Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Faith Works 5-10-14

Faith Works 5-10-14

Jeff Gill


Washed in the water of life



You will not find much in the way of doctrinal debate here in this column.


There are a number of reasons for that, starting with the fact that there's usually a clergy column on this same page or nearby, and there this paper welcomes local pastors to speak very specifically and directly from their own particular faith tradition.


This column has a slightly different purpose, being a running dialogue for the width and breadth of our area, with particular attention to the 70% or so who don't attend or are members of any church . . . but many of whom have an interest in faith and matters of belief in general.


I suspect there are about as many regular churchgoers reading this feature each week as there are committed non-attenders or skeptics, but the point is that "Faith Works" is not where I make vehement statements about which tradition is correct.


There is a subject I've gotten a number of questions about, though, in the lead-in and follow-up to Easter, and that is baptism.


Full disclosure: I am a pastor in a denomination where baptism by immersion, or "dunking" is the norm, and we practice what's called "believer's baptism," which means we don't baptize (sprinkling or dunking) babies. One should choose to make this step, we assert, based on our reading of the Gospels and Acts.


So what I have to say is unavoidably colored by the fact that I was born into and raised and baptized myself into a tradition with a particular perspective on how God works through this act, and if we didn't think our practice was valid and well-rooted, it would be odd for us to persist in it. Which is a fancy way of saying "we believe we're right."


But even among those who affirm and practice believer's baptism by immersion, there's a bit of a debate. When, some ask, does the forgiveness of sin and redemption of the believer take place? Is it at the moment we say "yes" to God's grace, or is it when we are immersed in the water as Jesus was by John the Baptist?


That's an easy one. The answer, I'd say, is neither. We were forgiven on the cross, just outside of Jerusalem, about 2,000 years ago, by Jesus: and in that atoning death, our redemption was made complete. "It is finished."


Our part in that? It's negligible. As the song says "It's not about what we've done, but what's been done for us."


So I'm not entirely patient with arguments about "when you are truly saved." Look to the cross. That's always the correct answer, I've found. Now, if someone makes a confession of faith, and then keeps avoiding taking that last step to seal their membership in the visible church, if they are unwilling or uninterested in making any kind of public witness of their faith, I can see where one might want to ask "was their confession of faith valid?" Maybe not.


What I am quite confident of, though, is that God works through all things, and particularly through certain acts testified to in scripture. Baptism is one of those, communion the other most clearly significant (and various traditions would add ordination, marriage, and so on, calling them all "sacraments"). To be crudely theological, "something happens" in baptism. I can't entirely explain it, and I'd be reluctant to try to trace it in thick, dark, solid lines. Exactly how and for whom God works wonders in the act of baptism is still a bit of a mystery.


But I think it is more than "just" a commemoration, or a mark of membership in a congregation only. Something happens in baptism, something amazing, something wonderful. Check out Steven Curtis Chapman's song "Dive" for what I mean.


And I can honor and salute my infant baptism friends and fellow believers across Christendom in that, when you baptize a baby, there's no question about whose initiative, who is in charge, who is the active party here. A baby simply receives baptism as a gracious gift of those who love that child, and God is entirely the agent of change. In those traditions, something called "confirmation" celebrates the role our "yes" can play in fulfilling God's intentions for us, reaching back for a baptism that just happened to happen earlier.


Baptizing new believers into the waters of life is one of the great joys of my work as a pastor. Helping people think about what baptism means is a close second!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your baptism at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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