Searching for The Third Way: Baptism, Part 8

Fifth theological point: a new thought on baptism

BaptismJust as is true of God, the Spirit does not have to operate in our time-space realm. The Spirit may well act outside our time and so violate what appears to be to us a normal cause-and-effect sequence.

Consider –

(Eph 2:6-7) And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

In heavenly terms — in God’s eyes — we’re already seated with Jesus in heaven. My eyes just can’t see it. I can’t imagine how I’m already seated with Jesus! But God and the Spirit see it. They don’t have to worry about things like time.

Thus, it’s perfectly possible that God sees our baptism and then he sends the Spirit from heaven, who arrives at the time we came to faith. Indeed, the Spirit came just in time to open our hearts to faith. Because we were already baptized — in God’s eyes. The cause comes after the effect in earth time, but not in heaven time. (Really, in heaven time, such things just don’t matter.)

Just to prove that you don’t have to know physics to reach this conclusion, here’s a quote from N. T. Wright. He argues that the same sort of thing happens with respect to infant baptism –

Justification belongs with the covenant signs: baptism is the sacrament of entry into God’s people, the sign of regeneration (in fulfilment of God’s covenant promises), and thus faith, which follows and does not precede regeneration, need not precede baptism, though if it does not follow afterwards there will consequently be no justification.

Wright is arguing that when baptism precedes faith, it’s only effective if the child eventually comes to faith later. In which case, the baptism was always effective! For a deeper explanation from a follower of Wright, you might enjoy this article.

Now, I’m not advocating infant baptism. Rather, I’m just pointing out that I’m not crazy. Other people think like this.

This is crazy, of course

But it makes as much sense as the “classic” arguments. More, really. I’m tired of trying to explain away verses. I want to celebrate them. And if it means letting my mind wander outside of human time, it’s a small price to pay.

But what if God’s Spirit if given only to those who will in fact respond to it? And God refuses to let his Spirit contend (other than through the word) with those who will not respond? And what if God’s Spirit is given at baptism (in heaven time) but at faith (in earth time)? Why not? Why limit God? Why not let the paradoxes in scripture illuminate God rather than divide his people? Isn’t that what they’re there for?

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Star Trek. But a universe that is finite in both space and time necessarily makes these things possible for God. It’s a fact. Whether he does it, I can’t say for sure. But he could.

And if he does, then many of the Calvinist/Arminian/Church of Christ fights just evaporate. The different verses — their verses and our verses — are just different writers describing the same thing from different perspectives.

And the unbaptized?

infantbaptism.jpgConsider the infant who is “baptized” and later, as a teen, comes to genuine faith and penitence for the first time. The young person is never baptized again because he is persuaded that he’s already been baptized.

In fact, he takes the trouble to pull out both an English and a Greek dictionary. Here’s what he reads “baptism” means –

the application of water to a person, as a sacrament or religious ceremony, by which he is initiated into the visible church of Christ. This is performed by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring.

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (Plainfield, NJ: MICRA, Inc., 1998).

The mode of baptism can in no way be determined from the Greek word
rendered “baptize.” Baptists say that it means ‘to dip,” and nothing else. That
is an incorrect view of the meaning of the word. It means both (1) to dip a
thing into an element or liquid, and (2) to put an element or liquid over or on
it. Nothing therefore as to the mode of baptism can be concluded from the
mere word used.

Matthew George Easton, Easton Illustrated Bible Dictionary (3rd ed., Nashville: Thomas Nelson) (perhaps the most common Bible dictionary on the Internet, due to being out of copyright).

Now, he’d have to be a Greek scholar or raised in the Churches of Christ or a similar denomination to have a clue that he’s wrong about baptism. And plenty of Greek scholars would consider him properly baptized (even the Greek Orthodox, who know their Greek!).

Now, the dictionaries are wrong. Okay? They are imposing theologies to override the word of God — which is very wrong. Do not take me to mean that infant baptism is biblical. It’s not. Nor is it a good idea, as it causes a lot (hundreds of millions) of people to think they’re saved despite never having made a meaningful commitment. Faith (trust, commitment, penitence) is essential, and therefore separating faith and baptism is a very, very bad idea.

(Col 2:11-12) In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Nonetheless, God keeps his promises. All of his promises.

(2 Cor 1:20) For no matter how many promises God has made, they are” Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

And he’s promised — over and over — salvation to those with a genuine faith in Jesus and penitence. God wants all with faith saved.

(John 3:14-16) “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

I don’t think infant baptism has been taught by God through his apostles. I think it’s error, as we are taught to baptize our converts (Matt. 28:19), not those too young to be converted. Nonetheless, my God won’t let this kind of a mistake overcome his salvation. Because he keeps his promises. All of them.

Conclusion

prodigal_father_christian_sculpture_lg.jpgIn a very important sense, once you realize that God’s forgiveness takes place in heaven, outside earth time, you realize that it’s pointless to argue about whether someone is forgiven at faith or baptism.

The receipt of the Spirit is trickier, as that happens both in heaven and earth. Still, it hardly matters if a convert doesn’t receive the Spirit during the 10 days while he’s awaiting baptism. Who cares?

