The United Methodist Church: The Doctrine of Baptism


The Methodist Church:

The Doctrine of Baptism

Part 11

methodist baptism (6)

  1. The United Methodist Church fails to baptize according to the New Testament teaching and practice.

We prefer not to have a detailed study of the Biblical material here, but it is important that we cover at least some of the basic aspects of baptism since it is such a vital teaching and practice.  In His Great Commission, Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20a). Another account of this commission is found at Mark 16:15-16: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.”

From these two accounts, we learn several important aspects to baptism: (1) The apostles were to make disciples of all the nations. (2) These disciples were to be made through two means: (a) baptizing them, and (b) teaching those who are baptized.  (3) The baptism is into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which evidently means to be “baptized into the possession of” God or into “a relationship with” God. (4) Baptism is a response to the gospel that is preached. (5) One must believe in the gospel of Christ and then be baptized on this basis. (6) The one who believes and has been baptized will be saved.

As we examine the remainder of the New Testament, we receive a fuller view of the meaning, subjects, and action of baptism.  First, notice the meaning or purpose of baptism. Baptism is related to the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; Colossians 2:12-13), the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39; Galatians 3:26-27 with 4:6), the washing away of sin (Acts 22:16), entering Christ Jesus and His death (Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:26-27), spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12), and salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21).

Second, notice the subjects of baptism. Baptism was only given to those who wished to become disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). It was given to those who were willing to repent of their sins or die to their former life (Acts 2:38-41; Romans 6:1-5) and were willing to place their faith or belief in Christ Jesus as the Son of God and the Lord of life (Acts 8:12, 35-39; 16:14-16, 31-34; 18:8; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12). In baptism one “calls” on the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 22:16). This shows that only responsible people can be Scripturally baptized. Babies and young children are not qualified to be baptized (cf. Acts 8:12).

Third, notice the act or action of baptism. The Greek term baptizo, from which we derive the English “baptize,” is a term that means “to immerse, to dip, to submerge, or to overwhelm.”  The Greek scholar, W.E. Vine, says that the noun baptisma consists of “the process of immersion, submersion and emergence.”[i] Another Greek authority says that baptisma means “immersion” and baptismos means “an act of dipping or immersion.”[ii] This is illustrated in the fact that when one is baptized, he goes to the water, he goes down into the water, he then is baptized (immersed), and then he comes up out of the water (see Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:9-10; Acts 8:36-39). Baptism also requires “much water” to do the immersing (John 3:23). Similarly, we must remember that in baptism, one is “buried” with Christ and “rises” to walk a new life, and this too shows that a lowering into water is involved then a “resurrection” from the water (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12).

Here we must distinguish between what the New Testament teaches about baptism and what is generally practiced in the United Methodist Church (and most other Methodist denominations). Interestingly, John Wesley seems to have accepted immersion at first, believing in “dipping in baptism ‘all the children who were able to endure it.’”[iii]  Both John and Charles Wesley traveled to the southern colony of Georgia. One writer explains:

Both John and Charles Wesley brought trouble on themselves by their conduct in Georgia. Charles insisted on triple immersion as the only proper form of infant baptism. Parents were not quite willing to have their children thus plunged three times into the water. John Wesley pursued the same method. The second magistrate of Savannah had his child baptised by another clergyman because he would not allow Wesley to treat it in this fashion.[iv]

This was John Wesley’s strong view: John “insisted on baptism by immersion; he rebaptised the children of Dissenters; and he refused to bury all who had not received episcopal baptism.”[v] Wesley followed the procedures in the Prayer Book of Edward VI which specified immersion as the only “form” of baptism.[vi] Apparently both Wesley and Whitfield believed in immersion rather than sprinkling, the modern Methodist practice:

John Wesley, leader of the great Wesleyan Revival of the 18th Century, in his “Explanatory notes upon the New Testament” said, “We are buried with Him – alluding to the ancient manner of baptizing by immersion.” (Comment on Romans 6:4.) George Whitfield, famous preacher and associate of John Wesley, made the following comment, “It is certain that in the words of our text, Romans 6:4, there is an allusion to the manner of baptizing which was immersion.”[vii]

[John Wesley] baptized adults as they desired, but infants he would not baptize in any way but immersion, unless the parents would certify the child was unable to be immersed. We will let Bishop McTyeire speak again on this question:
‘Following a primitive but obsolete rubric, he would baptize children only by immersion nor could he be induced to depart from this mode unless the parents would certify that the child was weakly. Persons were not allowed to act as sponsors who were not communicants.’—Hist. Meth. p. 90. Charles Wesley ‘baptized children by triple immersion—plunging them three times into the water.’—Hist. Meth., p. 90.[viii]

Notice again that when referring to Paul’s statement in Romans 6:3-4 (“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life”), John Wesley wrote: John Wesley said, “’Buried with Him’ alluding to the ancient method or practice of baptizing by immersion.”[ix] There is no doubt that Wesley, early in his ministry, insisted on immersing infants.

