THE GOSPEL AT HOLY BAPTISM
Here’s a challenge how would you write a baptism service? Any ideas? It’s not so easy! This was Cranmer’s problem four centuries ago. Do we realize how brilliantly he tackled it?
In the New Testament, baptism appears as, to quote Article 27, not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but first and foremost a sign of Regeneration or new Birth. It signifies cleansing from sin and a new life with God, through union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Baptism is a God-given acted parable of the Saviour receiving a sinner, washing away his guilt, and renewing his nature.
To believers, baptism is God’s assurance of the reality of their forgiven and accepted status. (This is the meaning of be baptized for the remission of sins, (Acts 2:38). To babies, baptism is Gods pledge of everlasting salvation, provided baptismal promises are kept.
As embodying the Gospel of a new start with Christ, baptism is the entry rite into the Church visible. So a congregation should always be present, to witness the reception of its new members, to welcome them into fellowship, and to show their love by praying for them.
Prayer Book Service
These facts provide a set of specifications which the Prayer Book service fully meets. It prescribes baptism during Morning or Evening Prayer, when the congregation is together. It precedes the administering of the sign by elucidating the Gospel, of which it is a sign, using the sin-grace-faith sequence of which we wrote earlier. And at each transition-point it leads the congregation in an appropriate act of prayer for the candidates salvation. It falls into four stages.
Stage 1 sin. A child born a sinner is presented for baptism. The congregation prays that he may be born again.
Stage 2 grace. A Gospel story showing Christ’s willingness to bless children is read and applied. This reminder of the reality of grace evokes further prayer.
Stage 3 faith. The godparents commit the child to a life of faith and repentance. The congregation prays that the child may be enabled to live the life to which he now stands pledged.
Stage 4 sacrament. The child is received into the Church by baptism. The congregation prays that he may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning actually partake in experience of Christ’s death and resurrection, and so enjoy actual salvation, both here and hereafter. (The final prayer shows that seeing now that this child is regenerate does not imply that he now has no need to repent and believe!)
Is the service muddled and obscure, as is often said? No, it is orderly and plain. Is it superstitious, as some suspect? No, it is a forthright liturgical statement of the Gospel. Nowhere in the world will you find a more evangelical baptism service than in the Book of Common Prayer.