Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Renewing Baptismal Promises (Covenant?)—when did this practice begin and is it a good thing?

A discussion Starter from Dr Peter Toon

In recent times it has become high liturgical fashion to have congregations "renew" their "Baptismal Promises" or "Baptismal Covenant." As far as I can tell this was not done by Catholic, Anglican or Protestant before 1951, when it was made part of the "revived" Easter Vigil of the Roman Catholic Church. Now, it is part of the post-Vatican II Easter Vigil and Easter season services of the R.C. Church; and amongst American Episcopalians it has become a common feature not only inside but also outside of the Easter season. It featured prominently in the installation of the new lady Presiding Bishop in November 2006 by her own specific choice. One major reason for its widespread use here is because of the unique content of the "Baptismal Covenant" in the Episcopal Church rite, by which Episcopalians are committed to a radical agenda as God's agents in the world.

What I want to argue here—and can only do it briefly—is that this practice (whatever its claimed benefits) is a huge mistake, having an erroneous doctrine of the new covenant sealed by the blood of Jesus, the covenant originally established by promise with Abraham and his "seed" forever, and the same covenant into which God the Father places repentant believing sinners at their holy Baptism, as he regenerates and adopts them to be his children.

The Easter Vigil as the end of Lent

First, we need to notice how the "renewal" functions within the Easter Vigil of the Church of Rome, for upon this other churches have modeled—but not slavishly followed—their own versions. The renewal of baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil is directly related to the observance of Lent, which is said to have a twofold purpose. Lent prepares the candidates for Baptism at Easter through a period of spiritual preparation, and it engages the faithful in a period of repentance and renewal. Likewise, the holy water of Easter also performs a twofold purpose. It baptizes the catechumens, and it seals the period of renewal for the faithful. It brings to a head and conclusion the spiritual journey of Lent. Throughout Lent, the faithful have undergone a period of repentance because they realize they have not been completely faithful to "their baptismal covenant." They perform penance to repent of their sins and to strengthen their resolve to be better disciples. At the Easter Vigil, they refresh that "covenant" with God in Christ through the renewal of their baptismal promises and the sprinkling of baptismal water. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says, "At the Easter Vigil, [the faithful] should attach great importance to renewing their own baptismal promises" (9/4).

During the Easter Vigil, after the proclamation of the readings, a procession to the font forms. There, the priest blesses the water. If there are catechumens or infants, the Rite of Baptism follows. The catechumens, as well as the parents and godparents of the infants, make the renunciations as a group ( e.g., "Do you renounce . . . ?"). Parents and godparents of infants may also respond as a group to the questions professing faith (e.g. "Do you believe in God . . . ?"), but catechumens answer this second set of questions individually. The adults and infants are baptized and receive a white garment and a glowing candle. Adults and children of catechetical age are then confirmed on the forehead. Infants are anointed with chrism on the crown of the head, as they are when the Rite of Baptism for Children takes place at any other time of year. (If there are no catechumens or infants for Baptism, these ceremonies, obviously, are omitted.) After the anointing, the priest invites the people to renew their baptismal promises and sprinkles them with holy water.

So in official Roman Catholic teaching, the renewal of the promises and vows made in Baptism comes at the end of Lent—that is, not anywhere and not anytime but in the Vigil or in the immediately following Easter season. Though it is the baptized who are intentionally making this renewal of vows and promises, the sprinkling over them of the consecrated baptismal water by the priest from the font possibly (?) has the symbolism of God also moving towards them renewing his promises to them of regeneration, justification and sanctification, with adoption as his children.

The verb "to renew" seems to be unproblematic for thousands today who hear it used in churches. But a quick look at a Dictionary reveals that it has the following meanings:

1) to make like new: restore to freshness, vigor, or perfection. 2) to make new spiritually: regenerate 3) a: to restore to existence: revive b: to make extensive changes in: rebuild 4) to do again: repeat 5) to begin again: resume 6) replace, replenish 7) a: to grant or obtain an extension of or on b: to grant or obtain an extension on the loan of .

