Essay, Faith

On reconciling belief

At church we’ve been having a discussion about whether baptism is necessary for salvation. I should say, the elders have been having that discussion, and I’m an elder. Where I go to church, we elders and the pastor are the church’s leadership. So it’s important for us to align on such matters.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

We elders all come from different faith traditions. The various branches of Christianity all follow God and Jesus, but there are so many branches because we don’t agree on all doctrinal points.

In my church, the elders have historically agreed on key doctrinal points. Crucially, we have also agreed that only a few points are key. When we don’t agree on non-key doctrinal points, we come to agree what we will teach on them so there is unity.

Over the last few years a couple elders have stepped down and a couple new elders have come on. It’s reopened some formerly settled doctrinal points. We recently realized that we might not agree on whether baptism is necessary for salvation.

There is no doctrine more central to the faith than that of salvation. It’s how we access God’s waiting forgiveness of our sins, and it’s how we are joined with him forever. We need to get this one right.

Brazil, IN

I’m in a Restoration Movement church. You know us as the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ. We believe that a person must make his or her own decision to follow Christ. We link baptism to that decision (in different ways, as I’ll explain in a moment). Therefore, we don’t baptize infants.

If you decide to follow Christ in one of our churches, we’ll ask you to publicly confess your faith: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.” If you’ve never been baptized, or if you were baptized before you could choose for yourself, we will baptize you. It’s quite a spectacle, as we dunk your full body into a pool of water. Bring dry clothes.

(We believe that baptism, by the way, is a sacrament any believer can administer. I baptized one of my sons. Read that story here.)

North Liberty Christian Church cornerstone

The Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in him. I believe that you’ll hear this preached in every Restoration Movement church. We agree that we must confess our faith to be saved.

We are not all aligned on baptism’s role, however. Some of us also say that unless you are also baptized you can’t access that saving grace, for the act of baptism washes your sins away. Acts 2:38 is usually cited in support. Some of us say that baptism it is a necessary step of obedience to God, but in itself does not accomplish salvation. The rest of us say that baptism is nothing more than an outward sign of the grace you have received, and a public declaration of your changed mind and heart.

This is tricky stuff. Many learned and earnest people have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible on baptism’s role in salvation, and yet my faith tradition is still divided by these three positions. I hew to the middle one: we are saved entirely by grace through faith, but baptism is a necessary step of obedience.

St. John Lutheran Church

I’m just a man serving as best I can, fallible and imperfect. I’m always open to looking at scripture again, and again, and again. My study and prayer, as open-minded and -hearted as I can make it, has certainly expanded, refined, and outright changed my understanding of other doctrinal matters many times. But this is where I stand today on baptism.

We said goodbye to my mother-in-law not long ago. She was 90; her time had simply come. She and her husband are deeply faithful Catholics. I had little contact with Catholicism before marrying their daughter Margaret. I watched firsthand how the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic faith comforted this family through this loss. The funeral mass was powerful. The priest was fantastic. He modeled Christ at every moment, with every turn, as he helped this family grieve. He materially helped me grieve as a non-Catholic. I’ve never been to a funeral that so thoroughly helped a family say goodbye to a loved one.

Christ Lutheran Church cornerstone

My mother-in-law was baptized as an infant, before she could choose. I know that there is a path of preparation in the Catholic Church, that a young person at a certain age can choose to continue, to be confirmed. My mother in law chose confirmation.

She deeply loved God and Jesus. She obeyed and served to the best of her ability throughout her life.

I don’t find the Catholic pattern in the Bible. But do I think my mother-in-law is saved? Oh my goodness, yes. She was a human being with shortcomings, but I saw every one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in her. She belonged to God. It would be a miscarriage of God’s grace and justice if my mother in law is anywhere other than with God in his Kingdom today.

Woodruff Place Baptist Church

All of us who try to figure out what God asks of us misinterpret or misread something somewhere and believe — and therefore act — wrongly. I’m highly suspicious of anyone who says they’re certain they’re right, or that they know the one proper way to think, believe, or act.

Yet I have to believe something, especially when it comes to crucial matters like how one is saved. I have come to believe that salvation is by grace through faith, chosen freely, and that baptism is a necessary step of obedience to that saving grace. But I cannot bring myself to criticize any soul who earnestly follows God and, thoughtfully and prayerfully, believes and practices something different.

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16 thoughts on “On reconciling belief

  1. It is good to grapple with questions like these. Working through these elemental questions is how we come to understand them.

