The deacons of Richmond’s First Baptist Church spent a little more than two hours talking about baptism and membership on Sunday, and whether or not we should continue our practice of requiring Christians from other denominations to be re-baptized when they join our church. We had good discussion but we didn’t come to any conclusions on Sunday, and at our regular meeting on Tuesday night we decided to take another month to pray over the matter before we put it to a vote. In the meantime let me share one of the insights I have gained in this process. It’s about baptism, and whether or not it saves you.
When I ask Baptists that question they say, “Of course it doesn’t save you; Baptism is just a symbol!” It is a symbol, but it’s not “just” a symbol. It stands alongside the Lord’s Supper as one of the most meaningful things we do in worship. What does it symbolize? Lots of things, but in the broadest sense it symbolizes our response in faith to the gift of God’s grace.
In Ephesians 2:8 Paul says, “For it is by grace that you were saved, through faith.” I sometimes think of this as the “salvation equation”: God’s grace + our faith = salvation. Believer’s baptism is a symbol of the second half of that equation: our faith. Infant baptism, on the other hand, is a symbol of the first half of that equation: God’s grace. It’s a way of saying, “Before this child has done one thing right or wrong, God loves this child and wants to save her.” Believer’s baptism is a way of saying, “…and this child wants to be saved; she wants to accept God’s gift of grace.”
In the Baptist tradition we point the spotlight at the second half of that equation—our faith. In other traditions they point the spotlight at the first half—God’s grace. Which half of the equation saves you? Neither. Not God’s grace or our faith, but only God’s grace plus our faith.
We have a way of recognizing that at First Baptist Church. We do something called baby dedication which—except for the water—is very similar to infant baptism. We receive those children born into the church family as gifts from God. We say publicly, “Before this child has done one thing right or wrong, God loves this child and wants to save her.” And then we charge the parents to bring her up in the Christian faith, to sing the songs and tell her the stories of Jesus, and we ask the church to help, to do everything they can to set an example of Christ’s love before this little girl so that when she gets old enough to make up her own mind about Jesus she will want to choose him for herself. Baby dedication is a celebration of God’s grace. That little girl’s baptism—when she’s ready—will be a celebration of her faith. We will fill up the baptistry and immerse her in water as a beautiful symbol of purification, identification, and incorporation.
In other traditions the process is similar. At the Presbyterian church down the street, for example, infants are baptized in a celebration of God’s grace. Parents are charged to bring their children up in the faith, the congregation is asked to help, and then—yes—some water is sprinkled or poured over the child’s head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But that’s only the beginning. From that point the child enters into a process of Christian formation that will take years. He goes to Sunday school and Bible school. He sings the songs and learns the stories of Jesus. And then, when he is old enough to make up his own mind, he goes through an experience of confirmation that includes writing a personal statement of faith, presenting it to the elders of the church, answering a number of theological questions, and making a public profession of faith. All of these are ways of recognizing the child’s faith-full response to the gift of God’s grace celebrated at his baptism.
Both of these ways of making disciples recognize the importance of that salvation equation, that it’s not God’s grace or our faith that saves us, but God’s grace plus our faith. Both of these ways are capable of producing “real” Christians. And that’s why we’re talking about changing our membership requirement at First Baptist Church. Because those who have been through the process of discipleship in another denomination shouldn’t have to go through it all over again in ours. If God’s grace plus their faith has saved them then they are saved. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the family of faith. We will see them in heaven, and sit down at the same banquet table. And if God is going to let them in there…
…we ought to let them in here.