My dearest students in the pastoral ministry and colleagues in the Gospel of His grace:
There is no greater joy in the Christian ministry then holding an infant in your arms, slipping your hand into the baptismal font, scooping up water and pouring the covenantal waters over the child of Christian parents. If you are of the Baptist persuasion (and I am so thankful for your presence, my dearest in Christ) then you know the joy of which I speak – albeit in a service of dedication. You will please bear with me if I speak as a Presbyterian pastor in this little epistle, although I would desire that you apply this to your tradition and convictions.
The joy of infant baptism is so remarkable because, you, the pastor, are, personally, fulfilling that glorious Great Commission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In this there is unsurpassed vocational satisfaction. Now, I say that you are fulfilling the Great Commission because you are not only baptizing them but also inaugurating the child’s journey of Christian nurture and growth as you and the family “teach them whatsoever [Jesus Christ] taught.” This baptism (or dedication) is not only the beginning of the discipleship journey for this child, but it is a continuation of the covenant of God’s grace which may extend back many generations, and may, by His mercy, extend to generations well beyond your life. Indeed, as it is in so much of our ministry, it is usual not to know the full fruit of the joy of your ministry of baptism (or, any part of your ministry) until you see that soul ”safe in the arms of Jesus” along with souls who were brought to Christ through the successive generations. Secondly, this is a great pastoral joy for you because it involves you, like no one else, in the private affairs of the family. This is the privilege of the pastor — to be where no one else is at the most critical stages of life. You’re there at the beginning of life and you’re there at the conclusion of life. I must say that I treasure this privilege above all others save preaching the Gospel of Jesus. My own love of the saints, and I dare say their love of their pastor, is shaped in those unforgettable moments of life. There’s nothing like being with the family, hearing the stories of God’s grace, and applying all the teaching, all the experiences, all the formal and informal internships you had under greater mentors, to the life of the family presenting their child to Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, you must always remember that baptism is a public event. We do not baptize in private. The sacraments of the Lord Jesus Christ are to be practiced by the Church, ordinarily, in public, and, ordinarily, by the ordained ministers of the Church, because—especially in the case before us—even the baptism of an infant involves all of us. We are all involved in that child’s baptism, not only because of our vows to help rear that child in the Church, but because that baptism draws our hearts back to our own, or to the baptismal vows we took for our own children. As pastor, I seek to give the charge of the call to faithfulness not only to the baptismal family but also to the congregation. There are practical ways that I have sought to remind the congregation of their involvement with the family and the child. When I am honored to baptize an infant, I normally seek to hold the child after baptism, and face the congregation as I give the charge to them. In this way they are able to see the little one. I remind them that this little one would grow up before them. This little child would come to understand the meaning of God’s grace not only from his parents and from the word of God and through the power of the Spirit of God but through them – through the people of God in the congregation he calls home.
As to the manner of baptism, according to our tradition, there are several things that I would want to say. I would want to say, first, that there should be adequate preparation with the family as we approach the Sacrament of Baptism. There should be a scheduled time spent with the family to discuss the meaning of the Sacrament. I have found that this is most sweet when conducted in the home of the family. It is also a time to explain the Gospel again (use every opportunity like this one to recalibrate the family’s faith back to the scarlet thread of redemption in God’s covenant of grace in Jesus Christ). This involves private, pastoral conversation with the family. Beyond seeking to clarify and, hopefully, facilitate a deepening of a Biblical understanding and appreciation for the Sacrament of Baptism, I prefer to also give father and mother (and big brother and sister) something to read and then to dialogue with each other and with me about what they read.
