Reading Time: 6 mins

Did God Really Say?

Reading Time: 6 mins

Like the serpent on the pole, God still puts real-life things up for us to look to for salvation.

“Did God really say?” is a question that the devil and sinners have been asking since the beginning of human history. 

It is the sinful proclivity of humans to doubt the word of God. There may be no greater example of this than the means by which God uses to save sinful humanity. While God’s Word explicitly says that “baptism saves” (1 Peter 3:21), we have come up with all kinds of theological gymnastics to explain this assertion away. Certainly something as simple as water cannot be a means by which God saves sinners. 

“How can water do such great things?” 

This was Luther’s response to his assertion in the Small Catechism that the waters of baptism are a means by which God works the forgiveness of sins and gives eternal life. Luther would go on to say, “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.” Despite what many of us have been told, baptism is not the first step in obedience to Christ. It’s God’s one and final step toward you, delivering Christ to you in his fullness of death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is not something you do for God, it’s something Jesus does for you. While we like the rationality of baptism simply being an, “outward sign of an inward change,” there is exactly zero biblical substantiation for this idea. Baptism is not a sign pointing to Christ, it’s a means in which God delivers forgiveness and new life in Christ to us. 

Baptism is not the first step in obedience to Christ. It’s God’s one and final step toward you, delivering Christ to you in his fullness of death, burial, and resurrection.

In the book of Numbers, the Israelites began to complain, once again, asking Moses why he brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness (Num. 21:4-5).

The Lord then sent fiery serpents that bit the people so that many of the Israelites died (vs. 6). They then came to Moses in confession of their sin and asked him to pray to the Lord to take the serpents away from them (vs. 7). Moses then prayed and the Lord instructed him to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole and whenver a serpent bit anyone they were to look at it and be saved (vv. 8-9). 

How can a serpent perched atop a pole save a person dying from poisonous venom? How can water save a sinner from the judgment of God? 

This is the exact type of question the Pharisee, Nicodemus, asked Jesus when confronted with his need to be “born again.” “How can these things be?” he asks (John 3:1-9). They can only be because God said so, it is God’s word not the tangible means that works salvation. God provides physical and tangible means; such as serpents on a pole, water in a fount, or bread and wine placed in your mouth not that we might trust the earthly thing but that we should trust him, the giver of all good things (James 1:17). What role does the physical means play in saving a sinful human? Is it just a symbol of the spiritual work that God has done or does it actually have significance in and of itself? 

When a husband and wife exchange rings, they place them on one another’s fingers as a physical reminder of their love and devotion. The wife doesn’t trust the ring alone but the ring coupled with the husband’s words to her is a means of the husband’s commitment. When she looks at that ring she is reminded of the vows that she and her husband took and the promises they made to each other. When she is apart from him she can look to that ring as a physical display of everything her husband is to her. In a similar manner, God gives us tangible things like water to remind us of the work he has accomplished. When we doubt God’s word and his promise of the forgiveness of sins we go back to our baptism and the word of God spoken over the water. When we have sinned in the same way for the thousandth time and wonder how God could possibly forgive us again we boldly approach the altar and take the true body and blood of our Savior into our mouth and hear the words spoken over it that create faith, “receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” In times of darkness when it feels like God has given up on us and our circumstances seem to indicate that God is angry with us we can simply turn our ears to his promises placed in simple things like water, bread, and wine. We remember that we are baptized children of God sealed with his promise to finish the work he began in us. 

Like the serpent on the pole, God still puts real-life things up for us to look to for salvation. May we not reject them out of unbelief, in exchange for what we would hope to be more “spiritual”  or even more rational. With tangible means that we can see, taste, and smell, he brings us his gifts and assimilates them into our very being. We put his broken body and shed blood into our mouth tasting of his promise to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We turn our eyes and primarily our ears to the one who speaks to us through a tangible book filled with his words. 

In the same way that the devil brought doubt into Eve’s mind by questioning the word of God, so too, enemies of grace will place doubt on the tangible means by which God saves today. God’s word is never enough for sinners. There must be something more spiritual, not something so common and ordinary. 

As Bryan Wolfmueller said in his book, Has American Christianity Failed, “I am spiritual and not religious is the recurrent anti-creed of American culture” and, sadly, even the American church. The church’s desire to move away from “religion” toward relationship has brought with it a rejection of God’s means of grace. These means have become mere symbols and have placed well-meaning Christians on a quest to find God in places he never promised to be. We’ve replaced baptism with a sinner’s prayer. We’ve taken Jesus out of the Lord’s Supper and made it simply a memorial where the real presence of Christ is replaced with a mental exercise and sinners are even kept from the table until they can successfully stay away from sin and sufficiently repent. 

Humans are hard-wired to know God, to have a relationship with him, and to be acquainted with him. However, this closeness with God must be on his terms. The problem is not the desire to experience God, it’s that we are attempting to find God through our own means and works, rather than the means he’s provided and the work he’s accomplished. Our Creator actively hides from his creation not because he doesn’t want to be found, but because he wants to be found in the precise way he has determined. 

Spirituality is mysterious, and mystery is en vogue. Certainly there’s an aspect to Christianity that is rooted in mystery: the very sacraments we’ve talked about in this article are mysterious (the word sacrament comes from the Latin for mystery) and they are beyond our ability to understand. But here, mystery does not equate to uncertainty. I can be certain of the promises of Christ without fully understanding how they could possibly come true. Certainty of reason puts the onus on me and my ability to cognitively make sense of what God is doing. So long as I’m intelligent enough to put all the pieces together, then I can have peace and assurance of all that God promises. Certainty in faith isn’t a “blind faith” that lacks any evidence or tangible means but it is an assurance rooted in God’s history of keeping his promises and never turning his back on his people. 

Our Creator actively hides from his creation not because he doesn’t want to be found, but because he wants to be found in the precise way he has determined. 

Reading through the Old Testament and the stories of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel reveals the patience and longsuffering of our God. He never gave up on his people despite their rebellion and lack of faith. So too, he will never give up on you despite your failure to trust him and seek him where he wants to be found. While the “I’m not religious” crowd embraces mystery and uncertainty, they miss the God who speaks: the Creator who spoke the universe into existence and speaks promises that when heard create faith (Rom. 10:17). 

God has given us many great and precious promises (2 Pet. 1:4), and he delivers them to us through means that initially seem too simple and common. I would imagine that many reading this have been drawn to ministries like 1517 for the consistent message of grace, and the unconditional promise of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Maybe you have come from a background in Christianity that has you burnt out with your own efforts and you can’t pretend that you are pulling it off any longer. But how do you know this new message you’ve discovered is true? Just because someone like me writes a nice article telling you that you don’t have to perform for God anymore doesn’t make it so. Where do you place your assurance for this radical good news to be true? We place it in the very things God has given us to trust in. Yes, his word, but his word spoken over material things, tangible gifts for us to experience with our senses. We are not too spiritual for such trivialities, in fact we are too sinful not to receive such wonderful gifts from our Savior. The good news for us is this: despite your failure to take God at his word and receive all that he has for you, he will never withhold his gifts from you. They are available without condition. Did God really say this? Yes he did and these promises are for you.