We start this week with some essential questions.
- If you pamper a cow, do you get spoiled milk?
- Can atheists get insurance for acts of God?
- Do pilots take crash-courses?
- Why are things typed up but written down?
- If Jimmy cracked corn and nobody cared, why did they write a song about it?
- Do Lipton employees take coffee breaks?
Now, you’ve heard all of these questions before. In fact, that is the point of this whole exercise, because today we want to discuss questions everyone has heard before. But, unlike the above questions, these questions have real answers. Let’s start off with the one I get all the time: Does baptism save?
Let’s ask Peter. In 1 Peter 3:20-22. Peter writes about Noah and the ark. He says, “In it [the ark of God’s salvation] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you.” There it is. Baptism saves. Whoa! Let’s NOT ask Peter! Oh, wait, there’s more to the verse. Peter continues, “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” Now, that makes sense. Peter is making an analogy here, but mid-verse he realizes that what he just said could be terribly misleading. As a result, he instantly adds a clarification (what may even be understood as a corrective). He says, baptism DOESN’T save, or at least the physical washing away of dirt from the body doesn’t save. However, what is signified in baptism absolutely does save; namely, the pledge of a clear conscience to God (our response to God’s call) and Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. So, according to Peter (and the rest of the Bible), baptism doesn’t save, but what baptism signifies, saves. And if we were being honest, you might have already seen that, because two verses before the verse I read, we read this (1 Peter 3:18): “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God.” It is Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross that saves us (that brings us to God), not baptism.
That is why, when we baptize an infant, we call it a baptism and not a christening. When we pour water on a child’s head, we are not making them Christians. We are not saying they are saved. We are not removing all traces of original sin. Instead, we are simply applying the sign and the seal of the covenant of grace and welcoming them into the covenant community. Now, in Catholic thought, baptism does save and, hence, the term Christening. But that is not what we are saying or doing. We baptize babies. We do not christen them. Why? Because we believe baptism doesn’t save.
Question two is closely related: Is baptism necessary for salvation? Again, the answer is no. Baptism is only a sign. It has no power to save any more than a sign warning us about an electric fence could shock us. And while it is nice (and kind and good) to have a sign on an electrical fence, it is not necessary for the fence to work. So, it is with baptism. Baptism is a sign, but it is not necessary for salvation to work (although it is good and proper to have both the sign and the salvation). Now, we can probably think of several reasons why we do not believe baptism saves, but let me just name two.
First of all, Jesus responded to the thief on the cross with a promise (Lk. 23:43): “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Note that Jesus didn’t say, “If they can quickly baptize you, then today, you will be with me in paradise.” Here’s the point: Since the thief was not baptized, but was clearly saved, baptism can’t be necessary for salvation. That should suffice, but let me add one more thought. In Romans 10, Paul gives a strong statement about what is necessary for someone to be saved. There, we read (9-10): “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” One would think that if baptism was required for salvation, Paul would have included it in this list, but its absence is telling. Interestingly, most scholars believe that Paul is quoting an early Christian creed or confession that was said at one’s baptism. A confession of faith was regularly required before one was baptized, and it is very likely that these verses functioned in that role. Scot McKnight writes: “Church historians have shown that creeds formed the basis for instructing new converts and were required as confessions when those converts were baptized.” And what do these new converts confess? They confess Jesus and all that God accomplished through him. The only thing necessary for salvation is to be incorporated into Christ, the one who died and was raised for us. Incorporation into Christ saves us. Baptism does not.
But that raises yet another question: if baptism neither saves nor is necessary for salvation, why bother baptizing anyone? Why do it, if doing it accomplishes nothing? Now, just because we say that baptism has no saving effect upon the infant at the time of their baptism, we do not mean that baptism has no effect. Baptism blesses the child, blesses the parents and blesses the community into which the child is baptized. And when that child professes Christ as an adult, she can look back on her baptism and say, “God has been faithful to me all along. He has poured out his grace upon me from the very beginning of my life and has always been with me.” That’s an amazing blessing, and we would be wrong to minimize that. And if that was the only thing accomplished in baptism, that would be enough to continue the practice, but it is far from the only thing.