    As one raised Lutheran and who became Catholic as an adult, I will confess confusion over the suspicion over infant baptism found in some circles. Good heavens, when Luther, Calvin, the Church of England and the Popes could all agree on something, it would seem this was settled (or re-settled, if you will) by, say, 1500? 😇

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    • You are, in a way, supporting my point. So many good people have studied these doctrinal matters and have come up with differing conclusions. I think for me to claim certainty about any of them would be a sin.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. DougD says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post Jim. I grew up in a Church of immigrants, and if you want to hear an argument just get a bunch of stubborn Dutch guys going on how to run a Church. There is some truth to “wooden shoe, wooden man, wooden listen”, my own grandfather was one of the worst of them.

    Like you, I am very suspicious of anyone who says their way is the only right one and everyone else is going to hell, be it religion, politics, Ford vs Chevy etc. Being a Christian is hard, it’s not straightforward to engage the divine and that’s why scholars have been debating these things for two thousand years. Our denomination does infant baptism / confirmation but you can cherry pick verses to support any of your three positions above. I just try to understand as best as I can, knowing that God’s understanding is far greater than mine. If I don’t understand, I am sure God will understand.

    As an aside, the only Catholic funeral I’ve been to was my grandfather’s 2nd wife. She converted later in life, and the priest took the opportunity to berate the room full of Protestants at length for not being part of the true Church nor being worthy of communion or salvation. She had been a horrid woman so it was actually the perfect send off, and I felt very comforted that my parents had not left Myrtle Beach to attend. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, what an awful experience that Catholic funeral must have been. I should have used quotation marks around Catholic because this is like none of the funerals I have attended. There are boneheads in every faith tradition, I suppose.

      And I laughed at the old saying describing the Dutch. It reminds me of the one that hits closer to home with me – “You can always tell a German, but you can’t tell him much.” :)

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  3. In the early 17th century an obscure German Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius summed what we should all strive for: “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity”.

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  4. Patrick F Chase says:

    Very well stated. Thank you for sharing. I too believe that you are saved by Grace through Faith and you need to publicly acknowledge this. As a follower of Jesus Christ your are baptized into His church. Baptizing has nothing to do with your salvation. There are over 50 different denomination of the Baptist faith, all with a little bit different point of view.

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  5. jon campo says:

    You are just an all-around good guy Jim, and surely an asset to any faith community. My late Mother was Catholic, the only one in our family until I joined as an adult. It was quite a process, at least in Boston at the time. I shutter to think where my Mom would have been in those last years without her faith and the wonderful rituals of the Church, and she spent her last few years in a Catholic nursing home where she received wonderful care and went to Mass daily. After leaving the city I attended several extremely unfriendly parish churches in different states. The last straw for me was when my local Priest informed me the my very ill Aunt (who he had never met), one of the most saintly people I have ever known, was “most definitely” going to hell.

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  6. gbozuah231 says:

    I was raised in a complete Catholic family. i attended mass every Sunday and catechism classes. I know their doctrine by heart and it has become a part of me. i got baptized three years ago before moving to college. While in college, I came across this young lady who taught me and is still teaching me a lot of things I didn’t learn in the Catholic Church. I am still a Catholic though and I am not against their doctrine. However, I am grateful to the lady for revealing a lots of things i didn’t know like the three witnesses: The water, Blood and The Spirit found in 1 John Ch.5

    One thing i won’t forget is that Nobody is going to carry another’s burdens. Everyone should know God for himself.

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  7. As a non-Christian, I wouldn’t presume any right to vote about these issues. But it does seem to me that many rituals (Christian, Jewish, and otherwise) are mostly to help us connect with the transcendent in a way that transforms our lives. Baptism, whatever else it is, is a break between Christians’ lives before the event and their lives after the event. It marks a turning point, a fresh start. In some ways, it’s like the advice people get after losing a lot of weight: “burn all your fat clothes.” The old you is left in the past. The new you is going to be better.

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    • We Christians live on a spectrum from those who are fairly freethinking and use the Bible as a loose collection of stories that vaguely point to God, to the faith being a mix of tradition and church teaching and Scripture (in that order), to sola scriptura in degrees that range from moderate to severe. I’m in a sola scriptura branch of the faith and my goodness but can we ever get tangled up in what the Bible really means in any particular verse. It’s exhausting. Salvation being the central doctrine in Christianity, and the Scriptures being far short of a step-by-step manual, we disagree and, sometimes, argue.

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