On November 23, I joined a new family—the body of Christ. For two years, God had pressed me to seek membership in a church, and after settling into a congregation this summer, I felt compelled to fulfill the public witness of salvation that Jesus modeled at the beginning of His ministry (Mark 1:9-11 NKJV). But like a groom in the weeks leading up to his nervous moment of committal, I questioned exactly what the meaning of this ritual was. Can water save you?
My church, as part of the Southern Baptist convention, teaches that baptism and the other biblical sacrament, communion, do not have a salvific purpose that results in someone going to heaven. Despite assurances about baptism being the aftermath of grace, not a channel for it, I still felt a twinge of guilt as the day neared. If I was going to make this commitment public, I would have to clean up my thought-life. As in: Stop cursing when you bump your head getting out of the car. Or: Help me to stop complaining, God. A week from now, I’m getting dunked, and I can’t live or think this way after that. Or: Only a few more days and then I have to be really serious about my faith.
This pattern only worsened when the baptism was delayed a week. The baptismal was discovered to be leaking, and needed repairs. “Satan is afoot!” I texted to the minister who was going to baptize me.
The devil, though, isn’t worried about thwarting people; he has a good track record in doing that. His mission is to defeat God’s purpose by anchoring worry or doubt to a believer’s relationship with God, tempting them to indulge uncertainty—like the kind that used to arise when I read John 3:5. In this passage, Jesus says that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I used to think that this meant baptism in water was necessary to a person’s salvation, until a theology teacher told me that the “water” mentioned here means physical birth, leaving the womb and meeting the doctor’s waiting grasp. We are, in other words, subject to two births, one from physical darkness into the light of the world and one from spiritual darkness into the light of God. This teaching is corroborated by other texts saying that Jesus is one who baptizes with “fire” (Matthew 3:11) and with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).
By baptism day, the truth had helped to clear this pattern of guilt from my mind. The work of baptism is not to bathe the soul in salvation, but to celebrate what God has already accomplished in someone’s life, to challenge the world to recognize His offer. So when my head, with its load of imperfect thoughts and car-roof bruises, dipped below the warm water, I knew that this day was not mine, but His. There is no better grace than a realization like that.
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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