Let’s get back to where we started: grace and baptism. Here’s the difficult thought that we need to wrestle to the ground: How can grace forgive sin (including doctrinal error — but not a lack of faith in Jesus) and not condone sin?
Recall the earlier post seeking to answer this question in relational terms. In relational terms, the answer is easy. If my child violates my instructions, he has sinned against me. But unless he is in rebellion against me — persistent rebellion evidence a lack of love and submission that is not going to get better — I won’t disown him as my child.
So does letting my son who made a mistake remain in my family somehow condone the sin? Obviously, not. On the other hand, he may suffer some very unpleasant discipline. As a good parent, I want to raise him to be obedient.
If he acted honestly believing he was being obedient, I’m not going to ground him for 2 months. I’m going to better instruct him so he learns how to better understand me.
But in church, we assume that God is not just a bad parent, but a mean-spirited parent who hides his essential commands in silences and damns those who don’t decode his hidden messages. The closest analogy I can think of is those high school teachers who love putting trick questions on the test, just to test the students’ gullibility. Teachers who fail students who know the material but who get fooled by trick questions are not good teachers.
The Bible, of course, very directly addresses the issue of forgiveness and condoning, most powerfully in the Gospels. And there are LOTS of examples.
In Luke 7, Jesus forgives the sins of a prostitute who washed his feet with her hair. Did he condone her sins? Obviously not. Did the father condone the prodigal son’s sins?
(Luk 15:21-24 ESV) 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The son evidenced a penitent heart, and the Father forgave him — but did not condone his many sins.
And did Jesus condone theft when he forgave the thief on the cross?
In short, God’s willingness to forgive baptismal error does not condone baptismal error. Nor does he approve practicing bad baptismal theology. Therefore, when I say that grace will cover baptismal error, that’s no more scandalous or bad Bible than saying that Jesus forgave the woman taken in adultery — and will continue to forgive adultery.
The abundant generosity of Jesus is found in —
(Joh 8:10-11 ESV) 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Did Jesus condone adultery? No, but notice that he forgave her first and then instructed to stop committing adultery. He didn’t wait for her to confess, repent, do restitution, and then ask for forgiveness. He judged her heart and freely forgave her. And this is how he’ll deal with those babes in Christ who get their baptism in error.
But Jesus was not soft on adultery. He regularly preached against it and fornication (which includes adultery). He lived in the tension between forgiveness and the need to change. Indeed, the very point of forgiveness is to qualify us to be in the Kingdom in the presence of God. It’s like the Torah’s ceremonial cleansing, required to approach the Holy of Holies where God sat on the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant.
By bringing us into the Kingdom, into God’s special presence, we can then receive the personal indwelling of the Spirit — placing us in intimate relationship with the Trinity so that the Trinity can work within us to change us to become more obedient.
(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 33 “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The way God defeats sin in us is by, first, forgiving us, and then changing our hearts to become obedient through the Spirit.
(Eze 36:26-31 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. … 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.
God gives his Spirit, he changes our hearts, we become obedient, and our former sins become repugnant to us. This is the new covenant that Jesus came to institute.
The closest analogue to baptism in the Old Testament is the ceremonial washing that was required to take Passover and to go to the Temple to be in the very presence of God. Taking Passover without cleansing was punishable by death. The cleansing was not to accomplish atonement but to make one eligible to participate in the life of the covenant community.
The Temple service and the other requirements of the Law had been ignored for many years in Judah when Hezekiah became king. He re-established the Temple service and ordered the celebration of Passover, which had also been long neglected.
(2 Chron. 30:1-20) Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem. The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly.
Notice, first, that the king decided to celebrate the Passover on the wrong day, because it
was too late to do otherwise.
They decided to send a proclamation throughout Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, calling the people to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. … The couriers went from town to town in Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulon, but the people scorned and ridiculed them. Nevertheless, some men of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulon humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem. Also in Judah the hand of God was on the people to give them unity of mind to carry out what the king and his officials had ordered, following the word of the LORD. …
Many of the people decided to travel to Jerusalem to honor God through this celebration. Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate their lambs to the LORD. Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulon had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.
The Law had been long forgotten and so mistakes were made as the practices commanded by God were reinstituted. The penalty for taking the Passover while unclean was death, and yet the people ate while unclean, anxious to honor God.
But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
God pardoned their sin because they had “set their heart on seeking God” despite their clear violation of the Law. Moreover, despite their clear error, God’s hand was on the people to “give them unity of mind.”
If God was this forgiving of false worship under the Law, how forgiving will he be to his sons and daughters today? The only defense the worshippers had to the death penalty was that they were trying their best to honor God and had sinned only out of ignorance. And that was good enough for God.
And the same is true of baptism today. God has not changed.
PS — My position on baptism is unchanged. I’m not arguing the Zwinglian/Calvinist/Baptist position. I just think faith in Jesus is far more central to our atonement than our baptism. In the normal case, salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. But God’s grace will cover an error in baptism for someone with genuine faith in Jesus. An error in baptism is not fatal because faith in Jesus is the true boundary marker between the lost and the saved.