|Photo by Allen Sorbo.|
When last we left our story, my evangelical family had begun to attend a Lutheran church as I began my young adult years. Through my acquaintance with this church and the dedicated, faithful, and balanced pastors in it, I began to get really interested in Lutheran teaching and to study God's Word with it in mind. I also began to study more about Martin Luther and to see myself in his story. His story of faith was so much like my own. He was in bondage to attempting to follow God perfectly. As I had begun growing into my teenage years, I had fallen into bondage to this as well. I tried desperately to follow God perfectly but always failed. I was becoming more and more wretched.
Martin Luther's world changed when he encountered the truth that "the just shall live by faith" in Habakkuk. He came to see that the only righteousness that counts for anything is the righteousness that Christ gives us. Christ takes on Himself all of our sin and brokenness and in exchange, He gives us His righteousness, goodness, hope and life. Luther was set free by this truth and little by little, it began to set me free too. My local Lutheran church did powerful good for me socially as well. My anxiety and depression had made me quite socially awkward. Through my church, I had opportunities to serve and grow. It was awesome.
And so, when my pastor suggested I attend Lutheran seminary, I initially was shocked. But later I decided to follow through on his advice and go. I think there were times in seminary I operated with a little too much "freedom in Christ." But I did receive good teaching on church history and Lutheran history and theology. I came to understand the reason behind the practice known as infant baptism. I attended worship class where I learned how to conduct a Lutheran baptism (we practiced on a stuffed animal duck).
I learned that much of the teaching I received as I grew up focused on something called "decision theology." Decision theology is the idea that while we are saved through Christ alone, we also have a part to play in the conversion process. This part is simply to say, "yes" or "no" to God's free offer of salvation. There are definitely Biblical passages that can be used to support this idea. But I also came to see that sometimes decision theology can lean too hard on our human involvement and exalt us more than God.
One of my professors in seminary, Dr. Paulson, taught that we can only say no to God. We are dead in sin before Christ comes into our lives (Romans 6). A dead person cannot raise themselves. They cannot make a decision for Christ. They can only be raised by Someone from outside of themselves. A baby is kind of like a dead person (except that they can scream louder!). A baby can do absolutely nothing for him or herself. They cannot change a diaper or feed themselves or bathe themselves. They often cannot even get themselves to sleep. No, they need a mother and a father to perform these crucial acts for them. Their parents help to give them physical life and the baby completely relies on their parents from day to day. We baptize babies, in part, because they remind us of how completely helpless we all are and how reliant we all are on God for salvation, life, and every other thing.
We also baptize babies because in the New Testament, when a family would come to faith in Christ, the whole family would get baptized. In fact, not only would children and babies get baptized as a sign of the whole family's conversion, but even slaves who were part of the household would be baptized. In American culture in particular, we think of ourselves so individualistically, but in the world of the New Testament, it wasn't so much that just an individual converted to faith (although that certainly did happen) but families converted as well (see Acts 10:44-48, 16:15, 16:31-33, 18:8). Think too of Joshua, who said, "But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15, NIV). As parents, we have a profound influence on the faith of our children. God doesn't want us to segment our faith from our children or to "let them decide what they believe when they get older." He wants us to instill the faith which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts in our children as well.
I don't want to convey the idea that there aren't times when I feel conflicted about infant baptism, however. As a young pastor, I did several baptisms of babies and while there were spiritually engaged parents who clearly planned to raise their children in the faith as they promised during the baptism service, there were also parents who my gut told me were baptizing their babies more to please an older relative. I exhorted them strongly that they needed to keep the promises they made to God in the baptism service. In baptism the Holy Spirit brings faith into a person's heart. He makes alive that which was dead. But if the child who is baptized is not taught the riches that they have been given, those riches go to waste. Sometimes I felt very conflicted about these infant baptisms. But I also had to stop and remind myself that faith is not dependent on human effort--not even on mom and dad's. It is dependent on God. I didn't want to penalize little children from the touch of God's grace on their lives just because mom and dad were not whole-heartedly following God. Also, the whole church promises to uphold and welcome the child in faith. It is primarily mom and dad's responsibility to help them grow, but it is not only mom and dad's responsibility. These things help me as I think about infant baptism. Still, given the chance in the future, I might require more of the parents than I did in the past.
I am also reminded that even in decision theology, sometimes people come forward for altar calls and later fall away. People are caught up in the moment and yet don't take it seriously. Or perhaps no one follows up with them and helps them grow in faith. In all segments of the church, we can do more to shepherd and disciple those who are coming into the family of faith. It's all too easy to get caught up in the mountaintop moment and then not endure to be there for a new faithling when the going gets tough.
Stay tuned for the final part of the series, coming tomorrow!