Ruminations on Baptism

If you were baptised as an infant, then someone made a decision to do something good for you, a decision that you were incapable of making for yourself. In baptism, the child is welcomed into the household of faith and accepted as a part of the community of faith – all very good things indeed. But the best part is that the “good thing” of infant baptism occurs not by an act of the child’s will, but by the will of another who is wiser, more loving, and far less self-centered than the child.

We baptise babies who know nothing about what we are doing or why we are doing it. They neither ask for it nor want it nor – in many cases – welcome it, but it is a very good thing we do for them, and we do it because we love them.

Infant baptism is a vivid picture of the work Christ did on our behalf. I am aware that much of Christendom prefers believers baptism and I respect their opinions, but the picture presented to us in infant baptism is profound, and we would do well to meditate on it.

The scriptures tell us that even though we were “dead in our trespasses and sins”, Christ made us alive. Note that it does not say say we were sick, or weak, or disabled – it says we were dead.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions… Eph 2:4-5

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. Col 2:13

The scriptures tells us that we were sinners and enemies of God, but in spite of that fact, Christ reconciled us to God through His own self-sacrificing death.

But God shows and clearly proves His love for us by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, it is much more certain, now that we are reconciled, that we shall be saved through His life. Rom 5:8,10

He did all these things because He loved us, not because we loved Him. Christ found us in a state where we were incapable of helping ourselves, incapable of asking for help and incapable of even knowing that we needed help. And yet, in just such a state, He saved us because He loves us.

As men, we are geared to performing, to working, to earning everything we get. We are constantly evaluated on the quality of our work – at home, in the workplace, in the church, on the athletic fields and courts – and we are all very aware of how well or how poorly we measure up. At work, when we perform well we get raises and promotions. When we perform poorly, we suffer. At home, when we work to our mate’s satisfaction, we are rewarded in ways both overt and subtle. When we perform poorly, we pay the price. On the playing fields, the winners survive to play another day, but the losers go home.

The whole world operates under this paradigm. It is so deeply imbedded in our individual and collective psyches that we are offended when anyone suggests that maybe, just maybe, God does not operate by the same set of rules we do. We believe with every fiber of our being that God rewards those who do good and punishes those who do evil, because everything in our lives works that way. We are offended when the evildoer “gets off”, (think OJ Simpson) and we cheer when the bad guy “gets what’s coming to him”, (think Saddam Hussein).

It is little wonder that we men think God plays by the same rules. But baptism clearly shows us that God plays by an altogether different set of rules. Our baptism shows us that God extends His love, mercy and fatherhood to us regardless of our performance, and regardless of the quality of our choices and decisions. In fact, He made us alive when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, and He rescued us even when we were His enemies. If that wasn’t enough, (and to me that is plenty!), He promises that just as He was responsible for starting this “good work” in us, He will take responsibility for completing it.

…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Phil 1:6

Furthermore, He has already planned the good works that He intends for “us” to “perform”.

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph 2:10

Imagine! God not only plans the work we will do, but promises that He Himself will be responsible for making sure the work gets done.

We live in a world where those who perform are rewarded, and those who fail to perform are punished. There is Good and there is Evil and the two are locked in constant war. The world must be run according to Good/Bad dichotomies, else how would we function? If you are on the right side and do the right thing, you will be rewarded, but step across the line and you should expect to pay the price.

But the scriptures tell us clearly that God doesn’t follow that set of rules. In fact, He “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5).

In the creation story of Genesis, God offers Man free rein in the garden, with one minor prohibition. God forbids Man, (in the person of Adam and Eve), to eat from one particular tree. It is important that we understand what happened there, and particularly, to understand the name of the tree.

Many people seem to think that the prohibited tree was called “The Tree of Evil.” They believe that if they avoid evil they will avoid the sin of Adam. Some think it was called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Evil.” You shouldn’t merely avoid doing evil, you should avoid even knowing about it. But both points of view share the mistaken belief that God intends us to both know and do Good.

Both views are mistaken. The tree God forbade was called The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God never intended for man to have the power to discriminate between “good” and “evil”. Rather, He intended us to “walk with Him in the cool of the day” and take all our cues – about everything – from Him. But ever since we learned about Good and Evil, we have chosen to depend upon our own ability to “Do Good” and to “Avoid Evil” rather than find our life in God Himself.

Most people recognize that our sins separate us from God, but what few recognize is that our righteousness separates us from Him as well.

