A Liberating Word in Water

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 22, 1978, pp. 302-306. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Far from being an outmoded vestige of a naive liturgical past, baptism is devastatingly contemporary — a revolutionary manifesto that subverts many of the values on which we have sold ourselves in the past few years.

There are seemingly many Christians who, Jesus’ words and deeds to the contrary, are determined to outspiritualize Jesus, to disembody the Christian faith from its earthy Hebrew roots, to act as if we can experience the grace of God on our own without recourse to such primal and primitive facts as bread, wine and water. Carlyle Marney tells of a couple of seminarians who complained to him that worship is of little help to modern come-of-age humanity because it is "out of date" and "old-fashioned."

"It’s worse than that," replied Marney. "It’s downright primordial!" And therein lies the rub. We have told ourselves for so long that we have outgrown the need for the primal experiences and contact with the old archetypal symbols that we have started to believe it. We have intellectualized the faith into the dullness of "Four Spiritual Laws" or subjectivized it into transitory emotional highs (or lows) which keep everything polite, comfortable, marketable and harmless. Nobody gets messy or out of control or embarrassed. Of course, few get judged, converted, ignited or reborn either. But such is the price of progress.

I protest.

We don’t outgrow primal, basic, archetypal symbols. I agree with Jung that we can ignore them or deny them or attempt to explain them and thus dismiss them, but we can never fully dispose of them. This, I have come to see, is especially true for that most primitive, primal and primordial of all Christian acts -- baptism.

Rationalizations and Euphemisms

As one who is concerned about the renewal of the liturgy, I have been continually impressed that we do everything possible to avoid baptism. Too many of those who practice infant baptism speak of it euphemistically as "christening," "infant dedication," as a little educative exercise to remind the parents to get the child to Sunday school, or as an insipid, cute, rosebud of an affair all full of kisses and talk that "God loves you and we love you," hoping that the church can get its real business with the child done later in confirmation class or through an adult conversion experience.

Unfortunately, the advocates of believer’s baptism have not done much better. In too many Baptist churches, baptism is an afterthought to the real work of a prior conversion experience, an act justified on the purely historical grounds that "Jesus told us to do it" (though why and for what effect remain in doubt), a procedure mainly of value in entitling one to vote in future congregational squabbles. Baptists’ claims that they wait to baptize until someone "is old enough to know what it means demonstrate that human intellectual, rational knowing or human subjective, inner experiencing is primary. In such language, baptism is clearly an appendage -- a secondary, even unnecessary human act. This is a tragic development in a tradition which once believed that baptism was important enough to die for.

Many look upon the confusion in baptismal practice and theology, the relatively low place which baptism now occupies in the life of the church and the lives of individual believers, and come to the conclusion that baptism is about as effective in making Christians as a cincture on an alb is in ensuring celibacy; and that a massive educational effort is needed to resuscitate the sacrament before it becomes extinct. But a psychiatrist friend of mine reminds me that his profession is more interested in what we cannot do than in what we can do; what we attempt to avoid, deny or rationalize away rather than what we accept; what makes us uncomfortable rather than what makes us feel good.

We attempt to protect ourselves from such threatening experiences as death and sex by speaking of them either in veiled euphemisms or in flippant casualness. We do this not because death and sex are irrelevant but because they are so painfully, intimidatingly relevant. We conceal, mask and trivialize such primal human experiences in hopes of avoiding contact with the mystery and the threat which enshroud them.

Avoiding the Act of Baptism

The same phenomenon is at work in our dealings with baptism. I have marveled at the studied efforts of my fellow pastors who do everything possible to avoid the act of baptism. Baptismal fonts have become progressively smaller, moving from bathtub capacity to fingerbowl size in a few centuries. One church I know keeps its "font" in a closet, dusting it off on those all-too-rare occasions when a new Christian comes forth. Great care is taken to be sure that nobody gets wet, that it is all done as painlessly and as pointlessly as possible. Most Protestant baptisms are wedged into a Sunday morning service, or done in assembly-line style on Palm Sunday (for who, outside of old Cyril, would take up time on Easter with baptism?), or moved outside the worship service altogether so as not to trouble congregational repose with a screaming baby.

I would argue that for us so to treat the sacrament of initiation into our faith, the universally recognized mark of a Christian, the act which has indisputable biblical warrant, is conclusive evidence for the fact of baptism’s continual, primal, primary significance for the Christian faith. We avoid, deny and rationalize only that which has meaning. It may have negative meaning, or threatening meaning, or subconscious meaning, but it is still meaningful. Why else would we work so hard to deny baptism if not precisely because of its continuing power?