It would seem that "renew" in the context of promises and vows has the meaning of 5) to begin again, or perhaps 3) to revive. But it is difficult to decide, for it appears that there is a variety of views around concerning what it is that "the faithful" are actually doing—let alone intending.

What makes it difficult even to consider, let alone to decide, the meaning of "renew," is that Baptism (as also The Eucharist) are set within the context of not any covenant but the new covenant (testament), established by God the Father with his Incarnate Son as the Representative and Substitute for mankind. The Father has established his Covenant of grace through, by and in Christ Jesus,who is the new Adam; and, by the Gospel, he calls believing, repentant sinners to enter this already established Covenant. And they enter in by his actually placing them in. They do not make a contract or negotiate entry conditions before entry for the Covenant with its conditions already exists and has been sealed by the blood of Jesus at his Cross. Being the divinely appointed means of entry into the one Covenant of grace, Baptism is therefore administered when there are persons, who are repenting of sin and believing the Gospel, and that is why the renunciation of Satan and sin and the recital of the Creed are the preliminaries in the Liturgy before actual Baptism in the Triune Name.

Obviously, as the New Testament often exhorts, it is the duty and privilege of each baptized Christian to recall his Baptism each day and to live in the light and strength of it as a child of God and disciple of Jesus Christ. This is not "renewing" the Baptismal promises but it is recalling and remembering what God provided and expected in Baptism. And then having recalled, it is praying for grace and wisdom to live daily as a genuinely repentant and believing person.

We need to ponder and ask: In what sense can a forgiven sinner renew his baptismal promises and vows? If he had made a contract with God, or if he himself had actually closed a covenant with God, then perhaps he could negotiate to start again with the keeping of the promises. But as the covenant is one sided—from and by God the Holy Trinity alone—then only God can renew them for and in us, in the sense that by his Word and Spirit he both makes the meaning of Baptism clearer and also provides the fruit of the Spirit to live by the promises.

Certainly the end of Lent is a good time to make a very special effort to remember the fact and content of one's Baptism and to recall what it meant and means still. And this ought to be done, just as the Israelites of old were urged at their Fetsivals to remember what God had done for them at the Exodus and at Mt Sinai and what they had committed to in response to his mercy. However, what is done very specially at Festivals ought to be done regularly as well, and certainly in public worship through the General Confession and other means of grace.

Renewal after Baptism seems to suggest that candidates for Baptism had some kind of contractual rights or covenantal negotiating powers. Let us remember our Baptism and in remembering live as the baptized children of God; but let us not think that we have any claim upon God or rights before his tribunal. We rely wholly and totally on his grace revealed and offered in the Lord Jesus Christ, which we humbly accept. When we sin and fall, there is an appointed way back to God and that is the way of penitence, confession of sin and clinging to the gracious promises of the Gospel of Christ—and this is a way that we need each week (each day!) not occasionally.

The Anglican Way has this to say in Article 16 of The 39 Articles:

Sin after Baptism

Not every serious sin committed after our baptism is an unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. Therefore persons who fall into sin after baptism should be encouraged to repent. After we have received the Holy Spirit it is possible for us to turn away from the grace we have experienced and to fall into sin, and it is possible for us who have fallen to rise again and amend our lives by the grace of God. Therefore persons who say that they cannot sin any more as long as they continue in this life (claiming to have attained sinless perfection), or who deny any opportunity of forgiveness to those who truly repent, are to be condemned.

This Reformed Catholic approach does not allow for "renewal" of promises and vows, made once and one only as God places us in his one Covenant of grace, but it does call for lives continually adorned by the Gospel, where there is continual turning away from sin and turning to righteousness.

While the post 1951 Roman approach is misguided in general and in particulars (e.g. in the granting of an indulgence in the right renewal of the promises), the Episcopalian approach which has politicized the whole matter and made the "renewal" into a commitment to a radical social agenda is dangerous.

Both are wrong because they do not truly celebrate the reality and content of the New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, which was established by and is maintained by the sovereign grace of the Holy Trinity! May 8, 2007

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