I have wanted to write this article for years. I've talked it over with friends, prayed about it, started it half a dozen times, but I never felt like I had the words. While reading Dr. Beckwith's book, I found what I needed to express what has been on my mind. So with the good Doctor's help, I'm going to try to finally get this one to press.
If you have been following my Out of Darkness series, you know that in 1995, God moved into my life in an unprecedented way. The Hound of Heaven had been at my heels all my life and had made many attempts to woo me, but I was more stubborn than most. I professed faith and was baptized when I was six years old. From that point on, it was an on again, off again relationship. I wanted God on my own terms and any time the going got tough, I threw my hands up and ran from the anvil of spiritual growth.
But in 1995, God gave me an ultimatum. Yes, He does know the meaning of tough love. I knew in my heart that He meant business and that His patience with my selfishness had run out. It was time to walk the talk or walk away entirely. God had drawn a line in the sand.
I didn't step over that line enthusiastically. I basically just allowed His grace to nudge me over it. If you read the early chapters in the series you know that my childhood had left me angry and unable to trust God. Yet I knew that He was the answer somehow, but I couldn't imagine how. But I was unwilling to go it alone. Some Christian commitment, eh?
So I stepped over the line, started giving heed to what God wanted in my life. I started making a genuine effort to follow Him. I started working out my own salvation in fear and trembling. Unlike previous times, this time I made a conscious choice to reject the temptation to call it quits, to run from the pressure of obedience. I continued to cooperate with His grace. It was not long (though it felt like an eternity) before I realized that He was not only giving me the grace to follow, He was carrying me through the fire of purgation from sins long embraced. He was renewing my mind and changing my point of view from that of a victim to that of a cherished daughter of God. As I yielded to Him, He revealed His true nature to me. (John 14:21)
Now I had believed in Jesus and the cross since I was six. I had reaffirmed that belief in my early twenties when I moved out of the house and decided to claim the baptist faith as my own. My Pastor at the time knew of my sin-twisted relationship with my father/pastor and decided it would be good for me to decide for myself if I wanted to be a Christian. I prayed the sinners prayer again and was again baptized in order to be obedient. (more on believer's baptism in later paragraphs)
But though I had tried to begin again in my twenties, it was years later when He broke through my walls of self defense. There were times when I had made attempts to follow Him, but for reasons known only to Him, this time (1995) I began to rise from the ashed of my ruined life and really come to know new life. After a year or two of this amazing new life, I made the decision one day that since my walk with God was so radically different now, perhaps I had not really been "saved" before this time. This is a typical concept in the life of Evangelicals, especially in my former church where this discipleship program had radically changed so many lives. A number of folks also decided that perhaps this amazing new chapter in our lives was what others called a"born again" experience rather than just a new, deeper phase in our walk with God.
For the Catholics reading this, let me translate a bit here. To a fundamentalist, salvation comes at a singular point of time when one places their trust in Christ's death on the cross as the purchase of their own salvation. They make a commitment in their heart to trust their lives to Jesus and from that moment through all eternity, they are "saved." Nothing, no sin, no change of religious rite, nothing in all creation can take that salvation away because it was not earned and therefore cannot be lost. Period.
Now fundamentalists do hope that from that time on, the "newly born again" christian will begin to live a life that is appropriate for a christian. They hope that they will grow in grace and become a new person, but that isn't necessary for salvation. It is the moment of trust in Christ's death.
Now to a fundamentalist, baptism is not a sacrament. In fact they have no sacraments. Baptism to them is an act of obedience that hopefully a newly "born again" person will follow through with. It must follow that point of time, that "born again experience." Any baptisms previous, especially infant baptisms in other churches, don't count. Baptism has to follow that point in time experience.
Now days, especially with programs like the one I took part in, there is a rash of folks who decide that even though they made a public confession of faith, prayed a sinners prayer, and was baptized, they never really knew new life until somewhere down the road when they encountered God in a new and dynamic way. At the fellowship I attended, there were several people, including myself, who decided that since it seemed to them that they had begun to live a new life with Christ sometime after their baptism, that they should be baptized again in order to be obedient. After all, we believed in "believers baptism", and sometimes it's hard to pin point the exact time that true saving faith became a reality. So I went into the water again in hopes of getting it right this time. This would be my third baptism!
A year or two after this the Lord called me to begin my journey home to Rome. As a candidate for acceptance into the Catholic Church, I was asked if I had been baptized. I'll never forget the looks on John and Mimi's faces when I told them I had been baptized three times! They had never heard of such a thing. And it's no wonder, because this would never happen in the Catholic Church.
I'm going to check in with Dr. Beckwith to help me explain from scripture why this would not happen in the Catholic Church and why the protestant understanding of salvation is not the original understanding of those following Christ for the first 1500 years of Christianity.
I love Dr. Beckwith's term for the Early Church view of salvation. He calls it the Journey of Justification. Journey's take time, they experience many twists and turns and changes in the landscape. They have enjoyable periods and challenging periods. They start at a point in time, but they continue to eternity.
