I remember my second baptism. My wife and I were recently married and, assuming that this was what responsible parents do, we found religion. We started attending a local church using the Willow Creek (“seeker-sensitive”) model and became members. As part of that membership, they recommended that we be baptized as a sign of our “rededication” to the Lord. Our church rented a large heated pool for the afternoon and about 40 people all lined up and were baptized. There was a neat little dinner held afterward and all in all we had a great time. Once we were in the car and on the way home, however, it became very serious for me and I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder if it will stick this time”.
This wasn’t my first run-in with religion. I was baptized at 4 years old at Holy Shepherd Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Colorado. My parents were devout Lutherans, attending service every week, becoming members, going to prayer meetings and Bible studies. My mom first taught Sunday school then became the Sunday School director. I memorized all the same stories we’d have every year and eventually was even able to predict the text of the sermon based on where we were in the Liturgical calendar. During the next 10 years we were at church every week, rain or shine. In that time I dedicated myself to Jesus probably 40 times. I “said the sinner’s prayer” with weeping many times, sometimes under the fear that “if I were to die and I didn’t know Jesus then I’d never see my parents again”. Other times it was because I was afraid of punishment. The single similarity that marked each one was my undying commitment to myself. No one had explained “repentance” to me outside of “changing my mind in relation to Jesus”. I did, however, see the difference between my relationship with Jesus and how other people referred to Him. I knew that they had something that I didn’t and, while it intrigued me, I just figured that God was working on them in a different way than me and I let it go.
The problem in each of these cases was a misrepresentation of the gospel. I was told that Jesus died so that God could put me into Heaven. The pivotal point was on me and my righteousness before God – that I was so fabulous that God surrendered Jesus so that I could be in His presence. I never understood that. Then the language about “falling away” made sense to me because I thought that it was merely about me and my goodness and that I could always just ask “Jesus into my heart” and “accept HIM” and everything would be alright. I could run that razor’s edge between sin and sanctification with my “get out of Hell free” card in my back pocket containing the “sinner’s prayer” embossed in gold.
It took God taking away from me everything I held dear before He finally got it through my head that it wasn’t about me, but it was always about HIM. It was about God’s righteousness, and for that Jesus was pleased to die on the behalf of sinners who would repent of their sinful lives and turn to Him for salvation. It wasn’t about ME accepting HIM, but God accepting ME because of what Jesus had done for me.
Through all of my previous experiences I had become just another false convert to Christianity. Another man who follows my chosen religion because it provided a salve for my conscience and gave the reigns to my salvation to ME alone. True Christianity, however, requires that we surrender our “right” to be right to Jesus alone. My commitment to myself and to my own besetting sins was so strong that I was unwilling to open my hand on those things to Jesus and to allow Him to transform my whole life. I was like a man who married his wife and promised to love her and her alone forever, but who refused to quit an addiction to prostitution. God rightly rejected my “commitment” until I rejected everything that hindered our relationship. I needed to have my commitment to sin broken and to be tied instead to Jesus, and His work on our behalf, to be acceptable to God. That’s why I hate the language that states we must “accept Jesus”. No – it’s God that must accept us and He does so through our humble rejection of our own works to save us and our trusting (and subsequent following of) Jesus.
My last baptism, two years ago with my son, was a baptism marking the end of myself. I was no longer trusting in my own works to save me, nor did I trust in my baptism to “stick” and to hold me firm in this commitment. I leapt into the deepest parts of the ocean of God’s grace, trusting that God will keep me firmly bound to the salvation that He provided for me. My transformation in the way I act, speak, and think has happened as a result of this faith that He has provided for me. I am no longer the man I used to be and I know that it’s not my actions that have caused this transformation to take place but instead it is the natural result of a changed heart and mind that came through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in my soul.