Friday, February 23, 2024

Know What You Believe: Baptism

Baptism is either a means of life or an instrument of death.

by Ben Hein
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Several months ago, we were joined in our weekly Bible study by a young woman who has had a rough go of it. After about twenty minutes of studying our passage in Luke together, she opened up about the hardships she has been through. She shared how she had been sinned against, how her friends continued to be a bad influence, and how no matter what she tried it always seems like she keeps getting knocked back down.

She continued sharing about her struggles in growing closer to God. I started to sense a deep burden on her; that something about the idea of growing in faith was oppressive and crushing. It all became clear when she said, “I want to be baptized, but I know I need to clean my life up first so that I don’t let God down.”

As if my heart wasn’t already broken enough by her situation, a deep ache set in for me when I realized that this young woman’s entire concept of the Christian faith, beginning with baptism, was one of burden, guilt, and being crushed by her own failures. After several moments of other group members attempting to minister to this young woman, one member of our group turned to me and said:

“Pastor, what does baptism mean anyway?”

I was so glad she asked.

The Proof of God’s Love

My father died unexpectedly on June 11, 2021, from a heart attack, just six days before our family was scheduled to make the move from Gaithersburg, MD to Indianapolis, IN. My dad and I had a complicated relationship at times. As I grieved the loss of my father, the mixed emotions of joy and sorrow entered my mind. I was unsure of how to characterize and honor my relationship with my dad.

While she was packing up boxes in our basement, my wife called me down to look at something she had found. It was a Christmas card from my dad that he had given me as a teenager. It said:

You are the best son a father could ever want. Love, Dad

In that moment I was reassured that more than anything else, my relationship with my father was one built on love. There, in his own handwriting, I had authentic proof of what my dad thought about me. He loved me, and that is enough.

Alongside the Lord’s Supper (or “communion”), baptism is one of two signs – or sacraments – given by Jesus to his followers to make use of in the strengthening of their faith. The African theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430) described the sacraments as a “visible word” which represent God’s promises for us and paint a picture for us to see and experience. A sacrament, in the words of French theologian Pierre Marcel (1910-1992), is an outward proof of the love of God.[1]

The sum of God’s promises to us are that he will be our God, and we will belong to him as his people. This promise is at the core of God’s redemptive story in the Bible and is repeated throughout the generations for his people to remember (Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 37:27; 2 Corinthians 6:16). We could even say that the fulfillment of this promise is the goal of history, as God’s story is completed in Revelation with this promise reaching its fullness (Revelation 21:3). Because of Jesus’ saving work, we can look forward to the day when God will live among us, and it will be truly said that he is ours and we are his!

This promise to be our God, and we his people, began in the book of Genesis when God made a promise to Abraham. In Genesis 17:7-11 we read that God makes a promise – or a covenant – to “be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Attached to this promise was a sign: “Every male among you shall be circumcised, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.”

In the New Testament we discover that baptism, like circumcision, is to be the sign of God’s promises to the Church. In Acts 2, Peter tells the crowds that they are to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38-39). Like the promises made to Abraham, God attaches the sign of baptism to this promise of our sins being forgiven.

Baptism, like circumcision, is physical proof of God’s promises to us. Two more things should be said here.

First, like circumcision, baptism is a sign of the promise; it is not the promise itself. Nothing mystical happens to us when we are baptized. The Apostle Paul said in Romans that circumcision was to Abraham an authentic sign, or a seal, of the righteousness Abraham already had by faith before he was circumcised (Romans 4:11). Circumcision did not save Abraham; it was outward proof that he had already been saved. Similarly, we are not saved by the act of baptism; baptism is a sign and seal that God will keep his promises to us in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-27).

Second, we must see the tender mercies of God in giving the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to us. These sacraments were given to us not as a measure of our obedience, a declaration of our faith, or our commitment to God. The sacraments were given to us to strengthen us in our weak faith, in our doubts, in our anxieties. As the Reformer John Calvin said,

Our faith is slight and feeble unless it is propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so… condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.[2]

The promises signified to us in baptism: forgiveness, cleansing, belonging, and every manner of spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3-14) are all assured to us in the sacrament of baptism. This is a gift of grace to us to serve as the greatest comfort when we are feeling crushed by guilt, shame, and doubt.

