Foothills DS Dennis W Miller discusses his Christian baptism in 1969 and why United Methodists don’t practice re-baptism.
In the distance I could hear voices singing softly the third verse of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” I’ll never forget that day in 1999 that I stood on the bank of the muddy Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee. As I stared across the water in silence, I remembered Jesus’ baptism…and I remembered my baptism. I could not recall, however, the actual event. Thirty years had passed since my parents presented me before God at the altar of Central Trinity United Methodist Church in Zanesville, Ohio. Although Rev. Warren Wilson conducted the ceremony, it was God who did the baptizing. Now, through a vivid living memory of my parents fulfilled vows, I remembered . . . I remembered their precious promises…and I remembered God’s.
There is only one baptism. The Bible teaches that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Rebaptism is a statement that says God’s grace wasn’t good enough the first time. In being re-baptized, people are essentially saying, “But God, I need to do more!” This usually occurs because the recipient doesn’t fully understand that baptism is an act of God. We believe that in baptism, God initiates a covenant with us, similar to God’s initiative in choosing Israel to be a people with a special mission in the world. This does not eliminate the necessity of our response to follow Jesus Christ by repentance and obedience. But God’s claim on us always precedes our response to God.
In being re-baptized, we are stating that our response of faith and obedience is the most important feature of baptism. This is reasonable if baptism is simply defined as a response to grace – a celebration of a person’s acceptance of Jesus Christ. This is the view of the credo-baptists, particularly over the last three hundred years. However, according to the classical “fathers of the church” (those who collected the Scriptures and organized the church in the second-fourth centuries), the water used in baptism is a symbol of the grace of God which is always with us --- even when we are too young or ignorant to be mindful of its presence! As Wesleyan Christians, therefore, we believe that when a person turns away from God to a life of deliberate sin, after being initiated into God’s covenant community symbolized in baptism, he or she needs to repent and be restored, but there is no need to be re-baptized. Can you imagine a restored Jewish male being re-circumcised? People may break their promises, but God doesn’t. If we are willing to accept God’s way, God’s promise of covenant remains steadfast and rebaptism is not necessary.
It is for this reason United Methodist Church law states: “No (United Methodist) pastor shall re-baptize. The practice of re-baptism does not conform with God's action in baptism and is not consistent with Wesleyan tradition and the historic teaching of the church. Therefore, the pastor should counsel any person seeking re-baptism to participate in a rite of re-affirmation of baptismal vows.”
Within the lobby of our West Ohio United Methodist Conference office in Worthington, there is a fountain where water runs down the face of a smooth granite slab. Visitors are invited to place their hands on the slab, let the water stream over their fingers and meditate on the words carved into that slab, "Remember your baptism, and be thankful." When I was the age that caused my parents to worry, my father and mother would sometimes say as I left home, “remember who you are; live up to your family's good name – remember you’re a Miller!” In baptism, we are given our identity; we are named with the name of Christ. But this holy act is not an end to itself. Baptism is the beginning of a life-long journey of faith.
The great protestant reformer Martin Luther understood this great truth. In his desk, where he worked, he carved the words “I am baptized.” And he is supposedly began each morning by reminding himself of his baptism. He would touch his forehead and say, “I am baptized.” Luther never said I was baptized. For Luther, his Christian baptism was a defining moment that transformed him forever. The act of baptism had changed him, not for a while, but for all his life. Everyday he was stirred to remember who and whose he was, and by doing so, commit his life to his Lord and Savior.
As we stand before our own Jordan rivers of life and remember our baptism, we are compelled to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul. In doing so, we are promised that God’s work, which started long ago, will faithfully come to completion at the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). That in itself is reason to celebrate!
Remember your baptism and be thankful!