In our current readings from the story we have been focusing on the beauty and power of God’s plan of salvation and contrasting the attempts of man to connect with that plan by simplistic or legalistic “plans” that bypass or shortcut the divine plan. To illustrate God’s plan I know of no better scripture than this …
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11).
Paul stresses the hopelessness and helplessness of man to do anything about his condition by three words – weak, sinners, enemies. Man is not able to do anything about his lost condition. God took the initiative, provided the remedy for our condition in the form of Jesus offered on the cross, presented that plan to man as an expression of his love offered as a free gift (charis, grace) (Rom. 5:15) and it is up to us to accept it or reject it. Whatever we might think to do could not equal what God has done.
What does man have to do to accept that free gift? In the 4th chapter, Paul had written about how Abraham had been accounted as righteous before God.
“For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:3).
God had promised that through Abraham’s seed all nations of the earth would be blessed even though he had no children and would not have any for years in the future. Abraham believed (trusted) God that what he had promised that he would also do. It was that trusting faith that God accounted to Abraham as righteousness (Rom. 4:20-22).
“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,” (4:16).
The blessing promised to the nations through Abraham – the acceptance and justification of sinners before God – was to be to all who believed in God in the same way Abraham did. This way the reception of the promise is on the basis of grace.
Yes, James did say that Abraham was justified by works. But he makes it plain that what he did in offering Isaac on the altar was an act of faith – a total trusting of God that he would make good on his promise which Abraham had already been accounted as righteous for having believed (Romans 4:20-22) before he offered Isaac (James 2:20-23). God demanded that Abraham’s offer his son as a sacrifice – a demand that went totally counter to the reasonable expectations of human beings. Abraham’s response in offering Isaac was an act of faith – a response with the kind of faith that justifies.
Now, where does this leave us as far as baptism is concerned? It has been said that baptism has been “A bone of contention because of man’s logical analysis rather than simple faith.” I would tend to agree. Baptism is also something that goes against human reasoning. For many, it is foolishness. To think that anything good could come from being dipped in water just doesn’t make sense. So why do it?
Isn’t it enough that baptism is commanded?
“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
This is, of course, the primary passage used to to prove the necessity of baptism. This verse is even made into a “formula” that requires the candidate for baptism to understand that baptism must be “for the remission of sins” or their baptism is not valid. It is not enough to be baptized simply because Jesus commanded it, (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:16) it has to meet the formulaic specifications or it is without value. Sometimes some even argue that unless the right words are said at the baptism or if it is not performed by the right person in the right way and in the right church it is not valid.
This, in effect, looks at baptism as a sacrament, an act through which grace (the favor of God) is specially bestowed on a person. This makes the correct performance of the act mandatory and the person or group who performs it “correctly” the only ones to whom one can go to receive the blessings thus bestowed.
Baptism is an act which, according to the New Testament, is filled with meaning. It is a mistake to limit its meaning to just one thing. It is also a mistake to isolate it from the appropriate events that must accompany and be evidenced in the act of baptism.
There are a number of major events in everyone’s life – events we often look back on – events that affected who we are and how we live and think. We celebrate our birthday and the birthday of the members of our family. We remember our graduation from high school. Many people point to the day of their wedding as the most important day in their lives – and that is certainly true in many, many ways. One’s wedding day is the day when one publicly and formally commits himself or herself to that special person they have chosen to spend their lives with. In the old ceremonies, each said something like … “I plight thee my troth.” “Plight” means pledge and “troth” means truth. So the vow meant, “In truth I pledge myself to you,” or, “I give you on my honor a pledge (vow) that I will always be true to you.”
Taking those vows brings about a tremendous change in one’s life. There is a change in one’s relationship and responsibilities. As was said in Genesis 2:24, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The old relationship of child to parent is changed. He is no longer footloose and fancy free. She can no longer go where she wanted and do what she pleased. He can’t spend money only on himself. Now both must take that life-companion into consideration. The needs and desires of another person will always have a bearing on everything they may do and on every decision they may make from that day forward.
But there is one other day that is even more important than one’s wedding day. It is the day one in a “good faith pledge” makes a commitment to and enters into a relationship with Christ. This, like in marriage, is a covenanted relationship in which benefits are offered and obligations are incurred. This is a day that will not last just “until death do us part,” but reaches beyond the grave into eternity. This is a commitment that will shape and mold us from the innermost part of our being. It affects how we think, how we act, how we talk and how we treat other people as well as how we relate to the whole of God’s creation. Nothing one does from the time of making this pledge of good faith will be left unaffected.
We are referring, of course, to baptism. Twenty years ago, F. LaGard Smith published a book entitled Baptism, The Believers Wedding Ceremony. I believe that is an apt description of what baptism is meant to be. A believer, in an act of faith and in response to the grace of God, enters into a relationship with the one who loves him or her supremely – the one who wants us in a committed relationship with him eternally. In this beautiful, sweeping transaction Jesus has, in a manner of speaking, paid the “bride price” or dowry with his blood because of his great love (Acts 20:28). When we respond to his love, accepting his proposal through our faith/trust in him and through repentance from our sins, he then asks us to commit ourselves to him in the act of baptism. From that point we begin to experience the benefits of our relationship with him …
- Forgiveness of (Acts 2:38) and cleansing from sins (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11).
- Baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27) where we experience unity and equality with all believers.
- Baptized into his death and raised with him (Rom 6:3-11; Col 2:11-12), involving release from sin’s power and sharing in the risen life of Christ (Rom 6:1-11).
- Possession of the Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13) and, therefore, new life in the Spirit, i.e., regeneration (Titus 3:5).
- Participation in the community of the saved (Acts 2:41,47).
- Baptized by Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13).
With all these blessings associated with baptism, it is a mistake to isolate one thing and say that exhausts the full meaning and intention of God with regard to this act. Yet, there are those whose focus is on a single purpose – that baptism is for the remission (forgiveness) of sins. One writer said; “When God assigns a purpose to an act, the purpose becomes part of the pattern.” According to this way of thinking, unless baptism is not for the specific purpose stated in Acts 2:38 one’s baptism is not valid. One’s faith in Jesus is not sufficient reason to obey him and be baptized. One’s desire to show his love for the Lord to show gratitude for providing his grace is not sufficient. Yet, the real “pattern” shows a number of blessings associated with baptism. To say any one of these is the exclusive reason to be baptized is to just not teach what the Bible says.
Must one be baptized? Yes! Why? Because it is commanded. Someone says, “But it is for the remission of sins.” Does one have to understand that before the Lord will save him? If yes, then what about all the other things that are associated with baptism? Must one understand all them too? If God requires one, why does he not require all?
Let us be sure we are not imposing our conclusions between honest seekers of the Lord and the Lord himself. It is God’s business to save believing, penitent people whenever he pleases. All there is for us to do is to tell the “Wonderful Story of Love,” helping them to see the “Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,” let them make the decision to accept his offer of salvation with a penitent faith and let the Lord save them at whatever point he will. It is a matter between their heart and his mind.