Monday, April 25, 2005

What Exactly Happens in Holy Baptism?

[Our congregation is currently involved in Forty Days of Purpose, a campaign of spiritual renewal that is built around daily readings from Rick Warren's fantastic book, The Purpose Driven Life. Today is Day 16 of the campaign and yesterday, the readings included several pages on Holy Baptism. It's one of the few passages of Warren's wonderful book where he presents a theological point that is specific to his own denominational tradtion and not something to which all believers in Christ would give their assent. As a pastor, charged with teaching my congregation, I felt compelled to present a Lutheran perspective. I present the email in which I did this, not as a way of engaging in conflict, but just to present a slightly different point of view.]
Dear Friend:
As I have said for several years, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren is a fantastic book! I hope that you agree and that you're finding it helpful in your walk of faith.

But there are occasional points in Warren's book where I disagree with him. Nowhere is this more true than in his discussion of Baptism.

Warren, who is Southern Baptist, views Baptism as something believers do to initiate their relationship with Christ. This is why his denomination upholds the notion of "believer's baptism," in which a person must be old enough to understand the Gospel and their need for Christ before being baptized.

Warren and his denomination also view Baptism as being more symbolic, whereas we believe that in it, the Holy Spirit truly comes to us, enters us, and adopts us as God's children.

Lutherans, we would say, take a more sacramental view of Baptism. That is, we see it as something that God initiates and over which we have no control. God acts decisively for us in an act of grace. In Baptism, God adopts us just as He once adopted Jewish babies at eight days old through circumcision (an analogy that Saint Paul draws in Romans 6). Through water connected to God's Word and by Christ's command, the benefits of Jesus' death and resurrection become ours. Baptism marks new birth (John 3:3) and we can readily draw the conclusion from reading the history of the first century church, as found in Acts, that the "whole households" that were baptized included children who would not have been able to say yes or no to God's salvation offered through Jesus.

Of course, for Baptists and for Lutherans, the ultimate issue is whether one believes in Jesus Christ. This is why Lutherans and other Christian traditions have the rite of confirmation, the point at which young persons--usually those between ages fourteen and sixteen--may publicly declare their intention to live in faithfulness to the covenant God struck with them as infants. At Baptism, God promised to be their God. He calls us to faithfully respond to His undeserved love, grace, and forgiveness through a commitment to be His disciples. We can spurn the salvation God has given to us through Christ, mediated to us through Baptism. God allows us to reject Christ and life, even if we have been baptized. So, even though it's a sacrament in which we believe God acts for us, God still respects our right to say, "No" to Him and we must still believe in Jesus. (John 3:16)

Both Baptists and Lutherans would point to the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark: "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:16) For all true Christians then, the pivotal issue when it comes to salvation is faith and in that sense, there is very little distance between us and Warren.


In today's reading, Warren says that the first four of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with God and the latter six deal with our relationships with others. This must have seemed odd to many of you.

Lutherans and others reckon the commandments differently. We split them three dealing with our God-relationship and seven with our neighbor-relationships. That's because we combine two in the "first table" into one commandment and others combine our two "covet commands," nine and ten, into one command. In spite of those differences, we manage to include all the same stuff in our renderings of the Ten Commandments.

I hope that you're getting as much out of this Forty Days of Purpose as I am and that God will use it to deepen our faith and help us all to live for God's purposes for our lives!

Blessings in Christ,

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