Like the card my father left for me, we don’t need to go searching for proof of what God thinks about us.

We already have it.

Remember your baptism.

Three Errors

I am about as charitable as anyone can be when it comes to theological or methodological differences among fellow Christians. However, nothing makes me more furious than when the sacraments, meant to be reassurances of God’s gracious promises, are turned into crushing burdens of guilt and obedience. I want to briefly address three dangerous errors that are common in churches today regarding the teaching and practice of baptism.

Baptism as a Sign of My Decision

I have often seen churches giving out shirts to those being baptized that say something like, “I Have Decided!” across the front. I’ve heard countless testimonies at baptisms where individuals will say something like, “I want to be baptized today as a sign of my decision to follow Jesus.” Absent from such testimonies is any recognition of God’s promises and what baptism will subsequently mean to these individuals.

As a result, baptism becomes nothing more than a sign of an individualistic choice that we made at one point in our life. Now, I want to be clear: baptism does represent something outward for others to see. However, that outward sign to others is not first and foremost about the decision itself, but how God by his Spirit has baptized us into the Church (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism is not simply a sign of our individual decision, but that we now belong and are committed to other Christians in the visible, gathered, embodied Church.

I frequently hear from all corners of American Christianity the complaint that Christians today are too individualistic, self-centered, greedy, and noncommittal. Is it any surprise to us that Christians live as those who are so self-absorbed when they’ve been taught that the very entrance into the Christian faith is nothing more than an individual choice? By placing the emphasis of baptism in the wrong place, this teaching subsequently distorts what it means to follow Jesus and belong to the Church.

Baptism is a Sign of My Faith

Similarly, I have seen baptism expressed many times as a sign of the faith an individual has in Jesus. Often, individuals going through some kind of spiritual high desire, or are convinced, to be baptized as a sign of this new growth in faith.

But if baptism is a symbol of my faith, then it becomes a terrifyingly burdensome reminder of my weakness and failure in moments of doubt, confusion, and insecurity. If in weakness I look back on the spiritual high I had at baptism, the strength of my faith then becomes a standard that crushes me now. When the spiritual high recedes, many people doubt the sincerity of their faith or their baptism. When a relapse into habitual sin occurs, churches often teach that an individual should be rebaptized if they want to recommit their faith to Jesus. What an awful, oppressive, guilt-ridden cycle this is!

But baptism is not so much about our profession for God as it is God’s commitment to us. Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promises to me, not the other way around. When doubt, weakness, or habitual sin set in, I look back on my baptism not as a crushing standard which I cannot measure up to, but for reassurance of God’s commitment in love to me.

Baptism Is the Moment You Are Saved

While the previous two errors may obscure the gospel, they do not necessarily contradict the gospel. In some churches, however, baptism itself becomes the means of salvation. In other words, we are not saved by faith alone; baptism becomes necessary as it is the moment when we receive salvation, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit.

But from beginning to end, the teaching of the Scriptures is that we are saved by faith, by dependance on God’s saving mercy (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:21; Titus 3:4-7) through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5:9; 1 John 5:11-12). As we saw above, Abraham was not saved through works or through circumcision. Circumcision was proof that he had already been saved by faith (Romans 4).

This teaching is not only damaging and crushing, but also an anti-gospel. This is not a matter of acceptable difference; in the strongest words possible Paul taught us to avoid false gospels (Galatians 1:8). Like the young woman who came to our study, it keeps people out of the kingdom of God through falsehood, guilt, and shame. It turns a means of grace into a tool of oppression. I could go on, but I must restrict myself and say no more.

Dear Christian, my prayer for these words is that you will use them to search the Scriptures. Notice I said nothing about who ought to be baptized, or how that ought to be done. Those are matters of acceptable difference. What is not acceptable is anything that obscures grace, distorts God’s promises, or weaponizes guilt to keep you trapped in shame.

And if you’ve suffered under these teachings there is nothing you need to do other than be set free in the knowledge that the baptism you’ve already received is a sign of promise. Trust these promises in faith, and be freed.

Search the Scriptures.
Know what you believe.
Remember your baptism.
It will be a light to you in the darkest places.

[1] Marcel, Pierre. In God’s School: Foundations for a Christian life, 106.

[2] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.3.

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