I recently challenged my congregation on what it means to be a Christian. I am increasingly concerned with the 'ticket to heaven' attitude that seems to be promoted ( I admit that this is at times unwittingly, yet it is still there).
I was recently reading a small booklet called 'Why Jesus' written by Nicky Gumbel, founder of the Alpha course. This booklet is fairly typical of the Christian pamphlets that are out there at the moment. It takes you through who Jesus is why He came and why we need Him (many things in this booklet I struggled with but that's another blog another time!). At the end of the booklet there is an opportunity to respond to what you have read and there is a prayer that you can prayer to become a Christian, again, fairly typical of most of these types of booklets. The prayer is along the lines of sorry God for my sin, forgive me God for my sin. Thank you Jesus for dying for me and my sin. Holy Spirit live in me now I'm forgiven. Thank you. Amen! The booklet then congratulates you on becoming a Christian, that its the best thing you've ever done. Make sure you pray, read your Bible, go to church and tell others about Jesus. Bish, bash, bosh!!!
From what I read in scripture, being born again looks very different, and this is why I find these type of booklets increasingly worrying. It, I believe, promotes a 'ticket to heaven' type of attitude. I believe it promotes a Christianity that says as long as I pray this prayer then I'm a Christian and one day I'll float off to heaven and everything will be ok. I believe it promotes a Christianity that focuses on 'me' and not 'us' and I believe it is promoting something very unhealthy in our mission and evangelism. I believe many churches are approaching evangelism in a way that says 'as long as you get people to pray the sinners prayer then that is all we need to worry about.' It is like this sinners prayer is the focus of our evangelism so we can proudly say to all who ask (or don't ask!) that we as a church got 'x' amount of people to pray this prayer. I believe this type of approach to evangelism is far removed from that which Jesus spoke about and showed and continues to speak about and show by His Spirit.
I believe baptism is the means through which proper Christian discipleship begins. I believe baptism sets on the path of Christ and it is through baptism that God's promises of salvation and grace are effected.
At Pentecost Peter addresses the crowd and they are cut to the heart by His message through the power of the Holy Spirit. They ask Peter what they must do and his reply is that they repent of their sins, believe on the Lord Jesus and be baptised for the forgiveness of their sins and they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Around 3000 are baptised that very day. Peter's declaration that the people are to be baptised comes from, I believe an understanding of what Jesus taught and exampled in the way of baptism. In John 3 we read of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus and Jesus declares that unless someone is born of water and the Spirit they cannot enter the Kingdom of God. I have often been told that Jesus is referring to natural birth (water) and then spiritual birth (Spirit), yet this does not sit right with me, and in light of the nature of John's gospel (Sacramental) then I have to believe that Jesus is here talking about baptism. At His own baptism he declares that it must be done to fulfil all righteousness and it is here that he identifies Himself with us and models to us what must take place.
Yet baptism is so much more than a mere symbolic act. It is not an outward sign of an inward action' but it is a means through which God acts and effects His promises. Paul declares in Romans 6 that we are joined to Christ in baptism. We are joined to Him and His body, the Church in and through baptism. Paul then tells us that we are buried with Christ and baptism and then raised with Him through baptism. Therefore something hugely significant is happening here. Our old selves are buried with Christ, and we are truly raised with Christ through the waters, thus being born again to a new life. Therefore in being buried with Him, being joined to Him and being raised with Him, we will suffer with Him yet one day be like Him!
To see baptism as purely a symbolic act or an outward sign of something that has already happened on the inside is (I believe) a complete departure from what scripture teaches us. I believe baptism is the means through which we are brought out of our slavery to sin, and into a new life with Christ. I must add here that I do not believe baptism is God's prison (as Colwell puts it). God can act in and through any means He likes to give us His Spirit. I would never doubt the salvation of the Salvation Army because they don't (largely) practice baptism. I don't know how God works all this out, yet He is ultimately a God of grace and is able to do above and beyond all we can imagine. The thing is however is that God has not promised to act through another way in the same way that He promises to act through baptism, therefore we must not depart from that which has been laid down for us in scripture. So how does baptism reflect what it means to be a Chrisian?
To be a Christian does not mean that we pray a prayer and hope to leave this terrible place and float off to heaven, rather it is to be made more like Christ and to live like Christ in this world to bring His Kingdom to bear here on Earth. Baptism is, I believe, the means through which we can begin that joruney with Christ and the means through which He gives us His Spirit that we might be like Him in our community, nation and world. To be a discple of Christ means to act justly and bring God's justice to bear right here and right now. It is to invite people to follow the Way so that He may show them the right way to live, and thus live a life that reflects what the future will look like when there is a new earth and a new heaven. To be a Christian means to follow the Truth that we might know the truth and tell others the truth, the truth of love and beauty and peace. To be a Christian means to follow the Life that we might have life and have to its fulest. A life that knows God in Christ, a life that suffers for the sake of the Gospel, a life that cares for God's creation, a life that worships God who is Father, Son and Spirit.
Moses led the people of Israel out of the land of slavery, through the waters of the Red Sea, towards the promised land. John the Baptist came and declared a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and I am sure the 1st Century Jews would have understood his symbolic language as the new exodus. Jesus came and was baptised and declared that it was proper to fulfil all righteousness. We are now invited by Jesus to follow Him through the waters of baptism and march onto the Promised Land. A Land flowing with a River. A Land where death no longer exists. A Land where we will worship God forevermore. A Land where God will dwell with us and us with Him. A Land of Promise and healing. A Land where His Glory will shine forevermore.
Will you join me on that journey into the Promised Land?