See, baptism accomplishes something very special; but in order to see it, we need to understand the very nature of what baptism is. We believe that when we baptize a person, we are planting a seed, a seed that we hope will blossom one day into true faith, hope and love. Now, it is possible that the seed does not germinate. We saw this last time when we were looking at circumcision. Just because one was circumcised, it did not make them a member of true Israel, let alone give access to God’s salvation (Romans 2:28-29 says it this way: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”). So, if we baptize an infant and they never come to faith, what good was their baptism? It becomes a declaration of judgment. It becomes evidence of a hard and rebellious heart and, as such, pronounces judgment on the individual. What was designed to proclaim grace, ends up proclaiming condemnation. Now, baptizing someone who may or may not end up following Jesus sounds wrong. It also sounds like the odds are heavily in the favor of the person not coming to Christ. It sounds like we should not do it. But we baptize adults all the time and have no idea if their profession of faith is real and if they will persevere or not. So, baptizing infants is not any different. The truth is, at the moment of baptism, we simply do not know what the outcome will be: faith or disbelief. But that is okay and for three very important reasons. First, we believe baptism is the first step in a person’s spiritual journey, not the last. And because it is only the first step, we can have some latitude. Our job is not to predict where that journey will end; it is only to begin the journey. Second, God knows the beginning from the end. What’s more, God is the one baptizing the individual, not us. It is his grace that he pours out upon the child. It is his voice that the infant hears. God is the one at work in a baptism. And therefore, we can relax. Third, we must always remember that, while we have no idea if the child will embrace Christ or not, baptism is still not some wild shot in the dark. Of course, we don’t know for certain which way this life will go, but we can certainly stack the deck in belief’s favor.
See, when we baptize a child, we don’t just baptize any child. We baptize the children of believers. While both parents might not be Christ followers, at least one parent must be. And those believing parents make certain promises to raise that child in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And those parents promise to pray with and for that child. And those parents promise to set before that child a godly example. And those parents promise to teach that child our holy faith. And those parents dedicate that child to God. And those parents promise to raise that child in the church where a whole host of others will come alongside of them to shepherd that child’s heart. And a whole host of others will pray for that child. And a whole host of others will provide godly examples. And a whole host of others will teach that child our faith and will love that child into our faith. And a whole host of others will act in Jesus’ stead to that child. And in baptism God himself promises to work in that child’s heart right from his or her first heartbeat and even before that! That is the covenant promise that is proclaimed in baptism.
Don’t let foolish abuses of the sacrament or cheap imitations of baptism dissuade you of the beauty and power and grace of infant baptism. Far from being a crap shoot where we have no idea if this baptism will result in faith or failure, we stack the deck so that, under normal circumstances, this child will one day come to Christ. And if this child does not, then this sign stops being a sign of the covenant of grace and becomes the sign of a hard and ungrateful heart. But we baptize with hope, believing that God will do a special work of grace in this child. We also believe that the example and work of these parents, supported and encouraged by the whole church, will cause this seed to bloom and to flourish. And that is why “It Takes a Church to Baptize” (which is the title of Scot McKnight’s book on infant baptism).
Several paragraphs ago, we raised a very important question: Why baptize anyone if it doesn’t accomplish anything? Now, we have an answer. In baptism, God makes sacred promises to that infant. Parents pledge themselves and their child to God’s loving care. And the whole church vows to stand with these parents in the raising of their child in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I don’t know how, when all of that is happening, you can even begin to think that a baptism isn’t accomplishing anything. It seems to me that, in baptizing someone, huge things are happening. We just have to have eyes to see them.
See, sometimes even questions we’ve heard before lead us into new discoveries and new insights. So, let me ask you, whatever happened to Old Zealand? More questions next week.