Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meditation on baptism

"Baptism in Kansas", John Steuart Curry, 1928

It was ten years ago today that I was baptized. It happened at First Baptist Church of Elon, the church that sponsored our college's Baptist Student Union. I put on a big white nightshirt and my friend Arnold Gosnell, one of the associate ministers, dunked me down in the bathtub at the front of the church. Later that night I came down with something like the flu and a high fever and leaving the church still damp into late February cold air was admittedly not something conducive to my health...

...But you know what? I couldn't have cared less how sick I might have gotten. That I had finally been baptized, after very many years of struggling to have faith in God, was one of the supreme triumphs of my personal life. Just as Martin Luther was known to often remind himself that "Baptisatus sum" ("I have been baptized"), so too have I looked back on my own baptism as a reminder, however dark the road of life has become, that I have placed my hope in Christ. And that He will never fail me in spite of how often I still do fail Him.

I haven't written very much on this blog about how I came to be a follower of Christ. The reasons for it are myriad: for one thing, the entire story is enormously long, and would doubtless be the largest essay that I'd ever post to this site (and this is one writer who has been accused too much already of being a "wordy wordy monkey"). For another, it goes into territory that I've never been completely comfortable with exploring in any public venue.

If you want the Cliff's Notes abbreviated account: for the better part of ten years I had found it first impossible to believe in God. And then suddenly impossible not to believe in God… but also found it incomprehensible that He would still want anything to do with me. And then I started finding myself around people who did have Christ and were joyfully living for Him, and I began wanting to have that same kind of joy as well... but I didn't think that I deserved it.

So I spent a long time "outside looking in", always hovering around the edges. Gazing longingly at those who had something that was more precious than they might have even realized. Because you can't know how wonderful something like that is until you've spent some time being without it, like I had.

But when I started attending Elon, well... God began letting things happen, I like to think. Starting with how I literally stumbled into the Baptist Student Union my first week there. And then hooking up with the terrific Christian guy who became my roommate in our first apartment. And then, finding the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a congregation of followers of Christ that had a worship service on campus every Sunday morning. And then there was the InterVarsity retreat on the North Carolina coast that to this day, still burns bright in my memory...

A month after that, I at last came to a place where I not only became reconciled to God, but I could at last also start letting loose the things in my life that had held me down. And I've been following Him ever since. Not perfectly, mind ya. And I'll be the first to admit that my walk with God has fallen and faltered more times than I can count. But the amazing thing about God is that He is merciful. And just as the apostle Paul discovered, His grace is sufficient.

A little over two years later after that, I told Arnold and Debbie, our Baptist Student Union advisers, that I wanted to be baptized before I graduated. So we had the ceremony on the last Sunday of February, 1999. All of my friends from Baptist Student Union and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship came to the church that day to witness me taking this step in identifying with Christ. And that's why I did want to do this. It wasn't to "join a church" or to "wash away my sins". Accepting Christ into my life had already done that. I had been a redeemed follower of Him for a little more than two years. A "saint" as the pastor of the congregation that had been meeting on campus was fond of reminding us. Albeit one who was already undergoing extreme sanctification.

So why did I want to be baptized?

I don't believe that baptism is required at all for salvation. Scripture reminds us repeatedly that we cannot boast of anything that we do. That would be adding a work of our own, to the finished work of Christ on the cross. And nowhere in scripture do we find it anywhere that baptism is an absolute must in order to be saved. We are simply told to believe on Christ, and to have faith in Him.

If that seems too easy for some people well guess what: it is that easy. Christ came to tear down the burden of legalism and slavish devotion to rules unto themselves. We are now living under grace, not law. And there is no way that striving to stick to "the law" will add more of His grace to us.

But I do believe that a person who is sincerely seeking after Christ for His sake, will desire to be baptized. In 1st Peter chapter 3, Peter tells us that baptism is "the pledge of a good conscience toward God". The pledge by itself is meaningless without the desire to live up to it by the person making the pledge. But for the person who does want to make such a pledge, baptism is an enormously wonderful and powerful tangible reminder that we have died unto the old being and that we now reside in this world as His ambassadors.

I hate to say this, but modern Christianity has all too often made baptism something that it's not meant to be. It has become an initiation rite into not just the body of Christ, but into a particular sect of that body... which in turn, is not really baptism into Christ at all. We are taught in the Bible to lean not on our own understanding. So it is that such "baptism" has in many places become more a promise to accept and adhere to the limited reasoning of carnal "wisdom".