This has not continued. The United Methodist Church of today holds that “while immersion is one valid mode, so are sprinkling and pouring equally valid modes. It is the custom in our church to sprinkle water upon the person being baptized.”[x] Thus, today’s United Methodists would accept virtually any water rite as acceptable: “We believe modes of sprinkling, pouring, and immersion are valid so long as water is used and that a person is baptized ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ as Christ commanded. (Matthew 28:19).”[xi] Harman says that even if “the whole apostolic Church used immersion as its method of baptism . . . the living Church of the present would not necessarily feel bound by this mode. . . .”[xii] With this perspective, there is little that can change the Methodist practice of sprinkling [aspersion] instead of the apostolic practice of immersion.

Wesley also taught the importance of baptism, even clearly teaching baptismal regeneration of children.  Baptismal regeneration is a doctrine that he inherited from his Anglican background. According to Wesley’s Treatise on Baptism: “What are the benefits we receive by baptism? . . . The first of these is, the washing away the guilt of original sin, by the application of the merits of Christ’s death.”[xiii] This seems to be unambiguous. Wesley continued: “And this regeneration which our Church in so many places ascribes to baptism is … being ‘grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, we are made the children of God by adoption and grace.’ This is grounded on the plain words of our Lord: ‘Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’”[xiv]

Today mixed messages are found within the Methodist movement.  Confession’s Article VI says, “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth.”[xv] In the Baptismal Covenant, under “Introduction to the Service,” the pastor is to say to the congregation: “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”[xvi]

This seems to be a clear affirmation that the baby is actually becoming part of “Christ’s holy church” and given “new birth through water and the Spirit.” This is what the Anglican Church taught and Wesley believed.  Under the heading, “Thanksgiving over the Water,” we read this prayer: “Pour out your Holy Spirit, to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory.”[xvii] Notice here that through the water, the person’s sins will be washed away and they will be clothed in righteousness.

Under the heading, “Prayer for those to be baptized,” we read: “Forasmuch as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, our Savior Christ said, ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ Let us pray: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, we call upon thee for these thy servants, that they. Coming to thy holy baptism, may receive remission of their sins and be filled with the Holy Spirit. . . .’”[xviii] Again, we see the rather clear affirmation that the person baptized (even the tiny infant who cannot repent or believe) will be born of the Spirit, receive remission of sins, and be filled with the Spirit.

After the baptism of adults, each candidate is to receive the laying on of hands and “welcomed” by the pastor or minister, with these words: “Now it is our joy to welcome our new sisters and brothers in Christ. Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.”[xix] Thus, it was thought that baptism brings one into God’s family and is when one is made a new creation.

However, evidently many Methodist theologians and members don’t believe that the baby is actually regenerated in baptism.  One writer explains: “This article (VI) calls baptism a ‘sign’ of profession and a sign of regeneration—not regeneration itself.”[xx] This shows the problems that arise when a person or church uses unscriptural language like “sign” for at first this would seem to indicate that the church does believe that the baby is indeed regenerated or born again in baptism, but, according to Harmon, this is not the case.

One more source plainly says that the United Methodist denomination now rejects the idea that an infant is regenerated or born again when it is baptized:

Methodists contend that infant baptism has spiritual value for the infant. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, held that baptism is a means of grace, but it was symbolic. Methodists view baptism in water as symbolic and believe that it does not regenerate the baptised nor cleanse them from sin. Wesley’s own views of infant baptism shifted over time as he put more emphasis on salvation by faith and new birth by faith alone. This has fueled much debate within Methodism over the purpose of infant baptism, though most agree it should be continued. Wesley and the Methodists would agree with the Reformed or Presbyterian denominations that infant baptism is symbolic.[xxi]

If this is correct, we would suggest that the UMC change the wording of their official creed to reject the stated purpose of baptism. Surely many parents have wrongly concluded that their babies were being born again when water was sprinkled on their head! If the Methodist stance is not like the Lutheran, Catholic, or Orthodox view but more like the Presbyterian view, this should be clearly stated. What will happen to the person who assumes he was regenerated and his sins were washed away as a baby—and then stands before God in the Judgment to discover that he actually wasn’t saved and forgiven!

On the other hand, some Methodists would strongly denounce baptism as viewed as merely symbolic.  They would say that it is more than an infant “dedication” ceremony; rather, it is the actual means of regeneration. Notice this explanation:

Infant Dedication has never had an official place in the liturgy, doctrine, or polity of the United Methodist Church. The practice and teaching of the United Methodist Church has always been in harmony with the majority view of Christianity by encouraging parents to baptize their infants. The official teaching of the United Methodist Church on baptism was first adopted in 1996 and has been readopted for the 2009-2012 quadrennia. This is printed in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2008, section 8013. (“By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism.”)

