I recently got an email from Bill(y) Carroll, and yes he did sign it that way, which I loved! Anyway, he asked if I would write out a metaphor I had shared with him twenty-two years ago about baptism. He said he had shared it hundreds of times with people who had questions about baptism, and recently shared it with a leader in his church who is convinced that a person’s sins are not forgiven until the moment of baptism because it’s in that moment that you come in contact with the blood of Christ. He just wanted to make sure he hadn’t strayed far from the way I had said it. In asking for it, however, he actually stated it better than I remembered it, and when I told Marilyn about it, she said she’d never heard me say it. So, for Bill(y), Marilyn, and anyone else who might have wondered about the relationship between salvation and baptism, here goes.
As we noted in our study of I Peter last Sunday, Peter does state that baptism saves us, not by removing dirt from our flesh, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience. And at his conversion, Paul was told to rise and be baptized, and wash away his sins. He then explained in Romans 6 that we are buried with Christ through baptism, and if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, we shall share in His resurrection. There is apparently, therefore, a direct connection between baptism and the forgiveness of sins. In fact, I believe something even sacramental happens in baptism, because God does something for us in baptism that goes far beyond what we are doing. But to suggest that the moment before baptism a person is lost, and when they come out of the water they are saved, may be going too far.
I think when Jesus told Nicodemus that unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven, He painted a picture of a process, and not just a singular event. It’s true that a birth is an event, but the baby is alive before coming forth from the womb. And Jeremiah’s call and John the Baptist’s leap indicate that the Spirit works prenatally. To suggest, therefore, that a person cannot be spiritually alive before baptism, in my opinion, goes against the picture Jesus painted.
I’ve come to believe that when someone comes to faith in Christ a spiritual conception takes place, and that that new life continues to grow spiritually “in utero” until the moment of birth. Baptism, then, is the birth, when the person is actually born again. He is alive in a “prenatal” relationship with Christ before that moment, but at baptism that relationship becomes “postnatal”.
I think this understanding avoids the pitfalls of baptismal regeneration on the one hand, and baptism as nothing more than a symbolic act on the other. It recognizes that baptism as a physical act saves no one, but when done in faith it assures the believer that they have indeed been washed in the blood of Christ and made acceptable in the sight of God.
At what point in the process of coming to life in Christ our sins are actually forgiven might be as hard to prove as when life actually begins in the womb. What’s not open for debate is that if you believe that Jesus died for your sins and you have been baptized into Him, your sins have been forgiven. The moment it happened is, in my opinion, of little concern.
God Bless, Rick