So my baptism, while taking place in a Baptist church, wasn't something I did to become a "Baptist". As from the very beginning, I have chosen to call myself simply a "follower of Christ". Which is not meant to be disparagement on those who are Baptists: I readily understand their perspective as fellow servants of God. And I have never met a Baptist who has claimed to be saved by merit of what kind of church he or she worships at either. Just as I've never met a Methodist or Presbyterian or anyone else who stakes their salvation on what the name on the church sign outside says. But I do believe that baptism for simply its own sake, is the most sincere baptism there can possibly be. And in those terms, it is... I believe anyway... one of the most powerful commitments that anyone can make in this life.

On a similar note: baptism has become too much the jurisdiction of an "elite class of Christian" to administer. Please don't take that to mean that I hold any ill regard to those who have followed the calling of God to be pastors, elders and other kinds of ministry who normally perform baptisms. But nowhere in scripture are we told that it is only to be a "higher elect" that can baptize. In truth, any Christian can baptize a new follower of Christ. And I have believed for many years that it is time that we begin encouraging all of the body of Christ to practice our responsibilities as His priests. I once witnessed a sixteen-year old baptize his younger brother in a swimming pool. It was one of the most moving scenes that I ever had the honor of witnessing.

Have we ever seen the spigot turned on full blast for followers of Christ to practice not just baptism, but the love of Christ and love toward others? I can't say that we have...

...but maybe it's time that we did. That we should break baptism out of the church buildings and, like Philip and the eunuch from Ethiopia, let it be anywhere that there is clean water.

And consequently, that we should break the love of Christ out of the buildings... and pour it out wherever God had put us.

3 comments:

Allyson said...

This was a very good essay Chris. Whenever I read something like this of yours I feel like your words are anointed. You should write like this more often.

Calvin said...

Beautifuly expressed Chris. I was baptized a couple years ago and it's also something that I look back on with much thankfulness.

Eric H. Smith said...

If JR would have read this instead of trying to tear it apart he would understand what you wrote. But then again any man who claims to be the only true or real church is nothing more than a Cult leader and is teaching a false doctrine and will have to answer for his teachings.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meditation on baptism

"Baptism in Kansas", John Steuart Curry, 1928

It was ten years ago today that I was baptized. It happened at First Baptist Church of Elon, the church that sponsored our college's Baptist Student Union. I put on a big white nightshirt and my friend Arnold Gosnell, one of the associate ministers, dunked me down in the bathtub at the front of the church. Later that night I came down with something like the flu and a high fever and leaving the church still damp into late February cold air was admittedly not something conducive to my health...

...But you know what? I couldn't have cared less how sick I might have gotten. That I had finally been baptized, after very many years of struggling to have faith in God, was one of the supreme triumphs of my personal life. Just as Martin Luther was known to often remind himself that "Baptisatus sum" ("I have been baptized"), so too have I looked back on my own baptism as a reminder, however dark the road of life has become, that I have placed my hope in Christ. And that He will never fail me in spite of how often I still do fail Him.

I haven't written very much on this blog about how I came to be a follower of Christ. The reasons for it are myriad: for one thing, the entire story is enormously long, and would doubtless be the largest essay that I'd ever post to this site (and this is one writer who has been accused too much already of being a "wordy wordy monkey"). For another, it goes into territory that I've never been completely comfortable with exploring in any public venue.

If you want the Cliff's Notes abbreviated account: for the better part of ten years I had found it first impossible to believe in God. And then suddenly impossible not to believe in God… but also found it incomprehensible that He would still want anything to do with me. And then I started finding myself around people who did have Christ and were joyfully living for Him, and I began wanting to have that same kind of joy as well... but I didn't think that I deserved it.

So I spent a long time "outside looking in", always hovering around the edges. Gazing longingly at those who had something that was more precious than they might have even realized. Because you can't know how wonderful something like that is until you've spent some time being without it, like I had.

But when I started attending Elon, well... God began letting things happen, I like to think. Starting with how I literally stumbled into the Baptist Student Union my first week there. And then hooking up with the terrific Christian guy who became my roommate in our first apartment. And then, finding the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a congregation of followers of Christ that had a worship service on campus every Sunday morning. And then there was the InterVarsity retreat on the North Carolina coast that to this day, still burns bright in my memory...

