|What Makes Us Who We Are (3 of 7)
June 20, 1999 / Acts 2:38
After my second speech to a group of college students and young professionals one weekend, a woman asked to talk with me. So, as a devotional continued in the main lodge of a state park, she and I sat on a porch just outside its main doors and talked. She didnít finish her first sentence before the tears started rolling down her cheeks.
She told me about an odyssey that had started in high school and picked up momentum during her college years. The story wasnít new to me. I had heard it before ó and have heard it many more times since. The three key elements of her story were rebellion, sin, and guilt. She had played all the verses of that song again and again. Each time she did so, it had been raised an octave. Now she was burned out and empty. All the rebel friends, all the drinking and snorting buddies, all the sex partners ó they were gone. And she was feeling, to use her own words, "dead on the inside."
She eventually stopped talking and simply sat weeping with her face in her hands. "Joyce," I said. Her body shook, and her face stayed buried in her hands. "Joyce," I said again. She began trying to compose herself but still didnít lift her head. "Joyce," I said a third time, "can you look me in the eyes? Will you let me tell you something that God desperately wants you to know?" So she looked straight into my face, and I explained to her that what she had heard me teach to the larger group of which she had been part really was for her. So she heard the story of Godís love and grace again in a one-to-one setting. Then the tears really came, and she said, "Thatís too good to be true for me. Iíve done too much. Iíve been too awful. Iíve gone too far!"
Her head was back in her hands again, so I took her by the shoulders, squared up with her again, and stooped to put my face in her downcast line of sight. "I understand what youíre saying!" I began. "Thatís why this message is called ĎGood News.í Maybe we should call it ĎFantastic Newsí or ĎToo-Good-to-Be-True News.í But it really is Godís message to you today. And you donít have to stay sad or despondent or dead on the inside any longer! The God who could speak into Adamís lifeless form is ready to put new life inside you!"
"What should I do?" she asked. And it occurred to me to say, "As dead as you say you feel, I think we should start by burying you! Thatís what we do with dead people, isnít it? I think I can recruit a burial detail from that crowd of people still singing inside the lodge. Weíll just bury you and have done with everything youíve just told me about yourself ó and trust God to raise you from the dead a new person!"
Joyceís calm, composed, and nonchalant response was, "You want to do WHAT?" And I read her these verses:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or donít you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin ó because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Rom. 6:1-8).
We went out to the edge of a cool lake, and Joyce and I waded into waist-deep water. We were both shivering. And the people we took with us ó and to whom I had told the story Iíve just told you ó were on the bank shouting, "Goodbye, Joyce! Goodbye, Joyce! This is your funeral, Joyce! Goodbye! Goodbye!" Then, I immersed her in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of her sins. And as we moved quickly back to the shore and dry towels, those wonderful people began to say, "Rubel, who is that person with you? Introduce her to us. Weíve never seen her before! Weíd like to meet that Ďnew personí with you!"
The Emphatic Affirmation
One of the things that makes us who we are is our affirmation of the importance of water baptism to the salvation process. Our redemption from sin is totally Godís work. It is a gift of grace and not a reward for works. But it is made emphatic to us in a comprehensive experience that involves the body, mind, and spirit of someone who is seeking God. Thus, to people who know and believe the facts of the gospel, I answer the question "What shall we do?" the same way Peter and the other apostles answered it on Pentecost Day: "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).
Three thousand people were baptized in the many pools and bathing areas of Jerusalem on that day. They hadnít brought changes of clothing with them. They got dunked without having started the day with a plan to do so. Canít you just see it now? A handful became dozens became hundreds of dripping-wet people hugging one another in their "new life" as Christ-crucifiers who had become Christ-followers. Like Joyce, the walking dead had been buried and yanked back to life in a colorful ceremony that bore witness to the fact that nothing would ever be the same for them again. Around the world today, baptism is seen as the decisive event of identification with Christ. In some places, it is the event that seals a personís death warrant.
Because of our strong emphasis on immersion in water as the initial and basic faith response that penitent believers make to Christ, we are sometimes heard to be saying even more ó more than we believe about baptism, more than the Bible says about baptism, and more than biblically literate people can embrace about baptism. We have been understood to believe and teach baptismal regeneration. Indeed, some of the most legalistic teachers among us have taught and argued for baptismal regeneration. In all fairness, I donít think they meant to do so. But they did. And the error of that false teaching persists in many places as the typical understanding of who we are and what we teach on this point.
To all the Joyces of the world, I want to say just what Peter said to those people on Pentecost. I donít want to say less than he said or more than he said. I want to tell people the Good News of Godís love for them in Christ. Then, when they say they believe that message and want to confess, claim, come after, and conform to him, I want them to know of the dramatic event of identification with Christ that is meant to serve as a definitive spiritual moment in their lives. It is a cleansing bath. It is a new birth. It is somebodyís burial and resurrection.
Baptismal regeneration is the false teaching that someoneís immersion in water literally and actually forgives sins. It is the doctrine that water baptism is a sacramental deed that secures spiritual pardon. It is the notion of "water salvation" taught in the name of the gospel and in the place of salvation by Christís blood and that alone.
