Just Add Water

As far as religious beliefs go, I am not sure what to call myself.  I agree with much of the Book of Concord, and there are conservative Lutheran churches that have checked off a few major doctrines, said “Close enough!” and let me commune.  On the other hand, did Luther die for me?  Was I baptized in the name of Luther?  And Luther himself would say that.  On the other other hand, distinctions between groups exist, and if we do not give them labels, it will be hard to talk them over and therefor to understand them.  So let us say that I am functionally and tentatively a Lutheran with regard to those doctrines I have investigated.

But some Lutheran ways of putting things make me cringe.

For instance, yesterday there was a baptism at the local church, and part of the liturgy went “We are born into this world with a deep need for baptism” [Emphasis mine].

Back in the day, when I hung out on TheologyWeb, when one Lutheran joined up, one of the members said “Ah.  A baptism worshiper.”  The conservative Lutheran church is perceived as worshiping baptism instead of God, and liturgy like that seems to back it up.  Baptism was said to be the thing we need, the thing that washes away our sins and gives us life.

When I converted to the baptismal regeneration set, I was told that baptism was a means of grace.  A thing through which God gave grace.  A channel for it, and not the grace itself.  Like steak is a means of conveying nutrients to your digestive system.  I don’t need steak; I need protein.  Steak is just a way to get it.  We don’t need baptism, we need the blood of Christ.  Baptism is just the way he told us to get it.

Communion, too, but that’s another topic.

Now, the conservative Lutheran synods in general, and the Wisconsin Synod in particular, are careful not to ‘water’ down their message (ha!), lest compromise causes them to ‘drift’ (haha!) from the gospel as the ELCA did.  If the conservative Lutherans’ claims can be mistaken for worshiping their sacraments rather than God, at least there are counter-balancing statements saying that they worship God and nothing else, whereas the liberal churches don’t actually believe in God and outright admit they worship their own social/political status.   If I suggested that the Wisconson Synod try to be more precise, I have a feeling they would dig in their heels and ask me if the statement as it stands is wrong.  And I would be forced to concede, “well, technically you could put it that way…” and that would be that.

But for my non-Lutheran believer friends, I think it’s time to explain what I believe with regard to baptism, and why I believe it.  It is not functionally different than the Lutheran understanding, though I came to it by a different road, and it is nuanced differently.

A good place to start is here, a YouTube cartoon by internet apologist James Patrick Holding.  The video addresses (or starts to address) the question of why Christians follow some, but not all of the Old Testament Laws (e.g. we say Murder is wrong, but we feel free to work on Saturdays, to use examples that are both in the Big Ten), but the part that’s relevant to my discussion starts at around 1:16.

Initially the fact that forms the bedrock of our discussion here is the recognition that both the Old and New Testament offer what are called ‘covenants.’  You might say a sort of contract.  In fact, the book of Deuteronomy, which contained the rules of the Jewish covenant, is in the format of an ancient treaty document.  In the Old Testament, the way you signed on to the covenant was to show your loyalty to God by being circumcised.  In the New Testament, the way you signed on to the covenant was to show your loyalty by professing allegiance to God through the covenant broker, Jesus Christ.  And then you publicly demonstrated your loyalty with the entry rite of baptism. [emphasis mine]

And yet it seems to me that when I look through the New Testament, I note two things about Baptism that contradict this last sentence:

  • Baptism is often equated with circumcision in Paul’s writings.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch did not look for a public place to hold his baptism once Stephen had convinced him of the Gospel, but instead pointed out that there was water at hand and asked to be baptized immediately.

So, it seems to me that Holding’s statement over-complicates things, and that the way you sign on to the covenant is, to put it in his format, to show your loyalty to God by being baptized.

It is this concept that makes me twitch when the local church says “We are born into this world with a deep need for baptism.”  What we need is not the act of signing the contract, but the contract itself, and more specifically, the One who is offering himself to us through the contract.  Yes, you could technically say that in order to get the contract you have to make the signature, so in a sense you do have a deep need for it — but though putting it that way is not logically unsound, it does come across as a fixation on the wrong thing.  In other words, it is genuine worship of God that is doing its absolute best to sound like idolatry.

And may, in the case of those who do not receive proper instruction, even result in idolatry.  Though the conservative Lutheran church takes more care than any I’ve seen to make sure it gives out instruction to new members.

Now, one of Holding’s objections in Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?, along with other objections.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Some would claim that the phrase “born of water” clearly refers to water baptism. While many see here an allusion to baptism that Christian readers would recognize, there is a serious problem with seeing a reference to baptism that cannot be controverted, and that is that Nicodemus would not have the slightest idea that Jesus was referring to it. How could Nicodemus understand a reference to “an as yet nonexistent sacrament”?

Ever hear of John the Baptist?  Jesus himself had been baptized at this point.

Other objections:

If Baptism is necessary for salvation, what about the thief on the cross?

If being a Levite is necessary for priesthood, then how was Melchizedek a priest?  How was Jesus, of the house of Judah?  The answer is that the Levitical priesthood isn’t the only valid order of priesthood, and that Jesus and Melkie (I can call you Melkie, right?) were belonged to a different order.  Since a priest is essentially a broker of God’s grace, valid priestly orders boil down to who God wants to hire.

In like manner, Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.  Baptism is how you sign on to the contract brokered by Jesus in the New Testament.  He has the goods, and can negotiate contracts at will whenever and with whomever he wants and under any terms he wants.  We, on the other hand, have no goods to offer, and are limited to whatever contracts he offers.  It’s a seller’s market.  So, if Jesus says to the thief on the cross who was not baptized, “I will see you in Heaven in just a bit,” then clearly he had brokered a different contract with the thief, just as he had brokered different contracts with Abraham, Adam, and Melchizedek.  We, on the other hand, are limited to the contract he offers us, the Gospel.

That’s my issue with the liturgy.  We are born with a deep need for baptism in the same way that we are born with a deep need for steak:  we aren’t.  But we are born with a deep need for protein, and at the moment steak is the only game in town.


One thought on “Just Add Water

  1. The Stranger says:

    It’s worth noting that this view bears a strong resemblance to Dispensationalism. The difference between this view and that of the dispies is that the Dispies basically hold that there is one and only one contract at a time, the ‘Dispensation’ under which we all must live, which to my knowledge has zero support.
    As to whether this is works righteousness, all I have to say is: if someone gives you a check for a zillion dollars, and you sign it, how have you earned it by signing it?
    With regard to the statement in Hebrews that Abraham was saved by faith, like the rest of us, I reply: what does the word ‘faith’ mean with regard to a contract?

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