A Baptism of Repentance

John the Baptist is described in the Gospels as preaching a “baptism of repentance.” In the descriptions of his ministry in the Gospels we see people coming to him, confessing their sins. Matthew tells us that when Jesus comes to him for baptism, John is confused. Whatever he doesn’t know about Jesus, he seems sure that baptism for him is not appropriate; baptism from him would be better. Why? My assumption has always been that John recognized Jesus as belonging to the wrong category for baptism – or, better, not belonging to the right category. Baptism is for sinners. Jesus is a non-sinner. Surely he can’t be baptized, can he?

But I don’t want to talk about Jesus’ baptism right now. Rather, I want to address the fact that baptism has something to do with repentance. That makes perfect sense when we consider the ministry of John. He baptizes repenting sinners. But we don’t live in the age of John the Baptist. We do continue to baptize, however. Is the baptism we do the same (kind of) baptism John did? I’d suggest that it seems best to think it is. I have a couple of reasons.

First, the fact of John’s baptizing seems to be the origin story of the practice. We see glimpses of Jesus baptizing (though it doesn’t seem to have played a major role in his ministry). After the resurrection we see Jesus commanding the ministry of baptism as part of the Great Commission. We then see the apostles baptizing people as they came to faith in Jesus. John’s ministry is defined by baptizing, Jesus baptizes (a little), and then the apostles take up the practice. There appears to be an element of continuity here.

Second, baptism seems to be a normative practice for Christians. John baptized, Jesus baptized (a little), then the apostles baptized – and the church has taken it up ever since. The Gospels tell us that some of Jesus’ disciples came to him from being disciples of John. By whom were they baptized? John? That seems likely. By Jesus? Maybe a few, though there is no description of Jesus baptizing any of them. We certainly don’t see any being baptized or re-baptized after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So perhaps we have enough reason to treat Christian baptism as having at least some relation to John’s baptism, and thus in some way being a baptism of repentance. Here some people have a problem though. When the one coming for baptism is an adult, we have no trouble taking that person to (a) need repentance, and (b) be repenting. But what about children – especially little children who do not yet have a concept of sin or repentance? When we baptize little children are we short-circuiting the repentance dimension of baptism? Baptists will surely think we are, and think this sufficient reason to refrain from baptizing anyone who is not of an age to be able to understand sin and repentance. I find that if we go down this track the baptist argument makes perfect sense.

But what if we’re misunderstanding repentance, particularly by (a) over-intellectualizing it, and (b) oversimplifying the agency involved.?

Perhaps most will grant that it is doubtful that anyone who comes to baptism fully understands either the depth of their sin or the requirements of repentance. Sensing one way this argument could go, some would pipe up, “Yes, but even lacking full understanding is significantly different than lacking all understanding.” True. But is it ever appropriate to baptize someone who might lack all understanding? What of those who are intellectually deficient or incapacitated? Can they never be proper candidates for baptism? This is a question worthy of analysis, but, again, is not the main question I want to raise. Instead, I want to look at the possible misconception of agency.

When I talk about the misconception of agency I’m not putting forth the claim I’ve heard from many of my fellow United Methodists that “Baptism isn’t something we do, it’s something God does.” If this is a claim that baptism is a means of grace and that God is the one who does grace, then I might acquiesce, though grudgingly. As I read scripture I see that God is a God of grace, the origin of grace, the gracious creator and king of the universe. But that’s not all. God delegates people to be emissaries of grace. As we grow in maturity in Christ we become more and more pipelines of grace from God to the people around us. We become means of grace.

When one makes the claim that “Baptism is not something we do, it’s something God does,” one is not finding support in our liturgy. As I read out liturgy I see that baptism in the context of United Methodist worship is a complex act where the pastor, the people, the one being baptized, along with family and friends, are all participants in the baptism. All can be described as “doing something.” None are mere passive recipients of God’s grace. All are putting themselves forward as active recipients. But again, that’s not my point. I want to talk specifically about baptism as a baptism “of repentance” and the agency involved in repentance.

Surely it makes perfect sense to say that a sinner repents. Or if we want to recognize God’s role explicitly, we can say that God brings the sinner to repentance. When we say this we think something like, ‘This person is now repenting of her sins. She came to know she was a sinner as God’s convicting grace worked in her life, and now through the grace of God – and no power of her own – she is turning to God in faith.” Ok. Sounds fine. But is that all? I think not – especially after listening to Kenneth Bailey speaking on the story of Zaccheus the other night.

In that message from Luke, Bailey mentioned the repentance of Zaccheus – and in the other contexts in that Gospel, particularly Luke 15. In that chapter Jesus tells of repentance. Repentance there is not, however, the awareness of sin and the conscious turning from it. Oh, we might imagine that accounting when we look at the younger son. But what about the lost sheep and the lost coin? Bailey suggests that from these stories there is more to repentance than the conscious activity we usually imagine. There is also the openness to being found. The sheep gets found, the shepherd rejoices, Jesus likens it to “one sinner who repents.” This sounds like a more passive picture of repentance – from the point of view of the sinner – than the usual account. It is, however, no less Jesus-driven.

When we move from the context of repentance in Luke 15 to the repentance of baptism, need we assume a vast change? Is it possible that the repentance connected with baptism can be sufficient if it is “only” the repentance of an “openness to being found?” Such a perspective would make baptism more available for those who lack intellectual capacity, whether due to age or other reasons. I certainly find it suggestive.

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