A month after that, I at last came to a place where I not only became reconciled to God, but I could at last also start letting loose the things in my life that had held me down. And I've been following Him ever since. Not perfectly, mind ya. And I'll be the first to admit that my walk with God has fallen and faltered more times than I can count. But the amazing thing about God is that He is merciful. And just as the apostle Paul discovered, His grace is sufficient.

A little over two years later after that, I told Arnold and Debbie, our Baptist Student Union advisers, that I wanted to be baptized before I graduated. So we had the ceremony on the last Sunday of February, 1999. All of my friends from Baptist Student Union and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship came to the church that day to witness me taking this step in identifying with Christ. And that's why I did want to do this. It wasn't to "join a church" or to "wash away my sins". Accepting Christ into my life had already done that. I had been a redeemed follower of Him for a little more than two years. A "saint" as the pastor of the congregation that had been meeting on campus was fond of reminding us. Albeit one who was already undergoing extreme sanctification.

So why did I want to be baptized?

I don't believe that baptism is required at all for salvation. Scripture reminds us repeatedly that we cannot boast of anything that we do. That would be adding a work of our own, to the finished work of Christ on the cross. And nowhere in scripture do we find it anywhere that baptism is an absolute must in order to be saved. We are simply told to believe on Christ, and to have faith in Him.

If that seems too easy for some people well guess what: it is that easy. Christ came to tear down the burden of legalism and slavish devotion to rules unto themselves. We are now living under grace, not law. And there is no way that striving to stick to "the law" will add more of His grace to us.

But I do believe that a person who is sincerely seeking after Christ for His sake, will desire to be baptized. In 1st Peter chapter 3, Peter tells us that baptism is "the pledge of a good conscience toward God". The pledge by itself is meaningless without the desire to live up to it by the person making the pledge. But for the person who does want to make such a pledge, baptism is an enormously wonderful and powerful tangible reminder that we have died unto the old being and that we now reside in this world as His ambassadors.

I hate to say this, but modern Christianity has all too often made baptism something that it's not meant to be. It has become an initiation rite into not just the body of Christ, but into a particular sect of that body... which in turn, is not really baptism into Christ at all. We are taught in the Bible to lean not on our own understanding. So it is that such "baptism" has in many places become more a promise to accept and adhere to the limited reasoning of carnal "wisdom".

So my baptism, while taking place in a Baptist church, wasn't something I did to become a "Baptist". As from the very beginning, I have chosen to call myself simply a "follower of Christ". Which is not meant to be disparagement on those who are Baptists: I readily understand their perspective as fellow servants of God. And I have never met a Baptist who has claimed to be saved by merit of what kind of church he or she worships at either. Just as I've never met a Methodist or Presbyterian or anyone else who stakes their salvation on what the name on the church sign outside says. But I do believe that baptism for simply its own sake, is the most sincere baptism there can possibly be. And in those terms, it is... I believe anyway... one of the most powerful commitments that anyone can make in this life.

On a similar note: baptism has become too much the jurisdiction of an "elite class of Christian" to administer. Please don't take that to mean that I hold any ill regard to those who have followed the calling of God to be pastors, elders and other kinds of ministry who normally perform baptisms. But nowhere in scripture are we told that it is only to be a "higher elect" that can baptize. In truth, any Christian can baptize a new follower of Christ. And I have believed for many years that it is time that we begin encouraging all of the body of Christ to practice our responsibilities as His priests. I once witnessed a sixteen-year old baptize his younger brother in a swimming pool. It was one of the most moving scenes that I ever had the honor of witnessing.

Have we ever seen the spigot turned on full blast for followers of Christ to practice not just baptism, but the love of Christ and love toward others? I can't say that we have...

...but maybe it's time that we did. That we should break baptism out of the church buildings and, like Philip and the eunuch from Ethiopia, let it be anywhere that there is clean water.

And consequently, that we should break the love of Christ out of the buildings... and pour it out wherever God had put us.

3 comments:

Allyson said...

This was a very good essay Chris. Whenever I read something like this of yours I feel like your words are anointed. You should write like this more often.

Calvin said...

Beautifuly expressed Chris. I was baptized a couple years ago and it's also something that I look back on with much thankfulness.

Eric H. Smith said...

If JR would have read this instead of trying to tear it apart he would understand what you wrote. But then again any man who claims to be the only true or real church is nothing more than a Cult leader and is teaching a false doctrine and will have to answer for his teachings.