament, as St. Augustine also taught: Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum. That is, when the Word is joined to the element or natural substance, it becomes a Sacrament, that is, a holy and divine matter and sign. . . .
Therefore every Christian has enough in Baptism to learn and to practise all his life; for he has always enough to do to believe firmly what it promises and brings: victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, the grace of God, the entire Christ, and the Holy Ghost with His gifts. . . .
So to return to the corporate aspect of baptism, let me end with the Reformed tradition and the Westminster Shorter Catechism which emphasizes our incorporation into Christ and the covenantal element of baptism.
Q. 94. What is baptism?
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.
Or, in simple words, directly from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (4:15:1),
Baptism is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God.
Remember that you are baptized! Or if not, perhaps, come to the water.
** Note: Luther’s quotes Mark 16:16, which current manuscript evidence strongly suggests was not part of the original text of Mark. He could have quoted Peter’s speech in Acts 2:38-39: Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.