…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags… Isa 64:6

We demand “righteous behavior” from ourselves and from one another, never realizing that God is as unimpressed with our righteousness as with our sin. In fact, is this not the whole point of The Parable of the Tax Collector?

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The tax collector went home justified, not because of his deeds, but because of who he trusted: God. Contrariwise, the Pharisee went home condemned, not because of his deeds but because of who he trusted: himself. Living in the realm of “Good vs. Evil” and “Right vs. Wrong” places our trust in ourselves and our own deeds. When we do poorly, we condemn ourselves. When we do well, we congratulate ourselves. But in both instances, we are failing to trust God.

In His divine wisdom, God has chosen to accept us in Christ, not because we do well or because we do poorly, but simply because He has made as an object of His love. If we place our trust in Him, and in His love, then we too will “go home justified”. But if we place our trust in our own works, whether they are “Good” or “Evil”, we will surely go home condemned.

God’s love is a free gift given to us without regard to our performance, worthiness or gratitude. It is truly free – just as our baptism was. We can choose to enjoy it, or we can choose to ignore it, but nothing we do can change the power or the graciousness of that gift.

Subject Predicate Object

A young friend of mine is struggling mightily to overcome a particular behavior that he considers sin. I don’t say right out that it is sin because I know that he has a little confusion about the difference between sin and temptation. Of course, if it’s temptation he is hoping to overcome, then he is doomed to disappointment. But that is a subject for another day.

My purpose in writing this piece is to explore what I believe is a common mistake on his part, common because most believers make the same mistake: he has focused his attention and his efforts on obeying Christ rather than focusing on Christ Himself.

The difference is subtle, but important.

My friend believes that by focusing on obeying Christ, he is focusing on Christ. I disagree. When you focus on obedience you are being self-centered, not Christ-centered.

And how do I justify my point of view? For some reason, I ended up thinking about language. We use language to express our beliefs about ourselves and about God. My young friend is determined to obey God, so his thoughts about the subject at hand could be expressed as:

I will obey God.

Every properly constructed English sentence has at minimum a subject, (the Actor), a predicate, (the Act), and an object, (the recipient of the action). So the sentence “I will obey God” can be parsed like this:

I: the Actor
will obey: the Action
God: the object of the Action performed by the Actor.

In this sentence, the Actor, (my friend) performs the Action and God is the passive recipient of that Action. In contrast, consider these sentences.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

The difference between the two sentences is that “I” am the actor in the first sentence and “God” is the actor in the second. Another way to describe the contrast would be “Law” and “Grace”. Under Grace, God is the Actor and I am the passive recipients of His action. Under The Law it is just the opposite, I Act and God is passive.

While we are certainly free as Xians to attempt to obey The Law, we are doomed to be disappointed by our efforts. The Law is spiritual, but we are made of flesh and blood. The Law, though it is perfect, holy and good, kills us. That’s why God is no longer playing that game, (and we would do well to quit it, too.)

I know my friend is concerned about being holy, and I guess he believes that unless he gives it everything he’s got, God is not going to be able to do His work. This approach to God is known as “Grace plus something else”. It has the advantage of making us feel like we are contributing something to God’s work, but it has the disadvantage of being utterly ineffective.

I guess some Xians believe that God lowers His standards for behavior once they become believers. They act like they believe that even though they occasionally lust or gossip or engage in gluttony or unrighteous anger, God is cool with that as long as they say “I’m sorry” and promise to try extra-special hard the next time around.

Jesus said that the entire Law was summed up in these two commands:

  1. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

I know absolutely no one who manages to obey those two laws perfectly, yet they are very simple. Worse, we cannot WILL ourselves to obey because the command is to LOVE, and LOVE is something that cannot be coerced, it can only exist in an environment where it is freely given. My young friend tries to obey God because He fears what will happen if He does not, yet in His fearing, He is failing to obey. How in the world can we escape from this dilemma?

Through Christ.

Jesus was asked once, “what must I do to do the works of God” and His explicit answer was, “believe on the One whom God has sent.”

God is not now, and never has been, impressed with our efforts. Our righteousness is as filthy rags to him. Our job is not to work hard. Our job is to trust Christ – trust Him in spite of our sins, trust Him in spite of our successful attempts at righteousness. Trust Him in spite of our fear. Trust Him to do what He said He would do. Trust Him to act on our behalf. Trust Him.