One of the greatest privileges I have as a pastor is to provide spiritual care to some “returning Christians.” Returning Christians are believers who are reentering society through parole after being imprisoned. Like all Christians, those returning from incarceration struggle in their Christian life, as they are tempted to think and act contrary to their identity as followers of Christ.
All of us who have been baptized into Christ are constantly enticed by the world, devil, and our old sinful nature to return to the things from which Christ has redeemed us. As St. Peter says, in Christ, we have been redeemed from a sinful and futile life by the blood that Jesus shed for us (1 Peter 1:18-19). Our salvation has been accomplished by Christ so that we might live as children of God who are no longer enslaved to death and the devil. We have been called from the darkness of sin and evil to live in God’s light (1 Peter 2:9). Yet, living out this truth is a daily struggle for every Christians.
For the returning Christian, however, this struggle can often be even more acute. For the believer on parole the concept of the “old life” of bondage is not just a theological notion. It is a lived reality. That old life might be filled with violence, with sexual perversion, or with addiction to alcohol or drugs that led them to commit crimes for which they were imprisoned.
The temptation to meditate on the old life may come as a response to the world’s rejection of the returning Christian, due to his offense, or it may come from mental images played out in the imagination of the returning Christian. No matter the behaviors and offenses, for the returning Christian, thinking about the old life inevitably leads to guilt and shame over past sins. Then the devil is never far behind, only too willing to tell his damned lies that the returning Christian isn’t worthy of God’s love, that Jesus couldn’t have died for him, and that God couldn’t really forgive him.
This attack of the devil causes the returning Christian to fall into a spiral of despair and hopelessness. And I have seen this lead to a catatonic state in which the returning Christian becomes completely disabled. Incapacitated by sin and guilt, he is unable to go to work, to care for his health, and in some cases even to sleep. Those who give pastoral care to returning Christians often refer to this state as a “one-bar prison.” The returning Christian is physically free but mentally and spiritually locked up. If left uninterrupted, however, physical imprisonment is usually not far behind.
While baptism is a “once and for all” event that should not be repeated in the Christian’s life, the effects of baptism continue throughout the life of the believer.
In such instances, the only thing for a pastor to do is to engage a returning Christian in what Harrold Senkbeil calls “baptismal therapy.” According to Senkbeil, baptismal therapy is the ongoing application of the blessings of baptism to the Christian in the present. While baptism is a “once and for all” event that should not be repeated in the Christian’s life, the effects of baptism continue throughout the life of the believer.
In Holy Baptism, a sinner becomes a believer. His sins are washed away as he is united with Christ in his death and raised to a new life by the power of his resurrection. This new identity, given in baptism, sticks with him throughout his earthly life. The believer has been made new and has been given a new self in baptism. The Christian life that begins in baptism and goes on until death is a life of living out the truth that the old sinner has died and that the new believer is alive in Christ.
Baptismal therapy is a pastoral reminder to the believer that his old life has ended, and that he is a new man in Christ. For the minister who serves the returning Christian, engaging in this therapy is a constant pastoral exercise. By speaking the word of truth to the returning Christian, that his old self has died with Christ and that he must live in the new self given in baptism, the pastor actually brings the returning to baptism again and again. The returning Christian thus, as Martin Luther puts it in his Small Catechism, dies “with all sins and evil desires that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Baptismal therapy is the daily calling of every one of us who goes by the name “Christian,” as we encourage and admonish our brothers and sisters who struggle alongside of us in this life.
But baptismal therapy is not only for Christians who have been physically imprisoned. Baptismal therapy is for all Christians. Baptismal therapy is the daily calling for every pastor who engages in the care of his people. Moreover, baptismal therapy is the daily calling of every one of us who goes by the name “Christian,” as we encourage and admonish our brothers and sisters who struggle alongside of us in this life. For every Christian, baptismal therapy is the source of daily life in Christ.
The old self is dead, so don’t act like you are dead!
The new self is alive in Christ, so live!