Over the past few weeks plenty of people have been asking me what these various terms mean and how they relate to one another. The answer might seem to be simple, but as so often the church across the centuries has made matters extremely complicated!
Baptism is probably the easiest term to understand. John the Baptist went into desert and preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). That is, he called on people to publicly confess the wrong in their lives and so be ready for the coming Messiah. Those who confessed their sins he dunked (for that is what the word “baptism” means) in the river Jordan. Their baptism was a sign that they had heard the word of God and responded in faith to John’s message.
Remarkably Jesus began His public ministry also by being baptised (Mark 1:9). This wasn’t because He was a sinner, but because He wanted to show His willingness to identify with ordinary, sinful people like you and me. His baptism was an act of obedience to His Father, and it was because He was willing to submit to His Father that a voice came from heaven declared “you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). As the Father declared His love for His Son, so the Spirit descended like the dove, a clear sign that Jesus is the one chosen to save and redeem God’s people.
Skipping forward right to the end of Jesus’ life on earth, Jesus commanded his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit“. We baptise today because Jesus told us to. Baptism is, or at least should be, just as in John the Baptist’s day a public confession of sin and a willingness to accept Jesus as Messiah and as Saviour.
This all sounds very straightforward, but who should be baptised and when has caused debate in the church ever since. Crucially, it is not clear from the New Testament whether children were baptised or not, and a case can be made either way.
In general (and this is to simplify two thousand years of history!) churches have adopted two different approaches to baptism – and sadly often ended up in heated arguments as a result.
The first is to restrict baptism to those who are able to confess faith for themselves. Baptism in these churches is usually for adults who are then immersed fully into the water.
The second is to open baptism to babies and children. This is what is called christening. The Anglican church practises infant baptism on the understanding that the children will be brought up within the community of the church and in the expectation that one day they will profess faith for themselves.
Both approaches have their merits and their disadvantages. I could list them here, but that would make for a very long blog! What is important however that in both cases baptism is seen as a one-off rite as a sign of a response to God’s grace. There are some believers who go from church to church being baptised in each one, and that is to misunderstand the nature of baptism. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body and whether you see your membership of Christ’s body as beginning with an adult profession of faith or when parents and godparents make promises on your behalf, it is clear that entry into the body of Christ can only happen once.
However those churches which practise infant baptism do need a secondary rite for those who have come to a living faith of their own. Historically this rite is confirmation and in the Anglican church this is performed by the bishop. In the service the bishop asks:
Have you been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?
Are you ready with your own mouth and from your own heart to affirm your faith in Jesus Christ?
He then prays for the Holy Spirit to strengthen or “confirm” those who offer themselves for confirmation.
For those who have been baptised as adults, confirmation can also be a useful rite to affirm membership of the worldwide church. The bishop comes as representative of the whole Anglican communion across the world, and in confirmation we are reminded that the one body of Christ extends beyond the local congregation to believers to (almost!) every nation.
That – very simply – is the meaning of baptism, christening and confirmation.
Bishop Nick is coming for a confirmation service on 11th December. If you are interested in finding out more, then please do speak to Tim as soon as possible.
Finally, there may well be good reasons why someone also wants to reaffirm the baptism promises made on their behalf when they were a child. Or they may have been confirmed when young and subsequently lost their way in the faith. For such people the Church of England also offers an affirmation of baptismal faith. Again, if you wish to publicly renew your faith in this way, please speak to Tim.
And whether or not any of this applies to you, please pray for all who wish to publicly confess their faith in Jesus Christ so that they may become like the good seed yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (Matthew 13:23).