Questions, questions and more questions; all of a trivial variety (since you did so well last time).
- On average, what is the thing that Americans do 22 times in a day?
- What is the real name of the Cookie Monster?
- What animals have fingerprints other than humans?
- Who sang about being an “eggman” and a “walrus”?
- Where were fortune cookies invented?
- What is the name of the vehicle that Scooby-Doo and his friends travel in?
- Which Italian town is the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?
In our last two posts we’ve been dealing with some dangling questions that need to be answered before we bring this series to a close. So far, we have asked (and answered) the following five questions: Does baptism save? Is baptism necessary for salvation? What is accomplished in a baptism? Is the efficacy of baptism tied to that specific moment? Should we allow rebaptisms? And we said, “no,” “no,” “lots,” “no” and “no.” Today’s answers are “God,” “no,” “a process,” and “no.” But maybe you need more information than that.
We begin by asking: “Who baptizes the candidates in our church?” Now, if your answer revolves around the pastor, I would like to thank you personally for your support, but unfortunately, that is not the correct answer. Here’s the answer we were looking for, as expressed by the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 27:3):
“The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.”
I am so thankful for the WCF; and while that is a great answer, the points that it is trying to make don’t quite jump off the page. There are two main ideas here. First, it says the sacraments in themselves have no inherent power. Water is just water, regardless whether it is poured, sprinkled, or applied by the tub full. Even when everything is done properly and correctly, there is no intrinsic value in the actual elements. Second, the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the person who administers it. In other words, technically, I don’t baptize anyone. And I never have, even though you’ve seen me pour out water on people. Why? Because both of the sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and baptism) are administered by God.
Now, that doesn’t sound like much; but at one point in church history, this was a huge issue. Early on, the church faced horrific persecution. Pastors and other church leaders were specifically targeted; and as a result, many church leaders abandoned their faith and denied Jesus. Now, such a blatant act of apostasy made it clear that these leaders no longer belonged to the church. But suppose two weeks earlier, you had been baptized by one of these pastors. If he wasn’t a member of the church anymore, how could he initiate you into it? And if he was entertaining thoughts about betraying the true faith when he was baptizing you, how could your baptism be true? That got a lot of people wondering: Wouldn’t his apostasy nullify your baptism? Maybe we need a more contemporary twist. Suppose your pastor has secretly become an atheist (he will soon leave the church, but he needs a new job first). When he prays to set apart the elements for their holy use during communion, that prayer goes nowhere. When he invites you in Jesus’ name to come to the table, that initiation is no longer valid. Wouldn’t his apostasy make the means of grace in your church meaningless? And what if this same atheist pastor performs your wedding. How can he pronounce you husband and wife in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit when he no longer represents the Godhead? Bottom line: You are living in sin. Stop what you are doing and find a good pastor and get (re)married. Am I right?
To all of these fretful questions, the Confession shouts, “No!” you are still married, communion is still meaningful, your baptism is still good. Why? Because the efficacy of the sacrament has nothing to do with the person who administers it, but has everything to do with the work of the Spirit. In other words, whoever administers the sacrament does not do so in their own power or through the power of their position. God, and God alone, is the one who presides over the sacraments. And that is why the sacraments are so important, because they are more than mere bread and wine and water. They are encounters with God.
Now, the Confession goes on to say that, even though God is the real actor in the sacraments, it does not mean that just anyone can administer them. Yes, whoever administers the sacraments is simply a conduit of God’s grace, but God has called certain people to act in his stead at these critical moments. Not everyone in this holy practice should speak on behalf of God, but only those called to do so (for the same reason it would be wrong to substitute M&M’s and Coke for the bread and the wine).
A second question: Should private baptisms be allowed? You have just come to Christ, but you have an aversion to speaking to a crowd (even standing up in front of everyone at the front of the church sends shivers down your spine). So, you decide you want to be baptized in your backyard with five close friends. Is that proper? I would argue it is not. Baptisms, like the Lord’s Supper, are not private experiences. They need to be linked to the whole worship service and to the proclamation of the Word and to the witness of God’s people. Why? Because no matter who is getting baptized, it always takes a whole church. Following Christ is not an individual sport. From start to finish, we need each other. It always requires the prayers, encouragement, support and involvement of the whole church. And we need to communicate this truth from the very beginning, starting with one’s baptism. Baptism takes a whole church.