Baptism liberates from death. Death and crucifixion are the primary Pauline images for baptism. "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light" (Eph. 5:14), they once shouted as the baptizand rose from the waters. Baptism is a coming up out of the waters as pure and sticky and fresh as a newborn baby coming from the waters of its mother’s womb. The old self must die and be buried, and a new self must be raised up. Luther often spoke of baptism as a once-and-for-all event that takes your whole life to do. He said that baptism means "that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance, and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever" (The Small Catechism).

Each day we must learn to die, to let go, to be plunged under the waters so that God might pull us forth like newborn babies. Baptism is a dress rehearsal for death. We must die many deaths, and we must be born again of "water and the spirit" -- and again and again. Baptism is the once-and-for-all, continuing experience of death and rebirth, repentance and conversion.

A Devastating Grace

Baptism brings the liberating word of grace. Everybody talks about grace, but few of us seem to believe it. We are forever putting conditions and qualifications on the love of God: "If you rid yourself of your racism, if you vote Democratic, if you accept Jesus as your savior, if . . ." Such conditional, achievement-oriented, self-made-men religion certainly doesn’t need Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead to make itself plausible and reasonable in an achievement-oriented, you-get-what-you-deserve capitalistic culture. As Barth reminded us, grace is always more devastating than judgment. Judgment is easy enough to take, but grace threatens the devil out of us.

That is because grace is a gift. A gift implies dependency, and dependency raises questions about our pretensions of omnipotence. Baptism, at whatever age it takes place, reminds us that we are always helpless, dependent, needy infants so far as our relationship to God is concerned. We are always dependent upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The absurdity of self-help books with heretical titles like How to Be Born Again should be self-evident. Salvation is not an achievement, or a technique, or a new life style. It is first and last a gift; a gift which we cannot earn but which ends up costing everything that we hold dear. My, how we all hate to let go and be plunged under the water and cast ourselves adrift into the everlasting arms of God’s grace -- particularly we Western materialistic types who think we have earned or deserve everything that we have.

Baptism liberates us to live again as children -- children of God. It is hard to look too adult and pompous and dignified while you are being tossed into a swimming pool. That’s why John told the Pharisees ("You brood of vipers") that they needed to get washed too. Their sin was in their pompous pretensions of adult self-sufficiency. Nothing so disarms our pharisaic pretension as a dip into the living waters of divine grace.

Just as Mark shows Jesus being claimed at his baptism ("This is my beloved Son. . ."), so we are claimed, signed, branded and sealed at our baptism. We are not illegitimate, homeless, parentless children. We are royalty. As Jesse Jackson used to shout at the beginning of worship in his inner-city church services: "You were nobody. But now you are somebody!" Or, as Peter told his congregation in what may have been part of an early baptismal liturgy: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . . . Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy" (I Pet. 2:9-10). Baptism is a celebration of that new God-given status. It is public testimony to our adoption as God’s children, our ordination into the ministry of Christ.

How we need to have that liberating word in water! We have become too impressed by our diversity, our differences, our sin, our infidelity. We Protestants, in reacting against the objectivistic and collectivistic excesses of the late Middle Ages, have overreacted and have been left with fragmenting individualism and suffocating subjectivism. We have become so preoccupied with the magnitude of our own guilt that we have lost sight of the magnitude of God’s grace. Baptism expresses a profound pessimism about human achievements because it shows forth a bold optimism in the achievement of God in Christ. It speaks of God’s fidelity to a world frozen in its own infidelity.

Tell me that baptism is insipid, outdated and irrelevant; then go with me to the sandy bank of a dark, deep river in low-country South Carolina where a black Baptist preacher in a white robe baptizes nearly every Sunday afternoon, and watch him plunge those new brothers and sisters three times each into the deep as the congregation sings "I’ve Been Through the Waters." He holds them under as they thrash around a bit. Then he and two deacons at his side bring them forth, wet and washed and dripping like newborn babies. Someone could get killed like that. Someone could get wet. It will literally scare the devil out of you. Precisely.

The pastor who tells people that baptism is "a little ceremony for the parents" or "merely a symbol that the person has made a decision for Christ" is probably the same pastor who attempts to protect his or her people with talk of death as "natural and beautiful" or of sex as "merely recreation." We wish to God that baptism were that easy. Baptism says and does much more than these heretical evasions of the rite, and we are willing to go to absurd lengths to protect ourselves from it. Far from being an outmoded vestige of a naïve liturgical past, baptism is devastatingly contemporary -- a revolutionary manifesto that subverts many of the values on which we have sold ourselves in the past few years.

