Assessing John Wesley’s View of Baptism


Assessing John Wesley’s View of Baptism with reference to The Quadrilateral
John Wesley defines baptism as “the initiatory sacrament which enters us into covenant with God” (John Wesley, Albert C. Outler, page 319).  If one could soundly reason that baptism originated in the minds of men, even very good men, then the ritual might easily be dismissed.  Wesley, however, views baptism as a sign of the covenant which God has given to us through Christ, who “alone has the power to institute.”  This authoritative stamp carries significant value as it is difficult to refuse any command or doctrine that comes from God through Christ.  Therefore, it might chiefly be said that Wesley understands baptism as having divine origins and purposes.

The baptismal sacrament, Wesley observes, is ministered to the “proper subject” by means of water.  Wesley reaches this conclusion by Biblical tradition which clearly shows the use of water in all baptisms, and from a consideration of water itself, which he states, “has a natural power of cleansing.”  The water, Wesley notes, is administered by “washing, dipping, or sprinkling.”  He hastens to add that there is no Biblical precept for one of these methods.  And, he reasons there is no express meaning in the word “baptize” in scripture that would mandate a particular method upon us.  This is understood as Wesley observes how the word “baptism” is used to describe the cleaning of pots, cups and beds (Mark 7:4).  He argues that while a pot and cup might be immersed or dipped in water to be cleaned, it is illogical to assume that beds are cleansed in the same manner.

The benefits that Wesley attributes to baptism are best understood when examined with the Old Testament rite of circumcision in mind. Wesley recognizes through scripture that circumcision was given as a sign of the covenant God made toward Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:7-8).  Baptism is the “new seal set to Abraham’s covenant”, and was “added in its room.”  Therefore, the covenant blessings enjoyed through circumcision are now known through baptism.

Wesley pictures baptism as continually necessary for the Church and indeed it is clear that baptism is a sacrament for which we have a powerful present need.  Wesley believes that since baptism is the only means of entering Christ’s Church, then it must continue as “long as the gospel covenant” remains with us.

Regarding the proper candidates for baptism, Wesley addresses the notion that baptism ought to be limited to grown persons only (John Wesley, Outler, pages 324-329).  His argument is quite strong and he approaches it very straightforwardly through the use of scripture, reason and tradition – three quarters of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  The fourth quarter, experience, is present but not in the most obvious manner.

By scripture, Wesley points out that there is no mandate forbidding the baptism of children or infants.  On the contrary, since God directed circumcision for eight-day-old infants (Gen. 17), and baptism was given “in the room” of circumcision, scripture appears to allow it.  Wesley finds additional scriptural support in Jesus Christ’s command to his disciples that they not refrain from bringing children and infants to Him (Luke 18:15-16).  One of his strongest scriptural points is that children and infants have indeed been made capable of entering into covenant with God since He Himself directed it (Deut. 29:10-11).

By reason, Wesley supports his position of infant baptism by stating that since infants are born into the curse of original sin, they are excellent subjects to be cleansed of it through baptism.  He also contemplates that on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when thousands believed and were baptized, it is reasonable to think that the Jews would have brought their entire households, including infants, to be baptized.  It was their manner to include their entire households in the salvation experience (Acts 11 amp; 16).

Drawing on the tradition of baptism, Wesley shows (John Wesley, Outler, page 328) that since the early Church baptized infants, then it “must have been the practice of the apostles, and consequently, the mind of Christ.”  As examples, Wesley cites St. Austin, “who flourished before the year 400”, and Origen, who was born in the second century; both ancients share with us that the church was baptizing infants in their own day and that this practice was given to the Church by the apostles themselves.  Wesley also contends that there is not one instance in orthodox Christianity where baptism of infants is denied.

If we are to understand Wesleyan experience, as defined by Randy L. Maddox in iWesley and the Quadrilateral/i, (Chapter Five), it includes conferring with others who are experienced in the faith.  With this understanding, we find support for Wesley’s stance in the final quarter of the Quadrilateral.  Conferencing with the early, experienced Church through its writings, Wesley finds “the whole Church of Christ, for seventeen hundred years together, baptized infants.”  It is their experience that Wesley leans upon, and that affirms the final piece of the Quadrilateral.

In assessing Wesley’s view of baptism, I find it a mix of several viewpoints that I might use to describe baptism.  He shows a sacramental view of baptism in that he suggests that it is a means or sacrament by which God’s grace is given to humankind.  This is baptismal regeneration: the spiritual change brought about in a person through the sacrament.  Wesley’s acknowledgement of this is evident as he describes baptism’s benefits as, “washing away the guilt of original sin by the application of the merits of Christ’s death” (John Wesley, Outler, page 321).

He also displays a covenantal view of baptism by allowing that baptism is a sign of the covenant we have with God and also the means by which we enter into that covenant.  This is made known as he writes, “By baptism we enter into covenant with God” (John Wesley, Outler, page 322), and by the way he shows that baptism is given to us as a sign of the covenant, much as circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Wesley also reveals a symbolic view of baptism.  He writes that “baptism is not the new birth, [emphasis mine]” (John Wesley’s Sermons, An Anthology, Outler, page 342) and that the new birth is not “the same thing with baptism.”  He writes that baptism is the outward sign, or symbol, of the inward grace.  The former part, Wesley notes is what man applies in water (the sign), while the latter part is only what God can minister.

These viewpoints run contradictory at times.  Wesley, however, appears quite comfortable in holding them in concert.  Perhaps he is not so incorrect.  Does not scripture at times seem to present opposing views while at the same time joining them happily together?  It is this kind of scriptural tension that can be both difficult and joyous and laborious and comforting for the student of theology.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

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