“America exists to destroy Baptism.” I’m still captivated by this line from Steven Paulson at the Here We Still Stand Conference a couple years back. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that he is right. America, as a culture, has always emphasized that we are to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, get to work, and make this world a better place by our own efforts. Baptism, on the other hand, is an entirely passive event where God crucifies you with Jesus and raises you to a new life (Rom. 6:1-4). You do nothing; God does everything. Nothing could be more counter to the American ethos than this. Sacramental grace, it would seem, is utterly un-American.
One would hope that our churches would roundly and soundly reject such a cultural emphasis. However, I am afraid this isn’t the case. A couple of weeks ago, Mark Galli of Christianity Today wrote a piece asking, “Whatever Happened to Communion & Baptism?” He reflected upon the fact that American Christianity has become anti-sacramental in a way that is foreign to historical Christianity. He pointed out how the revival that launched the Second Great Awakening was a communion retreat. Say what you will about revivals (and there is a lot to say), but it is worth noting these revivalist Christians, who held to a rather low view of the sacrament by Reformation standards, still understood them as vital for the church.
Galli contrasts this attitude with a recent “Baptism service” he attended at a large church in Texas where, just before being baptized, the pastor asked each person, “But you don’t believe that baptism saves you, right?” And, as well catechized American Evangelicals, I’m sure they said “No!” Galli notes:
It wasn’t just the question, but the leading way in which it was asked time and again that suggested to me that the pastor was deeply afraid of the power of the sacrament. The fact that he also asked this right before each person was baptized went a long way in ensuring the sacrament did not become a means by which God broke in and blessed the recipient. Instead, this question made Baptism all about the horizontal: an act of the person’s faith.
So, it would seem, America’s attack on Baptism has an ally in the Evangelical church.
Galli offers some helpful advice on how to recover a proper emphasis on the sacraments for his audience, which consists of Christians across the denominational spectrum. He suggests that when a church baptizes, they should not get in the way of the act by explaining it away, but rather, say what the church believes it is and then let the act speak for itself. I understand his advice here and appreciate his sensitivity to his audience. I think such a practice would go a long way in helping congregations grow stronger in their understanding of their beliefs.
However, I want to go a step further. I want to suggest that pastors let the act of Baptism speak for itself by not trying to protect their people from God and what He has to say. Scripture is clear, but we often make it more ambiguous when we add our own explanations to proclamation. We often complicate things when we say more than the Bible says. When we do this, specifically with Baptism, we hinder the work of the Holy Spirit through the joining of Word and water. Instead, we should stick with just saying what the Bible says.
The real problem with the way we talk about Baptism in particular, and the sacraments at all, is that we are simply afraid of letting God’s Word get us.
We should note that when a pastor asks a candidate “You don’t believe baptism saves you, right?” he’s asking, “You don’t believe 1 Peter 3:21, right?” 1 Peter 3:21 reads, “Baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Christ.” Whatever you believe about Baptism, if you claim to hold that the Scriptures are God’s Word, your confession of Baptism must conform to what the Bible says here.
So much of our theology seems to exist to protect us from God. At best, Galli is right, pastors who ask such questions are afraid of the sacrament’s power. At worst, the question sounds dangerously like the serpent who inquired of Eve, “Did God really say…?” The real problem with the way we talk about Baptism in particular, and the sacraments at all, is that we are simply afraid of letting God’s Word get us.
To be fair, many Christians who deny the efficacy of Baptism probably do so because they don’t want to sound Roman Catholic. I can certainly identify with being touchy about anything that smells papal. However, that doesn’t mean we abandon the plain teachings of Scripture because we are uncomfortable with the way they word things. There is a tendency inside of each of us to get out from under what God says and decide what true religion or faith looks like. To pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and create a religion apart from the Word of God, well, that is the product of original sin, not pious faith. And it is the preachers who need to be aware of this tendency to sin.
The way we speak in church develops from the text of Scripture, not in reaction against a theology with which we disagree.
What is needed in our churches is pastors who are not afraid to proclaim God’s Word and get out of the way! We need to recognize that God’s Word dictates our theology and the way we preach and teach. Our theology does not inform the Scriptures of what they can or cannot mean. When God gives a command that we find offensive or impossible, the pastor should drop it like a bomb and let it kill all the sin in its path. And, when all sinners are dead, the pastor should preach the free, life-giving Word that will breathe new life into dead bones. Yes, correction to false teaching is necessary. But, the way we speak in church develops from the text of Scripture, not in reaction against a theology with which we disagree.
I know it is dangerous, but we need to let the Scriptures speak for themselves on the sacraments as well as on all matters of doctrine. We shouldn’t be afraid of what the Word of God will do when it is on the loose. Or, perhaps we should be afraid. After all, that Word will kill all our idols and self-fashioned religions before it gives life to us. (People may actually start believing that God saved them with Baptism!) It will drown all trust in our work and our religion. That’s what God’s Word does. That’s why He puts that Word in the water of Baptism so that we might drown and be raised to a new life by His gracious work alone! And that is why Baptism is such a threat to America.