The blood of Jesus is the total redemption price for human beings. Not one of us contributes one thing to his or her salvation. We can only trust what Christ did at the cross and indicate our willingness to receive it through faith as a free gift. The blood he shed on his cross and not the water of our baptismal experience is what cleanses one from sin (1 Pet. 3:21; cf. Acts 22:16), effects a spiritual rebirth in a sinnerís life (Tit. 3:3-7; cf. John 3:3-5), and allows one to pass from the death of sin to life that is in Christ alone (Col. 3:1-3; cf. Rom. 6:11-13).
Death, Burial, and Resurrection
The significance of immersion in water is not to confess oneís faith in baptism but his or her faith in the cross. It is not an end in itself. It is a step of faith in the larger journey or "pilgrimís progress" to salvation.
I entertain no fear of damnation from a merciful God for that soul my questioning friend presses me about who ó with deep penitence over his sins and in true faith in Christís work for him at Calvary ó "dies on his way to the baptistery." I do, however, have very deep concern for a person who professes repentance and faith but whose faith is unwilling to show itself in obedience to the several New Testament commandments about baptism. Donít you recall what James said about faith that is not accompanied by action being dead? (Jas. 2:17: cf. 2:20-24). In the obedience that testifies to our faith, we are declaring our confidence in Godís way over our own. We are making known our trust in Christís death, burial, and resurrection as our only hope for eternal life.
Baptism is the biblical symbol of Christís death, burial, and resurrection for us. That is the clear and emphatic teaching of Romans 6:1ff. But baptism is no mere symbol. There is certainly nothing arbitrary about its use as the rite of initiation into the Christian community. There is something about it that emphatically declares the very essence of our faith. Jesus has transformed the world for us, and we see reality through different eyes. We are "dead people" insofar as the old certainties, the old goals, the old relationships are concerned. Life now is about him and his will for us. With Paul, we say, "To live is Christ!"
To the unbaptized, then, I say what Peter said to the people on Pentecost: "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." This is a commitment you can make only with an adult mind and only by your own choice.
So what would I say to people who were not immersed but who had water sprinkled or poured on their heads as infants? I would encourage you to be thankful that your parents cared enough about you to pledge you to Christ and dedicate your life to him as an infant. But I recommend and would try to persuade you to make your own personal, adult commitment to Jesus Christ in believerís baptism ó not as a repudiation of what someone did for you as a baby but as a personal step of spiritual progress in your own journey of faith. It will give you a precious moment to hold in memory when Satan tries to make you doubt your relationship to Christ.
Six days, six months, six years from you, Satan may try to make you doubt that God could love or save someone who has done what youíve done somewhere back there. Then you can say, "Sorry! But that old, dead me is buried and gone in the watery grave of baptism. Iím living my new life now ó rejoicing in Godís wondrous mercy to sinners like me!"
When I was in Ukraine less than a month ago, I met a white-haired man in his seventies named Boris. For more than thirty years under the Communist government of that country, he was in charge of suppressing the Christian faith. He closed churches, arrested pastors, and intimidated believers. He was "the worst nightmare" of many Christians of that country during a dark time.
About seven years ago, Boris became seriously ill and was told by his physicians that he had only a few months to live. Christians learned what was going on and spread the word among themselves. There was no joy that their former nemesis was about to die. There was concern that he did not know Christ and was about to die without a Savior. Churches across the country made announcements about his health crisis and called their members to pray for his healing or an early opening in his heart for the gospel.
Boris began to improve dramatically. His doctors pronounced him cured. And he sought out some Christians who had led the prayer movement for him. They shared the gospel with him, and he accepted it. In his own words, "a million drops of love" from a praying church had torn down his resistance to the message of Christ.
But could he be saved? Could God forgive him for his decades of blasphemy and oppression? Could his past ever be buried for the sake of having a future in Christ? Someone explained to him about the beautiful witness of baptism, and Boris was buried with Christ in the watery grave. And he points back to that event now as the burial of an enemy of the cross. He has been raised in the newness of Christís own life to tell others about salvation by grace. Because of his connections with old Communist Party officials who now hold influential posts in Ukraineís current government, Boris teaches the Bible in a Ukrainian secondary school ó introducing young minds and hearts to the Christ he once reviled.
Thatís Godís way. People can be saved by his grace through faith in Christ ó a salvation witnessed to, claimed, and confessed in baptism. "But do I have to be baptized?" is a question I canít imagine Boris asking ó or Paul or the jailer at Philippi or the treasurer from Ethiopia. I simply cannot imagine anyone who understands the gospel not wanting to confess him in this powerful and striking rite of faith.
It is part of who we are as a church to insist on the importance of water baptism. But it certainly isnít unique to us. It is part of the Christian faith across the centuries. And I certainly donít want anyone to misunderstand us to be saying we trust baptism for our salvation. Our faith must be in Christ alone, and believerís baptism is simply and only the confession of his full sufficiency as our Savior.
Thank God, we can leave the old person in a watery grave, rise to claim the promise of Christís power and presence for a new type of life, and spend the rest of our lives celebrating not our achievement but his gift.
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