And what are those values? In part they are the values of a death-denying culture suffering under delusions of self-sufficiency and independence, gone mad in its desperate search for self-gratification through self-centeredness. We want instant healing through techniques of autosalvation which promise growth without risk or pain. We cannot be forgiven of anything because we have no sin. We cannot be given anything since we are "self-made" persons who have earned and deserved what we have. We cannot be born again since we assume that we have made ourselves by ourselves. We cannot be resurrected since we don’t expect to die. We yearn for love but have "liberated" ourselves from the commitments and relationships through which true love comes. We suffer from that capitalistic fantasy that you get what you deserve" and that we can buy happiness if we are willing to pay the price.

We wish to God that baptism were meaningless, because it proclaims and gives a meaning which cuts to the core the selfish, materialistic values of our consumer culture. Luther used to call baptism "God’s word in water." It is a tough, unpopular word these days.

Water and the Spirit

In the New Testament, baptism means everything that water means: life, death, birth, refreshment and cleansing. The amount of and use of water in baptism is not irrelevant. In fact, one major reason why our baptismal theology is either insipid or nonexistent is that few Christians have ever seen a baptism! We have been so niggardly with both water and grace. To watch a family and a pastor baptize in most congregations you might think they were changing a diaper rather than participating in the baby’s birth. It takes a leap of faith to convince oneself that water is being used at all.

The question is not "How little water can we use and still have a true baptism?" The question should be "How can we generously flaunt this effusive graceful word in water which God has poured out upon us?" If water makes "no difference," why baptize? It does make a difference. If we could tell people, we wouldn’t have to wash them. And if the sacrament means anything, its meaning will be readily apparent in itself. People may not know or understand much about grace, repentance, rebirth and atonement, but everybody knows about water. Precisely.

Baptism liberates from sin. It is unfortunate that Augustine’s debate with the Pelagians ended in an overemphasis upon human sinfulness and upon baptism as the sacramental eradication of that sin. This emphasis has impoverished most of our traditional baptismal liturgies which speak of baptism and sin and nothing else. But in our "Whatever Happened to Sin?" society, where sin is viewed as little more than psychological maladjustment, or behavior arising out of corrupt economic structures, or as a failure of the educational system, baptism reminds us that, in spite of Gestalt and I’m OK, You’re OK, what we do naturally is not the best we could do, that our inborn selfishness and pride are life-and-death matters, that Christians are made, not born.

Our divisions, our black, white, male, female theologies, are empirical evidence of our continuing separation: our sin. None of these old, artificial identities count anymore. Why? Because we are "one in Christ." Because we have been "baptized into Christ" (Gal. 3:28). All these old sinful distinctions must get washed off. Nothing less than conversion and rebirth will do. And, by the way, if you don’t think that babies are as sinful, egotistical and self-centered as all the rest of us sinners, you have lost touch with reality. Babies know about as much of human fallibility and dependence upon God as they will ever know -- and perhaps even more than we will ever know.

In times of great doubt and despair, in sailing inkwells at the devil, Luther said that the only thing that kept him afloat was to touch his forehead and repeat the words "Baptismatus sum" -- "I am baptized." This gesture brought comfort in his dark nights of the soul. Why? Because, said Luther, we know our God to be a jealous God, a God who does not easily part with that which he owns, and baptism is a continual reminder that God always owns me. Therein is true freedom.

Dress Rehearsal in Death and Life

Can you now see why, in an earlier day, the church always baptized at Easter? What better time to have this dress rehearsal for death and life? What better time to show forth the womb and the tomb, the waters of creation, Noah, the Red Sea and the Exodus, the crossing over Jordan and all of the other visceral, visible, primal, primordial images of our faith? I wish we still baptized at Easter. Then we might stop avoiding the scandal of Good Friday and the even greater scandal of Easter with talk about eggs and butterflies and flowers and pop-psychology and politics, and boldly confront the utter mystery of it all -- the mystery which has first confronted us and claimed us and loved us. We might stop trying to prove or defend or explain the resurrection and get out of the way and let God do one. This time in water.

I predict that we will probably not do much baptizing this Easter or on any other Sunday for some time to come. Not because baptism is irrelevant, but because Christian baptism is dynamite. It is a revolutionary action which cuts to the core our shallow, sinful images of ourselves and challenges many of our superficial values. In a world asking too little of itself, feeling cast adrift on a sea of parent-less chaos, timidly sticking its toes into the waters of life when what we need is a faithful plunge, Christian baptism has become again a liberating, revolutionary act.

As liberating as the judging, birthing, devastating, resurrecting and refreshing love of God in Jesus Christ.