I love college football. Doesn’t everybody? And it occurs to me that a football example would help make some sense of what I’m talking about. I mean, it’s been pretty philosophical — even metaphysical — to this point. It’s time to get a little more down to earth.
Consider the 1979 Rose Bowl. Michigan vs. Southern Cal. The game was tied late, 10 to 10. USC drove to the end zone. The quarterback handed the ball to running back Charles White, and on the 3 yard line, he fumbled. The ball was recovered by Michigan. But the referees signaled touchdown for USC! The game ended 17-10, and Southern Cal was voted national champions — even though millions of TV viewers saw the replay and knew to a certainty that White had not scored.
Now, this is not a lesson on grace. It’s lesson on time. The question isn’t why or how, but when did White score the touchdown? He absolutely did not cross the goal line with the ball, but the score is 17-10, USC won the game, and White received statistical credit for the yardage all the way to the end zone and for the touchdown. And so — he must have scored. But he didn’t.
When did he score the touchdown? Did he score it when he crossed the goal line? Well, he didn’t. At least, he didn’t have the ball when he did. Did he score it when the referees raised their arms to signal a touchdown? Sort of. But the play had already been blown dead and the ball wasn’t even in play. And yet he scored.
You see, this is an example of that strange phenomenon called “reverse causation.” At the end of the play in real time, White had not scored. But when the referees raised their arms, he had scored. Their judgment “related back” and changed the reality of what happened in the past!
You say it wasn’t real? Well, the scoreboard disagrees. So do those who voted USC nationals champions! So do the statisticians. He scored.
The future really can change the past.
Just so, as N. T. Wright argues, baptism is when the Christian is justified. Baptism is God’s gift to the convert, demonstrating to him and the world that he’s been redeemed. “Justification” is God’s declaring the convert acquitted. And it’s also the time that the Spirit is given. Hence, justification is very similar to the referees raising their arms.
We’ve all seen touchdowns that weren’t credited and non-touchdowns that were. What matters the most is what the referees decide. Just so, we’re not saved until God says we’re saved. His is the only opinion that matters!
But the justification relates back. It makes the faith matter. Because what’s matters most is not when we have faith, but whether God says the faith saves. And that’s at baptism.
So when are we saved? Well, when we come to faith. But only if God declares us justified, at baptism, which then make the faith save. It empowers the faith.
Is this contradictory? Not really, not anymore than Southern Cal’s national championship.
And what if we messed up the baptism somehow? What if the baptizee’s nose never went under? Or the water was poured or sprinkled? Or faith only came later?
Well, what happens if you cross the goal line after fumbling the ball? You don’t score. No you don’t. Until you do.