By the way, Kara Powell and Chap Clark argue in their book, Sticky Faith (based on all sorts of research) that it takes at least five adult mentors to establish a faith that will endure in the life of one young person. And only one out of eight young people talk about their faith with their mothers, and only one out of twenty do so with their dads. How many people does it take to nurture one young person in their faith? It takes a whole church. We need each other.
A third question: What is conversion? Some believe it is a sudden act. You wake up one morning far from Christ, but that afternoon you hear the gospel and it speaks to your heart. And you respond to the good news with repentance and faith. And as soon as you say the prayer, you are converted. You are now and always will be a Christ follower. The poster child here is Paul (he woke up violently against Jesus, but went to bed that night, a Christ follower!). Others, however, see conversion as a process. You believe at a particular point in time, but at that time your beliefs, while true, are untested and undeveloped. This would be especially true if you come to Christ as a child. What do children know of the struggles of faith? As you progress in your walk with Christ, you encounter various challenges and obstacles. Each one of these calls you to make a new profession of faith. Take me, for example (this is the way I explain it). I came to Christ as a child, but I became a Christian in college. (Does that make sense to you?). But even after college, there were still many other defining moments to come. I learned more about myself and my sin and I struggled to believe, but so far, at each turning point, I have trusted in Jesus through repentance and faith. And there are still defining moments ahead. But this is the way it is. Conversion is a life-long process. As Scot McKnight says, it is a “journey of surrenderings and taking-backs and surrenderings once again.” And we know that to be true because saving faith is always enduring faith. Saving faith perseveres. Here, we think of Peter. In John 1, we see his first conversion. In Luke 5, another huge step is made when Jesus tells him to cast his nets on the other side of the boat. In Mark 8, he confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. But in Mark 14, he denies Jesus three times. But Jesus reinstates him in John 21. Which one of these events marks Peter’s true conversion? All of them because conversion is a process! And because conversion is a life-long process, we can baptize an infant, knowing that this is only a first step in their conversion story. Now, it is an important first step. It sets the child into a believing community where people will encourage his/her faith, pray for his/her spiritual growth and inculcate him/her into the life of faith, through rituals and practices and prayers and worship. But we also recognize there must come a time when this child acts on their baptism and professes Christ as their “own” king and savior. And we also recognize that there will be many more times when this individual will have to make (or remake) that same profession of faith. None of these professions stand alone. They all need each other. So, when we baptize an individual, we are simply setting the person on the right course. Scot McKnight says it this way:
“Baptism, whether infant or adult, needs to be seen for what the Bible says it is: the beginning of a journey that God initiates. Wisdom prompts us to treat infant baptism as a seed planted in the heart of a child, but it is a seed in need of care, water, and sun. Conversion is a process, and it begins when the infant is baptized.”
And last, because I know someone will ask it, is there a difference between pouring, sprinkling or dunking? By now, I hope you can see that the answer is “no.” The elements in of themselves are meaningless (water is water), but what they symbolize is rich and deep, for they symbolize our union with Christ. Just like those who administer the sacrament are merely conduits of God’s grace, so here the physical elements are mere conduits. Think about it this way. You are stuck in some dark pit, and you are dying of thirst. Someone high above you sees your plight and lowers a PVC pipe down to you and pours water into it so you may drink. Are you really going to reject this gift because of the way it is delivered, saying that water is only properly served in a glass? Water is far more than water. It’s life! In the same way, it doesn’t really matter how we baptize people. What matters is that we do it.
So, there you have it! The answers are “God,” “no,” “a process,” and “no.” Once again, these questions sound insignificant, but they are hardly trivial. They set us free to receive the gift of grace, and grace and trivia are lightyears apart. But if you are looking for trivial questions or answers, I hope you will enjoy these: (1) Open the fridge; (2) Sid; (3) Koalas; (4) The Beatles; (5) San Francisco; (6) The Mystery Machine; and (7) Verona. We have one more quick post to go, and then we will be more than saturated with baptism. In fact, we will be baptize-wise guys.