I also remind the parents of several particulars about the service. I have been criticized for introducing such tactile functions into a graduate school of education, but I plead guilty to the charge. The seminary is a “seedbed” of vocational preparation, not just scholarly research. We are instructing pastors on matters such as where one stands in a wedding or how one prepares for a graveside service, or, in this case, how to hold a child, and how to baptize, with Biblical fidelity and according to the best traditions of the Protestant church. For instance, I seek to review each question, or vow, that would be taken in the presence of God and the witnesses in the worship service. I seek to draw their attention to the charge to rear the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and what that means. I talk to them about family devotions. I gather the father, privately, to speak the same words that I would charge in publicly; namely, that he has the responsibility to be the veritable “priest,” if you will, in his own household. He is to conduct devotions within his home so that the children are indeed raised in the fear and the admonition of the Lord and so that the teaching and preaching of the Church is matched in the hearts and minds of children with their father’s demonstrated faith. Many broken-hearted parents come to see that neglect of family devotions is an almost certain recipe for a crisis of faith in their child. Nothing is more important in the father’s role in the home than opening the sacred Word and instructing his family. If there is no father in the home (as it was when I grew up as an orphan, and my Aunt Eva was the head of our home), then I would make a similar charge to a single mother, or other head of the household. As to the baptismal service itself, as a part of the larger worship service, I remind the family that, given this charge to him, and in following good Biblical tradition, I would expect that the father would hold the child as the family comes to the baptismal font. It is a great tradition and rich with (Scripturally derived) symbolism that should be practised in our churches. There is plain precedent for this in the Word of the Lord. It was Zachariah who named John. The angel came to Joseph so that Joseph could name the Christ child, Jesus. So I instruct the father that as he and his wife bring the child to me, when it comes time in the service, following the reading of Scripture, explanation of the Sacrament and taking of vows, the father should place the child in my arms. I cherish that blessed moment of the family placing their little one in the arms of one called out to represent the Church. It is a blessed privilege, dear pastor or pastoral student. I doubt that I shall ever know of a greater picture of pastoral ministry then the pastor holding a child of the church, surrounded by the family and the elders of the church and the saints gathered in worship. What a picture! I remind the father that I will been asking the question, “What name is given this child?” After hearing the name of the child, and while holding the child close to me, I then lean over the baptismal font (being careful that the congregation can see the event, for part of the means of grace expressed is through the vision of the baptism). As I hold the child over the baptismal font, I dip my hand into the font, and cup water with my right hand as I hold the child with my left hand, close to me, making sure that there is plenty of water seen (and heard dripping from my hand) by the congregation, and then pouring the (previously warmed!) water over the sweet head of the covenant child. While pouring the water, I repeat the blessed words of that glorious Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you, Laura Elizabeth Milton [the name my wife and I would have given to our son had he been a girl!], in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is at this sacred point in the service that I turn toward the watching congregation and introduce them to their newest fellow member of the Body—albeit a non-communing member (in the case of an infant or covenant child). I remind the saints that this child will grow up in their midst and that the impressions made upon this child, through the nursery, Sunday school, the children’s ministry, the youth group, the college ministry, and all the ministries of the church, will shape the response, potentially, of thousands of human beings who might proceed from this child (through family generation or spiritual generation by that child’s testimony). “What we do today has unimaginable positive consequences on human beings and even nations, through the successive generations, until the Lord Jesus Christ comes again. I often have, in the past, used a white linen napkin, which was embroidered by the women in the church, to dry the head of the baby before placing the child in the arms of the mother. The simple white linen becomes a cherished token of remembrance of the service as well as a simple yet profound expression of support and Christian love from the congregation. I suspect that after all of these years of baptizing, there are many white linen napkins in family Bibles. As I return the child to the mother I speak to her, whispering to her, of her own unique holy obligation and joy outlined in the Word of God in not only loving her husband but also in shaping the consciences of her children. Each — father and mother – have their part to play in the rearing of this chid. Thus, one of the most beautiful services in all the Church, is accomplished.
It is my prayer that you who are being prepared by our pastor-scholars to become the next generation of godly Gospel pastors will not only be faithful in preaching the inerrant and the infallible Word of the living God, but you will apply that blessed Word of God in the Sacraments. Of those two magnificent emblems of salvation which Jesus Christ has left us, a continuity of the Old Testament ordinances of entrance into the Church (circumcision) and Redemption (Passover), I cannot say I treasure one over the other. I love both of them and have great pleasure in my soul just thinking of the joy of administering these divinely given signs of salvation to the people of God as pastor. Yet, as I am focusing on the one, baptism, I do pray that God will bless you and that you will know the pastoral joy and vocational fulfillment that our Savior will most assuredly give to those who pastor His flock in His name as you welcome the children, “for of such is the Kingdom of God.”
What a blessed joy it is for me to commend you, now, to Jesus Christ our Lord and to the Word of his grace and to the power of all of His promises, which are all “yes and amen” through Jesus Christ our Lord. Please know that I desire to be, now and always,