Friday, July 11, 2014

Baptism and Freedom

So, after three posts on the subject of baptism and a look at the striking contrast between the works-based ritualism of Catholicism and the freedom characteristic of faith in Christ, we come at long last to the point of the exercise.

We have established that the act of being baptized in water does not secure the believer’s eternal destiny. It is not a required component of salvation. It does not admit one to the church, either the ‘church universal’ or any local gathering.

It is, instead, a reminder, a testimony, an act of obedience, and a means of identification with Christ himself. It is merely a symbolic act, not the spiritual reality it represents.

So then, what exactly is this greater ‘spiritual reality’ I keep talking about?

Let’s go back to the words of the apostle Paul on the subject:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:1-7)
As mentioned in previous posts, the act of being submerged in water and reemerging represents the spiritual death, burial and resurrection of the believer with Christ. In Christ, my old self died, went into the ground and will never be seen again. The old Tom is gone, and the new Tom should be as unrecognizable in relation to the old one as the resurrected Lord Jesus was (at least initially) unrecognizable to his own disciples, the people who knew him best.

Unrecognizable, because the believer has been set free from sin. This is the essential spiritual truth behind the symbol of baptism.

That’s what Paul is teaching. Christian experience, of course, varies considerably with respect to how much of that freedom each of us chooses to claim. If you can’t think of something you did in the last 24 hours that you wish you hadn’t and would really like to take back, congratulations, you’re a rarity among believers.

Freedom from the enslavement of sin is something that God has done for us. But in order for us to appreciate its effectiveness, a number of regular responses from us are necessary. Paul goes on to list three things we ought to do:

Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. New life requires a new way of thinking. My old assumptions need to be constantly reevaluated on a daily basis. I need to consider all my choices, priorities and habits in the light of the fact that I now serve Christ’s interests and not my own.

Some of this happens naturally as we read our Bibles and pray; faster when we learn to spend time with the Lord daily. Some of it is picked up from observing the lives of Christian peers. But we all stand or fall to the Lord, ultimately, and the bottom line is that we need to be people who “consider” regularly.

We need to remember that we owe nothing to that old life and consider ourselves dead to it.

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness. This is not difficult to understand. “Presenting” involves deliberately putting ourselves in situations that are likely to produce temptation. Bad idea. Where temptation is concerned, the teaching of Scripture is consistently that, like Joseph, we need to run in the other direction as fast as we can, even if we lose our dignity in the process. The proper response to temptation is flight, not fight.

The fact that we are freed from sin doesn’t mean God will miraculously preserve us from the consequences of stupid or selfish behavior if we insist on it engaging in it. The formerly alcoholic Christian who opts to sit in a bar after work to meet old friends is asking for trouble. The Christian teenager who sees nothing wrong with dating unbelievers as long as it’s “not serious” is asking for trouble. The nagging Christian spouse who continues to insist on their right to give their other half a piece of their mind is asking for trouble. They are “presenting their members”.

If “unrighteousness” results, that is not a failure of the spiritual truth Paul is teaching. It is the failure of the individual believer to take advantage of the promises of Scripture and the help of the Holy Spirit that makes his residence in the believing heart.

Present yourselves to God. The Lord taught that if you sweep clean a house that used to be inhabited by unclean spirits and leave it empty, the unclean spirits will return in force. The Christian life is not about self-deprivation and the loss of things we used to enjoy. It is about filling the spiritual house with spiritual furniture worthy of the new life.

I gave up alcohol abuse in my early twenties concurrently with starting a Christian youth group in my parents’ basement. I didn’t plan it that way, but it turned out rather well in retrospect. After all, which do you think is easier: Trying to fight off the urge for a drink while sitting home watching TV by yourself during the week and hanging out with beer-drinking buddies on the weekend, or fighting off the urge for a drink while spending the week studying the Bible to get answers to all the questions your new friends are asking, and the weekend hanging out with a bunch of giddy Christian teenagers eager to hear the word of God? I didn’t have to “fight off the urge” at all. It wasn’t until weeks later I noticed I didn’t miss booze. My “house” was full and the “unclean spirits” had nowhere to go.

So we are to consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. The notion of returning to the behaviours and thought patterns that characterized the old Tom should be as appealing to the new Tom as the prospect of exhuming a corpse.

When we talk about being set free from sin, we mean exactly that. The believer is, as Paul says, “no longer enslaved”. There is no temptation to which he or she is compelled to surrender. This is plainly declared:
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
(1 Corinthians 10:13)
What is baptism? Just a symbol, that’s all. But it’s a symbol that speaks of a freedom that those who have never experienced it can only imagine.

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