Baptism has always been important in the Methodist tradition because of it’s significance in the New Testament. Baptism is an important life event for the person getting baptized, their family and friends, and their church community. How a person is baptized is also important in the Methodism.
Methodists sprinkle or gently pour water over the heads of infants because fully immersing them isn’t safe, as they can’t hold their breath. Like other Protestant traditions such Presbyterianism Methodists are convicted to baptize infants for the purposes of blessing and community inclusion.
What is a Methodist understanding of baptism? How does it differ from the Baptist tradition? In what manner and for what purpose do Methodists baptize adults? Keep reading to learn more.
What happens at a Methodist baptism?
Methodists believe that baptism is about God initiating a covenant with sinners. Baptized individuals may choose to leave that covenant at some point in their lives, but until they do, they walk down a path towards the holiness of God through Jesus Christ. Baptism essentially starts a person’s relationship with God.
Methodists believe that the local church body plays an important role in supporting the individual on their journey of faith in Christ. The United Methodist Church, which is the largest Methodist denomination in the United States, uses a baptismal liturgy that requires the church congregation to participate throughout the process. Those assembled take vows along with parents, sponsors, and the person being baptized (if they aren’t an infant).
The process of baptism in Methodism is threefold: (1) what happens in the moments leading up to the baptism, (2) the baptism itself, and (3) what happens in the moments directly after the baptism.
- Before the baptism: Methodists ministers often begin baptisms by explaining the meaning of baptism, according to the New Testament. The minister then asks the person being baptized (if they aren’t an infant) if they have renounced sin and profess faith in Christ.
- The baptism itself: Infant baptism is most common in Methodism, so sprinkling or pouring in most frequent. Adults can be baptized. Most experience sprinkling or pouring, though some ministers may fully immerse someone if it’s requested. When the minister baptizes the individual, the water symbolically cleanses a person of sin, but not in a way that guarantees their salvation. Baptism, in this way of thinking, is not merely symbolic; God uses this public act to minister to the soul of the person.
- After the baptism: When a baptism is over, it’s common for family, friends, and the congregation to applaud and cheer, though this may not be welcome in traditional settings. The minister may speak instructions or encouragement to the child’s parent before praying for the baptized person. Baptism is also a public way for a Christian to be set apart as a follower of Christ. The child, or in some cases, their parents on their behalf, are committing to the Christian faith and practice. 
Although Methodists believe that baptism is the ordinary means of justifying grace, it does not guarantee that the person has attained salvation. Methodists also believe that a person can be saved without baptism.
Does baptism guarantee devotion to Christ? No. At any point, a baptized person may verbally or practically, renounce their baptism and walk away from God. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of baptized infants, who, when they reach full maturity, may choose to not continue their relationship Christ. In this case, they are removing themselves from the covenant community.
How is Methodist baptism different than Baptist baptism?
In the Baptist tradition, baptism is in large part a public expression of faith in Christ. There is no special application of grace in the act of immersing a person in the waters of baptism. God, however, commands it, and it serves as a potent symbol of the inward change of the individual.
Do Baptists baptize infants? No. In the Baptist tradition, baptism is the result of a person’s willful, conscious decision to follow Christ. An infant cannot have faith and therefore Baptists believe that a church should not baptize anyone until they mature to an age of accountability. At this point, they can understand the core doctrines of Christianity and believe it for themselves.
Why don’t Baptists baptize infants? Baptists believe that “believer’s baptism” follows more closely the teaching of the Bible. They argue that in the New Testament, baptism always occurs after an adult has chosen to follow Christ. Therefore, baptism doesn’t save a person or bestow special grace. People should be baptized because they have been saved through God’s grace in Christ. In the Baptist tradition, baptism is primarily a symbolic act that testifies to an inward change.
Although Baptists understand baptism differently than Methodists, they still believe that it should occur publicly. Once a person is baptized, the church body should hold them accountable to the Christian life that they have identified with. 
Because baptism should be an expression of inward change, Baptists do not believe that infant baptism is “baptism” at all. Therefore, if a person was baptized as an infant in a different church tradition, they should be baptized again because their previous baptism did not reflect that person’s decision to follow Christ.
On the other hand, Methodists believe that any Christian baptism that uses trinitarian theology is a valid baptism. Therefore, Methodists would not advocate for an additional baptism if an individual was baptized in the Catholic Church as a child.
Additionally, Methodists do not think that the Bible exclusively commands the baptism of adults. They would point out passages such as Acts 16:33, which seem to describe the baptism of entire family units.
“And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” (ESV0
This, so the argument goes, would almost certainly include both infants and young children.
How do Methodists baptize adults?
Although Methodists baptize infants, they also baptize adults who convert to Christianity later in life or who, for whatever reason, have never been baptized. The liturgies that Methodists use for baptism have enough flexibility built into them that they work for both the baptism of infants and for adults. For example, during the vow-taking part of the baptism, the minister only leads the individual to take these vows if the person being baptized is of the appropriate age.
Because of the emphasis on God’s initiation in baptism and the importance of the covenant community, the baptismal service for infants and adults is much the same. Regardless of age, at the end of the baptism, the person, at least in the United Methodist Church, automatically becomes a church member. However, only practicing members of the church are counted for church membership totals and statistics.
Can Methodists be baptized twice? Occasionally, adults who have already been baptized may wish to be baptized again. This is problematic because, traditionally, Methodists have believed that the baptism should only happen once. The individual may, however, desire to publicly rededicate their lives to Christ.
In response to this request, the UMC has written a church liturgy that shares many similarities to that which they use for an actual baptism. However, in place of sprinkling water on the head, the minister may splash water on the person’s feet. In this way, it remains visually distinct from baptism. 
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