Since the mid-1500s, as a result of the Reformation, an increased focus on individual interpretation and the freedom to split up and start our own churches, Christians are all over the map on baptism. The specific beliefs and practices concerning baptism are diverse. Some Christians immerse in water, some Christians pour the water, and some merely sprinkle. Some Christians only baptize confessing adults and other Christians baptize babies and children. Some are baptized for the forgiveness of sin and others are considered saved first and baptized later. Some of us baptize for more reasons than we can count.
Regardless of method or belief regarding the conversion model, baptism is the common denominator in every Christian tradition throughout the history of God’s Church. It’s the one thing that unifies all disciples of our Lord Jesus. We are brothers and sisters in Christ with all who are baptized into his name.
In Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, he’s proclaiming the total deliverance and restoration of God’s people to a transformed Holy Spirit relationship with God and with one another. The question “What shall we do?” was not primarily focused on a personal decision. Peter was preaching about the whole world being turned upside down. He called those at the feast to more than individual salvation, he called them to the Kingdom rule of God, to a transformed relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And about three-thousand that day took the plunge.
Some Christians, though, obsess about baptism so much they’ve turned away from the essential transforming truths of the sacrament to questions about technicalities and methods. They turn to condemning diatribes against Christians who don’t believe or practice baptism in the same ways they do.
We uphold what we are convinced are the Scriptural and historical beliefs and practices. But we all agree that all Christians are also doing what they sincerely, and in faith, believe is right. The reason we have misunderstandings and differences is not because anybody’s stubborn or willfully rejecting Scripture. Not everybody who believes or practices baptism different than you is living in rebellion against God.
All Christians agree that baptism is a vital part of the Christian faith. The disagreements are about methods and about the specific role baptism plays in the conversion process. Those are hermeneutical issues, not heart issues. It’s about interpretation. The tensions we feel are the result of centuries of tradition and debates over particular Scriptures. We all have to approach these conversations with humility. We have to recognize we, too, are also influenced by our traditions and debates. We’re all open to criticism.
People ask me: How do we treat Christians who don’t share our exact understanding of conversion? They affirm baptism, but they do it differently? Or the believe differently about what happens at baptism? Do we treat them as genuine or as false brothers and sisters?
Well, let me ask you: How should they treat us? Especially if they see our views as legalistic and sectarian?
The question is: How do we all treat each other?
Salvation is not just about forgiveness of sins. That’s not the goal, it’s not the end game. The goal is transformation to the image of God, the end is a holy relationship with God in Christ and with his people. When baptism becomes a legal technical line in the sand, we’ve turned it into something God never intended. We reduce his transforming work into a legal detail, like a person’s eternal destiny hangs or falls on perfectly understanding and obeying this one command exactly right. We exalt the means over the end. We misconstrue the heart of God. We make God into a judge of legal technicalities instead of a God who transforms us through love and grace. God is our Father who lovingly pursues us and is gracious with our mistakes.
We do well to remember it’s always heart over ritual. It’s Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chronicles 30. Unclean people are eating the Passover in the temple. They hadn’t been properly consecrated. This was a clear violation of God’s Law. But Hezekiah appealed to the grace and mercy of our loving God:
“‘May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God — the Lord, the God of his fathers — even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.’ And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” ~2 Chronicles 30:18-20
It’s David and his men eating the bread in the tabernacle because they were hungry. It’s Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees call them out: Hey, you’re not doing that right! Technically, this goes against the religious codes. But Jesus points them back to David and his men eating the consecrated bread. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for even needing the example he gave them. If you know what God’s all about, Jesus says, you wouldn’t have even questioned us. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Sacrifice and Sabbath are essential and necessary. They’re not unimportant, they’re not optional. But they’re both subordinate to the big picture principle of mercy and grace. The ritual is not the most important thing. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Rituals serve the ends, the goals, for which God designed them. They were not given to deny mercy to the heart that is seeking him.
What are the greatest commands? Love God and love others. That’s more important than ritual. That’s more important than sacrifice and Sabbath and, yes, even the technicalities of one’s baptism. We have to put things in the proper order — the big picture, Story of God order — or we exalt the details of baptism over the love of God.
We do not draw lines around God’s grace. We do not box in God’s mercy. And we don’t put limits on God’s eternal love and faithfulness.
We are brothers and sisters in Christ with all who have been baptized into his name.