I visited a new church (for me) this past Sunday. It is a small evangelical church. For a variety of reasons, I do not think that it is a good fit for me, but I did enjoy the praise and worship, and the sermon was good, too. In this post, I want to interact with the sermon. The sermon was about water baptism.
The pastor was critiquing his own evangelical heritage. He says that he was taught that people are supposed to accept Jesus into their hearts and then read the Bible regularly. People often accepted Jesus by raising their hand or coming forward at a church service or a revival meeting. But, in the Book of Acts, the pastor noted, we see a different picture. People believe in Jesus, and they are immediately baptized in water. His evangelical heritage, he was saying, tended to downplay or ignore water baptism, or it did not know what exactly to do with it or where it fit in.
The pastor did not believe that people go to hell after they die if they are not baptized. For him, baptism is not what brings forgiveness of sins, but faith in Christ is. Rather, for him, baptism symbolizes the new birth that a person has through faith, and it is also the first step that a person makes in obedience to God. The pastor said that we tell God that we love him when we obey God, and baptism is a way that we do that. It marked the first step of Jesus’ ministry, and, similarly, it is to be the first act of obedience in our Christian life. The pastor also said that any baptized believer can baptize somebody else. Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts. And, while Jesus and Paul did not baptize, the disciples did.
The pastor was also saying that baptism means that we do not bring our old life with us. Romans 6 talks about how we die and rise again with Christ, and the pastor also referred to I Peter 3:20-21, which likens baptism to the flood in Noah’s day, and to I Corinthians 10:2, in which the Israelites crossing the Red Sea is said to be a baptism. According to the pastor, these comparisons are making a point about the end of the old and the beginning of the new. At the flood, God was cleansing the earth of wickedness, and, at the Red Sea, God was freeing the Israelites from Egypt by drowning the Egyptian soldiers. Similarly, the pastor was saying, baptism relates to the end of our old sinful life and the beginning of a life of righteousness.
It is ironic that the first sermon that I heard after moving here was about baptism. The first sermon that I heard when I moved to upstate New York was also about baptism, and I went to that church for four years after hearing that sermon. Is this a sign that God wants me to attend this evangelical church? Well, I’m still going to try out the Lutheran church in my area!
Did I agree with what the pastor was saying last Sunday morning? Well, not particularly. For one, I do not think that one can easily separate baptism from the forgiveness of sins. Mark 1:4 says that John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some may say that the repentance is what brings forgiveness and not the baptism, but the verse does appear to me to be saying that baptism is connected with repentance and the forgiveness of sins. I am not being legalistic about this or trying to put God in a box, for there were times when Jesus forgave people apart from water baptism, and who is to say that he does not do so today? Still, water baptism somehow relates to repentance and forgiveness.
Second, as intrigued as I was by the pastor’s interpretation of I Peter 3:20-21, I was not convinced by it. I do not think that the passage is about the cleansing of the old earth, but more about how Noah was saved through water during the flood, by means of the Ark, and how, similarly, we are saved through water at baptism. Granted, the pastor’s interpretation of the passage makes more sense to me than my understanding of what the passage itself is actually saying. The passage’s argument strikes me as a bit awkward, whereas what the pastor was saying sounds like a reasonable comparison between the flood and baptism. But what I read in the passage is what I read in the passage.
There is also the question of whether I leave my old life behind at water baptism. Well, yes and no. I do not think that I can really escape who I have always been. In a number of respects, who I was then overlaps with who I am now. Baptism did not cleanse me of my introversion, for example, and some of the problems that confronted me then are still challenges for me now. But baptism can mark a decision to leave behind a sinful life and to start anew, and it can express a conviction that God is not holding my old life against me but is giving me new life. I would also like to add that water baptism is not the only time and place that this has to happen. There have been times when I have had to leave behind old ways and embrace new ways long after my baptism. There are passages in Scripture about dying daily.
The sermon was thought provoking, and I respected the pastor’s honest wrestling with his evangelical heritage.