It only matters when the convert is never baptized at all. Then it matters a lot. But nearly all believers are baptized. We just argue about immersion versus sprinkling and whether infant baptism is effective.

I grant that the language of the Bible is baptism by immersion. But the language of the Bible is that all with faith (saving faith, including penitence, not the “faith” of the demons) are saved and have the Spirit. All.

Moreover, the Bible strongly suggests a role of the Spirit in conversion (we’ve barely touched the verses), which seems to contradict the Spirit only showing up at baptism.

Well, it’s all God. It’s all Spirit. Not in the Calvinist sense — but in the sense that God is working desperately to save everyone who will let him save them. Everyone who believes.

It’s just not about rules. It’s about God’s passion. It’s the prodigal son –

(Luke 15:20-22) So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”

When was the Son forgiven? Well, while he was still a long way off. Even before he apologized.

He received the ring and the robe — representative of his status as son — later. But, of course, the Father knew the son’s heart and that the words would be spoken and that he’d allow him to give him the ring. The ring signified sonship, but it was a gift of the Father to his penitent son.

Baptism is not a legal condition. It’s not a contract. It’s a gift from God — declaring our sonship. It’s not something we do — no more than the ring was the son’s own work. The ring and robe completed the act of restoring the son to the father. The timing wasn’t entirely simultaneous, but it was all part of making him fully his father’s son.

Now what if the son had refused the ring? What penitent son would — knowing what the ring means? But what if the son had been deceived, if he was under a delusion, thinking he already wore his family’s ring?He’d rightly refuse a second ring. And he’d still be a son. Of course, the father would patiently instruct the son and look forward to the day when he would understand the need for a ring — but he’d be waiting as a father.

(I searched a long time for the right painting or drawing of the parable to illustrate my point. I could only find this sculpture. You see, all the art focused on the embrace.

But I think of the story in terms of the father — a worried, elderly man — running along the road toward his son, who’s just topped a distant hill. I mean, the father wasn’t standing there, waiting for the son to make the first move or even apologize. I think the critical moment is when the father first sees the penitence in his son’s eyes, and the father knows that his boy will be returned to full sonship.

Now imagine that the boy has a heart attack and dies on the road before his father can embrace him and give him his ring and robe. Will the father bury him as a stranger or as a son? Will there be a ring on his finger in the grave?)

Because baptism is a gift — the failure of the church to give us that gift, or their doing it wrong, doesn’t take away God’s salvation. God won’t damn a believer for the sins of the church.

(Rom 3:22-24) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

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4 Responses to Searching for The Third Way: Baptism, Part 8

  1. Alan says:

    Because baptism is a gift — the failure of the church to give us that gift, or their doing it wrong, doesn’t take away God’s salvation. God won’t damn a believer for the sins of the church.

    Two great points.

    God gave us baptism for our benefit, not for his. It provides a marker, a memorial monument on the timeline of our lives. Paul points back to baptism repeatedly in just that way. We can look back to our baptism as the time we became Christians, and thus be reassured when Satan tries to convince us we aren't saved. OTOH, when people don't understand that, there is no memorial and no benefit of encouragement from it.

    God isn't looking for a technicality he can use to disqualify us for salvation. On the contrary, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to make it possible for us to be saved. The nature of God argues strongly against him using a penitent person's sincere mistaken belief about baptism to keep him from salvation.

    Still, the church is responsible to teach the gospel as it was originally delivered. When we understand the biblical doctrine of baptism, we are accountable to teach it and to practice it correctly — and leave the judging up to God. He will get it right.

  2. mark says:

    I do like the thinking on this subject and I think it applies to many other issues. Along these lines do we have much to fear about who is a Christian? I see sometimes an oddity of where are youth are at they embrace a more ecumenical world. But still with in the average church there’s a wondering if not a fear of where peoples faith came from.

    I know if someone came to my church and claimed to be icoc eyebrows would raise or if someone came from the Christian church and ask to help out with worship half the church would go into a tailspin. It isn't as though being a baptized believer is enough. In the long run there are the secrets of the church, the by laws of hidden infrastructure, that empowers the few to call the shots and to truly judge who is really a Christian. It’s not much different in our para church, or academic institutions, there is ingrained in us from an early age the idea of spiritual discernment. It is these ideologies that still dictate our behavior and quiet suspicion .

  3. Amanda says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! For the last five days I have been trying to reconcile beliefs on baptism, salvation, grace, and the Holy Spirit. My mind was so troubled that I felt like I was losing my faith. I grew up in the Church of Christ tradition, went to a Baptist college, reside in a prominently Reformed area of the country, and attended Mars Hill Bible Church (Rob Bell). After asking my CoC to support me in a theologically baptist missions organization and receiving a no, I was forced to come to grips with what I actually believed. I had seen so many arguments for both sides and have friends and family on both sides of the issue. I wondered if I could come to terms with what everyone was saying the Bible was saying. At least for now I have a sense of a bigger God that works in and through time. Very refreshing! Would you mind if I bounced some more thoughts off you? My email is Gayle84@yahoo.com.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Amanda,

    I'm happy I've been of some help to you. And I'd be very glad to have some thoughts bounced off me.

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