Chapter Six of Dr. Beckwith's book is a powerhouse of both Early Church and scriptural evidence that from the beginning baptism was seen as that point in time Sacrament of grace that sets our feet on the journey that only those who have been washed, sanctified, and justified can embark on. (1Cor. 6:11)
Dr. Beckwith uses the example of Abraham. I remember the first time I read this through as a convert, I recognized the markers in Abraham's life that we would have considered a salvation experience or at least the solid evidence of a salvation experience having happened in the past. I mean, how much faith does it take to listen to a God, that you were not raised believing in, enough to leave everything you know and your family to go somewhere? Keep in mind, in those days you stayed with your relatives forever! You were buried with your relatives. You served your father till he died. You didn't just pick up and leave the way we do nowadays.
And go where, to what? Just somewhere that this God will show you. No map quest, no address, not even a nod in the general direction! Just "follow me." Oh, wait, isn't that what Jesus said when He chose His disciples and they became His followers? And Abraham followed, faithfully, for a long time and never turned back. Now any baptist worth their salt would say that that was saving faith. OK, but that story is found in Genesis 12. That is the "once upon a time" part of the story.
Now on down the road a bit, Abraham is old, Sarah is old, there is no heir to his fortune except a servant. So Abraham and Sarah fall into that old trap of "helping God out." They work things out so that Abraham has a son by another woman. But God is faithful even when we are not. So He takes Abe out into the night and tells Him to look into the heavens and count the stars. He promises him that this handmaid's son will not be his heir, that God will do what He planned to do originally. He will make Abraham's descendants as numerable as those innumerable stars. And Abraham believes without seeing. He has no idea how God is going to pull this off. He places his trust in God's promise. Again. Didn't he believe God before when he packed up and moved away from his whole tribe to follow God to an undetermined destination? But in this moment, Abraham's trust in God, His walk with God grew deeper. He realized that what God was promising was something supernatural and only God could do it and He didn't need Abraham's help. Abraham's faith grew. And God counted it as righteousness.
Down the road another stretch we find this child of promise, Isaac, a growing lad. His father's pride and joy. God had been faithful. Then God tests Abraham's faith. (God doesn't test us to torment us, He tests us to purify us, to deepen our walk with Him.) He comes to Abraham and says that He wants him to take Isaac up on a mountain and sacrifice him to God. You know, slit the throat, light the fire, smoke in God's nostrils - sacrifice! Abraham doesn't flinch. He knows this son of promise is exactly that, a son of promise and God doesn't break His promises. So as crazy as this request sounds, Abraham knows that God can do anything and since He promised Abraham descendants through Isaac as numerous as the stars, this can't be the end of the story. So off they go into the wilderness and up the mountain, where Abraham raises his hand to sacrifice the lad and God intervenes and pronounces that Abraham's faith is so pleasing to God that He will reiterate His promise to him to make him the father of a great nation.
Now I don't know about you, but I am amazed at Abe's faith when he pulls out of Ur on the first day of this story. I'm amazed and inspired by his faith in believing that God can do the impossible in the middle of this story. But I am dumb struck at his faith in offering his son. I have a Grandson named Isaac. I joke all the time that I love him so much that if he needed a liver, a kidney, a heart, whatever, I'd gladly give him mine. But I can't imagine the searing pain that must have been in Abraham's heart when he lifted that knife. His faith must have been unfathomable.
So, if Abraham had been a baptist, when would he have gotten baptized? Can you see it might have been hard for him to determine when his faith had been what God wanted it to be, because God spent his whole long life grooming him to be a type of Himself, offering His Son on the cross for the innumerable souls that would be the descendants of Abraham. While protestants like to use the passage in Genesis 15 to claim that Abraham's faith in God's promise was what "saved" him, the author of James claims that he was justified by his obedience in offering his son in Genesis 22. Is James teaching error in his inspired epistle? Who is right then?
I love this paragraph from Dr. Beckwith's book. He shows through the very Pauline writings that so many protestants use to try to proof text away progressive justification that our salvation is a Journey of Justification:
"Although Paul certainly refers to justification as a past event (Rom. 5:1-2; 5:9; 8:24; 1 Cor. 6:11), he also presents it as a continuing process (1 Cor. 1:18; 15:2; 2 Cor. 2:15), as well as one that has not been fully achieved (Rom. 2:13; Gal. 5:5; 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5; I Tim. 2:15; 2 Tim. 4:8; 18)."
Had Abraham been a Catholic, he would have been baptized either as an infant had his tribe been Catholic (speaking figuratively here of course) or as an adult when he left his parent's pagan religion and became Catholic. That would have been what justified him in the first place. Then he would have continued to experience the deepening of his faith that we all do as we walk with the Lord. All of us who have followed Christ for any length of time can pin point a number of turning points in our lives where God tested and deepened our faith. We know that life was never the same afterward and that it was the beginning of a new kind of journey. But the journey started with the grace of our baptism. And as long as we continue to allow the Lord to lead us through this journey of justification, there will be new turning points ahead when He will again take us deeper into His Sacred Heart.
I feel for my Protestant brothers and sisters who struggle to reconcile this journey with the protestant view of imputed justification. I was baptized three times because I wanted to be obedient, but I was sadly misguided by my protestant upbringing into thinking that I needed to search for that moment when God declared me righteous instead of cooperating with His continuing work of making me righteous.
Doctor Beckwith has a far superior way of making these issues clear in his book, but here on my blog I just try to express how the deep things of God work in the heart of one who is constantly amazed by the Splendor of His Truth.