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught that through infant baptism a child is “cleansed of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the membership of the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.” Wesley admitted that while baptism was neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in our lives. . . . .

In 1964 the General Commission on Worship of the Methodist Church made note that many in the church were regarding baptism both of infants and adults, as a dedication rather than a sacrament. They pointed out that in dedication we make a gift of a life to God for God to accept, while in a sacrament God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept. They sought to restore the rite of baptism to its original and historic meaning as sacrament.

Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the overwhelming majority of the church throughout the Christians centuries.   Although the New Testament does not contain any explicit mandate, there is ample evidence for the baptism of infants in Scripture (Acts 2:38-41; 16:15, 33) and in early Christian doctrine and practice. Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save themselves, dependant on the grace of a loving God.

We respect the sincerity of parents who choose not to have their infants baptized, but we acknowledge that these views do not coincide with the Wesleyan understanding of the nature of the sacrament. The United Methodist Church does not accept either the idea that only believer’s baptism is valid or the notion that the baptism of the infant magically imparts salvation apart from active personal faith. United Methodist pastors are instructed by The Book of Discipline to explain our teaching clearly on these matters, so parents or sponsors might be free of misunderstanding.

Since baptism is primarily an act of God in the church, the sacrament is to be received by an individual only once. This position is in accord with the historic teaching of the church universal. The claim that baptism is unrepeatable rests on the steadfast faithfulness of God. God’s initiative establishes the covenant of grace in which we are incorporated in baptism.

When persons who were baptized as infants are ready to profess their Christian faith, they participate in the service of confirmation. This occasion is not an entrance into church membership, for this was accomplished through baptism. It is however a public affirmation of the grace of God in one’s baptism and the acknowledgment of one’s acceptance of that grace by faith.

To dedicate an infant is to step out of the practice, the ritual, and the teaching of the United Methodist Church. This practice brings with it confusion of our church’s understanding of the sacraments and of grace.[xxii]

From this, it would appear that the contemporary United Methodist Church has departed from Wesley’s own views on the efficacy of baptism. Further, some believe that the child is forgiven through baptism, while others deny this.

Notice further the issue of infant or baby baptism—traditionally called paedobaptism. The United Methodist Church follows Wesley’s lead in urging parents to baptize their infants and young children. The Confession’s Article VI says, “The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church.”[xxiii]  The Discipline says that “the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age.”[xxiv]

Harmon says “Our Church holds that the sacrament of baptism ought to be administered to young children in the name of Christ. It is a token of their initiation into the gospel way and ought to be observed by Christian parents everywhere according to Christ’s ordinance.”[xxv] He goes on to say, “United Methodists together with the great majority of Christians believe strongly in the baptism of infants. Through this act parents dedicate their children to Almighty God, and the church believes that God uses baptism to claim his own and put his seal upon them in a unique way.[xxvi]  However, it must be pointed out that there is no scripture that clearly says that infants should be baptized—and many scriptures that would show the necessity of repentant faith at the time of baptism, something that would be impossible for babies and young children.

methodist baptism (4)


We can now see that the United Methodist Church deviates from Scriptural baptism in three ways: (1) It believes in sprinkling rather than baptism (baptism means immersion in the Greek); (2) It believes in infant or baby baptism rather than a baptism of responsible persons; (3) It teaches that baptism is effective for a person who is incapable of repentance (Acts 2:38), faith (Colossians 2:12), death to sin (Romans 6:1-5), and discipleship to Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

You may also want to check out other articles on the United Methodist Church:

[i] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.

[ii] Wesley J. Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 66.

[iii] Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, p. 538.


[v] Ibid.

[vi] QTQC&pg=PA167&lpg=PA 167&dq =Wesley,+immersion &source=bl&ots=hvKr1u8YaP &sig=-BXa7UnG8Kqq 5tau_Br C2b-4HDg&hl=en&sa= X& ei=8vKsUdDqNKOeyw H4 s4GwBA&ved=0CFQQ 6AEwCA#v=onepage&q= Wesley %2C%20immer sion&f=false.

[vii] fellowship/full-immersion-baptism.


[ix] %20Reese/baptism_by_immersion.htm; content.c fm? id=348.

[x] Harmon, p. 139.

[xi] UnitedMethodistChurch360166

[xii] Harmon, p. 139.

[xiii] UnitedMethodistChurch360166

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Harmon, p. 50. See Article XVII, “Of Baptism,” in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 1988, p. 65.

[xvi] The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 33.

[xvii] The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 42.

[xviii] The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 45.

[xix] The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 37. (Italics are in the original.)

[xx] Nolan B. Harmon, Understanding the United Methodist Church, p. 50.



[xxiii] Nolan B. Harmon, Understanding the United Methodist Church, p. 50. See also Article XVII, “Of Baptism,” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1988, p. 65.

[xxiv] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1988, p. 128.

[xxv] Harmon, pp. 50-51.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 137.

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